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The time Britain slid into chaos- history recycled.

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annis
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The time Britain slid into chaos- history recycled.

Post by annis » Sat July 14th, 2012, 9:01 pm

Interesting article from Michael Wood paralleling Britain's present economic and social woes with those experienced after the withdrawal of Rome from Britain in the late 4th century.

"The social unrest, economic gloom and austerity in Europe today mirrors one of the greatest crises in British history, says the historian Michael Wood".

Full article here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18159752

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Sat July 14th, 2012, 10:57 pm

Interesting, indeed. There are parallels, but also some differences. I suspect things were really more dire for the average person in the 5th century than they are today, although for a homeless person today, it might be more dire. For the planet as a whole, I'm inclined to think things are potentially a lot more dire today, because of climate change and habitat loss. It's kind of reassuring, actually, to realize that humankind made it through some really horrible times in history. Maybe we'll make it through this time, too.
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Post by SGM » Sun July 15th, 2012, 6:41 am

[quote=""Margaret""] For the planet as a whole, I'm inclined to think things are potentially a lot more dire today, because of climate change and habitat loss. [/quote]

From what I gather from my readings of historical geography some years ago, the fall of Rome was accompanied by considerable climate change but to considerably colder, not warmer. This situation continued until the medieval warm period which started (I think, but may be wrong) around the year 1000 which itself continued until the Little Ice Age around about 1500. I may be a bit out on the dates.

This information was, of course, not gleaned from records such as we have today but from contemporary writing.

I am far from an expert in the subject and generally hate geography but I did find what reading I did on the subject really quite interesting but it was some years ago.

A couple of years ago Channel 4 here showed a four-part series about the catastrophes Earth had experienced since its creation much of which involved climate. I think it was called Catastrophe and was absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, it was narrated by Tony Robinson (Baldric) who I have come to dislike considerably as a TV narrator.
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Post by Justin Swanton » Sun July 15th, 2012, 7:17 pm

One needs to compare Britain to the rest of the former western Empire in the same period. The contrast is stark. In Spain, southern and northern Gaul, Italy and north Africa (even under Vandal occupation) the Roman infrastructure persisted after the fall of Rome. In the area nearest Britain - northern Gaul - the towns survived, trade continued and industry, evidenced by the pottery record, remained intact, albeit in a more localised fashion. The old imperial pottery factories disappeared along with the military fabricae and other huge centres of manufacture, but a regional commercial production persisted.

The big mystery is why there was a collapse in Britain and why it was so total. It clearly happened before the arrival of the Saxons, who came across a tribal society based on village units and cottage industry (which is why the Saxons did not become Romanised like other barbarians and end up speaking a dialect of Latin). The old Roman villa estates - in fact, any kind of large-scale land ownership - had gone, city life had collapsed, specialised production and trade had disappeared.

In northern Gaul large estates under rich landowners continued, although the landowners themselves no longer lived in country villas - they were now militarized and had no time for the old, Roman, leisurely country lifestyle; in southern Gaul and Spain country villas continued for some time. The evidence shows that nowhere, including Britain, did the barbarian newcomers raze the Roman societal structures to the ground. It was the Britons who for some reason did that in Britain.

No-one really knows what happened although there are several theories. I suspect it may have been a combination of British tribal rivalry and the collapse of an economic infrastructure that had been too hard-wired into the imperial system and was not able to adapt itself into becoming more localised, but really, I don't know.
Last edited by Justin Swanton on Mon July 16th, 2012, 12:01 pm, edited 5 times in total.
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Post by Justin Swanton » Mon July 16th, 2012, 5:52 am

[quote=""Margaret""]Interesting, indeed. There are parallels, but also some differences. I suspect things were really more dire for the average person in the 5th century than they are today, although for a homeless person today, it might be more dire. For the planet as a whole, I'm inclined to think things are potentially a lot more dire today, because of climate change and habitat loss. It's kind of reassuring, actually, to realize that humankind made it through some really horrible times in history. Maybe we'll make it through this time, too.[/quote]

Ironically, it seems the opposite was the case. The average person in the 5th century was the country peasant who, in the late Empire, had been a tenant farmer, obliged to produce enough surplus to pay the imperial taxes which were heavy (about 30% and up). With the collapse of the Empire taxation dropped substantially (although in most areas it did not entirely cease). The scale of big land ownership was also reduced and many former villa communities became independent villages. Since they were not obliged to support the empire or enrich landlords, they didn't need to produce so much and so simply worked less hard, cultivating less land. For the peasant it was the good times, lasting about a century or two, in some areas maybe more.

One needs to keep in mind that the popular image of devastated Roman lands, with burning houses and fleeing inhabitants cut down by bands of marauding barbarians, is a fabrication derived from the hyperbolic literature of the time. Basically the average person had less refined goods but fewer financial burdens, and a peaceful enough life.
Last edited by Justin Swanton on Mon July 16th, 2012, 6:01 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Post by Margaret » Mon July 16th, 2012, 6:53 pm

Fascinating, Justin! Can you suggest a book that goes into more detail?
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Post by Justin Swanton » Tue July 17th, 2012, 6:12 am

[quote=""Margaret""]Fascinating, Justin! Can you suggest a book that goes into more detail?[/quote]

The best book I have come across is Framing the Early Middle Ages by Chris Wickham, available on Amazon here. At over 1000 pages it is comprehensive, and gives the latest archaeological findings which are opening up what was once a very obscure period. I also like the author's sense of humour. The kindle edition is quite cheap (so few books of this kind have a kindle edition). Definitely worth reading.

I read it after writing Centurion's Daughter and was really happy that some (though not all) my guesses about northern Gaul were right - when I started the novel it was so hard to find anything substantial about the era.
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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Wed July 18th, 2012, 4:26 am

The best book I have come across is Framing the Early Middle Ages by Chris Wickham
Thanks, Justin. My library has a copy, which I'm going to check out. It always amazes me the way history keeps advancing, and our ideas and understanding of the past keep changing as new information or new ways of understanding the information we already have come to light. It always seems to get more fascinating rather than less!
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Post by Justin Swanton » Tue July 24th, 2012, 5:40 am

Rereading Framing the Early Middle Ages I notice a certain Marxist bias in Chris Wickham's analysis of aristocracies vs the peasantry (he refers several times to Marx's historiography). The message that filters through is that overlords of any kind are bad, or at least no improvement. But he also notes - without drawing out the implications - that in a region lacking any large-scale social structures, like post-Roman Britain, local disputes, in the absence of law and law-enforcers (a village community often did not fill this gap) tended to be settled with the knife.
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Post by Justin Swanton » Sun August 5th, 2012, 10:38 am

Having read through the sections on Britain in Framing the Early Middle Ages and done some of my own thinking, I begin to get a notion of what happened.

Chris Wickam asks the question of why a total collapse of societal structures happened in Britain and not in northern Francia. He answers by posing two causes: a militarized Gallic aristocracy that was able to keep control of its estates, against a more civilian aristocracy in Britain that was not; and an economic system, too hardwired into the Empire, that could not adapt itself into becoming a regional economy.

This is partly true, but I wonder if legitimacy didn't play a role.

One thing that strikes me about this period is the emphasis on legitimacy by Romans and barbarians: the need to be seen to be part of the imperial system, even in areas where the empire no longer exercised effective control. Hence Clovis' acceptance of the administration of Belgica Secunda from Syagrius, when Belgica Secunda was no longer a province of Rome. In Gaul and Spain acceptance of authority could only be enforced if that authority had, in some form or another, the mantle of Rome. The Visigoths waited until 475 - one year before the official disappearance of the western Empire - before finally severing that link with Rome.

What happened in Britain? The legions and civil administration left, in a fashion that made clear that Rome no longer considered Britain part of the Empire. It was done early in the empire's dissolution, before the notion that barbarian/non-Roman rule was an acceptable alternative (if clothed with some sort of Roman placet). Hence the notion spread like wildfire that the whole edifice of civil obligation - land ownership, taxation, and the rest - no longer had any legitimacy. This was aggravated by the fact that it rapidly became dysfunctional economically and, with the withdrawal of virtually all troops, could not be held together by force.

A prominent individual in that society had two choices: a) run, or b) use his wealth and personal prestige/charisma to gather about him an entourage of loyal followers that could be counted on to maintain control over a single territory (he would have had to abandon scattered estates), a mini-estate whose inhabitants, former tenant farmers, would accept the lord's primacy (much less absolute than his former rule), not by law, but by a combination of force and gifts. A tribal society constructed from scratch. It was this society that the Saxons found on arrival, and imitated.

This anarchy would have become common knowledge on the continent, hence the interest all parties there had in maintaining legitimacy. Nobody wanted to follow Britain's example.

Question then is: how does one fit Vortigern, Ambrosius, Arthur, and the whole history of wars between the Britons and Saxons into this picture? Following Wickam's reconstruction of the state of affairs in fifth century Britain, if a war chief could gather a couple of hundred men around him that would have been impressive. Where does one get an army from?
Last edited by Justin Swanton on Sun August 5th, 2012, 12:45 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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