Sunday, January 15, 2012

When the Romans Leave: What Happens When Central Government Collapses

A couple years ago, a friend read a book about battles in Dark Ages Britain.  I read the review, and I mentioned to him that I would love to borrow the book, as I thought it sounded like a fun read.  He said sure, as soon as I find it again, you can read it.  Time passes, the Wheel of Life turns.  About a month ago, I received a surprise package in the mail- it's my very own copy of Battles of the Dark Ages by Peter Marren!  Inside the front cover was a note, professing an unnecessary apology about the delay, and the happy statement that now I have my own copy of said book (along with some really awesome and handy little metal tabs that act like placeholders; way cooler than post-it notes).  Hurray, what a lovely gift!

Now, as previously mentioned, I kinda stalled for the last two and a half weeks of December, not reading anything because I wanted to add to my challenge list for this year.  So the book sat on one of the many piles of books in my room, patiently waiting for me to pick it up and read it.  For such a slim volume, I'll admit it took me a little longer to get through than I initially planned.  Part of that is because I often forget that non-fiction takes double the time that fiction does; I theorize this has to do with the amount of information presented.  Fiction work is a made-up story; the information presented pertains only to the story, and does not have to be worked into existing frameworks.  Non-fiction though, goes slower because the information must be assimilated and matched up to existing frames of reference.  It's like fiction doesn't take up as much room because it goes into a magic bag of holding in my brain.  However, non-fiction has to be filed in the right box, on the right shelf, in the right closet inside my head.  That takes a little more work on my part.

The second reason it took a little longer than usual is the subject matter.  As much as I love history, as my friend Jim points out, I am not much of a military historian.  It's just not in my wheelhouse, as the chefs would say.  I love to know the cultures, the societies, the politics, and even at times the economics of history.  These things drive us.  I want to know the why's and effects of a war; I could care less about the battles fought or the casualty lists.  I think that military history is best when re-enacted; it makes more sense when you can see it happening.  At the very least it needs an interactive map, showing both political lines and geographical features.  I do realize that geographical and man-made features play a huge role in why a battle is fought, and how that can play into the wins and losses of war.

All that aside, I really enjoyed this book.  I remember all to well in world history classes, the timeline of civilization ran basically like this-

Cradle of Civilization (Mesopotamia)
Byzantium/Dark Ages Europe (which lasted for about 20 pages, and half of that were dedicated to the fall of Rome)
Medieval Europe (starting with the conquest of William of Normandy in 1066)

I was always curious as to what happened in the intervening 600 years.  I understand the basics of it; one of the major civilizations of the time crashed, and as a result of that crash there were roughly six centuries of civil strife across an entire continent.  Who has time for writing things down when you have to worry about your next meal and whether or not you'll be attacked tomorrow.  I get that, but it was glossed over in such a manner as to say six centuries went by and nothing happened other than people fighting each other like dogs in the street.  (I see all your heads nodding, like yep, that's about the truth of it).  I always found that to be an unsatisfactory answer.  As a species, we aren't that old, so any time we are a cogent people, we have to leave something of a mark.  Geologically speaking, six centuries is long enough to leave an indent on terra firma.  So what the hell happened in Europe from the fourth century to the eleventh century?

This book focused on just that- what was happening in Britain after the Roman army left.  It was fascinating!  Given the definition of "army" and the amount of time (from the removal of the legions to the arrival of William of Normandy), there was a battle fought roughly every 18-24 months, more often two or three in any given year.  Basically, it was the Hatfields and the McCoys, only instead of one river valley, it was a series of islands that amounts to the whole of New England.  Everyone was fighting their neighbor, if only because no one could agree where the property line was.

Even more interesting to me were the explanations of who was living where in the British Isles.  I vaguely remember a page or so in high school history dedicated to the discussion of the peoples of Britain, but it didn't make much sense to me.  Why were there so many different tribes for such a small place?  Where did they all come from?  Saxon, Jute, Angle, Briton, Pict, Dal Riadan (Scots), Mercian, Viking, and the Ulster Scots were all groups discussed in this book.  I wish I had a laminated map of Britain while I was reading this, or for each chapter to have a map that showed how the tribal kingdoms altered over the centuries.  It would have definitely helped fix the information in my head if I had a better internal map of England.

All the same, each chapter dealt with a different Dark Ages battle and its impact on the formation of what would become England.  The truly remarkable thing, as the author points out, most of the battles, despite their fame, are still hard to pinpoint on a map.  The few sources that survive from the time are not always factually straightforward; more often than not, the sources are more concerned with the epic poetry describing the battle and less with where and how it was fought.  That makes decoding this part of history all the more difficult, as there isn't much to go on.

The writing was well done.  It was easy to follow, and full of dry British wit, which I can't get enough of.  The author lays out the theories of other historians well, presenting their arguments before adding his own.  I especially enjoyed the photographs of some of the battle sites, along with theoretical maps of how the armies were laid out.  Also, it tickled me pink to read of how gamers are helping to write history; the author makes several references to those who roleplay out battles, using historical sources as guides and acting out how battles could have been fought based on the strategies and tactics of the time.  This can be very helpful to researchers, as it gives them an idea of how it is one side won or lost a given fight.

Also, it looks like the UK comes by its fractious and domineering nature quite naturally; it's been a habit for well over a millenium and a half.  Since the time of the Romans, that particular island has been dealing with "invaders" and learning to assimilate new groups.  Of course, that only led to an expansionist attitude in later years; it is an island, and when all the land is inhabited, you have to start looking to other places to settle.  Or, you can just feud with your neighbor until someone decides that the only recourse is bloodshed.  God, the British are an outwardly violent group for being so deeply conservative with their emotions.

So for anyone looking to dig a little deeper into what was happening in Britain and how it came to be the place it was in the Middle Ages, this is a good read.  It's remarkable to me how it all came together to form one people, one group.  This author does a fair job of filling in the blanks to explain how that happens and why the defending army of 1066 was hardly worth fighting most of the time.  Also, this is great background information for my next book, Wolfskin by Juliet Marillier; it's set in the Viking raids of the 9th century and their settlement of the Orkneys (islands off the northern Scottish coast).  I've been there in July; it was the height of gnat season, and the entire day was rainy.  They called it lovely weather.  I can see why people living in Norway might think so.

PS. Hop, you are, as ever, the only tour guide I want when exploring the ancient world, whether it's Greece, Rome, or Britain.  Thank you ever so much for the thoughtful gift; I hope I put it to good enough use!  Now all I need is book (or five) telling me what was happening in the rest of Europe after the collapse of Rome, I'll be happy.  (How many "Germanic" tribes were there, and where exactly were they living?  Dark Ages France is still on my unsatisfied curiosity list.....).

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