A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness ... they would live for three hundred years in the land towards which their prows were directed, and ... for half the time ... they would repeatedly lay it waste." Writing in the 6th century, the British chronicler Gildas painted a calamitous picture that, embellished by the Venerable Bede, would inform the central argument of Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Essential to Gibbon's Gothic tale were "the ravages of ... barbarism" that finally ended with Charlemagne's revival of Roman values late in the 8th century. Using new archaeological evidence from northwest Europe, Peter S. Wells's new book offers a less picaresque account of this period.
Wells contends instead that the numbers of migrants and invaders who took over the Roman Empire were fancifully overstated by alarmist chroniclers. He argues for continuity from Roman to medieval towns too. Great Roman cities such as Cologne, Mainz and Trier altered significantly to accommodate the new aristocrats as well as the Church but remained urban in character.
Apart from continuity, Wells's main theme is that this was a benign rather than a dark and savage age. So the cemetery evidence from southwest Germany shows that the average height of men was about five feet eight inches, for women about five feet four inches - statures well above those of late medieval and modern times. In Denmark, the early Vikings were even taller - with their heights not seen again until the 20th century. Food residues show levels of nutrition consistent with a small but healthier population across much of northwest Europe. The motor of this world was trade in valuables at places such as Saxon Lundenwic - Wells's quintessential illustration of a Roman city that became a prosperous Middle Saxon port. In fact, the centre of gravity of Anglo-Saxon London lay west of the Roman city, occupying the lands around the present West End.
At face value this was a bucolic world, or so it seems, as Wells takes his readers on a voyage around the smaller urban centres of the Baltic Sea. Birka - a celebrated island town in central Sweden, we are told, where the 9th-century Frankish missionary Ansgar was received cordially by King Bjorn - is a far cry from the Gibbonesque emphasis on violent Norsemen.
These thumbnail impressions lead us inexorably to the principal personality in the book, Charlemagne, the Frankish king who was crowned Emperor in Rome in AD800. Wells cites Charlemagne's biographer Einhard to capture an image of a figure who wore a linen shirt over linen pants, the Frankish national dress, and carried a sword strapped to his side. From his capital at Aachen this visionary fashioned a successful Europe and in 793 even attempted engineering wonders on the scale of a canal to connect the Rhine to the Danube (completed in 1992).
Over the past 50 years archaeology has defined a new understanding of the passage from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages. Plainly this era was not as brutal and primitive as Gibbon believed. Equally the emphasis on continuity in Wells's wide-ranging and accessible account perhaps understates the complex political, economic and environmental changes that together proved to be essential ingredients in building a medieval Europe that shaped the present one.
Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered
By Peter S. Wells
W. W. Norton, 256pp, £15.99
Published 1 July 2008