Chris Wickham’s acclaimed history shows how this period, encompassing peoples such as Goths, Franks, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs. Review: The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from to by Chris WickhamIan Mortimer finds a gallop from Rome to the. The Inheritance of Rome has ratings and reviews. Justin said: Just to be clear: Chris Wickham does not believe that he can explain anything. He.

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A ccording to Chris Wickham, two grand narratives have distorted our view of the period from to AD. The first is that “the middle ages” – ie the 10 centuries between Roman civilisation and the Renaissance – had some otherness or distinct character which set them apart from Rome and the modern world, resulting in presumptions that the earlier centuries were uncivilised and “dark”. The second distortion results from the notion that the period was chiefly important for “the birth of nations”.

For example, there was no political state of England in but there was inso the main story of the age is that of how England or France, or Castile, and so on came into being. Wickham is undoubtedly right to point out these problems.

The very idea of a thousand years of cultural darkness before the Renaissance is ludicrous just think of the Sutton Hoo hoard and the Lindisfarne Gospels. As for the “birth of nations” approach, it does indeed lead to a view of history which is only interested in the past as far as it explains how things came to be as they are today.

Wickham’s own view is that all grand narratives are in themselves suspect. Rather he wishes us to understand that communities must be understood in their own terms.

This is his theme: The form permits many moments of insight and information.

Incredible as it may seem, witnesses as well as accused persons could be tortured in Roman trials. And in the late Roman curis, half the entire imperial budget might be spent on paying and feeding the army.

Speeding through the centuries

We are introduced to many place-specific questions. Why did the eastern Roman empire survive long after the western one collapsed? Or why did villa society continue so much longer in the south of Gaul than in the north, or in Britain? And we are given intriguing moments to ponder with regard to their significance. For example, in Anstruda of Piacenza sold herself into serfdom – slavery in most respects – when she married a serf.


She already had daughters, and she reserved to them the right to buy themselves out of serfdom; but she thereby committed any sons she might yet have to an unfree life. As Wickham points out, this is not just surprising, it was against the law: But such things obviously did happen, and happened more than once.

The exceptions are just as historical as the generalisations. Such material, combined with the most meticulous scholarship, should have led to a truly important book. The breadth of reading is astounding, the knowledge displayed is awe-inspiring, and the attention quietly given to critical theory and the postmodern questioning of evidence is both careful and sincere.

On top of this one might note that Wickham is the Chichele professor of medieval history at Oxford and his cchris book, Framing the Early Middle Ages, which adumbrates this work, was a joint winner of the prestigious Wolfson prize. But if this is also a landmark book, it will only oc seen as such by those looking out of the top windows of ivory towers.

There are three reasons for this. The first is that Wickham’s widkham, measured approach to the evidence results in such an ambiguous interpretation of the past that the reader inevitably ends up doubting the historian’s inhegitance. At one point he states: Of course, academics often stress that one should err on the side of caution; but they forget that this is still to err. Most readers are looking for a complete and coherent portrait of the age, not an abstract set of possible textual readings.

We want our leading thinkers, including historians, to go out on a limb, to take risks; but sometimes one feels that this book is more concerned with safeguarding the author from accusations of misinterpreting the evidence than with people in the first millennium. The second problem is the vast period of time. As Europe had no integrity at this period, Wickham has had thd compare and contrast the political and social conditions of dozens of disparate kingdoms and states across years.

This is more or less the equivalent of the history of Europe from the battle of Agincourt to now. The assumption that the relatively small quantity of extant evidence means that more centuries can be covered is a mistake. In Wickham’s hands, the layers of partial evidence and the differences of time and place need more space per century, not less.


This should have been three or four volumes, not one, and by compressing such a vast period into one study, the series editor has fallen into the trap of reflecting one of the “grand narratives” which Wickham eschews, that of a vast period of “otherness”, or pre-Renaissance darkness.

This problem would have been greatly alleviated if the questions discussed were those which directly engaged public interest. However, the compression factor has forced the book to be almost exclusively about the structures of the various societies, including their politics, trade links and cultural attitudes. The page limit does not allow for detailed discussion of standards of living, or private life.

Artefacts are not discussed in any aesthetic sense but only in regard to whether their physical distribution is evidence of commercial networks or royal gift-giving. Intellectual developments are seen predominantly in relation to politics.

There is no light and dark, no change of pace, no drama; and there are very few references to battles. Individualism here is downplayed; it is kingship which matters, not kings – as if monarchs obeyed cultural scripts and exercised little free will. We are rarely given enough background to understand a royal decision; the result might be evidence of the way a particular society worked at a given time – but we are always told that, never shown it.

Any attempt to obtain an objective overview of the European continent over so many centuries results in a scope so wide that all one can see is blurred masses, not people.

That is the problem here.

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham | : Books

The question is not whether scholarship at this level has a place; it is rather whether a series such as The Penguin History of Europe should confine itself to academic questions and display scant regard for literary technique or addressing the key questions which people have of the past.

Ironically, if Wickham had developed a new “grand narrative” of his own, public interest in this book would have been greater. As things stand, most readers will find themselves simply browbeaten by academia.