Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered


The barbarians who destroyed the glory that was Rome demolished civilization along with it. For the next four centuries, the peasants and artisans of Europe barely held on. Random violence, mass migration, disease, and starvation were the only constants of life. This is the picture of the Dark Ages that most historians promote. But recent archaeological finds tell a different story. In this book, Peter S. Wells surveys these discoveries and constructs a picture of a vibrant period that was not "dark" at all. The ...
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Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered

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The barbarians who destroyed the glory that was Rome demolished civilization along with it. For the next four centuries, the peasants and artisans of Europe barely held on. Random violence, mass migration, disease, and starvation were the only constants of life. This is the picture of the Dark Ages that most historians promote. But recent archaeological finds tell a different story. In this book, Peter S. Wells surveys these discoveries and constructs a picture of a vibrant period that was not "dark" at all. The kingdoms of Christendom that emerged starting with the reign of Charlemagne in the late eighth century sprang from a robust, previously little-known European culture, albeit one that left behind few written documents. This recently recognized civilization achieved new heights in artistry, technology, craft production, commerce, and learning.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

As archeology professor and author Wells (The Battle That Stopped Rome) points out, the only texts available on the cultures of "Dark Age" Europe (roughly A.D. 400-600) were written by those educated in the Roman tradition. The only unbiased evidence, therefore, is the material evidence. Covering five decades of excavation in western Europe (including London, Copenhagen, the outskirts of Stockholm, Cologne and Trier), Wells chronicles a revolution in the understanding of Europe after the Western Roman Empire's collapse, ostensibly at the hands of "barbarian hordes." Evidence accounts for vast trade networks that ranged from Byzantium and the Black Sea through the Baltic to Ireland, and across the Alps and Pyrenees; artifacts from as far away as India have been uncovered in Scandinavia. Buildings, metalworking and gem-cutting sites, and evidence for continuous occupation of many modern European cities, also provide rich proof that, contrary to the Roman-centric collapse-of-civilization narrative, the post-Roman world pulsed with robust, vital activity. Wells's aim is obviously a wide audience of armchair historians and archeologists; they won't be disappointed, and they'll have a fine reading list in Wells's sources and suggestions.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

Seeking to shed more light upon the 500 years or so between the fall of Rome (476 C.E.) and the rise of Charlemagne, Wells (archaeology, Univ. of Minnesota; The Battle That Stopped Rome) disputes its being called the Dark Ages, a term derived from the Romanists, i.e., scholars for whom the Graeco-Roman age was the pinnacle of civilization-at least until their own time centuries later. He doesn't so much present new information-the term Dark Ages has been long refuted by scholars-as explain this era accessibly to general readers. The old view of the Dark Ages was based mostly on ignorance of the archaeological record and a misperception that literature from this period was scant. Wells points out that education may have declined in Italy and the central areas of the former Roman Empire, but it grew in other areas such as Ireland and Britain. Far from being lawless savages, or "barbarians," the tribes that inherited the Roman world created and enforced their own laws, usually based on Roman forms. In fact, the period created much of what we think of as Western Civilization, in areas ranging from arts to crafts to technology, and by looking at the material remains one can see the real foundation of Europe. This short, well-written book belongs in public libraries.
—Robert Harbison

Kirkus Reviews
Revisionist argument that the period following the fall of the Roman Empire was not an epoch of barbarian savagery, war, chaos and cultural bleakness. On the contrary, it was "a time of brilliant cultural activity" in Europe, writes Wells (Archaeology/Univ. of Minnesota; The Battle That Stopped Rome: Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest, 2003, etc.). The so-called "Dark Ages" (400 to 800 CE) gave rise to new ideas, urban centers and political structures, as well as major developments in the arts, architecture and learning. Our traditional view of the period is based on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and a handful of other texts whose authors favored the cultural ideal of all things Roman, declares Wells. They chose not to recognize the cultural achievements of the centuries between the peak of Roman power and the emergence of the Carolingian kingdom. Drawing on archaeological evidence that earlier generations of historians did not know how to interpret, the author describes significant findings at graves and other sites showing that many towns and cities within the Roman Empire persisted and there was no sudden, catastrophic collapse. In Roman London, for example, life was different, and people found new uses for the urban landscape, such as dismantling stone buildings and reusing the stone. This did not represent a decline unless you believed Roman values represented the epitome of human existence. Elsewhere, material evidence indicates the rise of new urban centers in Sweden, Denmark, Russia and elsewhere in Europe; technological advances like horse collars and better plows that improved farming efficiency; the creation of new, codifiedlegal systems; the spread of trade and Christianity. Wells also points to many signs of cultural creativity, including new styles of metalwork and book illumination, and the advancement of the art of writing in monasteries. Important scholarship shedding new light on the Dark Ages.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393060751
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/28/2008
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter S. Wells is professor of archaeology at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of The Battle That Stopped Rome and The Barbarians Speak. He lives in St. Paul.

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Table of Contents

1 Between Antiquity and the Middle Ages: What Happened? 3

2 The Decline of the Roman Empire 13

3 The Peoples of Europe 28

4 Childeric and Other Early Dark Age Kings 47

5 What Happened to the Roman Cities? 70

6 Roman Londinium to Saxon Lundenwic: Continuity and Change (A.D. 43-800) 88

7 New Centers in the North 121

8 The Revolution in the Countryside 130

9 Crafting Tools and Ornaments for the New Societies 142

10 Royal Exchange and Everyday Trade 153

11 Spread of the New Religion 170

12 Arts, Scholarship, and Education 186

13 Charlemagne's Elephant and the History of Europe 199

App Selected Museum Collections 203

Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading 205

Acknowledgments 217

Illustration Credits 219

Index 221

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