What happened in Britain

In the 5th century, the Western Empire entered into a ‘Dark Age’. The term ‘the Dark Ages’ is currently out of fashion. It is totally politically incorrect, and therefore it is a term I use frequently.  In my analysis of the distinction between barbarism and civilisation it is a very useful term indeed, for a ‘Dark age’ is when a society descends from civilisation into barbarism; and this is what happened to the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD.  Let us take a look at the province where this happened most completely, which happens to be the province which I know best: Britannia.

The trouble, as I have been frequently told over the past fifty years, is that the Dark Ages cannot be dark because we actually have more written light on them than we have on any previous period.  Our scanty written knowledge of Roman Britain in the third and fourth centuries depends mostly on casual statements made by Roman writers, dealing with other matters.

When we come down into the Dark Ages however we begin to get the first glimmering of a real history of Britain.  The earliest is an appalling account of the downfall of Britain written sometime between 500 and 570  by a mad monk called Gildas who lived in Bangor, then the most sophisticated place in Britain.   He was the forerunner of the modern journalist who believes that bad news sells more than good news and who devoted his account to the appalling misdeeds of the five leading kings of Britain.  It is difficult to know how much to believe, but presumably some of his information may be correct. (And perhaps Britain in the 6th century really was as awful as he depicts – which makes my point for me).

The situation is transformed in the early eighth century by the history of the Venerable Bede (672-735) , a monk living in a wealthy monastery at Jarrow on the delightful banks of the river Wear in Northumbria.  Bede, it must be said,  was a first class historian, even   despite the presence of so many miracles The monastery at Jarrow had an excellent library with works by many of the leading Christian historians – and even a few pagan ones  – and he knew the value of obtaining basic evidence and he frequently quotes from contemporary sources: he even wrote to bishops requesting copies of their correspondence which he includes in his history.  There is probably no other historian of the calibre of Bede anywhere in the world in the eighth century (competition is not high), nor indeed is there any other historian of his calibre in Britain for much of the next millennium.

And there is a mass of very dicey material – the lives of  St Alban and St Patrick and St Winwaloe (who emigrated to Brittany).  There is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the Annales Cambriae, and even – ugh- Nennius, another mad monk who made a heap of all the information he could find, most of it rubbish.  And Ireland entered a golden age when the numerous monasteries produced Celtic art and Celtic fairy tales that represent a high point of achievement that the Irish have been seeking to emulate ever since. And there are the great illuminated manuscripts, notably the Gospels produced at Lindisfarne and the wonderful gold treasures buried in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo. But then barbarian societies often produce great art.


Archaeology however tells a very different story. The towns of Roman Britain collapse, and so do the villas.  The formal end of Roman Britain came in 407 when the governor of the province, Constantine III, decided to make a bid to become emperor and marched off to France taking the whole army with him.  He was defeated and killed and the army never came back.  And since there was no longer a Roman army in Britain, it could no longer be paid,  and since there was no army there to be paid, it meant that no further coinage entered Britain and so coinage came to an end.  And since coinage forms the basis of our dating, it meant that our dating evidence disappears too.  Some sort of civilisation probably survived for another generation, but the pottery industries collapsed, you could not get anyone to repair your hypocausts when they went wrong or to patch up your mosaic floors, and those nasty Anglo-Saxon invaders were constantly stealing your goods, raping your daughters, and establishing their settlements on your best fields.  The population collapsed, or at least it left behind no rubbish.

Then there were the Anglo-Saxon invaders.  Bede tells us of Hengist and Horsa, the two original invaders, but the story as told by the archaeologists is much more fascinating.  I remember in an early issue of Current Archaeology, we visited Germany in 1968 and heard all about the excavations of a wonderful lowland coastal site at Feddersern Wierde, near Wilhelmshaven where a thriving village of timber longhouses grew upwards in the third and fourth centuries to escape the rising sea levels, until in the fifth century it all comes to an end when they upsticked and sailed off to England, and the latest pottery at Feddersern Wierde is the same as the earliest pottery found at the classic excavation site of Mucking, the first hill on the right as you sail up the Thames.

Anglo-Saxon archaeologists have a wonderful time tracing their settlements and particularly their cemeteries.  They buried their dead in extremely coarse, but often highly decorated pots which are a thing of uttermost disdain for the sophisticated Romano British archaeologists, but which can provide a lifetime of study and delight for the Anglo-Saxon archaeologists who trace their decoration and watch the spread throughout Eastern England.

Their houses and settlements too have also been discovered.  This has been one of the great stories of my life in archaeology.  Their most characteristic form of settlement is the sunken hut – a hollow three or four metres long and two metres wide, but archaeologists still argue as to how far people were actually living in the sunken huts or whether they were merely cellars beneath a larger building.  But because they are cut into the ground their traces survive.  They are called ‘Grubs’, short for the German Grubenhauser or sunken huts, or for the real academic archaeologist SFBs or sunken floored buildings.

But then halls were discovered, great timber buildings marked by the rows of post holes in which the upright timbers had been set.  These were often substantial dwellings with opposed doorways, that is doorways on either side of the long walls.  There is a famous simile in Bede in which he compares the life of man to that of a swallow who flies in through a door into the light of the building and then flies out of the opposite door.  Archaeologists forget about the simile and concentrate on finding the two opposed doorways where a swallow could fly in through one and out of the other.

So yes, buildings did exist in pagan Anglo-Saxon England but they were of timber, they had earth floors and they rarely formed even a village, let alone a town.  The whole landscape of Britain changed and the farmsteads of Roman Britain which had continued a layout of “Celtic fields” that had begun in the Bronze Age, were now replaced by a new, more chaotic landscape that would only be formalised half a millennium later with the establishment of the medieval strip-field system.

The story fits in well with our analysis of barbarism and civilisation, for here we see civilisation being replaced by barbarism.   Money disappeared with the departure of the Roman legions in 407 and vanished for the next two centuries when Roman and continental coins were used merely as souvenirs or jewellery.  It was only in the 680s that the first Saxon coins began to be introduced – the shatters and styccas – though shatter is actually “sceattas” (but pronounced shatter).  They were replaced a century later when Offa, King of Mercia (the Midlands) introduced the penny, a coin that in a very debased form, survives even today. But the money economy was at an end,  and trading was done by barter or gift exchange, rather than in a fixed market.

The whole structure of society changed too.  Eastern England was overrun by the Saxons and adopted a Germanic form of society.  Christianity survived in the west in some form or another, indeed it flourished in Ireland thanks to St. Patrick.  But both the Saxons in the east and the Britons in the west were dominated by warrior kings or chieftains of whom the most memorable was King Arthur who was turned into a figure of fiction in the high- Middle Ages, but who probably existed as a real person in the sixth century, when he won a major battle against the invading Saxons at the siege of Mount Badon, which held up the Saxon advance for a generation or more.  It was not until 577 that the Saxons captured the crucial towns of Bristol, Bath and Cirencester, and thus the last substantial British resistance in the west crumbled.

Then in what might be called early Middle Saxon England, a new society began to emerge with a dual structure, with authority split between church and civilian.  On the one hand a series of wic towns were established along the coast – the term is derived from the Latin word vicus – but in the forms of Hamwic (Southampton)  Sandwich, Dunwich and Lundunowic, established as the Aldwych in the west end of London around Covent Garden and outside the abandoned Roman city.  But equally powerful were the church towns, often being paired with the trading towns, Southampton being paired with Winchester and Sandwich with Canterbury.

The descent into a Dark Age from Roman Britain to Saxon England fits all my criteria for the descent from civilisation into barbarism. It is admittedly an account that swims against the tide of modern scholarship which has been led astray by Peter Brown’s account of the World of Late Antiquity which we have already discussed at the outset of our account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  But recently a swing back has begun led by Bryan Ward-Perkins, one of the most eminent of Oxford historians.  Bryan is the son of John Ward-Perkins, the long-term Director of the British School of Rome, who was thus born and brought up in Rome and studied history from an Italian as much as from an English viewpoint.  In his book “The Fall of Rome and the end of Civilisation”, he puts the case for the very sharp break marked by the Germanic invasions.  He argues that the population declined sharply, helped no doubt by plague, by war and by infertility and for the ordinary inhabitants of the Roman Empire accustomed to peace and prosperity it was a very unpleasant time indeed.  In a famous passage at the end of the first part of his book he makes a famous counter-attack:

Some of the recent literature on the Germanic settlements reads like an account of a tea party at the Roman vicarage.  A shy new comer to the village who is a useful prospect for the cricket team, is invited in.  There is a brief moment of awkwardness, while the host finds an empty chair and pours a fresh cup of tea; but the conversation, and village life, soon flow on. 

The accommodation that was reached between invaders and invaded in the fifth and sixth century West was very much more difficult, and more interesting, than this.  The new arrival had not been invited, and he brought with him a large family; they ignored the bread and butter, and headed straight for the cake stand.  The invader and invaded did eventually settle down together and did adjust to each other’s ways.  But the process of mutual accommodation was painful for the natives, was to take a very long time and left the vicarage in very poor shape.”



On to the Age of Arthur


What happened in the Eastern Roman empire?



23rd May 2014