Chris Wickham’s is a very good and witty survey of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages that shatters many kinds of misconceptions on the period, even if I think it’s at some points overrated. Let me also add that this “enlightening” of the period is exactly what in many ways was promised (and even required) from this work, yet I think there’s a partially missing field, as we’ll see.
In part I, Wickham exposes many features of Roman society and economy while also evaluating the impacts of the Christianization of the Empire and of its collapse in the western provinces in the 5th century. His exposition was very interesting, namely from the point of view of social and economic history, yet I think his revisionism of the late antique Roman Empire regarding its overall power goes a bit too far and there are a few “weaker” details, but perhaps the biggest issue is that it lacks an accompanying political/military perspective that might have been useful in analyzing the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire (these weren’t covered enough in my opinion when these were mostly needed, or were a bit disregarded, namely in the case of the hugepost-Diocletianic bureaucracy).
In part II, the early medieval West from 550 to 750 is investigated and unraveled wonderfully before the reader, from the “shadowy” regions of Britain and Ireland to the Lombard and Visigothic kingdoms. I also loved his emphasis on the study of the peasantry “in opposition” to the aristocracy of all those medieval societies (namely the Frankish), when the book could have easily have become just a history of the elites and the church. I also loved his ponderation of the “continuity vs. transformation” problem. Yet I must say that the comparison between the late Visigothic kingdom and the late Merovingians, although it’s true we can’t see events teleologically (the greatest fault of much books and even some good scholarship around), ends up being unfair since the Visigoths were in a period of unusual relative political stability in the second half of the 7th century. Moreover, the Visigothic kingdom was also starting to disagregate by the late 7th century (the duchies are one of the greatest signs of this), with royal authority not being respected in practice in several regions, namely on the northern mountains.
Part III was probably the hardest to write for the author, since it dealt with areas almost completely out of his area of expertise (early and high medieval Italy), but he suceeds anyway in making a good introduction. He manages to make a nice, even if a bit stereotypical account of the medieval Roman Empire that suits just fine for a general survey and doesn’t fall into the worst prejudices regarding this polity (he only shows some typical, old and baseless prejudices by “Byzantinists”, but again, nothing that bad for an introduction). The Islamic world is treated a bit worse as Wickham just relies too much on later 9th century accounts which form the traditional narrative of the period, which has been challenged in the last decades by Arabists, so its value is a bit reduced, although it’s decent as an introduction.
Part IV is one of the best and worst of the book, depending on the chapter. Carolingian Francia, England and post-Carolingian Latin Christendom are very well explored in the period between the years 750 and 1000 on both political, cultural, religious and socioeconomic histories, yet the chapters on “Outer Europe” should have been better explored. I’ll return to this issue at the final paragraph, since my wider critique is general to the work.
Generally, this work has already a great scope and, considering it was written by a single man with a limited expertise (regional rather than continental, which would be practically impossible due to the impossibility of someone having a very deep knowledge of such vas a subject as late antique and early medieval Europe), it’s a work of tremendous overall erudition and a monument of knowledge, that gives to the reader a very different picture from that promoted by popular culture. It also has the advantage of being written both as a potential university textbook and as a book of scientific divulgation,yet there are some flaws which I specified along the review that take one star, but I’ll now develop my biggest objection to Wickham’s effort. I hope that a Penguin History of Europe written by a great scholar (the author is clearly one) should try to leave the typical bias of writing mainly about western Europe (often accompanied by teleological history). While Chris Wickham powerfully manages to shatter the idea that western Europe, namely its northern and central regions, was destined to thrive and even rule the world during the much of the modern period, and manages to include the Mediterranean and the eastern polities in his narrative, still doesn’t leave enough the old paradigm of looking mostly to western Europe, since eastern and northern Europe aren’t adequately focused. There’s just a single chapter on “Outer Europe” that tries to somehow compensate for it, but that isn’t enough. Cultures like those of the Slavs, the Northmen (I refrain from the term “Viking”), the Huns, the Khazars,the Magyars, the Avars and also the peoples of pre-Frankish Germany (not in any chronological order, of course) should be much better covered given their overall interest to the History of the period and the fact they “occupied” most of the continent. It’s true that written records are much smaller for these regions if existent at all (often these records come from more sophisticated neighbours who wrote down biased accounts of them), yet a different kind of history, an archaeological, social and, when possible, religious one, should be written and I didn’t see much effort at making it. I admit a single small chapter is already good for histories of this period, yet more is demanded of a brilliant work.
Four solid stars.