Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070 by Robin Fleming

Book Review by Ian Hughes

Two of the most famous names in English history are Hengist and Horsa, the brothers who, according to Bede, were amongst the first of the "Anglo-Saxon" invaders of England to make a settlement in Kent: “The first commanders are said to have been the two brothers Hengist and Horsa. Of these Horsa was afterwards slain in battle by the Britons, and a monument, bearing his name, is still in existence in the eastern parts of Kent” (Bede, 15).

Their names and the stories told by Bede have been taught as factual history to British school children for generations. In her book Britain After Rome Robin Fleming turns away from Bede and the other major sources (Gildas and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), instead attempting to use archaeology as the basis for analysis of Britain immediately after the Romans had "left".

The reasons for this approach are explained in the Introduction: Fleming is aware that there are already many books available which tell the story of the Adventus Saxonum from the political viewpoint. Further, she states that although her experience of living under the "presidency of George W Bush" have made her accept the idea that the people with political control can dominate events, this same period has also seen many "faceless and eventless trends" changing the shape of modern society. Consequently, taking archaeology as her basis, Fleming has attempted to portray the Adventus to include the perspective of the faceless majority not represented by the political annals, those living in the countryside and away from the centres of power, as well as those who actually "ruled" in the many kingdoms that emerged following the departure of Rome.

Having established her modus operandi, Fleming begins the book with an analysis of the end of Roman rule, emphasising the strength of fourth-century Britain and the almost-cataclysmic decline that occurred early in the fifth century - as graphically demonstrated by the change from high-quality imported pottery in the fourth century to the reliance on local poor-quality facsimiles in the fifth. To the well-read, there is little that is new here: instead, they will find a review of current archaeological thoughts on fourth-fifth century Britain.

This is followed by the coming of the Germanic invaders. Instead of a list of battles and atrocities by "Kings" from the continent, Fleming portrays what is almost a gentle invasion, emphasising the fact that there is no evidence archaeologically for the commonly-perceived mass invasion and bloodshed. Instead, she focuses on the nature of settlements during the fifth century, emphasising the shift from urban to rural communities with the collapse of the Roman infrastructure and the small scale of the ensuing villages. She also identifies the major problem for archaeology. The cataclysmic invasion of Britain described by the sources is missing from the archaeological record. Instead of the eradication of one set of peoples and their replacement by a new, continental society, there is the appearance of a set of new burial customs, indicating the appearance of the English "invaders", alongside the continuing Romano-British inhabitants.

This is the section that has received the most vitriolic reviews found on the internet. These focus almost invariably on the author’s refusal to accept the accounts of Gildas, Bede and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC) at face value. In addition, the reviewers point to the fact that only in extremely rare cases can evidence of warfare be found in early archaeology - and even then the finds are open to widely differing interpretations. Yet a closer reading of the text allows the reader to understand Fleming’s view: there are no indications anywhere of the mass-slaughter and eviction of the Britons depicted in texts from the ninth- and tenth-centuries, and repeated by historians of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Instead, the two "races" of "Britons" and "English" appear to have lived in peace using the same graveyards and slowly amalgamating into the basis of the English nation of today.

Furthermore, the bypassing of the traditional view allows the author to impress upon the reader a fact that is often overlooked by historians: the political entities (usually referred to as "kingdoms", although this is clearly a mistake) that arose in the fifth century were extremely small: sometimes when a few of these amalgamated they were still only large enough to be the basis for later Shires.

Throughout the course of the analysis Fleming intersperses her commentary with comparisons between the literary sources and the archaeology. Although this is biased in favour of the archaeology, as opposed to the more traditional literary sources, these interpolations emphasise the problems faced by those using Bede, Gildas and the ASC as the basis for events. For example, she notes that the entries in the ASC, compiled in the ninth century, contain information that can both support the interpretation of small-scale invasion whilst simultaneously highlighting that the Chronicle is of questionable historical merit. For example, on pages 91-92 Fleming points out three entries in the ASC that give the number of invading Saxon ships. These hardly point to an English armada: the entry for 495 has only five ships, for 501 two ships, and for 514 three ships. In the same passage she further highlights that, in the same entry for 495 just mentioned, ‘Cerdic and his son Cynric arrived from the continent’ to invade Britain. This is extremely odd, given that Cerdic and Cynric are British personal names and so would not have been used by a "Royal Dynasty" in Saxony.

Having shown that the historical records are untrustworthy without prolonged study and cannot be taken at face value, Fleming moves on to the middle Saxon period. Here, she describes the rise of social inequality and the slow expansion of some of the small political entities into proto-kingdoms, such as Wessex, Northumbria and Mercia, which are so well-known to the student of early English history and usually found on maps of the Adventus Saxonum, but here described as belonging at the earliest to the sixth century. Fleming concludes that the later political institutions were formed by their annexation of neighbouring small, "family-run" entities to create the kingdoms known to students of the Viking period, a possibility reinforced by historical records such as the Burghal Hidage that may contain information regarding earlier political sub-divisions within the fabric of the later kingdoms.

This chapter is followed by chapters on the spread of Christianity and the growth of new commercial centres, sometimes located on the site of Roman cities. These chapters give an insight into the conversion of the "English" and the Picts, and emphasises the fact that a lot of this was done by the "British" rather than from Rome. They also analyse the growth of commercial centres and the impact of taxable wealth on the emerging aristocracy, as well as on the rural poor.

There then follows an analysis of the Viking invasions, emphasising the dual nature of the Vikings as both traders and vicious warriors. The full impact of the imposition of the Danelaw is discussed, including the effect the treaty had on the North of England, as well as the survival of the royal house of Wessex: the only pre-Viking political unit to survive intact, and so in a position to effect the "reconquest" of England.

Fleming brings the book towards its close with chapters on the rise of new towns, the continuing divergence of aristocrat and peasant, the rise of a monetary economy, and the growth of the Church. Unlike the earlier chapters, these are usually based on well-established historical and archaeological foundations and are unlikely to cause any difficulties for the reader.

The book ends with a chapter on "Living and Dying in Early Medieval Britain". Apart from the earliest chapters, this is possibly the most challenging for the non-archaeologist. A wide range of information is analysed to form hypotheses related to the laws, religion and society in the new-forming states of Britain. In some areas these are highly speculative, based on analysis of bones to discover how "stressed" the individual was, to assessments of anomalous graves and "execution" cemeteries. For many of these the conclusion fits the normal archaeological stereotypes of the peasants facing hard lives of disease and malnutrition leading to early deaths, and to the ease and high-level display consumption of high-quality meals by the nobles and the high-level clergy.

This leads to my main reservations concerning the book. One is that the evidence is based on archaeology, which has so far found what are almost certainly only a small percentage of the sites inhabited by, and the graves of, the large population of Britain. Due to this factor, the findings only offer a glimpse into a small proportion of the lives of the people of Early Medieval Britain, yet, as is usual with archaeology, this has been interpreted by the author according to accepted modern trends of seeing peasants’ lives as hard, brutal and disease-ridden, whereas the nobles lived lives of ease and plenty. Although this may indeed be the case, it should be acknowledged that our knowledge of the period is small and based on only a fragment of what was once present.

Another problem is one that will be faced by many non-archaeological readers: the constant cross references to burials and excavation sites – especially in the later chapters - can leave the reader bewildered and a little dazed, if not confused. Further, the repetition of some of the place names can leave the reader with the impression that the book is actually based on only a few sites, the excavation and analysis of which has been stretched very thin to cover as many bases as possible.

Having made these negative comments, it is necessary to correct one misguided complaint about the book: although to some degree it focuses on affairs in a limited number of places in England, Fleming has attempted wherever possible to include relevant information concerning the whole of Britain. The problem appears to be that archaeological information for the relevant periods from Wales and Scotland is limited, meaning that the focus remains largely on England. A close reading of the text would have shown this to be the case, and so negative comments in other reviews should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

In conclusion, although the book has its faults it gives an alternative view to the traditional story of the Adventus Saxonum. It makes the reader reassess their preconceptions and face up to the fact that the story of the "End of Roman Britain" and the "Rise of England" is not really covered by the written sources and that much that is taken for granted is actually not as clear-cut as the reader may think. For that reason the book should be read by anybody interested in the last days of the West and the creation of England. The reader may disagree with the author, but they will have their assumptions tested and be made to think and that, after all, is the purpose of reading about history.

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