Book Review by Ian Hughes
Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire there is a scarcity of written sources with which to trace the emergence of the ‘barbarian’ kingdoms which arose on Rome’s ashes. This resulted in historians calling this period the ‘Dark Ages’, due to the lack of light that written sources could have shone on the period.
Although the term ‘Dark Ages’ has now been superseded and is seen as being too simplistic, there remains the problem of piecing together a chronology for the period stretching from the mid-fourth to the tenth century from the scraps of information in the written sources and archaeology. Thankfully, recent breakthroughs in the interpretation of both the written and the archaeological evidence has resulted in major headway being made in the analysis of the period.
Nowhere is this needed more than in the regions to the north of the Danube, where, apart from legal documents preserved in religious centres, written sources are largely limited to religious texts and law codes. The two major groups of peoples who had settled in the region are the subjects of this book, the latest in a long series of texts containing the proceedings of conferences held at the ‘Center for Interdisciplinary research on Social Stress’ in San Marino.
One of the greatest benefits of this volume is that it sheds some light on the work being done on the continent to uncover the secrets lost after the collapse of Rome. For a mono-linguistic culture, the translation into English of these works is invaluable. What is even more worthwhile is the quality of the texts. A list is included here:
- 1. Introduction
- 2. The Boii, Bohemia, Bavaria
- 3. Baiovarii, Romani and Others: Language, Names and Groups south of the River Danube and in the Eastern Alps during the Early Middle Ages
- 4. The Ancient Thuringi: Problems of Names and Family Connections
- 5. Kinship and Marriage among the Baiuvarii and Thuringi
- 6. Baiuvarii and Thuringi: Location in Space and Time and Social Relations
- 7. Dwellings and Settlements of the Baiuvarii before Urbanisation
- 8. Ethnic Identities as Constructions of Archaeology (?): The Case of the Thuringi
- 9. Signs and Symbols in Archaeological Material Finds
- 10. The Thuringi, the Peculiarities of Their Law, and Their Legal Relations to the Gentes of Their Time
- 11. Religion in Pre-Carolingian Thuringia and Bavaria
- 12. Did the 'Agricultural Revolution' go East with Carolingian Conquest? Some Reflections on Early Medieval Rural Economics of the Baiuvarii and Thuringi
As can be seen, the papers cover a large variety of the different analytical methods being used to analyse the origins and evolution of the Baiuvarii and Thuringi prior to their incorporation into the Frankish Empire. This has both positive and negative repercussions. For example, Chapter 2 is an enquiry into the genesis of the Baiovarian language, using analyses of the personal- and place-names used in the region, as well as an investigation of the continuation of the Romance language. For anybody with a background in philology this is a fascinating discourse and throws light on an otherwise dark area. For those without previous knowledge, the fact that it is extremely technical could be a drawback. This is frustrating, as the paper contains much information that is valuable to historians, such as the fact that there was a retention of a ‘Romance linguistic identity of the peasant sections of the population in the Alps, especially in the Tyrol’ (p.24). This has fascinating ramifications for the study of interactions between the Germanic newcomers and the existing population, especially as it demonstrates that the region settled by the Baiuvarii was the locus between the Eastern and Western Germanic languages, as well as being influenced by both the Celtic and Romance languages.
The same is true of the following paper, although this focuses instead upon languages and personal names: previous knowledge is invaluable, otherwise the paper’s complexity could prove hard to understand for the layman. Yet the conclusion that Romance personal names continued into the late-seventh century has major implications for the continuing influence of the Roman Empire.
The same dichotomy runs throughout the papers presented. The list above shows the diversity of the papers included, all of which have valuable insights and reinterpretations of information long held to be ‘sacrosanct’. Some of the papers are easier to access for the layman than others, but all are valuable in themselves.
Apart from the complexity of some of the papers, the only drawback of the book – as it is for some of the others in this series – is the high price. As this review is being typed the book costs £75/$100, thus taking it out of the reach of many ‘amateur’ historians and reserving its contents for those with access to university libraries. This is a shame, as the papers contained are at the cutting-edge of research and will remain the reserve of the specialist.
Although the caveats mentioned above can be prohibitive, nevertheless the book is highly recommended to those with an interest in the period after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Ian Hughes has a MA in Ancient History and Society from Cardiff University and is the author of Belisarius: The Last Roman General; Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome; Imperial Brothers: Valentinian, Valens and the Disaster at Adrianople; and Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire.