The Langobards before the Frankish Conquest by Eds. G Ausenda, P Delogu and C Wickham
Book Review by Ian Hughes
Over recent years there has been a deluge of books concerning the fate of Europe both during and after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Probably some of the most important of these has been a series produced by the Boydell Press. The series contains papers given at a number of conferences, each covering the various ‘peoples’ who inherited the remnants of the Western Roman Empire, all of which papers have the ‘Ethnographical’ aspect firmly to the fore.
The papers contained within ‘The Langobards Before the Frankish Conquest’ (LBFC) analyse the society of the Langobards – as far as is possible – from just before their first invasion of Italy in 568-9 until their conquest by the Frankish king Charlemagne in 774. Unlike the majority of the other ‘Germanic’ invaders of the West, such as the Franks or the Visigoths, the Langobards failed to occupy a simple coherent geographical area, instead conquering spatially divergent regions of Italy, with other parts of the peninsula being ruled by the Pope and the Byzantine Empire.
The core region of the Lombard Kingdom was in the north, but the outlying regions of the Duchies of Spoleto and Benevento remained theoretically subordinate to the king but in reality had to fend for themselves a lot of the time and so retained a level of autonomy. The fragmented nature of Langobard control in Italy caused many problems at the time and has made analysis of the kingdom more difficult for modern historians. In some of the papers this complication becomes very apparent, especially in those analysing the political or archaeological aspects of Langobard history.
On the written side, historians studying the social history of the Langobards have many sources available to them, including a variety of charters and the Historia Langobardorum (History of the Langobards) of Paul the Deacon, written in the late 8th century. However, although in theory this should give a detailed overview of Langobard society, there are difficulties, not least with the complicated nature of the written information and the lack of widespread archaeological evidence from the divergent regions of Langobard control. The book includes several chapters which attempt to address some of these problems, as shown:
With regards to the actual text, the book suffers from the common dilemma of all documents containing papers given at academic conferences: namely, that the papers are given by authorities in their subject and are written for an academic audience rather than the general reader. As a result, several of the chapters may be extremely difficult for the layman to understand at first reading, as they contain technical terminology which may be off-putting for the non-specialist. In addition, the academic tone of the papers can make for quite dry reading. This is especially the case with those covering both the linguistic aspect and that of the personal names used in the Langobard kingdom, as a grounding in these topics is necessary to understand the full thrust of the authors’ proposals.
A second difficulty is that those papers relating to settlement are dependent upon only a few excavated sites in Langobard territories and, as a result, find it necessary to revert to comparative archaeology from across the ‘Germanic’ continent. Although this may give relevant insights, the question remains as to whether the settlements of the Langobards in an Italy recently devastated by the Byzantine-Gothic war (instigated on the order of the Byzantine emperor Justinian) can be equated with the occupation of formerly Imperial territories further west. The same caveat applies to other papers using comparisons with other ancient, medieval or modern societies and settlements, as the evidence from the Langobard kingdom is a little thin on the ground and so whether the alternative evidence is applicable is a moot point.
Yet these drawbacks should not deter the interested reader from reading this book. The chapters contain much information concerning the Italian peninsula after the ‘Fall of the West’ and especially after the ruinous conquest of Italy by the Byzantines, first under Belisarius and then his successor Narses. This allows the reader to gain a greater insight into the nature of society in Italy and the changes that society underwent during the pivotal period between the collapse of the West and the formation of the Italian City States of the later period.
On the other hand, and despite the quality of the chapters, in some respects the papers themselves are not the most vital part of the text. This lies within a feature common to only some of this series of books. After the papers had been delivered at the conference, the authors engaged in discussions concerning the contents. These discussions are here transcribed and provide a more detailed access to the author’s reasoning, as well as (constructive) criticisms of the papers themselves and associated references to other texts which may be of interest. It is the clarification, comment and criticism included in the discussions that elevates these books to the level of being indispensable for anyone interested in studying, in this case, the Langobards.
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There is one other difficulty faced by any reader wishing to access books such as this which contain ‘up-to-date’ theories concerning the period of Late Antiquity/Early Medieval history. This relates to the cost of the book. At the time of writing this review the book is available to buy for £75/$97. obviously, this places the book out of the reach of many potential lay readers. Unfortunately, the specialist nature of the contents also means that the book is likely to only be on the shelves of University libraries rather than normal town libraries, making it hard to access. This is a shame, as much of the material contained is invaluable for those interested in the transition which took place at the end of Late Antiquity, and is recommended for anybody interested in this period.
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.