Sometime in the 5th century a farmer sees that he has a problem. He needs to grow enough on a meager plot of tillable land to feed his family and his landlord, and just perhaps to trade and increase his wealth. But his tools are the real problem. He gnaws at the earth with a wooden spike, known as an ard, that is suitable only for light soils and only digs a furrow, rather than turning the earth to bring nutrients to the surface. The farmer, or perhaps a blacksmith, or perhaps many people at once, are about to find a solution to the problem, and in so doing to change the face of European civilization.
In “Barbarians to Angels,” an economic vindication of the 5th through the 9th centuries, commonly known as the Dark Ages, Peter S. Wells shows that it was at this time that the moldboard plow appeared in the archaeological record of Europe, and revolutionized agriculture. The plow had an iron coulter at the front to cut through heavy soil, and a share and moldboard to cut underneath the soil and turn it over. The plow made farmers vastly more efficient and versatile. Not only could land be plowed more quickly, but new lands could be farmed, lands that were previously out of reach. Along the way, the horse collar was developed, making the horse more efficient as a draft animal than the lumbering ox. With increased efficiency came an increased understanding of the nature of farming itself, with a focus on crop rotation and managed fertilization.
These innovations occurred after the effective end of Roman authority of any real kind in most of Europe. Newly efficient farmers were thus freed from imperial taxation. While they most certainly were taxed by local lords and chieftains, they no longer fed the avarice and gluttony of Rome. There were no legions, no grand building projects to consume wealth. The rewards of efficiency could stay closer to home. Archaeological evidence shows the effects. To be specific, bones show the effects.
The bones of dead people can be chemically analyzed to determine the nature and amount of food that those people consumed. From such analysis, Wells shows that most people of the “Dark Ages” had access to decent amounts of food, and especially animal protein. While there are differences in the nature of the food according to social rank, available samples present little evidence of deprivation. Additionally, and perhaps most surprisingly, people were on average quite tall – five feet eight for men, and five feet four for women in southwestern Germany, and a bit taller in Scandinavia. They were taller than people of the Roman period, taller than Europeans would be until after the Industrial Revolution.
Wells shows that a lack of central authority (Rome) was not the same as isolation. Indeed, commerce appears to have been vibrant – as one would expect, considering the agricultural boom in progress. Even before the Roman Empire, an extensive system of pathways promoted trade. With Roman roads built over these paths, the later period had a solid infrastructure for the transport of goods, along with the wealth to buy them. Much production was solely for local use, but pottery made in the Rhineland has been found in England, and elites in Western Europe owned pottery from Egypt and Turkey. An Indian statuette of the Buddha, made in this period, has been found in Sweden.
Since much of Europe was crisscrossed with trade routes before the expansion of the Roman Empire, it stands to reason that trade would have resumed after the disintegration of Rome’s authority. Rome did not, after all, create long-distance trade. There is
Lack of central Roman authority was not the same as isolation·. Indeed, commerce appears to have been vibrant in the Dark Ages.
some written evidence that local chieftains, lords, and kings took pains to ensure that trade routes were open, and that traders went unmolested. For instance, Charlemagne corresponded with the King of Mercia, in what is now England, indicating the continuation of traditional respect for free trade throughout the region. This plants a tantalizing seed of thought: archeology may be proving that trade flourishes in the face of loose authority, that science may yet defeat state planners.
Wells points to a thriving industry in such things as ceramics, iron tools, and ornamental items, as evidence of a relatively prosperous civilization. That these things were not only made but transported long distances gives a sense of a society in which trade was open and travel wasn’t overly dangerous. And trade wasn’t simply in essentials but also in luxury items. Ornate brooches, or fibulae, cast of bronze or silver, are found throughout Europe, as are finely made combs, belt buckles, swords, and decorated scabbards. Some of these items were fashioned in central locations and transported to consumers; others were made to order at the final location by traveling artisans and smiths. There is evidence from graves that many of these artisans attained significant wealth and status. Gold was transported extensively throughout the period, as was the greatly prized garnet.
The spread of the Christian Church, rather than a central government, fostered artistic innovation and the distribution of art and learning. Wells details the development of book illumination in Ireland and the general increase in the educational level throughout Europe. Monks were the original book illuminators, and integrated religious iconography was the basis of much artistic innovation. The title of Wells’ book derives from Gerald of Wales’ description of illuminated Irish Bibles as the “work of Angels,” as crossed with the more conventional view that these peoples were “barbarians.”
If there was considerable trade, as Wells asserts, then there must have been considerable trade centers. The evidence for this is strong. Old Roman cities, such as London, appear to have been inhabited throughout the period, and new centers of trade developed as well in the 5th and 6th centuries, with goods flowing freely from Spain to England and from the Mediterranean throughout Europe. There is variation in architecture: until late in the Dark Ages, heavy stone construction was avoided in favor of lower-cost, less labor-intensive wattle and daub construction. Wattle and daub consists of sticks and mud, or manure, and is naturally far less durable than stone. This is important to bear in mind, because the apparent lack of monumental structures during the period can present a false impression of complete destitution. But wattle and daub does leave evidence. It appears in the layers of “dark matter” found in many former Roman cities – indications that the cities were continuously inhabited and that their populations remained close to stable in many places, perhaps increasing in such instances as London.
One of Wells’ chapters presents an overview of archaeological evidence from a variety of former Roman cities, such as Regensberg, Cologne, and Mainz. Another is devoted to the city of London. In all these cases, the cities persevered and appear to even have prospered, despite dramatic changes in the nature of urban life. Many of the old Roman cities began as bases of the Legions, enduring as vital centers of trade long after their original purpose ceased to matter. The evidence for this comes largely from recent archaeological work, not from documents written in the era itself, so it is easy to see why a false image of urban”darkness” should have prevailed up till now. Yet the notion of prosperous cities is quite in keeping with the Widespread agricultural revolution that took place in the countryside. They weren’t building in the grand Roman style, but on Wells’ evidence they were building. Indeed, the new agricultural and nutritional wealth may have created centers of trade that were even more important than in Roman times.
The effective end of central Roman control did not mean anarchy, at least not in the sense of chaos. It was at the very beginning of this time that Childeric and his son Clovis, kings of the “barbarian” Franks, began the formation of what is now called France. The era was obviously clouded by community memory of Roman rule: a signet ring found in the grave of Childeric depicts him as both a Roman dignitary and a Germanic chief. Childeric’s grave was found intact in the 17th century; more recently, gravesites that are similar in style have been found across Europe. This suggests that there was continuity in tradition among the various branches of the ruling class. The mixing of traditional European motifs and Roman regalia denotes, to Wells, “something new on the scene” in Europe at the opening of the Dark Age. As in the more familiar cultural integration of Native American tribes with European immigrants, aspects of each influenced the other, resulting in a culture distinct from either of its origins.
With rulers come rules. Law codes developed to replace the Roman system of law. They drew heavily on Roman examples, but they also innovated.
The popular view of the Dark Ages is based largely on the writings of people sympathetic either to Rome or to central authority in general.
Payments for injury, for what might today be called torts, were of particular concern, as were the aspects of property law that one would expect to be objects of dispute in largely agrarian societies. There was Frankish law, Anglo-Saxon law, and Visigothic law, and each was enforced in lands controlled by each, but “countries,” or nation-states were not defined. If you lived in France, but lived under the rule of an Anglo-Saxon king, you lived under Anglo-Saxon law, not Frankish. Yet there was enough similarity among legal systems to facilitate trade across wide regions, despite decentralization of authority.
The implications of Wells’ evidence are dramatic. The popular view of the Dark Ages is based largely on the writings of people sympathetic either to Rome or to central authority in general, and those views need to be replaced. Today, few if any scholars credit the Bruce Ramsey Our economic disaster: last summer I was reading about it in Paul MuoIo and Matthew Padilla’s “Chain of Blame.” This year, my nose has been in Thomas E. Woods’ “Meltdown.” The two tales are very different. MuoIo and Padilla’s “chain of blame” runs through Wall Street. Woods blames the government. Woods is a professional libertarian. He works for the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is author of several libertarian or Christian books, including “The Politically Incorrect Guide to old view of the Dark Ages as a time when stunted wretches trembled in fear – although many, if not most, people still do. How such a thing could ever have been believed by serious students of human action speaks to the insidious nature of propaganda. It should be emphasized that Wells, though more inclined than most scholars to rehabilitate the Dark Ages, is not an extremist. He is a professor of anthropology who specializes in this period, and publishes academically as well as popularly. His book presents no groundless assertions or rhetorical gimmickry. It does present evidence that an age without a central government was far from destitute of accomplishment