The Material Fall of Roman Britain, 300-525 CE

Robin Fleming, professor of history at Boston College, was the author a decade ago of `Britain After Rome’ , a tremendous account of the period from 400 to 1070 CE. One of the most haunting parts of the story she tells there  is the period immediately after formal Roman occupation ended, around 410, when the parts of the British islands controlled by Rome fell into a period of decline and economic collapse.  Uniquely, for an historian, Fleming used the archaeological records, rather then the sparse and often contradictory documentary evidence, to show a country where brick buildings slowly fell into disrepair, cities were abandoned, or inhabited by shadowy figures who seemed to occupy wooden structures alongside the great, fraying Roman buildings beside them, and metal money simply disappeared.

Her newest work, the monograph, `The Material Fall of Roman Britain – 300-525CE’ , deepens her previous account. It, like that work, marries archaeology with history. Her extensive reference list shows that she has quarried the vast, but often very hard to read, dig reports that have been produced over the last few decades. Bit by bit, these have supplied some answers to the question of what happened in the so-called `dark ages’ (a phrase she wisely does not deploy).  Her great achievement is to supply an integrated, explanatory narrative, drawing all of this together.

The Victorian period, with its renewed interest in British history, and how that related to British identity, was keen to stake out a distinctive Anglo-Saxon label – one on which the democratic and cultural norms of Great Britain over a millennium later could seek some legitimacy and foundations.  For that, the story was simply one of one group of interlopers, the Romans, clearing off, and then, over a few generations, the wholesale arrival of a new group. Bede, the great 8th century historian, but one Fleming only refers to twice in her new work,  wrote of the Jutes, Anglos and Saxons from continental Europe, and their gradual, but eventually complete, annexation first of the Kingdom of Kent, and then of further afield. For Bede, these were heathens who were eventually to see the light and convert to Christianity. Indigenous British were a silent part of this story – present, implicitly, but rarely referred to in any great detail. They were the people who were crushed under the Romans, whose plight under another guise continued in the new wave of migrants.

Fleming’s wonderfully stimulating narrative, woven through stories of pottery, metalwork, masonry, and the physical remains that have been so painstakingly refound in modern times by archaeologists, justifies the use in the title of the word `material’ she has chosen of her new work. The one thing one can say with any real certainty is that the withdrawal of Roman governance, military, and supply links around the second decade of the fifth century is marked by radical material change in Britain. Coins disappear. Goods imported from the continent become rarer. Buildings like villas, civic locations, army or farm structures, ceased operating. On the surface, all of this sure looks like some kind of collapse. But what sort was it? Invasion? (but then why the lack of widescale evidence of the sort of slaughter spoken of dramatically by Gildas in his `Ruin of Britain’ from a century or so later). Widescale migration, with incomers supplanting indigenous peoples? DNA and Isotope evidence, deployed brilliantly by Fleming, shows that there certainly was migration – but as much within the islands of Britain, and from west to east, as from the continent. And as she argues forcefully, whereas once lack of DNA technology meant easy assumptions could be made about the kinds of broaches or jewellery people were buried wearing and the ethnicity of their owners, this is no longer the case. As is true today, people from different backgrounds and places can adopt  similar fashions – sometimes it might carry clues to their ethnic identity. A lot of the time, it simply says something about them as people, people who wanted to express perhaps individuality that had nothing to do with their genes!

There are fascinating insights that Fleming draws from her hard labours in the archaeology archives. One point she makes, very germane to a more standard recent history of the Anglo-Saxon era, Marc Morris’s latest book is that while the documentary record is overwhelmingly a male centred one (as though to verify this, Morris’s key historic figures on which he bases each of his chapters are all men – something he admits but justifies because of the sheer amount of material about them), the archaeological record is overwhelmingly of women – women’s burials, for instance, and the clothing and ornamentation they wore.  There is also her analysis of the phenomenon of infant burials. The Opies, in their great historic work on nursery rhyme histories, ominously referred to the origins of `London Bridge is Falling Down’ in the custom of burying corpses of babies at the foundations of water crossings. The implication that these were sacrifices is countered by the far more sober discussion that Fleming presents of people over the 5th to 6th century adopting habits that were akin to those in Gaul or elsewhere in the remnants of the Roman empire, where the high number of babies stillborn, or dying in childhood through natural causes, were often buried, carefully and perhaps ritualistically, under the floors of habitations, or food storage places. The highly deliberate nature of this practice indicates a belief system, some attempt perhaps to honour the lives of the very young who had been taken so quickly, or to celebrate some way of them continuing to be part of the world of the living through their constant presence.

Whoever the people were who played a role in the society and economy of this period, they had belief systems like any other peoples. Some of this must have been directed towards the material residue of their most recent history, when Rome was a presence in Britain’s life through what Fleming calls the 15 per cent who were administrators, servants of the occupying authority, and whose life was dependent on food and material support from the other 85 per cent, through exacting taxes and tithes. Making sense of the deterioration of brick, tile and stone build structures is key here. Fleming shows, through pottery and other crafts, how deskilling certainly occurred, dramatically, over this era – with smelting and other abilities not making a reappearance for hundreds of years. In the 6th and 7th centuries, as Christianity took root again in Britain, and churches were built, stone buildings became more common once more. These often used material from the older, derelict structures. But perhaps the reason those earlier Roman era structures fell into disuse in the first place was because of their associations with a previous oppressive regime – one towards which the collective memory was in flight from.

There are many more reasons to read this tremendous new work. It has important, and subtle, things to say to the current debates about what Anglo-Saxon as a term means, and how much this period created the nation and the identity that went with it, over the ensuing centuries. Fleming herself uses the term early medieval to create some conceptual distance from the older way of seeing things. One impressive feature of Fleming’s work is how it shows that even in the era 300 to 525 CE, whatever British society existed was one characterised by mobility, acceptance of external influences and trade, and, at times, hybridity. It is a fond thought, and no doubt an unrealistic one, but if some of those loudly declaring accepted `facts’ about Britain’s development from this time as evidence for their current attitudes were to read, and reflect, on this work, they might well find new liberating vistas and insights. In Fleming’s book, they are there in abundance – on, in fact, almost every page.

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