Saturday, January 9, 2010

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year?

I am all for medievalists as public intellectuals commenting on issues of the day. In that vein I can only applaud loudly and be humbled by Matt's own efforts in this regard commenting on Holy War, the Crusades' influence on the present and so on. I'd like to draw attention to one comparison between the medieval world and our own that in some ways is a little surprising and a little off the regularly beaten track.

I'd missed this one last month when it appeared since I don't regularly read England's Financial Times, the pink paper. Bryan Ward-Perkins just before Christmas wrote in the FT an opinion piece drawing an analogy between what Ward=Perkins sees as a centuries long financial from the end of Roman Britain c. 410 to about 1000 and today's recession. The title tells the reader that if we think the present world-wide recession is bad, we should be grateful that it isn't the Dark Ages Ward-Perkins then spends the article essentially summarizing his 2005 book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization that argues against a significant straw man that Rome fell and fell hard. Ward-Perkins points his finger at the Germanic tribes as the culprit. Not only so, but Ward-Perkins sees the empire to be at its height in every way in the fourth century.

It is tempting to enter into a full review of what I see right and wrong with Ward-Perkins' book. But for our purposes here it is worth noting that the book ends with a comparison and appeal the modern reader to not take for granted the current world and situation. But in the end the message, published in 2005 remember, was more like "beware unwanted immigrants" at a time when Britain, Ireland, France, the US, and to a lesser extent Germany were faced with a lot of unwanted immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Mexico for the US etc. Ward-Perkins uses his opportunity in the FT to further his appeal: the beginning of the "Dark Ages" were bad, the current situation isn't as bad, but could very well be.

Granted, what is different in Ward-Perkins' Happy Christmas message is that he focuses on Britain in the fifth century and hardly mentions the "immigrants" but instead blames the collapse of Roman Britain's economy on long distance: that is, goods were shipped from a long way off and merchants the Empire over depended on those far away markets. When consumers no longer had access to their goods and merchants to their markets, the whole thing went down. The parallel Ward-Perkins asks us to make is apparent: globalization is fragile. He ends this happy note by remarking that if our economy collapses, the horrible picture in the foregoing discussion of "Dark Age Britain" will be nothing compared to our situation.

Comparisons between the Roman Empire and modern America have been rather well done at times. I've not seen such a comparison between post-Roman Britain and the modern world. To a degree Ward-Perkins is right: a collapse of any significant economic magnitude will be worse for us: there are more of us accustomed to the markets of large urban centers: we are far less prepared to make our own way, and since there will be more of us attempting it, chaos will be wilder and more deadly. But is there really a comparison? In my view, not really...not anymore than on generalities. Rome at its height was able to ship goods from one of the empire to the other. But by 410, contrary to W-P, the empire was no longer able to accomplish this: pirates, traditional economic structures, high taxation since Diocletian, and other factors had slowly brought about a decline only heightened when Rome abandoned Britain and cut it out of the economic system as it then existed.

But it is hard to ignore that trade continued, more so under the Germanic successor states, but that the Staffordshire Hoard and Sutton Hoo show continued trade or access to goods from beyond the island. So the question is whether W-P's measures of collapse are as bad and dire as he intimates. In my view no, the analogy he makes is a false one.

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