This course could have been labelled ‘The Heirs of Rome’. At the time it opens, human experience around the Mediterranean and far into its hinterland had been much the same for half a millennium or more. The Later Roman Empire was only the last of a series that had brought strong government and a generally ‘civilized’ standard of life – though the first to introduce them to north-western Europe. Yet within three centuries, most recognizable features of the world created by Rome and Persia had ceased to exist. The Arab armies of Islam, the last of the world’s great religions, took over the bulk of the ancient Near East, creating an enormous new capital at Baghdad; throughout the period covered by this course, and for some time afterwards, the Islamic ‘Caliphate’ was much the most prosperous and cultivated part of the known world. The rump of the old eastern Roman Empire survived as what historians call Byzantium: it was a formidable power within its limits, but is best regarded as another of Rome’s successor states. The West’s new super-power was the Franks, under the rule first of the Merovingian dynasty, and then of the Carolingians; Charlemagne (768-814), their greatest king, would be as formative for the making of medieval culture as was Napoleon for the modern world. For all that, the empire he created, covering most of Western Europe, fell apart under his successors. In short, the changes affecting the known world in this period were arguably more total and more startling than any before the nineteenth-century advent of European industry and empire.
This course thus has a Eurasian rather than merely European scope, stretching from Persia’s inner Asian frontiers to the British Isles and Scandinavia. Among its chief themes is that it is unnecessary to take too negative a view of the period’s turbulence. While the ancient world was well-defined, it was culturally ‘closed’, content with tall stories about life as lived beyond its frontiers. The West’s post-Roman masters, by contrast, penetrated the non-Christian and un-Roman worlds of Vikings, Khazars and Slavs, and by exploring hitherto unknown reaches of the northern Atlantic and of the eastern forests, sowed the first seeds of the twentieth century’s superpowers. Among the achievements of Christian literature was the devising of scripts, east and west, which are substantially the same as those in use today. Western Christendom and Byzantium developed their own new forms of social behaviour, whether secular (the life of the warrior), or spiritual (that of the monk); and the dividends these yielded in metalwork or book-illumination certainly stand comparison with the masterpieces of ancient art. If the overall impression of the period 370-900 remains one of a Christian world struggling for survival, it is also possible to pick up the first stirrings of the aggressive expansionism that would one day carry European culture into all corners of the World.
An attractive feature of early medieval history is that because the sources are so relatively few, it is possible for students to get access to a relatively high proportion of what is available. Takers of this course will explore translations of Roman historians (including a first-hand account of an embassy to Attila the Hun), Christian chroniclers, writers of saints’ lives and Muslim literati. They will be introduced to works of art of enduring beauty, though no longer (any more than is modern art) in the humanist idiom of classical culture. By putting our few texts in their wider cultural context, and by using written and material evidence together, we can recover a good idea of what was happening. The world of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is an extremely lively field of current research and debate, both in this university and elsewhere. This course aims to show why.