Book review: Robin Fleming, Britain after Rome

Poetry fans:

I will be returning to post poetry or commentary towards the end of this month. In the meantime – enjoy history!

“Historians” – a term commonly extended to include all history graduates or undergraduates – are famous for replying to queries with “That’s not my period”. They can also say, for example, “That’s French history. I know about German history”. Well, in my day a Cambridge history degree demanded that you spread your wings, through time if not through space, before you specialised; but yes, 400 to 1070 a.d. is not my period. Ask me a question about 1603 – 1661, please.

Well, yes, but the collapse of Roman power in Britain around 410 a.d. and the arrival of new, Germanic, peoples and cultures is fascinating. The argument about whether, as used to be assumed when I was a kid, the native Celts were slaughtered or driven out (or at least, the men were), or if self-confident Saxons landed and the locals for the most part accepted new lords and a new language, rages back and forth.

Robin Fleming takes the second position. The book is part of a series, but its approach to me is quite new because she concentrates heavily on social history demonstrated through archaeology (and documents when they become available). I found her explanation of how the economy and culture of Roman Britain collapsed, under pressure from armed attacks (by Picts and Irish as much as Saxons), but well in advance of any widespread “Saxonisation”, I found fascinating and compelling.

As for the Saxonisation (my coinage, not hers), she provides some powerful evidence. Most of the founder stories of the Saxons don’t add up and seem to have been invented centuries later. Early Saxon settlements show little sign of organisation against hostile attack, something that became much commoner centuries later when militant Saxon kingdoms fought one another. It can be shown that some communities switched from Romano-British burial rites to Saxon ones but the Saxons being buried were descended from the Romano-British buried earlier.

I know there are counter-arguments, but her arguments seem convincing. What’s more, I found fascinating her account of how many things we think of as characteristically Saxon arose long after the early Saxon settlements – including the location of many settlements. She’s also powerful in showing how many of the things we traditionally saw as coming in with a jolt at the Norman Conquest were introduced in the three generations or so before 1066; but although the story is said to reach 1070, she does not cover what changes 1066 did bring, for example a sudden exclusion of English-speaking from power and written culture.

She faces a serious difficulty in that her geographical area is Britain, and the story of Scotland in this period is radically different from England. She covers Wales pretty well, even after the area of the Celtic states was reduced to roughly the present boundaries of Wales, but Scotland is heavily underrepresented.

This is a really fascinating book.

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  1. This sounds fascinating… do you know of a good book which gives the same insights into that fascinating four hundred years when the Romans were with us?… I always remember Churchill saying in his English Speaking Peoples, that that was the only time we had good central heating in centuries !

    • Thanks. I don’t, but the book I reviewed is part of a series – The Penguin History of Britain?? – and Robin Fleming’s book has a lot to say about the later Roman period. In particular she argues that what you could call the High Imperial Roman economy in Britain broke down around (from memory) about 250-280 AD (or CE as is now fashionable) under the pressure of barbarian attacks mainly against other parts of the empire, that trade right across the empire greatly declined and that instead in Roman Britain a local economy grew up – that large towns declined but small towns thrived and that local manufacture for selling elsewhere in Roman Britain grew. This new economy lasted for about four generations before collapsing thanks to barbarian attacks on Britain (but Pictish and Irish as much as Saxon).

      A point that had grown to fascinate me before reading her book was that it was in those areas where Romanisation had been least thorough that things Roman most survived into the “Dark Ages”. This is partly a coincidence (Saxon settlement bringing new ways was doubtless on a larger scale in eastern Britain than was Irish settlement in the west) but also, I suspect, because the massively Romanised British chiefs and landowners of places like Sussex and Lincolnshire (who were also tax collectors for the Roman power) had lost the allegiance of the locals much more than their more traditional, lightly-Romanised equivalents in Wales and Cumbria.

      • Thank you so much for your wonderful reply Simon. I found your insights fascinating, as indeed I find Roman Britain fascinating…and seize on random facts like Harold Macmillan telling Patrick Leigh Fermor when they came upon a pheasant in the grass at Chatsworth, that the Roman soldiers brought them to Britain as pets, and when the Empire collapsed and they were recalled, they left their pheasants… you probably already know this, but I love little snippets like that…
        I see that you have begun following this blog, and was very tickled with pleasure, but it may be a while before I return to blogging.. I have a book being published in London at Christmas, and am working on several other projects as well… so blogging is on the back burner, much as I love it, and love following blogs like yours…

      • Mine’s gone on to a slower tempo, too – partly because it was fuelled by posting poems I’d written some time ago faster than I was writing new ones (non-sustainable, that) and partly just that for a while I haven’t got the zest for this, only for other things. But it will continue.

  2. Wonderful article! beebeesworld


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