Saturday, December 10, 2011

Book: Barbarians to Angels by Peter Wells

Barbarians to Angels is a mostly successful attempt by anthropologist Peter Wells to rehabilitate the Dark Ages, the period between about the years 400 and 800 after the fall of Rome and before the rise of later civilizations.

I liked the book (and, indeed, wished it had been longer). The things I found most interesting were learning about the development during this period of areas such as Denmark that had never been under Roman sway and the focus on material rather written evidence. Indeed, Wells sets up a juxtaposition between historians, who rely mainly on the very limited (and perhaps not unbiased) textual evidence from the period, and archaelogists, who rely on the material evidence that has survived the intervening years.

My one complaint is that Wells occasionally drifts into a sort of relativism in which he argues that there is no objective difference between, say, a Roman temple and a wooden hut. Besides being silly, if one took that line of argument seriously then there is really no point to writing the book, as under a thorough-going relativist view, the Dark Ages require no rehabilitation.

Still, recommended if you are into this sort of thing. I blame Peter Dolton, who took me to Hadrian's Wall when I visited him in Newcastle, for the fact that I am.

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