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New Left Review 51, May-June 2008

Assessing Chris Wickham’s sweeping historical survey, Framing the Early Middle Ages, Brent Shaw questions linear narratives of a transition from Roman Empire to feudalism. What conclusions might derive from alternative analytical categories—markets, wars, modes of belief?



Transformations of the Early Mediterranean World

The impressive physical bulk of a work of history sometimes reflects the enormity of the problem, sometimes the demand for a grand new overview, but often the simple majesty of the narrative. Whatever the cause, the writing of history has of late witnessed a discernable trend back to the big. Among these recent epic endeavours are three monumental overviews of the premodern history of the Mediterranean world. The authors of these panoramic studies have focused, above all, on the great forces shaping its history and on the meta-transformations from the ancient to post-ancient worlds of which the Middle Sea was part. All are by English-language scholars working in elite universities. Even so, there is little evidence to show that the writers of these large books directly influenced one other, or that they were aware of each other’s megaprojects as they wrote. [1] Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History, Oxford 2000; Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, ad 300–900, Cambridge 2001; and Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800, Oxford and New York 2005 (a paperback edition was issued in 2006); for American readers at least, this work now bears the somewhat ominous acronym of fema. As the last in the series, although not by much, Wickham lists Horden and Purcell in his bibliography, but with indications of haste: one author’s name is misspelled and there is little evidence of the actual use of their work (all in the final chapter). The convergence of historical interest seems, rather, to be of a more fortuitous and meaningful kind.

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Brent Shaw, ‘After Rome’, NLR 51: £3

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