Roman Britain was fairly prosperous, primarily because the large number of troops stationed there needed to be provisioned. The Imperial government contracted with ship owners to ferry provisions over, and if there was space left over, they could take other goods which they sold themselves. This effectively subsidized trade (and helped the Continent recoup the money of the invasion paid for by their taxes). As a result, Roman Britain was a place where one could buy olive oil, pottery from the continent, wine, and other things some of which were unavailable in Britain itself. The Roman cities, which were defined by their orderly gridded streets and public works (baths, forum, basilica), were a place where both rich dwelt in villas and poor dwelt in large tenements, and where there was industry and marketplaces.

Starting around 290, the Empire reduced the number of soldiers stationed in Britain to deal with the German barbarians and internal Imperial politics. This reduced the amount of trade, made goods scarcer (thus a shift from olive oil to butter, and wine to beer). Many buildings in the cities were demolished, partly because no one could afford to repair them, and there was a lot more empty land, but the rich still lived there, spending lavishly on tiled mosaics and food to gain social status with all the other rich people. While some people got richer as they bought up smaller villas that failed, overall some industries, such as pottery making, began to fail due to the lack of the large, moderately prosperous core previously. Towns, which were not planned but a collection of houses clustered along a pre-existing road took a larger share of the economy. These houses where long and narrow, having a shop that opened onto the street and living quarters behind.

This situation was probably sustainable, but Britain began to be invaded by the Picts and other Celtic tribes after 360, and it took more and more resources to defend, at a time when Rome was already stretched thin. Each individual raid did not break the system, but each chipped away at it, so that together the raids destroyed it. Nails were no longer available around 390, which meant no heeled shoes to keep from slipping in the mud, and no wooden coffins. These were people who remembered eating on pewter plates as children, or who father had a heated floor, but now these things were unavailable. Eventually in 410 the Romans left, and for the next 200 years Britain was quite poor.

Western Britain, around Bath, kept hold of its romanitas longer, as did the communities around Hadrian’s wall where soldiers had been stationed. These families preserved their Roman dress and customs as long as they could, for about a century or so. Roman farming methods, industrialized production of goods and markets to utilized the surplus had sustained the rich and the Imperial administration, but with no ability to create surplus, no any means to preserve it, the ability to maintain Roman life vanished.

We have only two texts from this period, the life of St. Patrick, and the life of a bishop, and without pottery or stone building, most of life in these two centuries is invisible to us. What we know largely comes from cemeteries. Romans buried their dead in aligned graves (and this persisted in the West) with coffins or in mausoleums, but in this era people tended to buried directly in the ground, which clothing and grave goods. In the east, communities were small, rural, and fairly classless, which we know because people’s burial items look very similar. There is evidence that people searched for old Roman items in abandoned villas, although it is not clear if these were prized items or trash that only the poorest used. Culture seems to be very local: there was not a uniform eastern British style, but each town had its own style.

Although a later chronicler said that England was invaded by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, what seems to have happened is that people from the coastal northern Germany area slowly moved in to the eastern areas of England, probably on the marginal ground that was not already occupied. We can get an idea of where they came from by comparing what they wore with areas on the Continent. This migration was slow, and from a variety of areas. Then, of course, they intermarried with the locals, and the culture gradually blended the styles. There also begin to be evidence of a class hierarchy—some people buried with nicer goods (weapons for men, clothes and jewelry for women)—as well as evidence of women imitating the items that high-status women wore around their belt, only with old Roman items, such as a metal spoon.

In western England, romanitas lingered, as did Christianity, which seems to have vanished in the east. Here there were definitely people of with status due to simply what family they had been born into, and one of the few texts is from a bishop railing against the airs they put on. As long as the ability to carve them lasted, people wanted stone headstones with text carved into them, even the Irish settlers that moved into the area, although the ability and literacy of the carvers was not always great. There were still men who had Roman style names (basically a last name and a first name, using Roman names); St. Patrick came from such a family.

Around the 600s, kingdoms had started to form initially these were fairly local, with a lord who promised protection in exchange for a tribute of food. Each hamlet was required to pay a certain amount of grain, beer, and animals, at a level which was not very manageable. The lord would go around to each of these tribute stations throughout the year, give feasts for the people (since generosity is one of the things expected of such a lord), and render any judgements that were needed. However, this is an inherently unstable system, as larger kingdoms have more resources to attack neighboring kingdoms and have even more resources to draw on. Beowulf describes this era, where there was constant warfare, so men always had their weapons. But vanquished men might have to be part of the victor’s government, so simmering resentments could spring up over ill-said words at the dinner table. And the daughter of a weaker king might be married to an enemy in a hope for peace. The last pagan king of Mercia, which became the powerhouse of the time, was especially adept at converting enemies into subordinate kings, who kept their title but paid tribute and military service. These kings rewrote their families’ histories with legends of how their ancestors came across the sea—usually in a pair—and with 2, 3, or 5 boatloads of men, and conquered the kingdom they now lived in; thus they had a right to their current place in society because this is the way it has always been. This was also the time of funeral pyres, with the dead person’s goods burned with them, and the remaining metallic bits scraped up and buried all together.

Christianity returned to eastern England in the 600s with the mission of St. Augustine. Conversion was a gradual process, with some kings converting, and giving a gift of land to build a church, and then the sons returning to the previous religion. One such apostatizing king allowed the bishop to stay if he would continue giving them the magic bread and wine, but when he refused, kicked him out. The religion the king had was the religion of the subjects, but as kingdoms became Christian, the amount of churches and priests was not anywhere near sufficient. There were monastic communities, but few “secular” priests. Thus some rural areas might see a priest only once a year, if that, and some reform-minded bishops urged their priests to make a priority of teaching the people and not staying in a cloister of priests. As a result, the people’s practice was kind of a mix of Christian and their previous ideas. Similarly, at some of the places where early saints were venerated, it is not clear if the original person was Christian, or an existing site of veneration that was repurposed with an improved story.

Also around the 600s several trading centers near where a navigable river met the sea. One such community was Ipswich, which seems to have had a summer market from traders which sailed there in the months when the sea was navigable. Markets allow the conversion of agricultural surplus into luxury goods (that is, goods unattainable locally), which incentivizes increased production, as well as allows for the development of non-farming industry. Over time Ipswich started producing blacksmith goods and pottery, partly for itself with the new prosperity, and partly for sale at the market to the traders. Ipswich pottery found its way all over England, and the market enabled people who specialized in creating pottery just for the market demand. London at this time was populated largely by clergy, but the kings of landlocked Mercia made a priority of hanging on to London. Local Londoners built a loading dock there, and a large amount of trade was conducted.

Back on the Continent, kings took a toll on the sale (something like 10%) in exchange for a security guarantee. Since the kings of Briton where new to large-scale governing, they probably learned about this from missionaries and clergy eager to explain how civilized kings did things, and possibly by merchants, where were used to tolls, and quite likely suffered larger losses from theft in the absence of the tolls than the tolls themselves. In any case, the tolls from trade in London made the Mercian kings quite rich, not so much in the coins they received but the luxury that the coins could be exchanged for.

A growing currency economy also changed how the taxes were collected. It became acceptable to give the value in coins, rather than the actual stipulated in-kind items, and later, a certain amount of coins were required as part of the tax, perhaps something like one silver penny per person. This increased the demand at the markets (with the king taking his toll), since farmers needed to convert some of what they produced into coins.

From 790 until about 900 was dominated by the Vikings. They discovered that they could trade at markets in northern Europe, which was lucrative, or they could sail west and seek out new lands, which also had a lot of promise. Initially they raided around the coastal towns and monasteries. Those sites could take a couple raids, but eventually people gave up and moved away. In 876 the Vikings invaded in a much larger mass, and conquered all of the five kingdoms, until King Alfred of Wessex managed to give them a good defeat. Warfare continued for decades, but that stopped the advance. Eventually they came to an agreement that everything from the north and east of Watling Street, the old Roman road running northwest from London to Hadrian’s Wall, was the Danes, and everything to the south and west was Alfred.

Alfred reorganized his domains to protect against invasion. He borrowed the Mercian tradition of burhs, fortified settlements for the defense of sites important to the king, at least partially paid for by the landowners. Given the Viking threat, the landowners accepted these additional burdens. This created fortified towns, and the king distributed large pieces of land within them. Initially the landowners lived there in large houses, but over time they realized that it was more lucrative to subdivide them and rent them out. The towns were a natural place for a market, and since these burhs were scattered all over the kingdom for defense, it meant that more people were close to a market. England increased in prosperity, to the point that in the 900s some kings bought off attacking Vikings from overseas with millions of silver pennies. Alfred and his descendants also slowly whittled away at the Danelaw, eventually retaking York.

In most of England there was generally a burh was within a days’ walk, and this area around it became know as a shire. The king would visit the burh periodically to render judgements and collect taxes, although as the number of these increased, he increasingly delegated it to the shire-reeve, the sheriff. The shire itself was divided into “hundreds”, nominally a 100 hides of land, but even this became too large, and by the turn of the millennium these started being subdivided into five hide sections, carefully gerrymandered to have everything necessary to be self-sufficient, and these were given or rented to the king’s supporters. The thegn of these parcels was essentially minor nobility, and they wanted to live like it. This meant that they forced to the peasants to produce a surplus. An increase of animals and change in cultivation practices meant that more land could be brought into production. Judging from some texts used to teach Latin to clergy, the thegns drove the peasants pretty hard. By the time of the Norman Conquest, all the land had been subdivided, and the thegns had even started building their own towns and encouraging freemen and forcing bonded peasants to live in town—and pay rent in coin. The thegns lived large, having enough leisure to eat birds taken by falconry, and all manner of other meat and wine. Presumably the peasants that had to enable all this conspicuous consumption that they also witnessed but did not participate in, were not too happy about the situation.

Clergy were a mess by the 800s. The Vikings had destroyed some of the monasteries, and the kings had taken back some of the land of other monasteries, so that they now had fewer resources. Many priests that it their right to be able to take a wife, and their sons would sometimes take over the parish. Several reforming bishops, notably St. Dunstan, St. Oswald, and St. Aethelwold, wanted to return the church to its “purer” Benedictine roots. The kings also saw the value that a uniform version of Christianity brought to uniting the kingdom, as well as the organizational aid of clergy, so they supported these reforms. As a result, by the 960s, England had settled on a modified form of the Benedictine Rule, the Regularis Concordia.

People during this entire time period were not particularly healthy. From growth characteristics of bones we can determine the nutrition patterns of the owners. Even in late Roman Britain, most people had parasites that would have been painful and contributed to an underlying stress that must have come out in interactions. In post-Roman Britain, there were few old people; most people died by the time they were forty. These people suffered from malnutrition, matured slower, had thin bones, but worked hard. After town life restarted, we see that town-dwellers generally had poorer health than rural people, both because closer living spread diseases better, and because refuse was littered in the streets and dumps were near residents, which meant that the diseases had an incubation reservoir, so they never disappeared. Until stone building became more common, the earthen floor was also a reservoir for insects, lice, and disease. In contrast, rural people were more spread out and so they experienced fewer diseases. Even around the time of the Norman Conquest, half of children died before they turned 18, and something like 65% of females died before 45. In the 500s, a woman who was barren, perhaps because of malnutrition and/or parasites could sink a promising family into poverty; likewise if the mother died early in childbirth. Even during the 1000s, the community experience would be the frequent deaths of children, many widowed men (who would be competing with younger men for not very many women), and many orphans.

Britain After Rome is a scholarly history which intentionally avoids the political history of the times, as that has been amply covered. Instead, it focuses more on the lives of ordinary people. This largely comes through excavations of cemeteries and examinations of animal bones on garbage heaps, as we have very limited numbers of texts, and those generally do not talk about ordinary people. We do get a wealth of information about life at the Norman Conquest, even down to the level of thegns, due to the Domesday Book, which attempted to record all of conquering William’s new domain. While we certainly would like more information, especially from about 400 - 600, it is surprising what cemeteries full of burials can tell.

The author has intentionally aimed this text to be useful for non-historians all the way to Ph.D.s, and she has done a good job of this. There are plenty of details for those who want them, but also high-level explanations that are a little easier to read. However, the book is fairly dry. Frankly, it was the fact that the book became overdue at the local library that impelled me to have the discipline to read one chapter a night. But it succeeds in shedding light on the lived-experience of a time that is not frequently discussed and even about which we know very little. The author does a good job of explaining how markets contributed to the growing prosperity of the times. In general, she is able to cover over six hundred years in detail and also paint a general picture of life in all of these very different centuries.

Review: 9.5