Writing The Transformation of the Roman West

The invitation to deliver a Plenary Lecture at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo in 2016 set me thinking about how to tackle what I had come to regard as the major problem in late antique and early medieval studies. How can we bring together the excellent, but very divergent, scholarship of recent years? On the one hand there has been wonderful work on the socio-religious history of the period, spearheaded by Peter Brown, and on the other there have been major studies of socio-economic and political changes, where the contributions of Chris Wickham and Michael McCormick are just the tip of an iceberg. The solution that I chose to follow was to find a way to quantify religious change, and to set the figures that I came up with against other figures: numbers of barbarians, the size of the Roman army and of the imperial bureaucracy. That the number of barbarians was comparatively low was no surprise. The arguments of Walter Goffart have made everyone look carefully at the scale of migrations, although, of course, the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean has brought home the reality of people on the move. But with regard to the figures for the Church the result was a surprise even to me, despite the fact that I had been looking at the ecclesiastical accumulation of property for ten years or more, and had already argued in 2013 that around a third of the property of Western Europe was in ecclesiastical hands by the end of the seventh century. It had not struck me, however, that one might be able to estimate the number of clergy in the immediately post-Roman World, and even when I delivered the plenary at Kalamazoo I had still not realised the full extent of the documentation available. The task would have been extremely difficult before the publication of the Prosopographie chrétienne du bas empire, but I was also lucky enough to make contact with a project on priests in the late-antique/early-medieval world which is being run by Robert Wiśniewski in Warsaw. The fact that the resulting figures are directly comparable to the figures that have been advanced for the late Roman army allowed me to describe Late Antiquity as a period which saw a change from a secular society dominated by the Roman army and its needs

to an ecclesiastical society dominated by the Christian Church. When I showed a draft of my work to Chris Wickham he described the change that I had identified as ‘ecclesiasticisation’. Although the resulting book does deal with the barbarian migrations, it is essentially concerned with what the Roman World looked like in 300 and what the Western European World looked like in 600. I was concerned to characterise the change over those three centuries, rather than to explain it, although of course comments on the barbarians, on the actions of some ecclesiastics, as well as on the emperors and the senatorial aristocracy hint at some elements of an explanation. The barbarians themselves were not numerous enough to cause the massive changes that took place in Late Antiquity, although the failure of the imperial leadership to deal with them was a major issue. The reactions of churchmen to the general crisis of the period, and the impact they had on the population at large, which have been central to Peter Brown’s work over the last twenty year, are clearly central. But there is obviously a good deal more work to be done. For a start, I would argue that we need to add precision to our understanding of the ecclesiastical accumulation of wealth. Exactly when did gifts of land to the Church become more important than gifts of treasure? What impact did this have? It is worth remembering that an aristocrat could easily replenish his moveable wealth from property while he still possessed enormous estates. Did the Church’s accumulation of property have an impact on how land was exploited? In some regions the answer is unquestionably

 

‘yes’, but can we generalise? And there is a further question that is becoming ever more pressing, and which I only referred to in passing. What was the impact of the Justinianic Plague? The work which is being spearheaded in part by Michael McCormick is putting the Plague firmly on the map, as Kyle Harper’s recent study has made abundantly clear. But we need to look carefully at the chronology. The Plague is a development of the 540s. How much had changed already before it hit the Mediterranean? Most of the barbarians were already settled in Western Europe or North Africa by that time. Of the major groups of incomers only the Lombards had yet to find their place in the world. I don’t doubt that the impact of the Plague was massive, but had the shift from endowing the Church with property rather than treasure already taken place, or is it primarily a shift of the late sixth century? And if so, is the change a reaction to a situation that was taken by some as apocalyptic? Here we hit a major evidential problem, because the charter record, which allows us to quantify property, only becomes significant in the seventh century, whereas references to treasure can be found throughout the corpus of Church writing in the fifth century. That, I would suggest, is the problem that most needs addressing. But I hope that the initial conclusions of this short book at least demonstrate that we have to combine what have hitherto been separate socio-religious and socio-economic areas of study, because only by combining the different approaches can we fully get to grips with what appears to be the major change in Late Antiquity.

By Ian Wood