Thursday, October 26, 2006

Walter Goffart's "Barbarian Tides"

Alas and alack, though Walter Goffart has repeatedly delivered what should be deathblows to the notion that the fall of the Roman empire can be best understood as the result of barbarian invasions, that venerable hulk keeps staggering on.

I referred to the latest round of debate in this post back in January, when I discussed recent books with easily confused titles by Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather. Both argued that at the beginning of the fifth century, catastrophic military defeat led to cataclysmic civilizational collapse. Both pooh-pooh alternative view points, which the bundle together as "the transformation of the Roman World." They seem to think that anyone who doesn't believe in military catastrophe's ability to thoroughly wreck a worthy civilization in short order is soft, too soft to think that the barbarians were the bad guys.

Do we really need an analysis of the fall of Rome no more advanced than the one offered by Edward Gibbon? Gibbon's still on the shelf and his scathing view of the Christian Middle Ages is hard to beat if that's what you want.

Without being notably pro-barbarian myself, I find this attitude to the fall of Rome, even the notion of a unique fall of Rome, not very productive of true historical understanding. I am much more sympathetic to two other books, Walter Goffart's Barbarian Tides and Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages. Two quite different books have one thing in common. They take the attitude that just because a particular style of late Roman imperialism came to an end, the world did not. They are not nostalgic books.

Ward-Perkins and Heather for some reason have picked on Goffart as the epitome of the soft-hearted "transformationalists" who apparently believe that nothing really bad happened in the fifth century. This strikes me as a bizarre characterization. Walter Goffart is actually best known for a detailed analysis of an old and creaky theory of barbarian settlement that doesn't hold up to modern scrutiny. He's also a skeptic of theories of historical development that depend on romantic imagery of "barbarian migration." Barbarian Tides is his re-entry into the argument.

One thing that keeps niggling at me is this question: if you are an English historian, or one who grew up reading English, are you more likely to be enamored of the notion of civilizational collapse, simply because the economic and social structure of Roman Britain did indeed collapse to be replaced by something quite different? One of the strong features of Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages is that he admits that something quite unique happened in Roman Britain; but also that every other region of early medieval Europe had its distinctive character, too. This strikes me as a more useful way of thinking about things than trying to locate that unique moment when "Rome" (capable of being defined in so many ways) fell.

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