An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 2, 2015

Wood: The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages

The Modern Origins of the Early Middle AgesIan Wood. The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Reviewed by Melanie Maddox (

In The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages, Professor Ian Wood of Leeds University writes with noble erudition about the time period from the Fall of Rome to the early Middle Ages (AD 300-700) and considers how scholars have viewed the role of the time period in shaping Europe. Part of the book’s lofty goal is to respond to Charles Clarke, the United Kingdom’s former Education Secretary (2002-2004). The preface references a quote attributed to Clarke as saying “I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes but there is no reason for the state to pay for them” (vii). In response, Wood vehemently disagrees and states that indeed pre-modern history is important. Most particularly when one considers how it has been “exploited” through the centuries to describe disturbing events or to prove or disprove historical views (vii-viii). In fact one only has to turn on the evening news to see terms like barbaric, medieval and crusaders being used to describe troubles in the Middle East. This is just one way in which one can see the past being ill-used (vii). Wood points out that the period AD 300-700 has been important in arguments surrounding “aristocratic privilege” and “despotism in the eighteenth century,” as well as “class conflict, exploitation by foreign powers, and nationalism in the nineteenth” and “limits of Germany and the nature of Europe in the twentieth” (viii). The preface goes on to acknowledge that those who choose to write about history are not only influenced by their understanding of the past, but also by their current experiences and external influences. One example given of this was Michael Wallace-Hadrill’s work on “the early medieval past and its Germanic barbarians” and how Wallace-Hadrill’s “wartime experiences” might have influenced his understanding of history (x). For anyone who has studied or taught a course on modern Europe it is clear that the past does matter, because it is the basis of “European identity” (xi) and is used as part of the construct to explain how European states achieved and perceived the form they have today.

The book consists of sixteen chapters that lead the reader through historical perceptions of the Fall of Rome, the arrival of the barbarians and the use of this history beginning with the eighteenth century. By the end of book, Wood has shown that our perceptions of our shared European past do not only come from our knowledge of events in the past, but that “historical discourse [also] comes out of cultural, social and political circumstances” (327). Wood shows in these chapters of the book how Rome’s fall and the arrival of the barbarians have been used “through debates of the rights of the French nobility, the origins of democracy, the oppression of indigenous populations … calls for religious revival, the creation of the German nation, the establishment of German frontiers, and … the … search for European unity” (327). Each of Wood’s chapters are densely packed with discussion of scholars and their works.

Chapter one sets the stage for the book by considering the period AD 300-700 and its importance to how Europeans view their inheritance from the Roman past and the emergence of the “barbarian kingdoms.” Wood notes the differing interpretations of political, cultural and other changes during this time period focusing on three main viewpoints: 1. that of the “Romanists” (those that focus on “the internal history of the Roman Empire”), 2. the “Germanists” (those that focus on “the contributions of the barbarians”), and 3. the Ecclesiastical or the “triumph of Christianity” school (8). The chapter discusses how each of these three viewpoints have played a role in different countries in Europe and have been approached by different scholars. The chapter ends with an outline by Wood on what the book will and will not consider, while he notes his aim of explaining why differing discourses on the time period’s history have developed as they have, by considering the “whole tradition of historiography” as it relates to the three main viewpoints above (18). Keeping this aim in mind, the scholars focused on in chapters two through fifteen are briefly mentioned below.

Chapter two starts the process of reviewing the historiography by analyzing the role of eighteenth-century authors like Henri, comte de Boulainvilliers and abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos in the interpretation of the Franks and their role in the creation of the state of France. Wood makes the point that “the French found it less easy to decide whether to see themselves as heirs of Rome or Germania,” leading them to devote themselves to deliberations over the end of Rome and the arrival of the barbarians (19). The chapter carefully contrasts the work of Boulainvilliers and Du Bos, noting the support of the former for the “Germanists” and the latter for the “Romanists”.

Due to the depth and breadth of the information covered in chapters three through fifteen, I will only briefly outline some particularly interesting points of scholars discussed in chapters six and nine. One of the key points that emerges from this book is that not only are a country’s political views influenced by its understanding of the past, but also scholars’ views of history are affected by the political events they experience. Chapter six starts with the historical period following Napoleon’s defeat where the Restorationist François Guizot used his writings as public instructions on history and Augustin Thierry employed his knowledge of writing styles in the novels by contemporaries like Walter Scott and the use of language to complete histories of “the oppressed classes” for both the Frankish invasion of Gaul and the invasion of England by the Normans (102 and 112). Both men’s approaches are not surprising given that François Guizot was a politician and historian, while Augustin Thierry was a self-described plebeian and historian of the middle class (100). Guizot and Thierry are just two of the historians mentioned in the chapter that helped to move mid-nineteenth century discussions into “terms of nation, class and race” (94).

Chapter nine studies the German tradition of considering “language, literature and law” and their roles as another available source for historians (154). The chapter places German scholarship and its use, language, law and literature within the context of German efforts to understand the past through nationalistic discourse during the nineteenth century (154). The “patriotic” drive for the “promotion of German history,” provided academia with one of the most well-known series ever to be created, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. The chapter goes on to discuss that even though the Monumenta was a project to promote the nation of Germany, many of the political elite were conservative in nature and mistrustful of academia in general. The Monumenta would not have endured to take its place in historiography without the efforts of Georg Heinrich Pertz, biographer of Karl Freiherr vom Stein. Pertz’s commitment to the early edition, as well as the work of Theodor Mommsen and Bruno Krusch, helped the Monumenta to reach its place in academia, but Wood notes that one should still be cautious in assigning too much significance to the early editions, along with Pertz’s place as the creator of something new in the way of collecting and editing texts, due to the existence of editorial practice from at least “seventeenth-century France” (159).

Chapter sixteen, the book’s conclusion, shifts away from discussing academic debates on “the notion of Europe” to portrayals focused on a wider general audience; this being done by exhibits, books, television and other forms of media (310). Wood addresses these strategies and their use to interact with a wider audience regarding the debates over the “end of Rome” (312). Each of the outlets has introduced Rome’s end in a less rigorous way, but also opened the door for non-academic institutions like businesses and governments to have more of a say in the history they finance (312). Wood points out that the “Movers and Shakers” found in a 1999 review article by Guy Halsall could indeed be related to the “Germanists” and “Romanists” discussed in earlier chapters. “‘Movers’ were those who placed a great deal of emphasis on the impact of incoming barbarians, while ‘Shakers’ were those who saw the ‘tensions and changes within the Roman Empire’” (311). This final chapter goes on to discuss some of the more multidisciplinary approaches to the discussion of barbarian ethnicity. Exhibitions discussed also show that in the twentieth century collaborative efforts across borders demonstrated cooperation between the countries of Europe (including those of the east) in communicating a shared past. One of the most interesting contributions in the chapter’s discussion of museum exhibits and their role in promoting historical imaginings of individual countries is the consideration of how exhibits promoted by governments use the display of a common past to promote a united history for their citizens, the European Union or even the “reintegration of Central Europe into the Western European tradition” (325). The book ends by raising the point of “policing the discourses;” recognizing that the history of both objects and the early Middle Ages “have been interpreted and reinterpreted through various discourses,” and abused by not only historians (whether amateur or professional) but also politicians and archaeologists (327). Wood notes that multiple discourses by both professionals and laymen are important to weighing the legitimacy of current and past interpretations of history (329).

The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages is a tour de force of a scholar who has continually provided academia with important works ranging from the end of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the early Middle Ages. My biggest reaction in answer to the book’s purpose of responding to the claim that “medieval history is purely ornamental,” is that Professor Wood has written a book that will provide scholars with a seminal work for generations to come, but will unfortunately swamp the non-academic reader (i.e. those individuals like Charles Clarke most in need of such an essential and insightful lesson). 

Melanie Maddox
The Citadel