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Every schoolboy knows that the Middle Ages arose on the ruins of the Roman Empire. The decline of Rome preceded and in some ways prepared the rise of the kingdoms and cultures which composed the medieval system. Yet in spite of the self-evident truth of this historical preposition we know little about life and thought in the watershed years when Europe was ceasing to be Roman but was not yet medieval. We do not know how it felt to watch the decline of Rome; we do not even know whether the men who watched it knew what they saw, though we can be quite certain that none of them foretold, indeed could have foreseen, the shape which the world was to take in later centuries.Yet the tragic story, its main themes and protagonists were for all to see. No observer should have failed to notice that the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries was no longer the Roman Empire of the great Antonine and Augustan age; that it had lost its hold over its territories and its economic cohesion and was menaced by the barbarians who were in the end to overwhelm it. The territory of the Roman Empire had at its height stretched from the lands bordering the North Sea to the lands on the northern fringes of the Sahara, and from the Atlantic coast of Europe to the central Asiatic Steppes; it comprised most of the regions of the former Hellenic, Iranian, and Phoenician empires, and it either ruled or kept in check great clusters of peoples and principalities beyond its Gallic and north African frontiers. From these farthest frontiers Rome of the fourth century had retreated and was still retreating...
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Copyright © 2016 by Eileen Power
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Notes and Sources
I. ROME IN DECLINE
Every schoolboy knows that the Middle Ages arose on the ruins of the Roman Empire. The decline of Rome preceded and in some ways prepared the rise of the kingdoms and cultures which composed the medieval system. Yet in spite of the self-evident truth of this historical preposition we know little about life and thought in the watershed years when Europe was ceasing to be Roman but was not yet medieval. We do not know how it felt to watch the decline of Rome; we do not even know whether the men who watched it knew what they saw, though we can be quite certain that none of them foretold, indeed could have foreseen, the shape which the world was to take in later centuries.
Yet the tragic story, its main themes and protagonists were for all to see. No observer should have failed to notice that the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries was no longer the Roman Empire of the great Antonine and Augustan age; that it had lost its hold over its territories and its economic cohesion and was menaced by the barbarians who were in the end to overwhelm it. The territory of the Roman Empire had at its height stretched from the lands bordering the North Sea to the lands on the northern fringes of the Sahara, and from the Atlantic coast of Europe to the central Asiatic Steppes; it comprised most of the regions of the former Hellenic, Iranian, and Phoenician empires, and it either ruled or kept in check great clusters of peoples and principalities beyond its Gallic and north African frontiers. From these farthest frontiers Rome of the fourth century had retreated and was still retreating.
Within its frontiers great currents of inter-regional commerce had in earlier centuries flowed along the routes which bound all the provinces of the Empire to Rome and most of the provinces to each other. But from the third century onwards the economic unity of the Empire was in dissolution, and by the fifth century most of the great currents of inter-regional trade had ceased to flow, and provinces and districts had been thrown upon themselves and their own resources. And with the wealth of the provinces reduced, their commerce restricted, the great provincial cities also declined in population, wealth, political power.
Yet to its very last days the Empire endeavoured to defend its frontiers against the converging barbarians. Not only did the Barbarian Conquests, like all conquests, threaten destruction and ruin, but the way of life the barbarians stood for was the very denial of what Roman civilization had been, though alas, was gradually ceasing to be.
However, it was not in material things, that the contemporaries found, or should have found the sharpest conflict between Rome and the barbarian prospects before it. Above all Roman civilization was a civilization of the mind. It had behind it a long tradition of thought and of intellectual achievement, the legacy of Greece, to which it had in turn made its own contribution. The Roman world was a world of schools and universities, writers, and builders. The barbarian world was a world in which mind was in its infancy and its infancy was long. The battle sagas of the race, which have all but disappeared or have survived only as legends worked up in a later age; the few rude laws which were needed to regulate personal relationships, this was hardly civilization in the Roman sense. King Chilperic, trying to make verses in the style of Sedulius, though he could not distinguish between a long foot and a short and they all hobbled; Charlemagne himself, going to bed with his slate under his pillow in order to practice in the watches of the night that art of writing which he never mastered; what have they in common with Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius and that great Julian called the Apostate? They sum up in their very persons the whole wide gulf that yawned between Germany and Rome.
Rome and the barbarians were thus not only protagonists but two different attitudes to life, civilization and barbarism. We cannot here discuss in detail the question as to why, in the clash between the two, it was civilization which perished and barbarism which prevailed. But it is important to remember that while the Empire tried to defend its frontiers against the barbarian hosts, it gradually opened them to barbarian settlers.
This peaceful infiltration of barbarians which altered the whole character of the society which it invaded would have been impossible, of course, if that society had not been stricken by disease. The disease is plain enough to see by the third century. It shows itself in those internecine civil wars in which civilization rends itself, province against province and army against army. It shows itself in the great inflationary crisis from about 268 and in the taxation which gradually crushed out the smaller bourgeoisie while the fortunes of the rich escaped its net. It shows itself in the gradual sinking back of an economy based upon free exchange into more and more primitive conditions when every province seeks to be self-sufficient and barter takes the place of trade. It shows itself in the decline of farming and in the workless city population kept quiet by their dole of bread and their circuses, whose life contrasted so dramatically, so terribly with that of the haughty senatorial families and the great landowners in their palatial villas and town houses. It shows itself in the rise of mystical faiths on the ruins of philosophy, and of superstition (more especially astrology) on the ruins of reason. One religion in particular grew mighty, by clasping its sacred book and addressing itself with words of hope to the victims of social injustice, but although it was able to bring comfort to individuals it could do nothing, indeed it did not try, to give new strength or inspiration to the embattled civilization. True to its own ethos it was impartial as between Barbarian and Roman, or between the Romans who prospered and ruled and those outside the pale.
The most obvious manifestation of Roman society in decline was the dwindling numbers of Roman citizens. The Empire was being depopulated long before the end of the period of peace and prosperity which stretched from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. Does not Augustus himself summon the poor man of Fiesole who has a family of eight children, thirty-six grandchildren and eighteen great grandchildren, and organize in his honour a fête in the Capitol, accompanied by a great deal of publicity? Does not Tacitus, half-anthropologist and half-Rousseau, describing the noble savage with his eye on fellow citizens, remark that among the Germans it is accounted a shameful thing to limit the number of your children? The long duration of Augustus’s legislation to raise the birthrate is significant; successful it was not, but the fact that it was maintained on the statute book and systematically revised and developed for three centuries shows that it was at least accounted necessary. It is true of course that the mortality rate was a far more important factor in those days than it is in our own, and the mortality from pestilence and civil war from Marcus Aurelius onwards was exceptional. And it is plain that the proportion of celibates was high in the Roman empire and that the fall in the fertility of marriages was going on. It is the childless marriage, the small family system that contemporary writers deplore. In Seeley’s striking phrase: ‘The human harvest was bad,’ It was bad in all classes, but the decline was most marked in the upper ranks, the most educated, the most civilized, the potential leaders of the race. In the terrible words of Swift, facing his own madness, the Roman Empire might have cried: ‘I shall die like a tree—from the top downwards.’
Why (the insistent question forces itself) did this civilization lose the power to reproduce itself? Was it, as Polybius said, because people preferred amusements to children or wished to bring their children up in comfort? Hardly, for it is more marked among the rich than the poor and the rich can have the best of both worlds. Was it because people had grown discouraged and disheartened, no longer believing in their own civilization and loath to bring children into the darkness and disaster of their war-shattered world? We do not know. But we can see the connection of the falling population with the other evils of the empire—the heavy cost of administration relatively heavier when the density of the population is low; the empty fields, the dwindling legions which did not suffice to guard the frontier.
To cure this sickness of population the Roman rulers knew no other way than to dose it with barbarian vigour. Just a small injection to begin with and then more and more till in the end the blood that flowed in its veins was not Roman but barbarian. In came the Germans to settle the frontier, to till the fields, to enlist first in the auxiliaries and then in the legions, to fill the great offices of state. The army is barbarized, and a modern writer, Mr Moss, has quoted most effectively the complaint of the Egyptian mother clamouring to get back her son who (as she says) has gone off with the barbarians—he means that he has enlisted in the Roman legions. The legions are barbarized and they barbarize the Emperor. For them he is no longer the majestic embodiment of law, he is their leader, their Führer, and they raise him on their shields. And side by side with the barbarization of the army goes the barbarization of civil manners too. In 397 Honorius has to pass an edict forbidding the wearing of German fashions within the precincts of Rome. And in the end, half barbarian themselves, they have only barbarians to defend them against barbarism.
Such was the general picture of the great ruin of civilization amidst which the Romans of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries lived. What then did it feel like to live at a time when civilization was going down before the forces of barbarism? Did people realize what was happening? Did the gloom of the Dark Ages cast its shadow before? It so happens that we can answer these questions very clearly if we fix our eyes on one particular part of the Empire, the famous and highly civilized province of Gaul. We can catch the decline at three points because in three consecutive centuries, Gallo-Roman writers have left us a picture of their life and times. In the fourth century we have Ausonius, in the fifth Sidonius Apollinarius, in the sixth Gregory of Tours and Fortunatus, a stranger from Italy, who made his home in Poitiers. They show us Auvergne and the Bordelais in the evening light. The fourth, the fifth, and the sixth centuries—going, going, gone!
Going! This is the world of Ausonius, south-western France in the latter half of the fourth century, ‘an Indian summer between ages of storm and wreckage’. Ausonius himself is a scholar and a gentleman, the friend alike of the pagan Symmachus and of St Paulinus of Nela. He is for thirty years professor of rhetoric in the university of Bordeaux, for some time tutor to a prince, praetorian prefect of Gaul, consul, and in his last years just an old man contentedly living on his estates. His most famous poem is a description of the Moselle, which for all its literary affectations evokes most magically the smiling countryside which was the background of his life. High above the river on either bank stand the villas and country houses, with their courts and lawns and pillared porticos, and the hot baths from which, if you will, you can plunge into the stream. The sunny hillside is covered with vines, and from slope to hill-top the husbandmen call to each other and the wayfarer on the towpath or the bargemen floating by, shout their rude jests to the loitering vinedressers. Far out in midstream the fisherman trails his dripping net and on a rock by the shore the angler plies his rod. And, as twilight falls, the deepening shadow of the green hillside is reflected in the water and gazing downward the boatman can almost count the trembling vines and almost see the swelling of the grapes.
Equally peaceful, equally pleasant is life on Ausonius’ own estate in the Bordelais, his little patrimony (he calls it) although he had a thousand acres of vineyard and tillage and wood. Miss Waddell has reminded us, on the authority of Saintsbury (whom else?) that ‘to this day it boasts itself as Château-Ausone, one of the two best of the St Emilion clarets.’ Here he tends his roses and sends his boy round to the neighbours to bid them to luncheon, while he interviews the cook. Six, including the host, is the right number—if more it is not a meal but a melée. Then there are all his relatives to be commemorated in verse, his grandfather and his grandmother and his sisters and his cousins and his aunts (especially his aunts).
And when the family circle palls there is the senior common room to fall back upon and the professors of Bordeaux to be celebrated in their turn. Professors were important people in the empire of the fourth century; Symmachus says that it is the mark of a flourishing state that good salaries should be paid to professors; though what exactly we are to deduce from that in the light of history I should hesitate to say. So Ausonius writes a collection of poems about the professors of Bordeaux. There are thirty-two of them and all are celebrated. There is Minervius the orator, who had a prodigious memory and after a game of backgammon was wont to conduct a post-mortem over every move. There is Anastasius the grammarian, who was so foolish as to leave Bordeaux for a provincial university and thenceforth languished in well-merited obscurity. There is Attius Tiro Delphidius, who retired from a legal career into the professorial chair, but could never be got to take any trouble with his men, to the disappointment of their parents. There is Jocundus the grammarian, who did not really deserve his title, but was such a kind man that we will commemorate him among men of worth, although he was, strictly speaking, unequal to the job. There is Exuperius, who was very good-looking and whose eloquence sounded superb until you examined it and found that it meant nothing. There is Dynamius, who slipped from the paths of virtue with a married lady in Bordeaux and left the place rather hastily, but fortunately fell on his feet in Spain. There is Victorius the usher, who liked only the most abstruse historical problems, such as what the pedigree of the sacrificial priest at Cureo was long before Numa’s day, or what Castor had to say on all the shadowy kings, and who never got up as far as Tully or Virgil, though he might have done so if he had gone on reading long enough, but death cut him off too soon. They seem oddly familiar figures (except of course, Dynamius) and their chronicler contrives to make them live.
Such is the world depicted for us by Ausonius. But while this pleasant country house and senior common room life was going calmly on, what do we find happening in the history books? Ausonius was a man of nearly fifty when the Germans swarmed across the Rhine in 357, pillaging forty-five flourishing cities, and pitching their camps on the banks of the Moselle. He had seen the great Julian take up arms (’O Plato, Plato, what a task for a philosopher’) and in a series of brilliant campaigns drive them out again. Ten years later when he was tutor to Gratian he had himself accompanied the emperor Valentinian on another campaign against the same foes. While he was preening himself on his consulship ten years later still, he must have heard of the disastrous battle of Adrianople in the east, when the Goths defeated a Roman army and slew an emperor. He died in 395 and within twelve years of his death the host of Germans had burst across the Rhine, ‘all Gaul was a smoking funeral pyre’, and the Goths were at the gates of Rome. And what have Ausonius and his correspondents to say about this? Not a word. Ausonius and Symmachus and their set ignore the barbarians as completely as the novels of Jane Austen ignore the Napoleonic wars.
3. SIDONIUS APOLLINARIS
Going, going.... Some thirty-five years after the death of Ausonius, in the midst of the disastrous sixth century, was born Sidonius Apollinaris, Gallo-Roman aristocrat, father-in-law of an emperor, sometime prefect of Rome and in the end Bishop of Clermont. Sidonius Apollinaris, 431 (or thereabouts) to 479 or perhaps a few years later. Much had happened between the death of Ausonius and his birth. The lights were going out all over Europe. Barbarian kingdoms had been planted in Gaul and Spain, Rome herself had been sacked by the Goths; and in his lifetime the collapse went on, ever more swiftly. He was a young man of twenty when the ultimate horror broke upon the West, the inroad of Attila and the Huns. That passed away, but when he was twenty-four the Vandals sacked Rome. He saw the terrible German king-maker Ricimer throne and unthrone a series of puppet emperors, he saw the last remnant of Gallic independence thrown away and himself become a barbarian subject, and he saw a few years before he died the fall of the empire in the west.
They cannot, Sidonius and his friends, ignore as Ausonius and his friends did, that something is happening to the empire. The men of the fifth century are concerned at these disasters and they console themselves, each according to his kind. There are some who think it cannot last. After all, they say, the empire has been in a tight place before and has always got out of it in the end and risen supreme over its enemies. Thus Sidonius himself, the very year after they sacked the city; Rome has endured as much before—there was Porsenna, there was Brennus, there was Hannibal.... Only that time Rome did not get over it. Others tried to use the disasters to castigate the sins of society. Thus Salvian of Marseilles who would no doubt have been called the gloomy dean if he had not been a bishop. For him all that the decadent Roman civilization needs is to copy some of the virtues of these fresh young barbarian people. There is the familiar figure of Orosius, defending the barbarians with the argument that when the Roman empire was founded it was founded in blood and conquest and can ill afford to throw stones at the barbarians; and after all the barbarians are not so bad. ‘If the unhappy people they have despoiled will content themselves with the little that is left them, their conquerors will cherish them as friends and brothers.’ Others, especially the more thoughtful churchmen are much concerned to explain why an empire which had flourished under paganism should be thus beset under Christianity. Others desert the Empire altogether and (like St Augustine) put their hope in a city not made with hands—though Ambrose, it is true, let fall the pregnant observation that it was not the will of God that his people should be saved by logic-chopping. ‘It has not pleased God to save his people by dialectic.’
And how were they living? We have only to read the letters written by Sidonius during the period between 460 and 470, when he was living on his estate in Auvergne, to realize that on the surface all is going on exactly as before. Gaul is shrunk, it is true, to a mere remnant between three barbarian kingdoms, but save for that we might be back in the days of Ausonius. There is the luxurious villa, with its hot baths and swimming pool, its suites of rooms, its views over the lake; and there is Sidonius inviting his friends to stay with him or sending round his compositions to the professors and the bishops and the country-gentlemen. Sport and games are very popular—Sidonius rides and swims and hunts and plays tennis. In one letter he tells his correspondent that he has been spending some days in the country with his cousin and an old friend, whose estates adjoin each other. They had sent out scouts to catch him and bring him back for a week and took it in turns to entertain him. There are games of tennis on the lawn before breakfast or backgammon for the older men. There is an hour or two in the library before we sit down to an excellent luncheon followed by a siesta. Then we go out riding and return for a hot bath and a plunge in the river. I should like to describe our luscious dinner parties, he concludes, but I have no more paper. However, come and stay with us and you shall hear all about it. Clearly this is no Britain, where in the sixth century half-barbarian people camped in the abandoned villas and cooked their food on the floors of the principal rooms.
And yet ... it had gone a long way downhill since the days of Ausonius, and Sidonius could not now ignore the very existence of the barbarians. He has indeed left notable protraits of them, especially of the king of the Visigoths and of the Burgundians who ruled Lyons, where he was born. Whenever he went to stay there, he complains, they flocked about him in embarrassing friendliness, breathing leeks and onions and dressing their hair with rancid butter (they were not, it appears, constrained to choose between spears and butter). How can he compose six foot metres, he asks, with so many seven foot patrons around him, all singing and all expecting him to admire their uncouth stream of non-Latin words? The shrug of the shoulder, the genial contempt of one conscious of an infinite superiority—how clear it is. One is reminded of a verse of Verlaine
Je suis l’empire a la fin de la decadence
qui regarde passer les grands barbares blancs
But Sidonius’s good nature was to be rudely shaken. All barbarians were not friendly giants, and the Visigoths next door, under their new king Euric, turned covetous eyes upon Auvergne. Sidonius had not been two years bishop of Clermont before he had to organize the defence of the city against their attack. The Avernians stood out gallantly; they would fight and they would starve, but they would defend this last stronghold of Rome in Gaul. But they were a small people; to resist successfully they must have help from Rome itself. Lest anyone should suspect me of twisting the story, I give it in the words of Sidonius’s editor, writing twenty years ago.
Julius Nepos was alive to the danger that Euric might cross the Rhône; but weak as his resources were he could only hope to secure peace by negotiation. The quaestor Licinianus had been sent into Gaul to investigate the condition of affairs on the spot.... He had now returned and it was soon only too clear that hopes based on his intervention were not likely to be fulfilled. We find Sidonius writing for information.... He began to fear that something was going on behind his back, and that the real danger to Auvergne came no longer from determined enemies but from pusillanimous friends. His suspicions were only too well founded. On receipt of the quaestor’s report a Council was held to determine the policy of the Empire towards the Visigothic king.... The empire did not feel strong enough to support Auvergne and it was decided to cede the whole territory to Euric, apparently without condition.
The despair of Sidonius knew no bounds and he writes a nobly indignant letter to a bishop who had been concerned in the negotiations:
The state of our unhappy region is miserable indeed. Everyone declares that things were better in wartime than they are now after peace has been concluded. Our enslavement was made the price of security for a third party; the enslavement, ah—the shame of it!, of those Avernians ... who in our own time stood forth alone to stay the advance of the common enemy.... These are the men whose common soldiers were as good as captains, but who never reaped the benefit of their victories: that was handed over for your consolation, while all the crushing burden of defeat they had to bear themselves.... This is to be our reward for braving destitution, fire, sword and pestilence, for fleshing our swords in the enemy’s blood and going ourselves starved into battle. This is the famous peace we dreamed of, when we tore the grass from the crannies in the walls to eat.... For all these proofs of our devotion, it would seem that we are to be made a sacrifice. If it be so, may you live to blush for a peace without either honour or advantage.
Auvergne had been sacrificed to save Rome. But Rome was not to enjoy her peace with honour for long. These things took place in 475; and in 476 the last emperor was desposed by his barbarian bear-leader, and the empire in the west came to an end. As for Sidonius, the Goths imprisoned him for a time and before he could recover his estate he had to write a panegyric for King Euric (he who had written panegyrics for three Roman emperors). It is clear that the old country house life went on as before, though the men who exchanged letters and epigrams were now under barbarian rule. But in one letter shortly before his death there breaks from Sidonius a single line in which he unpacks his heart. O neccessitas abjecta nascendi, vivendi misera dura moriendi. ‘O humiliating necessity of birth, sad necessity of living, hard necessity of dying.’ Shortly after 479 he died and within twenty years Clovis had embarked upon his career of conquest and Theodoric was ruler of Italy.
4. FORTUNATUS AND GREGORY OF TOURS
Going, going, gone.... There is only the time and only the heart to look for a moment at the Frankish kingdom which once was Gaul, and to survey the world of Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours, born both of them just about a century later than Sidonius, in the 530s. For a moment when you look at Fortunatus you think the world of the sixth century is the same world as that in which Sidonius entertained his friends with epigrams and tennis. Fortunatus, that versatile, gentle, genial, boot-licking gourmet, who somehow managed to write two of the most magnificent hymns of the Christian church, came from Italy on a visit to Gaul in 565 and never left it again. He travelled all over the Frankish lands, in what had been Germania as well as in what had been Gaul. From Trier to Toulouse he made his way with ease by river and by road, and it might be Ausonius again. Fortunatus too writes a poem on the Moselle; and there is the same smiling countryside with terraced vineyards sloping down to the quiet stream and the smoke of villas rising from the woods. Fortunatus too made the round of the country houses, especially of the sumptuous villas belonging to Leontius bishop of Bordeaux, a great Gallo-Roman aristocrat, whose grandfather had been a friend of Sidonius. The hot baths, the pillared porticos, the lawns sloping to the river, are all there; the feasts are even more magnificent (they upset Fortunatus’s digestion badly) and the talk is still of literature. The more intelligent of the barbarian lords have imitated this refined and luxurious life as best they may. The Franks as well as the Gallo-Romans welcome little eager Fortunatus; every count wants a set of Latin verses dedicated to himself. It is plain that some of the old country house life at least has survived. The Apollinaris set still enjoys its hot baths and its tennis; as Dill puts it, the barbarian might rule the land, but the laws of polite society would be administered as before.
But when you look again you realize that it is not the same. It is not merely because we know that even these remnants of the social and material civilization of Rome would soon themselves die away that the tragedy of the sixth century looms so dark. It is because when we look below the surface we see that the life has gone out of it all, the soul that inflamed it is dead, nothing is now left but the empty shell. These men welcome Fortunatus just because he comes from Italy, where the rot has gone less far, where there still survives some reputation for learning and for culture. They slake their nostalgia a little in the presence of that enfant perdue of a lost civilization.
For this is the world of Gregory of Tours, of which you may read in his History of the Franks. The rule under which it lives is the rule of the horrible Merovingian kings. Side by side with the villas barbarism spreads and flourishes like a jungle growth. Learning is dying—hardly the ghost of a university is left—and Gregory himself who came of a great Gallo-Roman family and was a bishop bewails his ignorance of grammar. The towns are shrinking, crouched behind their defences. The synagogues are flaming, and the first step has been taken in that tragic tale of proscription and tallage, tallage and expulsion which (it seems) must never end. As to politics, the will of the leader and his retinue is the rule of the Franks, and purge and bloodbath mark every stage in the rivalry of the Merovingian princes. The worst of them are devils like Chilperic and Fredegond, the best of them are still barbarians like that King Guntram, who fills so many indulgent pages in Gregory of Tours. He is a vaguely contemporary figure, a fat, voluble man, now purring with jovial good nature, now bursting into explosions of wrath and violence, a strange mixture of bonhomie and brutality. It is an ironic commentary on what has happened to civilization that Gregory should regard him with affection, that he should be known as ‘Good King Guntram’ and that the church should actually have canonized him after his death. Good King Guntram; Michelet has summed him up in a phrase ‘Ce bon roi à qui on ne reprochait que deux ou trois meurtres.’
These were the men who lived through the centuries of Roman fall and Barbarian triumph, and who by virtue of their elevated position, their learning, and talents, should have seen, if not foretold, the course of events. And yet as one contemplates the world of Ausonius and Sidonius (for by the time of Gregory of Tours it was already dead) one is, I think, impelled to ask oneself the question why they were apparently so blind to what was happening. The big country houses go on having their luncheon and tennis parties, the little professors in the universities go on giving their lectures and writing their books; games are increasingly popular and the theatres are always full. Ausonius has seen the Germans overrun Gaul once, but he never speaks of a danger that may recur. Sidonius lives in a world already half barbarian, yet in the year before the Western Empire falls he is still dreaming of the consulship for his son. Why did they not realize the magnitude of the disaster that was befalling them? This is indeed a question almost as absorbing as the question why their civilization fell, for au fond it is perhaps the same question. Several answers may be suggested in explanation.
In the first place the process of disintegration was a slow one, for the whole tempo of life was slow and what might take decades in our own time took centuries then. It is only because we can look back from the vantage point of a much later age that we can see the inexorable pattern which events are forming, so that we long to cry to these dead people down the corridor of the ages, warning them to make a stand before it is too late, hearing no answering echo, ‘Physician, heal thyself!’ They suffered from the fatal myopia of contemporaries. It was the affairs of the moment that occupied them; for them it was the danger of the moment that must be averted and they did not recognize that each compromise and each defeat was a link in the chain dragging them over the abyss.
At what point did barbarism within become a wasting disease? Yet from the first skinclad German taken into a legion to the great barbarian patricians of Italy, making and unmaking emperors, the chain is unbroken. At what point in the assault from without did the attack become fatal? Was it the withdrawal from Dacia in 270—allow the barbarians their sphere of influence in the east of Europe, fling them the last-won recruit to Romania and they will be satiated and leave the west alone? Was it the settlement of the Goths as foederati within the Empire in 382 and the beginning of that compromise between the Roman empire and the Germans which, as Bury says, masked the transition from the rule of one to the rule of the other, from federate states within the Empire to independent states replacing it? Was this policy of appeasement the fatal error? Was it the removal of the legions from Britain, a distant people (as a Roman senator might have said) of whom we know nothing? Or was it that fatal combination of Spain and Africa, when the Vandals ensconced themselves in both provinces by 428 and the Vandal fleet (with Majorca and the islands for its bases) cut off Rome from her corn supplies and broke the backbone of ancient civilization, which was the Mediterranean sea? Not once alone in the history of Europe has the triumph of a hostile rule in Africa and Spain spelt disaster to our civilization.
But if the gradualness of this process misled the Romans there were other and equally potent reasons for their blindness. Most potent of all was the fact that they mistook entirely the very nature of civilization itself. All of them were making the same mistake. People who thought that Rome could swallow barbarism and absorb it into her life without diluting her own civilization; the people who ran about busily saying that the barbarians were not such bad fellows after all, finding good points in their regime with which to castigate the Romans and crying that except ye become as little barbarians ye shall not attain salvation; the people who did not observe in 476 that one half of the Respublica Romanorum had ceased to exist and nourished themselves on the fiction that the barbarian kings were exercising a power delegated from the Emperor. All these people were deluded by the same error, the belief that Rome (the civilization of their age) was not a mere historical fact with a beginning and an end, but a condition of nature like the air they breathed and the earth they tread Ave Roma immortalis, most magnificent most disastrous of creeds!
The fact is that the Romans were blinded to what was happening to them by the very perfection of the material culture which they had created. All around them was solidity and comfort, a material existence which was the very antithesis of barbarism. How could they foresee the day when the Norman chronicler would marvel over the broken hypocausts of Caerleon? How could they imagine that anything so solid might conceivably disappear? Their roads grew better as their statesmanship grew worse and central heating triumphed as civilization fell.
But still more responsible for their unawareness was the educational system in which they were reared. Ausonius and Sidonius and their friends were highly educated men and Gaul was famous for its schools and universities. The education which these gave consisted in the study of grammar and rhetoric, which was necessary alike for the civil service and for polite society; and it would be difficult to imagine an education more entirely out of touch with contemporary life, or less suited to inculcate the qualities which might have enabled men to deal with it. The fatal study of rhetoric, its links with reality long since severed, concentrated the whole attention of men of intellect on form rather than on matter. The things they learned in their schools had no relation to the things that were going on in the world outside and bred in them the fatal illusion that tomorrow would be as yesterday, that everything was the same, whereas everything was different.
So we take our leave of them. Going ... going ... gone! Gone altogether? Perhaps not. Hundreds of years of barbarism were to elapse before a new society arose capable of matching or even excelling Rome in material wealth, in arts, in sciences, and in gentler modes of existence—the douceur de la vie. We cannot say what date marked the moment of final recovery, or who were the men who were to represent advancing civilization as fully as Ausonius or Gregory of Tours represented civilization in retreat: Dante, Shakespeare, Capernicus, Newton? But for many centuries, perhaps a whole millennium, before western Europe scaled the heights on which these men now stood, it had been gradually raising itself from the depths of post-Roman decline. The ascent was not only slow but also discontinuous, yet it was sufficient to establish within a few centuries of Gregory of Tours a social order different from Rome and less glorious to behold across a thousand years of history, but nevertheless sufficiently exalted to draw the interest, and even to command the admiration of other still later ages. In that culture and in that social order much of what Ausonius and Sidonius and even Fortunatus represented was brought to life again, albeit in a form they would not always have recognized as their own. To this extent, at least, they were not only the epigones of Rome but the true precursors of the Middle Ages.
THE PEASANT BODO
LIFE ON A COUNTRY ESTATE IN THE TIME OF CHARLEMAGNE
Three slender things that best support the world: the slender stream of milk from the cow’s dug into the pail; the slender blade of green corn upon the ground; the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman.
Three sounds of increase: the lowing of a cow in milk; the din of a smithy; the swish of a plough.
—From The Triads of Ireland (9th century)
Economic history, as we know it, is the newest of all the branches of history. Up to the middle of the last century the chief interest of the historian and of the public alike lay in political and constitutional history, in political events, wars, dynasties, and in political institutions and their development. Substantially, therefore, history concerned itself with the ruling classes. ‘Let us now praise famous men,’ was the historian’s motto. He forgot to add ‘and our fathers that begat us’. He did not care to probe the obscure lives and activities of the great mass of humanity, upon whose slow toil was built up the prosperity of the world and who were the hidden foundation of the political and constitutional edifice reared by the famous men he praised. To speak of ordinary people would have been beneath the dignity of history. Carlyle struck a significant note of revolt: ‘The thing I want to see,’ he said, ‘is not Red-book lists and Court Calendars and Parliamentary Registers, but the Life of Man in England: what men did, thought, suffered, enjoyed.... Mournful, in truth, it is to behold what the business called “History” in these so enlightened and illuminated times still continues to be. Can you gather from it, read till your eyes go out, any dimmest shadow of an answer to that great question: How men lived and had their being; were it but economically, as, what wages they got and what they bought with these? Unhappily you cannot.... History, as it stands all bound up in gilt volumes, is but a shade more instructive than the wooden volumes of a backgammon-board.’
Carlyle was a voice crying in the wilderness. Today the new history, whose way he prepared, has come. The present age differs from the centuries before it in its vivid realization of that much-neglected person the man in the street; or (as it was more often in the earliest ages) the man with the hoe. Today the historian is interested in the social life of the past and not only in the wars and intrigues of princes. To the modern writer, the fourteenth century, for instance, is not merely the century of the Hundred Years’ War and of the Black Prince and Edward III; more significantly it is for him the era of the slow decay of villeinage in England, a fact more epoch-making, in the long run, than the struggle over our French provinces. We still praise famous men, for he would be a poor historian who could spare one of the great figures who have shed glory or romance upon the page of history; but we praise them with due recognition of the fact that not only great individuals, but people as a whole, unnamed and undistinguished masses of people, now sleeping in unknown graves, have also been concerned in the story. Our fathers that begat us have come to their own at last. As Acton put it, ‘The great historian now takes his meals in the kitchen.’
This book is chiefly concerned with the kitchens of History, and the first which we shall visit is a country estate at the beginning of the ninth century. It so happens that we know a surprising amount about such an estate, partly because Charlemagne himself issued a set of orders instructing the Royal stewards how to manage his own lands, telling them everything it was necessary for them to know, down to the vegetables which they were to plant in the garden. But our chief source of knowledge is a wonderful estate book which Irminon, the Abbot of St Germain des Prés near Paris, drew up so that the abbey might know exactly what lands belonged to it and who lived on those lands, very much as William I drew up an estate book of his whole kingdom and called it Domesday Book. In this estate book is set down the name of every little estate (or fisc as it was called) belonging to the abbey, with a description of the land which was worked under its steward to its own profit, and the land which was held by tenants, and the names of those tenants and of their wives and of their children, and the exact services and rents, down to a plank and an egg, which they had to do for their land. We know today the name of almost every man, woman, and child who was living on those little fiscs in the time of Charlemagne, and a great deal about their daily lives.
Consider for a moment how the estate upon which they lived was organized. The lands of the Abbey of St Germain were divided into a number of estates, called fiscs, each of a convenient size to be administered by a steward. On each of these fiscsthe land was divided into seigniorial and tributary lands; the first administered by the monks through a steward or some other officer, and the second possessed by various tenants, who received and held them from the abbey. These tributary lands were divided into numbers of little farms, called manses, each occupied by one or more families. If you had paid a visit to the chief or seigniorial manse, which the monks kept in their own hands, you would have found a little house, with three or four rooms, probably built of stone, facing an inner court, and on one side of it you would have seen a special group of houses hedged round, where the women serfs belonging to the house lived and did their work; all round you would also have seen little wooden houses, where the household serfs lived, workrooms, a kitchen, a bakehouse, barns, stables, and other farm buildings, and round the whole a hedge carefully planted with trees, so as to make a kind of enclosure or court. Attached to this central manse was a considerable amount of land—ploughland, meadows, vineyards, orchards, and almost all the woods or forests on the estate. Clearly a great deal of labour would be needed to cultivate all these lands. Some of that labour was provided by servile workers who were attached to the chief manse and lived in the court. But these household serfs were not nearly enough to do all the work upon the monks’ land, and far the greater part of it had to be done by services paid by the other landowners on the estate.
Beside the seigniorial manse, there were a number of little dependent manses. These belonged to men and women who were in various stages of freedom, except for the fact that all had to do work on the land of the chief manse. There is no need to trouble with the different classes, for in practice there was very little difference between them, and in a couple of centuries they were all merged into one common class of medieval villeins. The most important people were those called coloni
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