Recycling in Britain after the Fall of Rome’s Metal Economy
By Robin Fleming
Past and Present, No.217 (2012)
Introduction: Some times and places are difficult to see because they have been obscured by our periodization. This is certainly the case for fifth and sixth-century Britain, especially its eastern half. There is a very wide gulf between historians of Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. They inhabit different worlds, each one with a distinct historiography, period-specific journals and professional conferences, as well as separate bodies of evidence, burning questions and enemy camps. Further widening the gulf is the fact that most scholars working on Roman Britain concentrate their efforts on the earlier part of their period, while those studying Anglo-Saxon England labour, for the most part, in the latter half of theirs. As a result, far fewer historians work in the gap between c.350 CE and c.650 than on either side of it, and fewer still are sufficiently familiar with both the before and the after to think constructively across the two periods.
Our difficulties in coming to grips with what actually happened in these three centuries are not, however, simply those we have inflicted upon ourselves: they have been compounded by the shortcomings of our written evidence, most of which was composed not in the fourth, fifth or sixth centuries, but rather in the eighth and ninth. The texts that remain to us were framed by their authors in ways that made sense to contemporary audiences, especially their twin assumptions that eastern Britain after Rome’s fall c.400 was a highly aristocratic place and that kings and their war bands were the period’s only historical actors. Although this view of the past doubtless rang true to the better sorts of people living at the time of their compositions, there are good reasons to believe that we ourselves ought to be more sceptical.
In actual fact, the bulk of contemporary evidence — which happens to be material rather than textual — clearly argues that the people of fifth- and early sixth-century eastern Britain were much more involved in subsistence agriculture than warfare, and that most people during much of this period lived in highly circumscribed worlds in a ranked, rather than a steeply hierarchical, society. A careful reading of the evidence further shows that most people during the first three or four generations after Rome’s fall were profoundly poor, a fundamental fact that has disappeared from historical memory both because we historians too often limit our investigations to early medieval texts, and because most of us are not fully aware of the level of material prosperity found in Britain before Rome’s fall.