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“You can think of this era as a black hole into which our history tumbles”: Max Adams on Britain after the Romans left

Max Adams speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about his book The First Kingdom, which unravels the mystery of what may have happened in Britain in the centuries after the departure of the Romans

Author and biographer Max Adams

Your book pieces together the centuries following the fall of Roman Britain in around AD 400. This was an era that fell between two major, limelight-grabbing historical epochs. So what makes it an interesting period to study?

Every early medieval archaeologist has to take on the ‘Dark Ages’ sooner or later. It’s a bit like a Shakespearean actor taking on Lear. At some point, you’re going to have to take a stab at it. You could think of this very obscure period as a black hole into which our history tumbles. You have to hold up a candle to get the merest glimpse of what’s going on, which also makes it irresistible.

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Anyone investigating the early Middle Ages starts with the great historian of western Europe in that period, the Venerable Bede. But even Bede, who is prolific in the extreme, says hardly anything about Britain at this time. He covers around 150 years in just 19 lines. There are no Roman sources, and the only narratives we have are a ranting sermon from a cleric that we can’t even date, a couple of documents from St Patrick, and a few obscure references from the continent.

Traditional interpretations of this period have been completely shackled by nationalism – they are all about Britons who are slaves or Anglo-Saxon invaders, as if these rules of national ethnicity apply in this period. This is partly because the primary historian we have to rely on is Gildas, a priest who you would now think of as a sort of ranting, fulminating fundamentalist. He doesn’t mince his words – Saxons are “filthy dogs” and bad Christian kings are “but the bastard children of prostitutes”. But that’s not very helpful for actually reconstructing history. So in The First Kingdom, I’ve tried to get away from all that.

Max Adams is the author of The First Kingdom, Britain in the Age of Arthur (Apollo, 2020)

The First Kingdom by Max Adams

Can archaeology give us any more clues?

Archaeologists have spent the last 150 years showing how their discipline can deliver. And this is the period when we need archaeology to deliver more than ever. But unfortunately, either we’ve got very little to draw on, or the tools that we normally have at our disposal are missing for this period.

First of all, we rely on things we can date, like pieces of wood with tree rings in them. But for the years 400 to 600, we have very few examples of those available. Pottery, which we also use to date sites, was not being made in industrial quantities. The other get-out-of-jail-free card for archaeologists is radiocarbon dating, which can normally supply dates within around 50 years. But it just so happens that the carbon atmospheric content goes haywire for those 200 years, so even that is no help. All we can do is scrape away with our trowels and try to piece together the fragments of evidence we have.

What might this lack of evidence suggest about what happened in Britain after the fall of Rome?

That’s the old question of any first term undergraduate archaeology degree: is it evidence of absence or is it absence of evidence? Are we missing something because we’re not looking in the right place or is there simply nothing to find? Increasingly sensitive archaeology is showing that the stuff is there. But it’s pretty hard to get at, and when we do get at it, it’s quite difficult to understand what’s going on. So we have to do some imaginative thinking around the archaeology to portray a much more subtle picture.

And what exactly was the “fall of Rome”? Was it a catastrophe? A revolution? Or an evolution too subtle for us to keep a close eye on? The idea that Britain was overrun by Italian sword-wielding legionaries who suddenly abandoned ship in the fourth century certainly doesn’t hold up. Britain at the time is British. The languages spoken are Brittonic – a recognisable antecedent to Welsh – late colloquial vernacular Latin, Irish and some form of Germanic-Friesian dialect, which ends up as a sort of lingua franca 200 years later. We can’t really be sure whether that is because of an invasion of German peoples, which is the traditional view, or if there’s something more subtle going on. People today eat McDonald’s and drive Japanese cars but it doesn’t mean that we’re subject to military conquest by those people. The artefacts that archaeologists find are not biographies of the people with whom we find them.

One thing we can be sure of is that Britain in AD 400 looks very different from Britain in AD 600. In order to guess how that might have happened, we can look at the institutions that we know were in place by the sixth century and try to trace them back to things happening before 400. In other words, we’re not looking for absolute discontinuity or catastrophe, but for how what was already in existence in 400 might have morphed into something else.

How did things change between AD 400 and 600?

The most dramatic thing we still can’t explain is a significant decline in population. The latest estimates of the population of Roman Britain are in the region of 3 to 3.5 million. By Bede’s day, it was nowhere near that – those kind of population numbers weren’t recovered until after Domesday Book in the late 11th century.

There are a few ways to explain that population decline. Gildas would have us believe that all those people were dying in the streets in some grand catastrophe. But if so, why don’t we find the bodies? Nor do we find any evidence of people running away in fear for their lives – leaving behind their homes, their possessions, anything they can’t carry – the kind of evidence that you find at Pompeii or Chernobyl. Likewise, I would question theories about a descent into chaos and warfare, because hardly any bodies from this time have weapon blade injuries. The actual number of skeletons from this time that show evidence of being injured in a fight is only about 2 per cent. Most people die of crippling diseases and old age.

More subtle explanations could be an increase in infant mortality, a slow decline in the birth rate, or perhaps an increase in the death rate leading to a decline in population over the course of 50 or even 100 years. This doesn’t look anything like as dramatic as a catastrophic population collapse.

What we do find is space being repurposed, and that’s a much subtler story. Somebody digging a hole through the mosaic floor in the dining room of a Roman villa and turning it into an iron smelting forge, for example. Why, instead of inviting elite friends round to dinner, is someone now smelting metal in the dining room? We also find a big blanket of dark earth covering Roman towns – what does it mean, where does it come from? You’ve got to do some pretty nimble thinking to try to understand a world that seems to be changing so rapidly.

Were all the advancements of the Roman era lost?

If we’re talking about an elite mosaiced Roman villa, for example – is that advancement? Or is it a pretty grotesque form of conspicuous consumption that people eventually get sick of? Think of the great country houses of Jane Austen’s England. A lot of them are still around, but they aren’t private homes anymore. They are hotels, or wedding venues, repurposed because their palatial ostentation looks pretty grotesque in the 21st century. Most Roman villas were not owned by people who were living in them. There were lots of absentee landlords.

And by the end of the fourth century, Roman villas didn’t suit the needs of society. By then, a system of overlordship seems to have been emerging, in which local authorities were raising renders of food and services which they drew to themselves. We’re talking cartloads of timber, honey or ale and horses, sheep, wool and craft products. One of the key purposes of this system was that you had to hold feasts and redistribute the goods. But the Roman villa was totally inappropriate for such activities because it was designed as a private dining space. It wouldn’t work for assembly or the processing of goods.

What you begin to see instead is assembly sites built slightly away from the villas. People recreate the social dynamics of the Iron Age in a Roman granary that is transformed into a mead hall. The mead hall of Beowulf is essentially a barn conversion. Now should we see that as revolution, or adaptation to a different world?

What more can you tell us about that emerging system of overlordship?

A law of the kings of Kent states that if you’re wandering through Kent in 600 and do not blow your horn to announce your presence, you can be arrested. Why is that? Because people moving through that landscape must belong to somebody. The first thing you’re going to ask somebody if you meet them is: “Who is your lord?”

Instead of a Roman emperor, much more local lords emerge. These may be the former commander of the Roman fort, or the former steward of a villa whose boss is never coming back and who takes over and reorganises it as a local centre of redistributive communal dependency. The closest comparison to the way overlordship worked would be a naval frigate of the age of Horatio Nelson, where the loyalty between a captain and his dependants worked both ways – he was theirs as much as they were his.

One of the most beautiful things to emerge from Bede comes from a tiny throwaway line about the Northumbrian king Edwin spending 36 days at his palace at Yeavering. A colleague of mine, Colin O’Brien, asked: why would a great lord stay in one place for 36 days specifically? Well, 36 days is a tenth of a year. The implications of that are really profound for understanding this period. Think of all the goods and services of a territory being brought to a lord for him to use and consume. Eventually he might become lord over more than one of these territories, and if the goods are still going to one central place in that territory, how are you going to consume them? The answer is: you have to visit each territory in turn to consume its render, and you go for 36 days because you’re consuming a 10 per cent tax on that land. It’s a brilliant insight into how the whole system works.

One of the things about lordship is that they descend like locusts and consume a huge amount of calories. If you want to imagine a place like Yeavering, you’ve got to think of a Bruegel painting, or a cross between the Yorkshire County Show, Glastonbury festival, and a London inner-city riot, full of bingeing and no doubt fighting while all the food and drink was consumed in one place.

What you also see emerging are networks of patronage and dependence, in which linked families, clans and kin alliances all help to foster social cohesion when there is no state. The household was the principal social unit, a hierarchy that consisted of male and female heads of the household at the top, with all sorts of collateral relations and various levels of free and unfree dependants underneath.

Do we have any idea of how people at this time perceived of their own identity?

What’s so exciting is that there seems to have been a very broad, eclectic mosaic of identities. Some people identify with land and with their households. Some communities are named after an ancestral founder, and others identify with a much broader group by the ways in which they approach life and death.

Alongside those strong senses of attachment to house, family, local place or local spirits were regional identities. If you piece together the names of all the places and peoples that we can gather, I think you can create a map of sixth-century Britain which has 200–300 small regional identities, from the kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria and Kent, right down to tiny communities often focussed on small rivers. These appear in a brilliant document called the Tribal Hidage, which records this hierarchy of peoples who owe tribute to a great overlord. What it reveals is a small scale geography of the early medieval kingdoms of Britain that were emerging after Roman rule collapsed.

This dynamic patchwork of different local identities was shaped by geography. People in the fens of East Anglia, for example, would have a very different sense of identity from people living in the Highlands or on the coast, because their environment was so completely different. Names like the “people of the muddy marsh” or “people of the spring” tell us quite a lot about what people thought about themselves. The north-south divide is always jokingly said to begin at the Watford Gap, and what’s interesting is that Watling Street is a geographical dividing line between all the rivers that flow north and east and all the rivers that flow south and west. It’s a real frontier in the landscape. It just shows how people are sensitive to small geographical niceties.

How did religious affiliations change – and what impact did that have on the development of society?

We tend to think of Anglo-Saxon England before Christianity as “pagan”. But paganism is an unhelpful term, as all it really means is “not Christian”. In this period, I suspect there was a coagulation of re-emerging Iron Age deities, highly localised sets of beliefs and belief systems like animism (where the springs, hills or trees are seen to have spirits in them). People were interested in all the things they always have been – trying to nudge the odds in your favour in matters of fate, poverty, fertility, death, illness, marriage or crop failure.

In the east of England there seems to have been a comprehensive rejection of everything Roman, including Christianity. Meanwhile, in the far west, which was highly resistant to Rome, people became ultra-Romans and embraced Christianity. An ultraconservative form of Christianity arose among peoples of the British-speaking west, which ended up exploding in their faces when St Augustine arrived in 597 and found that the bishops there were 200 years out of date.

Eventually, an intellectual literate priesthood emerged that offered kings not just success in life and on the battlefield but, to use Bede’s famous metaphor, somewhere to go after they flew out of the mead hall of life into everlasting darkness. They were offered a place at God’s side in perpetuity in return for giving the church freehold land. That’s the deal that took us out of the Dark Ages – from that point on, medieval Europe took off in spectacular fashion.

One figure that is always mentioned when we talk about this period is King Arthur. Why are people so obsessed with him, and can we track him down in any kind of historical record?

Let me cheat that question by asking another one: why are archaeologists not interested in Arthur? Talk to almost any archaeologist and they’ll say King Arthur is uninteresting and irrelevant. It’s not that we think Arthur didn’t exist. If Arthur didn’t exist, there were certainly Arthurs. And I think if you were to put him anywhere, you have to put him in the early fifth century. If he’s anything, he’s Roman. But he was not a king. By the time that Arthur is put into a series of annals with dates next to his name, there aren’t any kings, there are only petty lords. If he’s anything, he’s a military commander.

The real problem with Arthur is not that he might not have existed, but that he doesn’t tell us anything useful. What can he tell us about the system of lordship emerging in this period? Where are his territories? Who are his people? What’s his genealogy? He gives us nothing. He’s not a territorial lord and therefore he doesn’t help us explain anything about the political development of a new geography of people and lordship.

In order to understand why people are obsessed with Arthur, you really need to look to the ninth century, when the legends surrounding him crop up. It’s a period of huge uncertainty and everyone’s looking for a saint. The church is collapsing, and Scandinavians are attacking. As the powerful dynasties of competing Anglo-Saxon and Welsh states are beginning to consolidate their power, they want heroic forebears to look back on and say: “Not only were we great once, we can be great again.” Those myths need a convenient, heroic person to coalesce around – someone like Arthur.


Max Adams is the author of The First Kingdom, Britain in the Age of Arthur (Apollo, 2020). Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or Bookshop.org

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This article was first published in the February 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine