With the current popularity of the Vikings, there seems to be a growing interest in Dark Ages history in general. Here are several books I’ve read on the period–though none of them particularly focus on the Vikings. =)
I’ll make a plug instead for the British History Podcast, which has extensively covered the English Dark Ages…and by extension the Vikings. If you like fiction Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles are a great romp.
For more general reading…
The Making of the Middle Ages (Southern) is a classic survey of how what we think of as the key features of Middle Ages developed. Published in 1953, it was still sufficently current to be used as the introductory text in my 12th century lit class in the 1990s. Southern focuses on three areas: the lingering influence of Roman culture and legal institutions, especially in southern Europe, and how they got re-implanted in areas further north; the institution of serfdom; and the development of the Church, both as a political force and as a source of education and knowledge dissemination. Southern mostly focuses on France, and leaves the influence of both the Germanic tribes (the Goths, the Franks et al) and the Moslems on the periphery of his discussion, but overall it remains a good introduction to the period. The writing style is formal but not overly academic. The full text is available online here.
Europe After Rome (Smith) is perhaps the worst example of clunky academic prose I’ve ever read. BUT, if you can get past the writing, the content is actually very interesting. Smith covers a slightly earlier time period than Southern’s book, and focuses more heavily on the northern parts of Europe, particularly Germany. Like Southern, Smith relies primarily on written documents, as opposed to archaeological research, in her analysis. But in keeping with modern scholarship (the book was published in 2007), she spends less time on official records from the elite circles of royalty and the Church, and more on village tax and census rolls and the like, presenting a much more complete picture of life as experienced by everyday Europeans. Her focus on northern Europe also presents a somewhat more quiet take on the Dark Ages than books that focus on the areas that experienced various “barbarian” (Germanic, Hunnic, and later Moslem and Viking) attacks and invasions.
Life in the Middle Ages (Delort) starts with a very affecting portrait of the physical environment of the medieval Europeans, with discussions of climate shifts over the period, how much of Europe was forested quasi-wilderness, and how very hard it was to scratch out a living given the climate, available agricultural technology and food options. Having established that, he draws a direct line to the psychology of ordinary Europeans, who viewed Nature as something to be feared and as much as possible, tamed. Delort then depicts how the challenges of daily living informed popular religious views, especially about the afterlife and then goes on to other daily customs in various parts of Europe. This is the book that took me furthest towards having a personal understanding of what for many modern people is a very alien worldview. NB. It was originally published in French as La Vie au Moyen Age. I have this edition, and can say it’s well-written in French; I don’t know the quality of the English translation.
Moving to smaller geographic segments and time periods…
The Story of the Goths (Bradley) is something I picked up because it was $.99 on Kindle. It turned out to be a wonderfully engaging read. Bradley is none other than the original author of the Oxford English Dictionary, and was one of those late Victorian scholars who knew his Greek and Latin texts like you or I would know a classic novel. (He evidently also knew Old Teutonic, Gothic, and Anglo-Saxon.) He published Goths in 1887, when archaeology was very much in its infancy–Schliemann was excavating “Troy” with dynamite a mere 15 years earlier–and excitedly relates the latest (mid-19th century) discoveries that shed light on his topic as part of his narrative. The earliest origins and history of the Goths–still a matter of hot dispute today–are therefore the parts of the book with the least detail, but Bradley is careful to point out what was known with a fair degree of certainty–via Latin, Greek and the handful of Gothic texts in existence–and what was “current best guesses”. The Visigothic kingdoms of southern France and Spain get neatly summarized in a couple of chapters. He provides a great deal of detail on the story of the Ostrogoths in Italy, drawing on firsthand accounts from Roman writers who both served with and fought against them. Interestingly, he spends a certain amount of time exploring how the Jews were treated under both groups; the tale in Spain is particularly enlightening given later events. Bradley’s writing is conversational–he really was telling a favorite story, with great enthusiasm, not presenting a dry scholarly work for other specialists. I read it in a couple of evenings, and learned quite a lot in the process.
Before France and Germany (Geary) covers much of the same time period as Bradley (from the late Roman Empire to the late 700s), but focuses on the Merovingian Franks instead of the Goths. A relatively recent book (1988), it draws on both textual and archaeological evidence, and does a good job of explaining the mutual influences between the Germanic peoples and the Romans. It does assume a fair amount of general background knowledge–for example, that the reader would know who Alaric or Gregory of Tours were, or the typical social structures and obligations in Roman and post-Roman times, or what “pre-migration times” would mean with regard to the Franks. On the other hand, the multiple uniting and breakups of the various regions of France and Germany has always been a mystery to me, and this book helped me get a better handle on a very confusing time.
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne (Riche) covers similar ground to the first three books I’ve mentioned (though I would read those first)–just a couple of clicks down in terms of level of (interesting) detail. It was originally published as La vie quotidienne dans l’empire carolingien. I read this one in English–the translation has a few “Frenchisms” (“the rulers could not have been insensible to” vs “unaware of”) that make the writing seem a bit formal, but it’s reasonably accessible.
Before the Normans: Southern Italy in the 9th & 10th Centuries (Kreutz) has turned out to be one of the books I keep thinking back to since I read it. I picked it up because I was curious how the Normans wound up in Sicily. This book covers that in about two paragraphs at the very end, but otherwise presents a fascinating–and very unusual–picture of a part of Europe one typically reads little about in English. The south of Italy had been conquered by the Lombards after the fall of the Ostrogoths, but on the “heel” side of the peninsula, there was a well-established Greek culture going back centuries, and a corresponding friendliness to the Byzantines and to the Greek church. I learned that there were ongoing attempts by the Byzantines to recapture Italy, with help from the “heel” people. And in the same period, there were regular raids by North African Muslims, though whether as individual pirate groups or attempts at actual conquest following the conquest of Spain is unclear. Meanwhile, the Lombard nobility running the various cities as their personal fiefdoms married, fought with and assassinated each other at every turn, periodically bringing in the Byzantine Greeks and/or the Arabs as allies against their local enemies. The Normans were just one more group of mercenaries brought into the mix. In other words, it was all a gloriously bloody mess, and although Kreutz’s book is a scholarly one, it’s clear that the period would make as compelling a TV series as “The Vikings”.