in: Giorgio Ausenda/Paolo Delogu & Chris Wickham (Eds.), The Langobards before the Frankish conquest: an ethnographic perspective (Woodbridge: Boydell Press 2009), pp. 149-173.
More than 500 years of European history – the period between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the powerful expansion of the western economy after the year 1000 – lie in the shadow of the written sources. And, compared to Antiquity, those written sources seem to speak more of a cultural decline than of an upturn. The lack of archeological evidence for an urban culture comparable to Roman times seems to confirm this picture.
What was the character of this period? Are we dealing with a catastrophic, deep collapse, that set Europe back compared with its prosperous neighbours, Byzantium and the Arab Empire, the keepers of Antique urban culture? If the image of a morally decadent aristocracy in an epoch degraded by ‘propaganda’ to an ‘interim period’ (an image disseminated by the growing bourgeoisie of the Renaissance) was correct, how could one explain the powerful economic, cultural and military expansion that gradually conquered the entire globe from the sixteenth century onwards? All attempts to explain this by the importation of cultural elements from the Orient to central Europe, especially during the Crusades, fail to answer the question; why did the Orient itself not experience a comparable emergence? We must search for the reasons of this upturn, that began after the year 1000 with the development of communal towns on the lower Rhine and in northern Italy, and nowhere else than in western Europe itself. Logically, we must seek them in developments that took place before the year 1000, in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. Inevitably we must turn to the agricultural system, the economic foundation of the early Middle Ages, which decisively shaped the structure and productivity of the economic system as a whole. This extremely difficult historical topic can only be successfully investigated from an interdisciplinary perspective. The question is now: what role can the archaeology of the early Middle Ages play in throwing light on this topic?