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Barbarians to Angels


The bibliographic information for the book under review in this piece of work is:

Peter S. Wells, Barbarians to Angels, New York : 2008. The author is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota . He is also a renowned scholar in the field of Archeology.


In this book, Professor Peter S. Wells sets out to make a bold declaration that the period of the ‘Dark Ages’ was not as unpolished, uncivilized and unaccomplished as portrayed by later Roman authors. Notions and ideas about barbaric peoples who savagely attacked and terrorized an otherwise civilized and pacified Roman communities have persisted to this very day. [1] Conversely, based on the strength of archeological evidence, historians have been able to collect and collate credible data showing that this period was replete with industrious achievements. It was peopled with individuals who were actually creative, innovative, philanthropic, religious and modestly culturalized. The book derives its title from the change of perceptions that has taken place over the years. This is based on the fact that with the modern archeological evidence, they who were once declared barbarian can now be viewed as angels! [2] The entire book is an impressive attempt to clarify this angelic maxim and rescue the Dark ages from the misconstrued representation it has suffered over the years.

Key Issues

In the very first Chapter, the author commences by presenting the case that he intends to dispute. Subsequently, he quotes directly from the earlier writers of the Roman era who wrote about two hundred years ago. These writers reported the depletory state of things after the demise of the Roman authority. The two main personalities in this category were Piranesi and Gibbons. Here below is a scathing viewpoint that illustrates their analysis of the dark ages:

With the collapse of Roman political authority, marauding bands of barbarian warriors looted and pillaged wherever they wanted to because the rule of law had withered away and few local armed forces could withstand the assaults. Fine manufactures such as factory-made terra sigillata pottery and elegant painted glassware faded from the scene, to be replaced by crude handmade wares produced in scruffy settlements. Without the Roman control of the seas and overland highways, trade collapsed and communities became cut off from the larger world. [3]

As indicated above, it would seem that life was really unbearable in the dark ages. It paints a picture of a people hanging by their finger nails with very limited resources. Peter Wells makes the point that these convictions persisted because “no one understood the archeological evidence well enough to use it to fill the gap.” [4] Consequently, a sincere shift of paradigm from these writings to the scientific evidence on the ground is necessary. When this is done, we begin to see that there were indeed some levels of positive developments which were different but not necessarily indifferent to the Roman civilization. [5]

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The author has a different view concerning what has been widely referred to us the ‘Fall of Rome’. In his view, it was rather a decline, a slow petering out so much so that even the people who lived in this era would not have known with sure certainty that the end of was nigh. [6] Among the invading warriors, there was one group led by Attila the emperor of the Huns. He is described in terms that exhibit a civilized person. This is interesting given the horrendous picture that the late Roman writers had painted of these warriors and their leaders. Contrarily, Attila is described thus:

A lover of war, he was personally restrained in action, most impressive in counsel, gracious to suppliants, and generous to those whom he had once given his trust. (…) While sumptuous food had been prepared-served on sliver platters-for the other barbarians and for us, for Attila there was nothing but meat on a wooden trencher. He showed himself temperate in all other ways too, for gold and silver goblets were offered to the men at the feast, but his mug was of wood. His dress too was plain nor was the sword by his side. [7]

Concerning the peoples of Europe, the archeological evidence shows that there were relatively permanent settlements in Europe contrary to big wave of migrations from elsewhere. [8] While there would have been movements of people into new lands, those movements were probably on a small scale. The peoples were basically farmers. Their economic activities revolved around agriculture and livestock keeping. [9] There was also art and crafts such as textile and pottery. There is also evidence of trade from the nature of the materials that were discovered and preserved. Thus, the communities were not isolated in the middle of nowhere. [10] With the ability to travel and exchange goods, there was also that ability to exchange ideas and information so that the level of awareness was increased.

Another source of material for the nature of activities that existed in the Dark ages can be found from the funerary. Through recent archeological research, many items from graves of great Kings have divulged important information about the Kings. [11] We thus get a lot of details from King Childeric’s grave, the father of King Clovis who converted to Christianity. [12] From these details, it is possible to reconstruct some cultural beliefs and practices of ‘barbarian’ peoples. Many Kings were buried with items such as jewelry, minerals, clothes and pottery. Some of these had inscriptions in them which provided a lot of information. Material evidence shows elaborate tools and ornaments made of gold and precious stones. [13] Furthermore, there lies in excavated ruins some signs of complex ‘manufacturing’ and ‘commercial’ centers.

The study of cities has also revealed that there was some continuity from one generation to the next and not abrupt declines followed by brilliant discoveries all of a sudden. “Building programs in Roman-Style architecture ceased to be maintained, of course, but in many respects the basic character of urban life did not change.” [14] Consequently, cities like Rome , Cologne , Regensburg , Paris , Vienna and even London did not lose their distinctive characters across the board during the Dark Ages. There was change of style in buildings and neglect of big stone monumental structures. There was a shift to a different architecture that was based on wood as opposed to stone. [15] Peter Wells asserts that it would be ridiculous and presumptuous to refer to these changes as decline, collapse or abandonment. [16]

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One interesting observation about the people who lived during this period has come down from human remains. “Skeleton remains in the cemeteries tell us much about how well people were fed and how tall they were.” [17] The average heights of the inhabitants was high, that is, in the five eight inches. The author remarks that such great heights “were not achieved again until the twelfth century.” [18] Most of the evidence point to a people who had enough nutrition. Chemical analysis of the bone structures testify to the same. As we can see, It was not necessarily a period of terrible deprivation and abject poverty.

During the Dark Ages, Christianity was taking roots in different parts of continental Europe . St. Patrick is famed as the one who went to Ireland to preach and convert the people there. [19] There were others like him in other areas as well. However it is important to remember that the process of conversion was slow. Even under special circumstances when powerful ruler like Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion, people practiced their old tradition alongside Christianity. [20] Old habits die hard. More significantly, there were elements of incorporation and borrowing from earlier traditions. As the author says, even today, some of these practices of the pre-historic peoples of Europe are still practiced. [21] He lists some of the common ones: Christmas tree decoration, Easter egg coloration, tossing pennies and dimes in the fountains.

In the realm of education, there is also material evidence of artistic activity and writing. There was a “new style of decorative metalwork” at the end of the Roman period. [22] The author has pictorials of elaborate jewelry decorations. The art of ‘book illumination’ that is, “adding pictures to texts” was also a new discovery at the beginning of the fifth century. [23] Learning and education took place in monasteries where literary genres were preserved over the years. One of “the most prominent scholars of this period was Bede.” [24] He entered the monastery at the age of 17 and studied extensively. “Bede was widely respected as a thorough researcher who cited extensive reference in his works and checked his facts carefully.” [25] He wrote many works including the renowned one on the History of the English people.

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In the final chapter, Peter Wells recapitulates his axioms by emphasizing the philanthropic nature of the leaders during the dark Ages. He gives a candid example of Charlemagne’s elephant which was a diplomatic gift from a Muslim leader. [26] We see in this example and many more an elaborate exchange of goods and services and a thriving society.

Systematic Evaluation and Recommendation

On the whole, the author succeeds in presenting credible evidence to counteract long standing scholarship. He emphasizes that the material evidence concretized through archeology is probably more reliable than Roman writers who had a hidden agenda and vested interested while presenting their versions of history. Furthermore, it is hard to make a case that the success of the late middle ages and the renaissance was a product of an isolated vacuum. There must have been prior foundation that helped in transitioning and traditioning the culture. The fact that some of these cultural practices have existed to this very day affirms this position. Yes, the period had its challenges, especially frequent wars, but these did not define the everydayness of the people who lived during the era. If the only criteria for evaluating a successful system must be based on its weakest moments, then no period in history has been successful. Even the glorious achievements of the 20th century are littered with millions of lives lost in unfathomable wars.

This book is a wonderful resource for anyone who would like to know more about the history of Europe in the Dark Ages. While it is not an exhaustive compendium to the entire history of the period, it provides a credible beginning. It also has an elaborate appendix and notes which can help those in a scholarly pursuit to read further. I highly recommend this book both to the hoi polloi and to those who are searching and researching in the academic field.

[1] Peter S. Wells, Barbarians to Angles, New York : 2008. p. xiv

[2] Ibid. p. 15.

[3] Peter S. Wells, p. 4.

[4] Ibid. p. xiv.

[5] Ibid. p. 5.

[6] Ibid. p. 19.

[7] Ibid. p. 26

[8] Ibid. p. 30

[9] Ibid. p. 35, 164-168.

[10] Wells, p. 40.

[11] Ibid. p. 52,.

[12] Ibid. p. 53.

[13] Ibid. p. 142-150

[14] Ibid. p. 85.

[15] Ibid 109.

[16] Ibid p. 112

[17] Ibid. p. 139

[18] Ibid. p. 140.

[19] Ibid. p. 171.

[20] Wells, p. 172

[21] Ibid. p. 185.

[22] Ibid. p. 186-189

[23] Ibid. p. 192

[24] Ibid. p. 196.

[25] Ibid. p. 197

[26] Ibid. p. 200