30 July 2017

Sunday Special No 4 - Change and decay...

Warning: I'm not a historian, a linguist or a proper archaeologist and anyone who is may be irritated by my ramblings below. You have been warned.

I am interested in how changes happen, how the world goes from one thing to another and at what point you can suddenly say "Ah, the X era has ended and the Y era has begun!"

Except that I think often, you can't say that.

As both my dedicated readers will know, I spent a week recently helping on an archaeological dig. The site in question - Roman Dorchester on Thames - is especially interesting because it seems to have been in use relatively late in the Roman period, and soon after.

I find this transition fascinating. In the decades before 410CE you have most of Britain as part of the Roman Empire, as part of a wider political unit with long distance trade, cultural diversity (there was!) and industry (large scale pottery manufacture, mining and agriculture). Some decades after, what became England is divided in the nascent Anglo Saxon kingdoms and all of the above has gone.

In between we have the Groans of the Britains pleading for intervention to help repel the fearsome invading Picts and Scots. (On this occasion, Britain didn't choose to leave the Empire, rather the Empire could no longer afford to support it).

Dating things in that period is difficult as much of the cultural evidence - things like pottery and coins - used for this becomes rare. Despite this, the older label for the period - Dark Ages - is very unfair, there are beautiful artefacts from the period and people certainly didn't just sit around in the mud all day. Nor does the 1066 And All That version that all the Romano Britains were replaced by Angles, Saxons and Jutes seem to be completely accurate, rather it seems that much of the population stayed where they were, just getting new rulers and, in time, a new language (there's evidence that English picked up bits of structure from Welsh, presumably as people learned the speech of their rulers).

So probably, little suddenly changed for the people living in Roman Dorchester on Thames. Perhaps, year on year, there were fewer orders for pottery. Coinage became rarer. There were troubling stories of raiding parties and wars. There certainly Germanic Feoderati around, perhaps employed by the local magnates to keep the peace and replace the troops who had vanishing over the past few decades.. But the harvest had to be got in and the fields ploughed. Then perhaps one day a traveller appeared and announced that the territory was now ruled by a new King. And a century or so later, one of those English Kings was baptised in the town.

My point is that nobody at the time noticed anything big changing overnight.

My wife is a vicar in a group of rural parishes in Oxfordshire. We have been in a couple of parish groups, each composed of a cluster of churches. Often these churches are the last public building in the village, kept going by the dedicated effort of a small group of parishioners, with small congregations except at Christmas, Easter and Harvest. Such is the rural church in the early 21st century - I'm not complaining about it - but you can see in those churches that they were once busy places with choir stalls, bellringers, Sunday Schools, newsletters, Banns (announcements of weddings) being read out. Often, now, there simply aren't enough people to keep all this going. Like Roman Britain, things have shifted, but not overnight.

In 2016, the two leading English speaking countries, the UK and the USA, took political decisions that nobody expected. For me, the decision by the UK to leave the EU has strange echoes of 410CE and the the new US President (whose name I'm not even going to mention) has strange echoes of one of those reviled Roman Emperors who Edward Gibbon excoriates and blames for the corruption and eventual fall of the Empire.

I gather that, again, the idea of a simple fall isn't actually right, we tend to like discussing things as though you can make clear distinctions between periods of time and I wonder if in 2117 or 2500 or even 4000, historians will pinpoint 2016 as when that global Anglo-Saxon/ English civilization which (presumably) got going in the years following 410 stopped being a world force? (Way past time, you might think, given much of our dubious record).

You don't notice things like that until later, everyone carries on doing what they always did, but still... I do think there's something in the air.

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