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The Archaeology of Medieval Europe. Vol. 1. Eighth to Twelfth Centuries AD edited by James Graham-Campbell with Magdalena Valor. (Aarhus University Press, 2008)

March 2009
Volume 4, number 1
The Archaeology of Medieval Europe. Vol. 1.
Eighth to Twelfth Centuries AD edited by
James Graham-Campbell with Magdalena
Valor. (Aarhus University Press, 2008)
by Michael Staunton
This is the first of a two-volume collaborative project designed to comprise the first
complete account of medieval archaeology across the continent of Europe (the second
covers the twelfth to sixteenth centuries). Originating in the Fourth European
Symposium for Teachers of Medieval Archaeology at Seville in 1999, the stated aim of
the project is to transcend the largely nationally-based research in the field to provide
students with an appreciation of the European dimension of the discipline. As a wide-
ranging, informative and attractively-presented textbook, The Archaeology of
Medieval Europe is valuable as an introduction to the discipline and a work of
reference for students of both archaeology and medieval history. The contributors
forty-one in all are some of the leading experts in their respective fields, drawn from
all over Europe. Bookended by an Introduction, a useful chapter on Research and
Teaching Now and an Afterword, the fourteen chapters in between take up such
broad themes as Urban Settlement, Trade and Exchange, Religions, and Death, but
contributors are also allowed to focus more narrowly on case studies in the form of
box-texts: for example, a chapter on Peoples and Environments contains short inserts
on Norse expansion across the North Atlantic, Central and Northern Europe as seen
by Early Medieval Travellers and Geographers, and Arabs and Berbers in Al-Andalus;
Housing Culture is illustrated by examples from Iceland and Spain. There are useful
and well-reproduced maps, diagrams and illustrations throughout, and of particular
value is the detailed bibliography appended to each chapter.
The focus on 800-1200cuts across most traditional divisions of the period, but
convincing reasons are provided for this choice. By the beginning of the eighth
century, advances in agricultural production were in place which facilitated the
significant expansion in urban life and commerce which followed, and the latter
trends were well established by 1200. Conversion to Christianity was widespread
across Europe by the beginning of the period, and with it an end to the practice of
clothed burial. And the year 800 marked the establishment of the Empire in the west
with the coronation of Charlemagne, which had lasting resonances for the idea of
Europe. While this period is most readily associated with advances in towns, trade
and communications, the rural and agrarian character of life continued to dominate.
This is addressed in the early chapters on Peoples and Environments and Rural
Settlement, where the archaeological record is particularly important to our
understanding of the issues. The chapters on Urban Settlement, Travel and
Transport, and Trade and Exchange in particular address what has often been
regarded as a revolutionary period in economic and social life. The authors here tend
March 2009
Volume 4, number 1
to reject both the notion of a sharp break with the Roman world and a subsequent
commercial revolution in favour of a more evolutionary interpretation. While, as
noted, medieval archaeology is no longer seen as primarily ancillary to medieval
history, there is much here that plays into current debates in the latter discipline. For
example, the evidence of feasting and hospitality, and symbols of power, offer a
different perspective to the written documents which form the usual basis of the
study of courtliness and ritual. But, the material record has its own lacunae: as noted,
the most common form of travel and transport on human feet - has left virtually no
If periodization is one area where this book takes an idiosyncratic approach, another
is its emphasis on a European-wide perspective, and here the results are more mixed.
Most writers point to regional variation across Europe, and many lament the lack of
trans-national or even trans-regional coordination of research projects, but there is
little consistency of approach to this European perspective. The chapters on Food,
and on Trade and Exchange, divide their analyses between Mediterranean and
northern Europe; that on Urban Settlement examines western Europe on the one
hand and central, northern, eastern and southern Europe on the other. Others are
divided chronologically or thematically with less attention to regional variation. The
emphasis on the European theme is stronger in some chapters than in others. In a
discussion of Material Culture and Daily Life it is argued that the expansion of the
Empire eastwards resulted in increasingly unified standards among certain social
classes, identified as a type of Europeanisation. More difficult to accept are the claims
in the Afterword that Frederick Barbarossa was a veritable European successor to
Charlemagne or that by 1200 the Europeanisation of Europe was well under way,
especially when the concepts of Europe and Europeanisation are not fully developed
and indeed are largely neglected by most contributors. It could be argued that the
different needs of each subject required a divergence in approach, but the lack of
consistency across the book suggests that this is less by design than as a consequence
of the difficulties of standardizing the work of over forty contributors. Some chapters
notably that on Rural Settlement - address the issues surrounding periodization while
most do not; some, such as those on Fortifications, and Church Buildings, pay more
attention to issues around current scholarship than others. Even the box-texts,
advertised as one of the key features of the book, do not appear in every chapter. This
can be confusing for the reader, and makes the book a less coherent synthesis than it
aspires to be. But if it does not quite achieve its more ambitious overall aims, this is
nonetheless a book which succeeds well in its individual parts, and which will be read
with profit by those interested in medieval archaeology and history alike.
Dr Michael Staunton is a lecturer in medieval history at University College Dublin
and is currently Government of Ireland Senior Fellow in the Arts and Humanities and
Visiting Medieval Fellow at Fordham University.
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