Britain After Rome

I am reading Robin Fleming’s Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 – 1070 and really enjoying it.

Part of this is because it’s full of descriptions of clothing. But most of it is that I am hugely attracted to reading about cobbled-together, makeshift societies, and to the details of trade webs and burial customs and all the stuff that makes societies what they are. Fleming gives a lot of details about that kind of thing and has an amazing gift for connecting with the people behind the cist burials and the repurposed pots.

I am fascinated by the idea of a group of people moving to a hill-fort in the early fifth century, some of them old enough to have memories of what it was like to shop in a Roman marketplace and put coins in the hands of the buried dead, and some of them young and resentful and not seeing any point in hanging on to Roman ways, and others just determined to keep the tin mines open. I am also fascinated by the idea of a hereditary group of soldiers, the great-grandchildren of the last legionaries, arguing over whether to take protection money from the local farmers or just leave them to go their own damn way. And then there are the people arriving in boats from the north, accompanied by two children and a pig, with their grandmother’s brooches holding their cloak on their shoulders, who just want somewhere to settle and farm.

Would I write about any of those people? Well, no. I don’t do historicals – I get hung up on research, and also I have a bit of a mental block about novels set in Ancient Rome or fantasy versions of it. I just irrationally tend to dislike them. I’m not sure why. At least two different people have tried to get me to read the Falco books and I’ve bounced off them. I think it’s that I’m tensed up expecting that at any moment someone will eat a dormouse or convert to Christianity and get gruesomely martyred.

Would I write something inspired by them? At some point, almost certainly.

The thing with fantasy is that for it to work, there has to be a core of believability about the people and their culture, to give the reader something to brace herself against while she imagines the dragons or the demon-slayers or whatever. (Incidentally, I think this is something that a lot of non-genre readers fundamentally don’t get. I know a lot of people who will happily read magical realism but won’t pick up anything with a castle on the cover, and I suspect that some of that is a mismatch of expectations – they think that the book with the castle on the cover is going to be nothing but unrestrained, illogical flights of fancy without even the fig leaf of a real-world setting. Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable not to like fantasy, and I’m not saying anyone should read it who doesn’t want to – just that if you don’t read it and think you know about it, it might not be quite as you expect).

And in the meantime, I’m really enjoying Britain After Rome. It does what really good books do: it gives you a world to explore, and through that, tells you more about the world you’re actually living in.

3 thoughts on “Britain After Rome

  1. Oooh, that looks like a thoroughly awesome book.

    (Also, from the sound of it A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water— the one I bought on Monday, fits your criteria. In 1930s Europe, Our Hero walks from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (though the narrative currently ends at the Iron Gates), and a chance meeting with a family friend results in introductions leading to introductions, so that one night he sleeps in a cowshed, the next he dines with Counts. There are a few bits of his diary, (as opposed to the memories of 40 years later) that grate a bit, as he self conciously quotes Kipling, but it isn’t very long, and the rest is gorgeous. 1930s aristocracy of Central Europe.)

    1. Oh, yes, that really does sound like my kind of thing. Thank you!

      The After Rome book is awesome. It’s exactly the kind of social history I like – lots of crunchy details about what people were buried with and informed speculation about what that meant for the society they were living in, and no sweeping assumptions that what was going on in 450s London can be extrapolated to 870s Orkney, and just enough about the wider world to give an idea of who these people were trading with and getting their ideas from.

      1. He adds little bits about future careers, which is even more poignant as most of the people he met were on the side of the Axis in WW2. One friend was actually on Crete at the same time as him, on the opposing side.

        *adds it to list*

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