Early Medieval History
This section focuses on Britain, Ireland and their offshore islands between 350AD and 850AD. The core of this period has been described as the 'dark ages' because of the relative scarcity of reliable historical information or archaeological evidence. In fact, our knowledge of much of the Roman period is also sparse.
The term 'dark ages' is unpopular with many archaeologists and historians, some preferring 'Sub-Roman'. This term carries its own agenda of implied inferiority and, of course, these islands were never entirely Roman. Martin Henig (British Archaeology, December 2002, p. 11) states that "the so-called 'darkness' of the period between 400 and 600 in southern and eastern Britain is the result partly of archaeological neglect, partly of a long tradition of scholarship looking only for Germanic elements in the culture of the period." Within the European context, this period is 'late antiquity' or 'early medieval' - in many ways a more accurate and meaningful term
The period commences with the last years of Roman occupation - covering perhaps one half of the territory in question - when monetary economy and the organised distribution of manufactured products ended. Some aspects of fourth century agriculture and the crumbling villa system may have survived into the fifth and sixth century. Literary sources are few, Gildas being perhaps the most famous but obscure source of post-Roman Britain, and the Saxon Invasion. Some of the major cultures of the time are barely known, especially the Picts. Other influences such as the Irish in Britain can only be gleaned from Ogham inscriptions. The advance of the Christian religion is equally obscured by later 'Lives' - see St David as an example.
The 'darkness' lifts some three hundred years later with recorded information about the development of early medieval states throughout these islands in the 7th and 8th centuries. Evidenced, for example, by the early Anglo-Saxon pennies seen on this page. But by then some new agendas were in operation, and a pattern of national myth-making and self-justification had been set. In the case of Scotland, the Scotti imposed themselves on the Britons and Picts. Bede is a key example of an author with an agenda. Compare his presentation with some Victorian representations of 'Teutonic' England.
By Dr Miles RussellThe chapters in this volume, each written by a leading scholar of the period, analyse in turn the different nationalities and kingdoms that existed in the British Isles from the end of the Roman empire to the coming of the Vikings, the process of conversion to Christianity, the development of art and of a written culture, and the interaction between this written culture and the societies of the day. Available from: