Before Chris Wickhams lecture on Problems with the dialogue between medieval history and medieval archaeology to the joint seminars of the Institute of Historical Research and the Institute of Archaeology, some of us were trying to guess whether hed irritate the historians or the archaeologists more. I voted for both equally, but Chris said afterwards that hed been aiming at the historians more, as a historian himself, and he said in the talk itself that he thought historians were better placed to do the kind of synthesis he was after.
The main part of the lecture was a series of case studies of missed opportunities, when dialogues hasnt taken place, including extreme cases where archaeologists and historians have been working on the same site (like Poggibonsi in Tuscany), but still dont communicate properly. Chris also made a very good point in passing about how cultural historians ought to be thinking more seriously about material culture and especially the possibility of material culture as being almost the only medium for mass communication in a world of restricted literacy. The point has been made for specific artefacts (e.g. the significance of royal portraits on coins), but not taken up in a wider sense.
The problem I found with the lecture, however, is that underlying a lot of it was what seemed to me too narrow vision of what real history was. Chris has contributed enormously to socio-economic history, and much of the talk was implicitly a call for this to be prioritised, in combination with archaeological expertise. Indeed Chris explicitly contrasted the fruitful relationship of history with archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s (with a historical tendency towards broad-sweep structural analysis, based on socio-economic history) with the historians later move away from archaeology with the linguistic turn. This meant that post-processural archaeologists in the late 1980s and 1990s found historical collaborators hard to come by.
It seemed clear to me in the talk that what Chris really wants is the 1970s back, but its not just structuralism that now seem as out of date as glam rock (and less likely to be revived). The big problem now is that socio-economic history provides few obvious reasons for studying the Middle Ages, let alone the early Middle Ages. Why should the economic history of the Middle Ages be of interest to anyone but specialists? My sense is that until recently there were two possible broader connections. If you were interested in grand Marxian analyses, then slave and feudal modes of production were an important part of the model to be studied. Meanwhile for an analysis of the roots of industrialisation or capitalism as a whole, late medieval England and its textile trade or late medieval Italy and its banking system were useful places to look.
The problem is that current global capitalism has advanced so far that many of the early steps look entirely irrelevant. Why study what caused industrialisation in a post-industrial Europe? How much of what we learn about urbanisation in the twelfth century can influence our ideas of it in the twenty-first century? Is a persons relationship to the means of production really the best determinant of their socio-economic position?
In contrast, other aspects of the early Middle Ages do seem to have more obvious contemporary resonance. Early medieval historians exploring theology, the construction of ethnicity, the development of the state, gender roles or the use of history as propaganda can all show connections between then and now in a way that has become difficult for early medieval socio-economic history. Archaeology can contribute to some aspects of these themes (its been very important for looking at ethnicity and culture, for example), but its not central to these issues in the same way as it is to socio-economic history.
That doesnt mean that the study of medieval socio-economic history isnt valuable or important in its own right, but I cant see it returning to centre stage again. Chris ended by presenting an analysis of historical change in Palestine and Syria in the period 500-900. It was a good example of how much you can deduce from an area with a well-explored archaeological record without going to written sources. However, Im not sure that many people apart from Chris are going to feel that the most important fact about seventh-century Islam is that it led to little change in the economy of the Levant. Arguing that archaeology should be an equal partner with history rather than its handmaiden may be a sound position, but it isnt really going to be effective if what is offered is an attenuated vision of history where structural pattern has replaced story.