Big History and the Early Middle Ages

In December 2015, I went off to the LSE and heard Ian Morris give the first of his public lectures as the  Philippe Romain Chair in History and International Affairs. In this one, he was looking for a grand unified field theory of history and laid out what he considered the basics of a “Theory of Everything” which covered the last 20,000 years of human history. He started by making an important point: he sees every historian as having a Theory of Everything, even if they don’t make it explicit and even if that theory is that everything is contingent. In response to that, I want to begin sketching out some of my theories of everything. But I also want to look at how the early Middle Ages does or doesn’t fit into Ian’s own Theory of Everything.

After an overview of the historiography of a theory of everything, starting from the eighteenth century), Ian sketched the outline of the current leading contender for such a theory, at least in the English-speaking world. The basis of this is evolutionary thinking, looking at what he called the 100,000 year question: how did we get from very few modern humans with a minimal standard of living and low life expectancy 100,000 years ago to the modern world?

Ian also talked about the three key components of such a theory: biology (humans as animals), culture and cultural evolution, and geography. In terms of evolutionary big history, Ian claims, what we see as an overall picture is a move from foraging to cultivating, farming villages, and then several different levels of more complex states. The speed of the movement through this sequence varies between regions of the worlds according to environmental conditions and there are also regions which move to herding rather than cultivating, but the broad patterns are quite similar. In many ways this part of the talk sounded like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, with geography essentially being destiny. However Ian’s interested in the future, as well as the distant past, so he pointed out that “time’s arrow flies diagonally”. In other words, as bigger units expand, they cut off indigenous paths of development in the societies they come into contact with, such as with the Old World invasions of the New World or with industrialisation nowadays.

In the long run, though, Ian sees a very smooth process of increasing scale; he talks of history being “largely an endless pursuit of energy” and his new book, based on that thesis, is called Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. In other words, his Theory of Everything is not just evolutionary, but materialist and broadly teleological. He did point out, however, that despite the long-run smoothness in the short run there could be catastrophic periods (and didn’t forget to quote Keynes on the fact that in the long run we’re all dead).

The difficulty here is what counts as the short run, when you’re talking about either 100,000 years or at least 20,000 years, as his later talks do. But I’m going to look at western Europe in the early Middle Ages (say 500-1000 CE) and in the 20,000 year period, I’d say that isn’t just a momentary blip.

Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages is, as global historians repeatedly point out, a backwater. The early medieval West is doubly so, which is really my point. There’s a change in the period from the Roman Empire to considerably simpler forms of societies and economies. If you’re Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome you see this as the “end of civilization”, whereas Chris Wickham sees more opportunities for free peasants.  But regardless of whether you see this as positive or negative, the fact of the change is clear, and that’s a problem for Ian’s theories. Time’s arrow is flying backwards in his terms and no-one seems particularly interested in getting it to fly the “correct” way, towards the more complex society that has been lost. What’s more, when more complex societies do develop in the West in the Central Middle Ages, they’re not “Roman” in socio-economic terms, and they’re not very Roman culturally.

There’s an obvious contrast here with the Chinese empire, which also fell apart periodically in the first millennium CE. Large and complex premodern societies can be brittle and prone to collapse: we know that. But the Chinese state was repeatedly recreated; after Justinian no-one seriously tried to revive the western Roman empire.

One obvious response is to say that they were factors that meant that the Roman empire couldn’t be revived, such as a loss of key territories, population decline (due to climate change or disease) or the loss of substantial technological knowledge. It’s not clear to me, however, that any of these suggestions is an adequate explanation. In terms of territory, the West’s big loss was North Africa and its grain supply, but to compensate that, there were substantial new areas of farmland that became available in Germany for any would-be Roman emperor. And population loss and climate change also probably happened in China as well.

Technology loss seems at first sight more plausible. But there weren’t actually many technologies that were completely lost, long-term, to the whole of the post-Roman West. Wheel-made pottery and glass may have vanished from Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, but they could be re-imported from Gaul at a later date. Concrete probably was lost entirely, but the metalwork skills of the early Middle Ages remained substantial. What changed most drastically was the scale of production, rather than the specific technologies used. Bryan Ward-Perkins argues that in terms of the range and quality of material goods available, the Roman empire was comparable to thirteen or fifteenth-century Europe (Fall of Rome, p. 100), i.e. one that was still premodern.

It’s possible that there’s some other factor that I haven’t considered which explains why the Roman empire (or something akin to it) couldn’t be revived. But that doesn’t explain why no-one seriously tried to revive it. Charlemagne and the Carolingians are emblematic here. They certainly tried to revive some aspects of Roman culture, such as more classical Latin. But what is also interesting is what they didn’t try and revive. There was no royal attempt to recover and apply Roman law, even though there was a considerable amount of it still available in manuscript form. Nor did anyone try and recreate the Roman army, even though there were texts around, such as Vegetius’ De re militari that might have allowed this.

The list of opportunities not taken goes on. In 757, a hydraulic organ was brought to Pippin III’s court: there’s no evidence that anyone tried to reverse-engineer it. There was a lot of other technology floating around in the eighth and ninth-century Byzantine and Islamic worlds: despite their contacts with these, the Carolingians don’t seem to have been searching for it. (This contrasts with texts of canonical collections, the Benedictine Rule etc, which Charlemagne and his successors were keen to get from outside the kingdom).

All this brings me back to something that I think John Gillingham once said (though I can’t now find the specific reference), to the effect that “We needs must love the highest when we see it” is historically inaccurate. Elites could often see or know about more sophisticated forms of government and larger, more complex states without necessarily thinking they were a Good Thing. The early medieval west strikes me as an important counter-example to a Theory of Everything that is evolutionary, teleological and materialist.

One possible way round this problem is to say that the evolutionary process is very path-dependent. Once you’ve made a key decision or incurred a vital loss, there’s no way back: the early medieval state has become flightless, as it were. One possible key moment is identified by Chris Wickham as the point at which the Merovingian rulers gave up collecting taxes. But that decision is in itself hard to explain in a purely materialist framework.

I think that to get a workable Theory of Everything we have to abandon one of evolution, teleology and materialism, and funnily enough its materialism I want to abandon rather than teleology. At the 20,000 year scale I think there is evidence for humans overall wanting more complex societies rather than the simple life. It also seems to me unnecessarily drastic to throw out evolution completely. Repeated small changes that make an institution or a society more “successful” is a plausible mechanism for many historical developments.

But as Ian himself pointed out, cultural evolution is often directed and purposeful, unlike the randomness of biological evolution. That means, however, that individual cultures and subcultures can sometimes move in the “wrong” direction: individuals or groups can deliberately choose options that are not in their own material interest and that reduce, rather than increase, complexity. Whether you think of Egyptian monasticism or the Cambodian Year Zero, such acts are repeated throughout history.

Any materialist theory of everything, therefore, needs to build in an understanding of humans’ economic irrationality, both accidental (Daniel Kahneman’s Fast Thinking) and deliberate. And in particular, I think that the early Middle Ages demonstrates that a sufficient Theory of Everything needs to look quite hard at why cultural evolution sometimes leads to societies (or at least the elites leading them) coming up with the “wrong” results. Seeing culture largely as superstructure simply doesn’t work, and I’m not yet convinced by Ian’s idea of morality as dependent on material conditions. I think we need a theory of everything that looks in a rather different way at the interplay between morality and economic circumstances, even if I’m not yet certain exactly what it’s going to look like.

 

 

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One thought on “Big History and the Early Middle Ages

  1. A Theory of Everything rests on the notion of a single reality, that could be good for Physics, but History is all about memories, cultural objects; so, such a theory can even be considered an oxymoron.

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