BBC History Magazine

INTERVIEW / MAX ADAMS “You can think of this era as a black hole into which our history tumbles”

Ellie Cawthorne: Your new book pieces together the centuries following the fall of Roman Britain in around AD 400. This was an era that fell between two major, limelight-grabbing historical epochs. So what makes it an interesting period to study?

Max Adams: Every early medieval archaeologist has to take on the ‘Dark Ages’ sooner or later. It’s a bit like a Shakespearean actor taking on Lear. At some point, you’re going to have to take a stab at it. You could think of this very obscure period as a black hole into which our history tumbles. You have to hold up a candle to get the merest glimpse of what’s going on, which also makes it irresistible.

Anyone investigating the early Middle Ages starts with the great historian of western Europe in that period, the Venerable Bede. But even Bede, who is prolific in the extreme, says hardly anything about Britain at this time. He covers around 150 years in just 19 lines. There are no Roman sources, and the only narratives we have are a ranting sermon from a cleric that we can’t even date, a couple of documents from St Patrick, and a few obscure references from the continent.

Traditional interpretations of this period have been completely shackled by nationalism – they are all about Britons who are slaves or Anglo-Saxon invaders, as if these rules of national ethnicity apply in this period. This is partly because the primary historian we have to rely on is Gildas, a priest who you would now think of as a sort of ranting, fulminating fundamentalist. He doesn’t mince his words – Saxons are “filthy dogs” and bad Christian kings are “but I’ve tried to get away from all that.

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