Reading along the Danube

Since I can’t go to one of my favorite parts of the world, I’m digging out all the books I bought about it but never got around to either finishing, or in a few cases starting. That most of them are auf Deutsch helps kick me out of my usual habits as well, and stretches the Little Grey Cells.

The first one I started is a “popular” summary of post-Roman settlement in Roman sites along the Danube, from Caernuntum (downstream of Vienna) up to the mouth of the Enns River. I put popular in quotes because although it is a summary of a lot of archaeological and historical work, the author expects readers to know the basics of Roman and Dark Ages/Late Antiquity history and of archaeology. It provides an excellent summary of “what happened after Rome left?” Or more specifically, after the official presence of the Roman Army along the Limes ended after AD 488 CE.

Thanks to Gibbon and other historians, English-language histories of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire left readers with the assumption that after Odoacer removed Romulus Augustulus from the imperial throne in 476, people abandoned everything, rolled up the sidewalks, and reverted to Neolithic levels of material and intellectual culture, outside of a few tiny, trembling pockets of civilization. Per Gibbon et al, Western Europe remained in the dark until the 1000s, and even then, well, it wasn’t as good until after 1500 when the Renaissance and the Return of the Classics re-lit the lamp of civilization. “Gothic” as in medieval was, ahem, excess emotion and primitives gawping at the simple grandeur that had been Rome and Greece. *Sniff of disdain*

If your only sources are written documents, and most of those that are not religious guides or things like herbals and devotional works are laments for “how things were back in the Good Old Days before the barbarians besieged my monastery,” or “Rome’s terrible sins let in the barbarians. Discuss,” well, your view of the period between 410 and 800 is going to be rather skewed. Especially if you ignore the Byzantine Empire, which English writers tended to do (too chaotic, too decadent, too far away.) There are not that many written sources from the Dark Ages/Late Antiquity unless you really start digging in monasteries, or digging in Medieval ruins and read the inscriptions. Which no one did until the 1950s (!) No one was interested in post-Roman stuff. Now, credit where it is due, archaeologists didn’t have a lot of the tools and techniques that have made so much post-Roman work possible, and digging under cities tends to be expensive and frowned upon by the neighbors. Especially if it means tearing up streets and sewers. Or going through people’s basements.

Which is partly why historians missed the clues that people had not vanished, and neither had Roman places and cities. Some were abandoned, true, because without Rome’s strength, and because of a major climate downturn, they were no longer safely habitable. Others were too open, and on the line of march for, oh, almost every Germanic, Slavic, and Steppe group that wandered through Europe between 410 and 1200. Others were rebuilt but with wattle and daub, not stone (London), and that doesn’t last the way stone does. Or people incorporated the Roman stuff into medieval stuff, or built over it, and the academics didn’t know what happened to sit under this town, that palace, or the church over there. Unless you go hunting spolia and know what to look for. Roman sites made great quarries for structural stone and column capitals once people got to that point. (I love strolling along and going, “Hey, that’s a Roman grave marker tucked into the church wall. Oh look, there’s part of a mile stone. Cool.”

The Danube valley has been occupied by humans since the Paleolithic. It’s one of very few east-west communication routes, and provides a route between the Alps, the Bohemian Massif, and the Carpathians. Caernuntum was the point where the Amber Road, the trade route from the Baltic to the Med, crossed the river. Wels was another crossing point. Vienna marks the eastern tip of the Alps (the Vienna Woods are foothills of the Alps.) Rome used it as a border north-south (the Limes) and drew provincial borders from it. To this day, several of the political and episcopal divisions in the area are Roman. They lasted through: Bavarians, Slavs, Avars, Franks, Magyars, the Babenbugs, and the Habsburgs. Roman ruins appear in basements, were incorporated into city walls and gates, provided material for churches and castles, remained in pastures until the late 1800s, and so on. In two cases, people moved out of the city or military town completely, rebuilding higher or back from the hazards of the river. Archaeologist love those locations, because they don’t have to worry about digging under towns, or trying to reconstruct where the town and the Roman town diverged. Vienna kept Vindobona’s street plan and wall outline, as readers have heard me rhapsodizing over far too often. 🙂

The more I learn about the period of 410-1100, the more fascinating it becomes, and the more I want to read and then explore.

9 thoughts on “Reading along the Danube

  1. A Girl and Her Time Machine: a Dangerous Combination
    By Sir Tain Deth
    Illustrated by: Ann D. Messi

  2. I have a copy of Fishers Craft and Lettered Art, by Hoffman, which provides a good overview of mediaeval monastic fishing and food logistics, as well as market conditions and food use / quantities in a monastery.
    Best bought used for $6 to $12, as the Kindle is !!! $36.00 !!! and the paperback is over $100.
    A search brought up a similar book PDF on Hungarian historic fisning, “Aspects of Fishing in Mediaeval Hungary, (2011), Jan Klapste – Petr Sommer. In English, which looks interesting.
    John Sage

  3. I have a copy of Fishers Craft and Lettered Art, by Hoffman, which provides a good overview of mediaeval monastic fishing and food logistics, as well as market conditions and food use / quantities in a monastery.
    Best bought used for $6 to $12, as the Kindle is !!! $36.00 !!! and the paperback is over $100.
    A search brought up a similar book PDF on Hungarian historic fisning, “Aspects of Fishing in Mediaeval Hungary, (2011), Jan Klapste – Petr Sommer. In English, which looks interesting.
    John Sage

  4. Interesting…hard to find, and even harder to read, unless you’re VERY good with archaic languages… Sadly, most of us don’t have those capabilities nor the time to go look at the places to get a boots on the ground feel for the environment there today, much less 1000 years ago.

  5. Yup, a vivarium (fishfarm/pond that was kept stocked, and used for food too) was an important part of lots of monasteries, lots of villages, and lots of noble estates.

    It was also an analogy for a monastery or the Christian life, which was why Cassiodorus’ late Roman monastery/library/school was named the Vivarium. (It was in Squillace, Italy. He was of senatorial rank, and he wrote a lot and commissioned a lot of copies. Very influential guy, Cassiodorus.) His Vivarium didn’t last very long after his death, but his idea that monks should scrupulously copy manuscripts or translate Greek works into Latin, as an act of piety and of service to God and the Church, was very influential.

    And it’s pretty funny, because the Romans in classical times thought of vivariums as a sort of luxury lifestyle thing for the rich, to keep luxury fish really fresh; but it turned out to be even better for common people and common fish.

    • It was also pretty common for monasteries, estates, villages, etc. to have stuff like dovecotes, big chicken coops, rabbit warrens, etc. for year-round sources of food. (Although the vivarium really got important during fasting times, since medieval Lent and Advent was non-dairy and non-egg.)

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