I’ve been postponing writing a post like this about the book for ages. I didn’t really know how best to approach it. In the end I decided that I had to at least post something, and the stuff below’s where I ended up:
I guess the first thing to note is that the book is not just about ‘the fall of Rome’, even though I’ve frequently mentioned the book in that context here on the blog. Mostly it’s a book about migration patterns. The place is Europe, the time-frame covered is from the last part of the (western) Roman Empire up to the end of the first millenium. The (very) short version of the first 2-300 (?) pages is this:
(it’s the very short version!)
Keyword: Völkerwanderung (Danish: folkevandring). Before going any further, do read Razib Khan’s review of the book here (the image is from that post).
After Heather is finished talking about the migration patterns of Germanic ‘peoples’ (it’s necessary to add the ‘…’ He spends quite a bit of time talking about what the migration units most likely looked like, but I’ll not spend time on that here); Goths, Vandals, Franks etc. – I’d never even heard about half of the groups he mentions in the first part of the book – he talks about Slavic migration patterns, and after that he also spends quite a bit of time on the behaviour of the Vikings. I really liked part of the last bit of the book, the part about the early state formations in Central Europe (and beyond) and how these, according to him, were linked to immigration and development. I don’t know if Heather has read Mancur Olson, but he certainly reads as if he has and this most certainly does not make me like the book any less. As mentioned Heather’s treatment stops around the end of the millenium, though he does talk a little about later medieval migration patterns and -developments. Technically, the way I started out the paragraph could give you the wrong idea about how the book is structured so I should clarify. Heather rarely completely stops talking about group X or Y after he’s moved on to group Z, rather he always keeps coming back to stuff he’s previously covered, comparing the patterns observed; making arguments for why and how the experiences of groups X and Y were similar, which motivational factors the groups shared or didn’t share, or perhaps how the consequences of the different (?) migration strategies compared to each other. Sometimes it becomes a little repetitive, but he’s very thorough, and I liked that aspect because it also made it easier to remember the differences between Lombards, Sueves, Heruli and Sarmatians, to name but a few of the groups in question.
As I was reading the book, one thought that frequently crossed my mind was: ‘you have to start somewhere.’ The truth is that I know nothing about most of the stuff covered in the book – how much do you know about the migration patterns of Early Medieval Europe? – and I’ve only read one book now, so I still don’t know much. There’s a little overlap with other stuff I’ve read, but not much – The Classical World stops at Hadrian, and that’s a long time before the Goths really started taking to the road. Heather was a place to start, and I don’t think it’s a bad place to start. But it’s hard to evaluate the accuracy of an account when you don’t know which sources the author has excluded and basically don’t really know anything about the subject matter – you need to take some stuff on faith, and that’s harder to do when the evidence is sparse. And the evidence you need to rely upon when covering stuff during this period of European history is, it turns out, not what most historians would call optimal – as Heather puts it himself:
“The archaeological reflections of many first-millenium migratory processes […] will often be straightforwardly ambiguous in the sense that you could not be absolutely certain, just on the basis of archaeology alone, that migration had occurred.”
And often, archaeological evidence is almost all you have, even though we’re dealing with stuff taking place little more than 1000 years ago. I did not know that so few historical sources exist, but that’s apparently the way it is. Sometimes the most detailed piece of evidence that you have available for analysis is a description written by the worst enemies of the group you’re interested in knowing more about; a description written by someone who most likely was never neither within 500 kilometres nor within 100 years of any of the people whom he described. Most parts of Slavic Europe was basically prehistoric until some time after the end of the first millenium, something I most certainly didn’t know.
Heather’s account is compelling, though some parts of it I find more compelling than others; like Razib I feel a bit uncertain about the proposed link between the proportion of females within the migratory unit and long-run language transmission, but then again linguistics is yet another subject I know next to nothing about so that link may be eminently plausible to people more well-versed in such matters. I also find it a bit hard to see why the link between pottery types and language should be as strong as he would like to make it, making some of the conclusions he draws less certain than he’ll have them be. I consider this to be more of a minor point though, because it’s not obvious to me either why language similarities should necessarily carry more weight than should similarities in material culture when thinking about how to model and stratify populations of the past optimally; it depends on what you want to achieve with your model. Stated another way, I don’t see why it’s all that important which languages the people implementing the Korchak material culture spoke; the cultural diffusion was significant whether the people involved were at that point Germanic speaking or Slavs. Heather includes a few genetic data in his treatment of the western Viking diasporas, but he doesn’t even mention DNA evidence when dealing with the Slavs, which I find problematic (full disclosure: The comment #3 at Razib’s post linked to above was close to making me not buy the book). You get the feeling that Heather has set out to tell a Grand Narrative, and a natural inference to make then is that this means that he’s probably also subconsciously weighing the evidence in a manner that makes his Grand Narrative more likely to be true and, vice versa, competing models less likely to be true. But people who’ll be complaining for many years to come about what he’s supposedly written in his great work will likely get a lot of things wrong, because the argument he’s trying to make is in fact not as strong as you’d probably think from just reading about it – as he puts it himself in his last concluding chapter:
“migration should generally be given only a secondary position behind social, economic, and political transformation when explaining how it was that barbarian Europe evolved into non-existence in the course of the millenium.”
Heather is not the ‘migration is everything’-strawman that will likely be knocked down many times in the years to come, he’s not denying that a lot of other factors were likely even more important than migration – he states this fact explicitly in his book! But his book also just happens to be about migration, because he thinks immigration was important too. And to someone who does not know a lot about the subject matter, he makes a strong case for that general point. Though people who know more about the period may find his arguments less convincing than I did.
The book is well written and even though I’d have liked to read more about e.g. the material culture of the various migration units, the book is probably long enough as it is (618 pages + 76 pages of maps and notes). If you want to know more about ‘why people migrate today, in the year 2012’ this may not be the best book to get (on the other hand you could also do a lot worse), but it does contain a rather neat description of the (‘a?’) theoretical framework of modern migration studies as well as several examples of how to apply the framework in question. I’ll quote a few key passages related to this point from the last part of the book below:
“Comparative studies provide two basic points of orientation when thinking about the likely causes of any observable migration flow. First, it is overwhelmingly likely that a substantial difference in levels of economic development between adjacent areas will generate a flow between the two, from the less-developed towards its richer neighbour. […] The second point is equally basic. In the vast majority of cases, the precise motivation of any individual migrant will be a complex mixture of free-will and constraint, of economic and political motives. […] Taken together, what both of these observations stress above all is that migration will almost always need to be understood against prevailing patterns of economic and political development. […] Understood properly, and this is the central message screaming out from the comparative literature, migration is not a separate and competing form of explanation to social and economic transformation, but the complementary other side of the same coin. Patterns of migration are dictated by prevailing economic and political conditions, and another dimension in fact of their evolution; they both reflects existing inequalities, and sometimes even help to equalize them, and it is only when viewed from this perspective that the real significance of migratory phenomena can begin to emerge.”
I included this quote also to point out just how wrong-headed it can be to look at immigration as an isolated phenomenon that you can just analyze separately from other important societal phenomena. This is part of why immigration is important, and it’s a point Heather repeats again and again – the fact that this variable interacts with and is dependent upon so many other important variables of interest, and that development and immigration patterns in particular are very closely connected. A lot of people implicitly know this to be true, but many people also don’t know that they know this (or don’t know that they know that they know it…).
This is the part I haven’t said yet, but this is probably all you really need to know: I recommend the book. It has a lot of good stuff and you’ll learn a lot from it even though you have little to no background knowledge.