General History II: 476–750
Two events of great symbolic significance frame this period – the final, formal elimination of imperial rule in the western half of the Roman empire in 476 and the installation of a new Abbasid regime in the Caliphate in 750. In a period such as this of dramatic shifts of political fortune and impressive military feats, the history of events attracts its due share of attention – whether it be the creation of a large, unitary Frankish kingdom in Gaul, or Justinian’s determined reassertion of East Roman authority in the West, or the Islamic conquests. But the principal concern of tutors is to encourage analysis of structural change and cross-cultural comparisons.
A wide range of cultures come under scrutiny. The whole of western Eurasia, from the inner Asian frontiers of Iran to the Atlantic, lies within the potential remit of this period. In practice the individual taker's coverage is more limited and tends to be geographically clustered – with perhaps one week devoted to probing an outlying culture by way of contrast and another dealing with a thematic topic (religious, say, or economic) which transcends individual polities. Actual pathways through the subject are determined by the varying expertises of tutors and specific interests of pupils. The principal justification for this restriction in the range of study is that it enables undergraduate historians to probe individual topics in depth and, in particular, to read many of the relevant primary sources. Mastery of the primary material is achievable by undergraduates in the course of weekly essay assignments, the sources themselves being easily accessible in convenient English translations. It is therefore possible for students to subject the principal sources to proper critical appraisal, and thereafter to explore the subjects of their choice with considerable independence.
The overarching theme is that of continuity/discontinuity at all levels of history – economic, social, governmental, religious and cultural. In the economic sphere, students can investigate the sharp contrast between the fortunes of Europe and the Mediterranean, on the one hand (clear evidence of steep and fairly generalized economic decline), and the eastern hinterland of the Mediterranean, on the other (three centuries of sustained growth following the coming of Islam). In the pattern of society, a number of central themes can be examined: in the West the fate of Roman élites in the new Germanic states, the pattern of Germanic settlement, and the interplay between the two cultures; in the East, the initial impermeability of the Slavs to classical culture in central and south‑eastern Europe, the far-reaching social effects of Byzantium’s war effort, and the promotion of urban life and the growing tension in relations between Arabs and non-Arabs in the Islamic community. In government, thought must be given to another sharp contrast between West and East: in the latter developed fiscal systems continued to function, in the former they gradually failed, thereby weakening the institutions and eroding the ideology of centralized monarchical rule. In religious life, the period saw a number of new developments – in particular the spread of monasticism and the rise of the Papacy as an independent force within Western Christendom – but also some important continuities, such as the vital role of the bishop as a force for stability in a rapidly changing world. Finally, a divergence in cultural fortunes between West and East must be registered, although, in this case, continuity characterized Christendom (as exemplified by the collectors and systematisers of knowledge such as Boethius and Isidore of Seville), while in the East the coming of Islam eventually brought about a complete cultural revolution.
General History II confronts undergraduate historians with a number of fascinating problems that require a direct appraisal of the surviving evidence (how much faith to put in hagiographical sources? how much can be read into a highly selective archaeological record of trading activities? how much have historical narratives been shaped by a wish to present a very particular image of the past?). It demands that polities and cultures be studied in the round, as whole systems of interconnected economic, social, institutional and ideological phenomena, and, thanks to the accessibility and manageability of the source material makes it possible for undergraduates to do so. It encourages sound judgment and controlled imagination. It introduces undergraduates to what is undoubtedly the formative period in which the main component parts of modern western Eurasia took shape.