Book Review: The Lombards

Review submitted by: Curt Emanuel

Title: The Lombards

Author: Neil Christie

Publisher: Blackwell Publishers

Publication Date: 1998

ISBN: 0-631-21197-7

Neil Christie has tackled one of the most difficult tasks for a historian - discussing a topic for which the archaeological record is sparse, and the written record sparser. Nevertheless, he has done a fine job of removing some of the mystery from a people who were very important in affecting the development of not only Medieval Italy, but Europe as a whole.

While this work has 7 distinct chapters, I find it more easily to review it as if it has three sections. The first provides a chronological account of the Lombards, detailing what is known of their origins in what is now Northern Germany between the Rhine and Elbe, and their subsequent migration into, and control of, Italy. While this is generally a chronological narrative he does discuss Lombard society to some extent, particularly from about 500 on.

Christie begins this section with a discussion of the sparse written sources dating from the first century C.E. and supplementing this with archaeological finds, particularly from cemetaries. Christie has a difficult time detailing the movement of the Lombards to the middle of the fifth century however at that time he confidently places them in Bohemia where they become one of the Germanic peoples that migrate southward following the dissolution of the Hunnic Empire after Attilla's death.

From this point forward the narrative becomes clearer. The Lombards move to lands north of the Danube following the annihalation of the Rugi in the late fifth century. They then continue moving south into Pannonia (north-west Hungary) by the mid-520's. It is at this point that the Lombards truly become a force to be reckoned with. They come into contact with various peoples such as the Franks, Avars and the Byzantine Empire and emerge not only intact, but stronger.

The turning point for the Lombards comes when they are recruited as allies to aid Justinian in his reconquest of Italy. They aid Narses in a decisive victory over the Ostrogoths and then return home but they have been to Italy and in 568, when pressured by the Avars, their destination is clear.

The final chapter of this section details the Lombard conquest of and rule in Italy, including a great deal of information on military activity, diplomatic contacts and treaties and various internal aspects such as the relationship between the Kind and his nobility, internal and external threats, etc. Finally, this chapter relates the rapid fall of the Lombards following the death of King Liutprand in 744, culminating with their conquest by Chalremagne in 774.

The second section is what I was most interested in. The three chapters are titled, "Society and Economy," "Settlement and Defence," and "Religion, Architecture and Art." Here Christie provides much more insight into how the Lombards lived. He discusses their relative wealth, the status of women in society, the various societal strata, the use - similar to other Germanic tribes - of the wergild, literacy, and much more. I found it interesting that even at the height of the kingdom's power Christie found little evidence for organized defense of the kingdom but instead that Lombard castra were primarily local in nature and designed to protect the inhabitants.

While Christie constantly decries the lack of sources for the Lombards and how little archaeological work has been done in Italy for the period, he nevertheless does provide something of a "feel" for how the Lombards lived. It is unfortunate that more details of Lombard life are not available however Christie believes that these will be forthcoming as archaeologists are increasingly beginning to examine the period of Lombard rule in Italy. Probably the greatest lack of information is regarding details of trade. While Christie does discuss the presence of coins and goods in various location, he makes no mention of a single trade agreement. Perhaps there were none over a two hundred year period, however I find that unlikely.

The final, and weakest portion of the work, in my opinion, covers the lasting impact of the Lombards. Christie discusses the principality of Benevento at some length which is fine but other than that most of what he covers consists of some words and place-names. I would have preferred that he at the very least discuss how the Lombard rule of Italy contributed to the growth of city-states rather than the nation-states which predominated the rest of Europe during the Medieval Period.

Nevertheless, I would recommend this work to anyone seeking to learn more about the history of Early Medieval Italy. Christie writes well, the narrative is interesting, and the work is well footnoted. Fortunately I own two of the most heavily referenced works, Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards and Chris Wickham's Early Medieval Italy. While I think a reader of Christie could do without Wickham (which is also a good book), Paul's History would make a very good, almost required companion as for much of the period discussed his is virtually the only reference that even approaches a primary source (and it's now available as it's just been reprinted). Christie has done a very good job of discussing a people with a sparse archaeological record, and an even sparser written one.

Reviewer Rating: 4-Good

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