On the last day of September, Henry Z. and I went to a lecture at the Bronx Botanical Garden in New York City. The impressive Mertz library, which stands in one corner of this large, beautiful and scientifically important park, was the location for remarks by Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College. Dr. Fleming’s topic: “Vanishing Plants, Animals and Places: Britain’s Transformation from Roman to Medieval.”
I was surprised to learn from Prof. Fleming that Roman conquerors introduced many — perhaps as many as 50 — new and valuable food plants and animals (such as the donkey) to its province of Britannia, where these crops were successfully cultivated for some 300 years.
Among the foodstuffs that Roman civilization brought to Britain are walnuts, carrots, broad beans, grapes, beets, cabbage, leeks, turnips, parsnips, cucumbers, cherries, plums, peaches, almonds, chestnuts, pears, lettuce, celery, white mustard, mint, einkorn, millet, and many more. These valuable plants took root in Britain and so did Roman horticulture. British gardens produced a bounty of tasty and nourishing foods.
But I was astonished to hear Prof. Fleming say that, following the collapse of Roman rule after 400 AD, almost all of these food plants vanished from Britain, as did Roman horticulture itself.
“Post-Roman Britons,” Prof. Fleming said, “suddenly went from gardening to foraging. Even Roman water mills vanished from British streams. But similar mills came back in large numbers in the 10th and 11th centuries, along with Roman food plants and farming techniques.”
Now, we’ve all heard about barbarian hordes descending on Roman provinces – not to mention Rome itself – and sweeping away the empire’s highly organized culture. But what possible explanation could there be for the disappearance of extremely valuable food plants, which had long since become established in the soil of Britain?
“Roman towns came tumbling down,” Prof. Fleming said, “and took Roman food plants down with them.”
All well and good, but why would Britons – who must have mastered Roman horticulture during centuries of imperial rule – have been reduced to foraging?
As part of her PowerPoint presentation, Prof. Fleming showed two images: Roman Canterbury at the height of imperial rule…
…and the ruins of post-Roman Canterbury, with the remains of the encircling Roman city wall still visible in the distance.
I stared at the second image in shock. To me it looked like a tornado had swept across Canterbury, or that perhaps the town had been wrecked by some other kind of natural catastrophe. But Prof. Fleming explained the disappearance of Roman food plants by saying that post-Roman Britons did not know how to grow them. But how much skill does it take to plant beans and turnips?
And did the Romans really take their ploughs back to Italy? Even some insects introduced by Romans, such as the cockroach, disappeared from the province.
During the question period, I asked Prof. Fleming if perhaps “climate change” might have been responsible for the disappearance of Roman food plants. She replied that the British climate did get “colder and wetter,” and that other scholars are working on the question of climate change in post-Roman Britain. Prof. Fleming added that her conclusions about the disappearance of Roman agriculture and plants from Britain will be a chapter in her forthcoming book on the subject.
Her specialty at Boston College, by the way, is “Viking and Anglo-Saxon History.” I look forward to Dr. Fleming’s explanation of why Angl0-Saxons settlers left very little evidence in post-Roman Britain.
I will certainly be sending a copy of Fleming’s book to Prof. (ret.) Gunnar Heinsohn of the U. of Bremen, whose revised and shortened chronology of the 1st millennium AD offers a startling explanation for why Roman food plants seem to have vanished from Britain.
Heinsohn holds that this disappearance is illusory because Rome and its western empire did not fall in the 5th/6th centuries, to be followed by a “dark age.” Heinsohn’s research shows that Romans and Anglo Saxons settled in Britain simultaneously and, for several centuries, competed for control of the island. Both cultures suffered a horrendous setback when Europe and the western Roman empire were struck down by a huge natural catastrophe circa 930 AD.
The apparent restoration of Roman technology and agriculture cited by Prof. Fleming in the 10th and 11th centuries is in fact the recovery of post-Roman pre-Norman Britain from the 930 AD catastrophe, the impact of which can be seen in that heartrending image of a wrecked and ruined Canterbury, which, along with the rest of Europe, entered the High Middle Ages around the year we call 1000 AD.
Which means Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims, who made their celebrated journey to Canterbury in the 14th century AD, lived about 450 years after the catastrophic fall of the Roman Empire and its bountiful province of Britannia. As they made their way to Canterbury, the pilgrims almost certainly dined on foods that were introduced to Britain by the Romans, and never forgotten.