Wells is from the "there were no Dark Ages" school of history, and he devotes most of the book to showing you all the great stuff that was happening in Europe between 400 and 800 AD. Which is fair enough, I mean, lots of stuff did happen in Europe, including the growth of new towns across the north, the spread of some key technologies like moldboard plows and window glass, and the creation of the amazing artistic vision we call the Insular Style. I recognize that my preference for the stuff shown in this post over classical marble is a matter of taste, but you have to admit that this is an amazing breath of fresh air after a thousand years of satyrs chasing nymphs.
Beginning in the third century and continuing into the fourth, there is clear evidence for major changes in what people were doing in the city. Two changes are particularly evident, one involving the reuse of stone architectural elements, the other the deposition of soil over much of the formerly built-up urban area. . . .Other stones from old public monuments were built into the houses of wealthy families.
Some large public structures built of stone were allowed to fall into disrepair, whereas others were carefully taken down, apparently for re-use of the stone elsewhere. Some of the stone was employed for building a new wall along the north bank of the Thames. (109)
The third and fourth centuries at London are characterized by the widespread presence of dark humic soil, sometimes more than a yard thick, and with cultural debris (pottery, bones of butchered animals, glass fragments) mixed into it, covering occupational remains of earlier centuries. This material, known as dark earth, is not unique to London but has been identified at many urban sites all over northern Europe. . . .
The dark earth is now thought to represent not abandonment but rather thriving activity — but activity of a very different character from that of the Roman urban centers. The dark earth has been found to contain remains of timber-framed, wattle-and-daub huts, along with sherds of pottery and metal ornaments datable to the late Roman period. These observations demonstrate that people who were living on the site were building their houses in the traditional British style rather than in the stone and cement fashion of elite and public Roman architecture. (111)So what happened in London, and many other Roman towns across Europe, was that grand public buildings were abandoned or torn down and people built wattle and daub huts within their ruins. Now ask yourself: what does the build-up of three feet (1 m) of humus in 200 years tell you? It tells you that nobody, ever, during that whole period, hauled any trash outside the walls. All of it – animal bones, oyster shells, hearth ash, shit, demolished huts (wattle and daub structures last only a decade or two), and whatever else people and their animals produce, was just left to molder away right next to where people were living. Even Neolithic householders were more careful with their trash than that.
And what does Wells say about this?
To call these changes "decline", "collapse," or "abandonment" is to adopt a conservative Roman attitude toward change. (112)If you object to a town full of people who never haul away their trash, you must be a conservative Roman.
That was probably too harsh, because Wells has put his finger on something important. Across much of Europe we find that Roman citizens, rather than defending the empire against barbarian invaders, welcomed them into their towns and handed over the local Roman officials to the Franks or the Goths for execution. There were also widespread revolts against Roman rule, notably the rising of the Bacaudae that raged for decades across western France. Roman patriotism was in short supply.
And if the empire wasn't worth it, maybe the rest of Roman civilization wasn't worth it, either? Why keep spending money on marble law courts where you didn't trust the judges, or marble statues of leaders you despise or can't name, or libraries full of books you can't read?
I do not think that such a shift in attitudes can explain everything that happened in western Europe in this period. As I said, I think there is strong evidence for real decline. But it does seem to me that many people just got tired of classical civilization and were ready for something new.