My new favorite book is Framing the Early Middle Ages by Chris Wickham, a massive tome that seeks to synthesize archaeology, text, and linguistics and to survey the historiographical progress and problems for this era. The scope is western Europe, Byzantium and northern Africa from late antiquity to the very early medieval period. If you are a history or archaeology student, you could find a thesis subject here. Wickham often points out which geographic and subject areas are crying out for new digs or study.
An example of the kind of problem the book deals with: What is “Germanic”? Is it a linguistic, ethnic, geographic or a military designation? Some historians will use the term to construct a German nationalist narrative. Others, like Patrick Amory, argue that it can only be understood as a Roman form of identity. Wickham gives an overview of the status of such historian dialogue.
How do some historical theories gain currency even though they may have little evidential support? The author suggests that those historians who can make a compelling narrative for their theory will win. It’s an important reminder that we tend to privilege those historical “truths” that best fit the stories of history that we like.
This is my favorite sort of text, one that presents not only the historical facts and figures, but which digs deep into how we learned that information and what to do with it. If you just want a tasty snack, I recommend Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered by Peter Wells. Wickham’s book is for the serious student who wants some help in how to mentally organize the available history. Like all the best ones, it could go out of print, so now is the time to buy it (I got a perfect used copy from Bellwether Books for around $40) even if you don’t have time to read all 800-some pages.