Friday, February 1, 2013

Islam caused the Dark Ages

Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: An Introduction to the History of a Controversy

by Emmet Scott

New English Review Press, 2012

Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy is published by New English Review Press. It may be ordered through Amazon here. This is an excellent book!


The book that follows is not a history in the normal sense, but, as the subtitle explains, the history of a controversy. The controversy in question is the one which has raged for many years around the question: What ended Roman civilization and brought about the Dark Ages?

Theories about the fall of the Roman Empire as a political institution have of course been thick on the ground for centuries; but the present study is not so much concerned with this event as with the fall of the civilization associated with the Roman Empire. That civilization – more properly called “classical civilization” – survived the fall of the Empire and was not, in any case, a creation of the Romans at all, but of the Greeks, which the Romans imbibed wholesale, and which they proceeded, with their conquests, to spread throughout the western Mediterranean and northern Europe. This Graeco-Roman civilization may be described as largely urban, literate, and learned, and characterized by what could be called a rationalist spirit. It was a society which, in theory at least, respected reason and the pursuit of knowledge, and which was not given to religious extremism or fanaticism. We know that this civilization did not come to an end with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It survived in Constantinople and the Eastern Empire, and it survived too even in the West, a region administered, from 476 onwards, by “barbarian” kings and princes. The rulers of the Franks, Visigoths and Ostrogoths – and even of the Vandals – tried hard to preserve the culture and institutions they found in place when they crossed the Imperial frontiers. Yet, in spite of all this, Graeco-Roman civilization did indeed die in the West, and it died too in the East. In both regions it was replaced, eventually, by a society and civilization that we now call “medieval,” a society whose most outstanding characteristics were in many ways the precise opposite of the classical; a society that was overwhelmingly rural, generally illiterate, had a largely barter economy, and tended to be inward-looking rather than open and syncretic. (The latter of course is a clich├ęd and formulaic view of medieval civilization, but it does contain important elements of the truth).

It is the purpose of the present study to examine the causes of this, or, more precisely, to examine a highly controversial thesis about it which appeared in the early years of the twentieth century. This was the thesis of Henri Pirenne, a Belgian historian whose specialism was the early medieval period. Pirenne maintained that the real destroyers of classical civilization were the Muslims. It was the Arab Invasions, he said, which broke the unity of the Mediterranean world and turned the Middle Sea – previously one of the world’s most important trading highways – into a battleground. It was only after the appearance of Islam, claimed Pirenne, that the cities of the West, which depended upon the Mediterranean trade for their survival, began to die. With them went the entire infrastructure of classical culture. Pirenne found that from the mid-seventh century onwards a host of luxury products, which had hitherto been common in Gaul, Italy and Spain, disappeared, and that with them went the prosperity upon which classical culture depended. Towns shrank and society became more rural.

Essentially, what Pirenne was saying was that Islam caused the Dark Age in Europe. This was, even in the 1920s, when the thesis was first published, an extremely controversial idea, and went quite against the grain of contemporary opinion: for the tendency over the previous century had increasingly been to see Islam as the harbinger of medieval Europe’s civilization; as the great preserver of classical knowledge and learning; as an enlightened and tolerant influence which reached Europe in the seventh century and which commenced then to raise the continent out of the darkness into which it had sunk. This had been the default mode of thought amongst perhaps the majority of academics for almost half a century before the appearance of Pirenne’s thesis, a view of history deeply rooted in contemporary European thinking. And then along came Pirenne to claim the precise opposite!

As might be imagined, such a remarkable counter-thesis generated heated debate; a debate that endures to this day. And to this day, the two camps are divided rather precisely as they were in the time of Pirenne, who died in 1935. There are those who, with varying degrees of passion, maintain that Islam essentially saved the remnants of classical culture and learning, which they transmitted to a benighted Europe; and there are those (a much smaller group) who, with Pirenne, maintain that Islam was the destroyer of that very culture and learning; and that if Europe was benighted after the seventh century, it was benighted precisely because of the actions of the Muslims. How strange is this situation! How is it that one topic can give rise to such radically differing perspectives? We are, we might say, once more in what was known during the Middle Ages as “the world’s debate.” In those days, during the Crusades, the “debate” was waged by force of arms. The academic and in some respects ideological battle being fought today is waged in newspapers, books, journals, television, radio and the internet; though another “theatre” of the debate is arguably being waged precisely as it was in the time of the Crusades: by force of arms.

Why then is this debate still with us; and why does it elicit such radically opposing responses? What is it about Islam and its history that gives rise to such intense controversy? The answer to these questions shall, I hope, be presented in the pages to follow. And if it is not an answer that everyone can accept, then at least the evidence shall be presented in a way that is accessible to all and that may enable the reader to make up his/her own mind.

* * *
As this is the history of a debate, it is appropriate to begin with a look at how it developed over the centuries; for the story does not begin with Pirenne.

Until the eighteenth century scholars had generally assumed that classical civilization came to an end with the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire in 476. However, as the eighteenth century progressed and the study of history became a proper scholarly discipline rather than a simple chronicling of events, educated Europeans became aware of the fact that the “barbarian” tribes who conquered the Western Empire in the fifth century never intended to destroy Roman society or culture; and as our knowledge of late antiquity improved, the obvious question became progressively more urgent: What then brought classical civilization to an end? If it was not, after all, the “barbarians,” who were responsible, who or what was, and when?

Concomitant with research into Roman history, Enlightenment scholars began a detailed examination of early medieval Europe. As they did so, they began to notice how great was the debt owed by medieval Europe to the Islamic world. They read letters, official documents and chronicles, which seemed to point to Islamic Spain and the Islamic Middle East as the source of all real knowledge and learning at the time. They read accounts of how European scholars slipped across the borders of the Islamic world, often in disguise, to learn their secrets. They noticed how European thinkers of the time, from Abelard to Roger Bacon, couched their debates in the language of Islamic scholars such as Averroes and Avicenna. They noticed that very many of the scientific and scholarly terminologies found in the languages of Europe, were of Arab origin. We used the “Arabic” numeral system, which gave us the concept of zero – a direct borrowing from the Arabic zirr, whilst our word “algebra” was directly taken from the Arabic al-jabr. They found indeed that numerous technical and scientific terms, such as alcohol, alkali, etc, and many others, were of Arab origin.

Thus by the early nineteenth century scholarly opinion about Islam began to change dramatically. True, even then Muslim pirates were a problem in the Mediterranean, and Muslim societies – most notably the Ottoman Empire – were rather impoverished and often brutal. But these negatives were increasingly viewed as an accident of history, not as something logically deriving from Islam. After all, if slavery was then a problem in the Muslim world, had it not been a problem too in the Christian world? And if the Muslims killed apostates and heretics, did not the Christians do the same until the seventeenth century?

The trend towards a negative view of European civilization accompanied by a positive view of Islamic civilization continued throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed the “talking up” of Islam went rather precisely in tandem with the “talking down” of Christianity. This was particularly the case amongst a certain class of politicized intellectuals, who, as the nineteenth century progressed, adopted an increasingly hostile approach to all things European; and the trend only accelerated with the First World War. Following the cataclysmic events of those years, fewer and fewer of Europe’s and America’s intellectual class subscribed to the view that European civilization was in any way superior to others. On the contrary, an age of disillusionment dawned. As this view gathered strength, so the criticism of medieval Europe, and medieval Christendom, became more virulent. More and more the medieval world was seen as a “dark age,” and any learning that we now possess surely did not originate in it.

Christian writers at the time – there still were many – tried of course to counter this movement; but they were outnumbered and in a sense outgunned. The tide of thought was flowing decidedly against them.

Even as this occurred, the study of late antiquity and the early medieval world in Europe moved on. Archaeology, as well as the discovery and translation into modern languages of more and more texts of the fifth to tenth centuries began to transform our understanding of the period. As we saw, it had been known, since the time of Gibbon at least, that the “Barbarians” had not intended to destroy Roman civilization. The archaeological evidence proved that they did not. On the contrary, it became increasingly clear that classical, or Graeco-Roman, civilization had survived the Barbarian Invasions of the fifth century, and that there had even been, in the sixth century at least, something of a revival of that civilization, at least in places like Gaul and Spain. Yet the world of Rome and her civilization did indeed come to an end, and that event, it was increasingly clear, occurred sometime in the seventh century. After that time, the western world was distinctly medieval in all respects. But why, it was asked, should this have occurred? If the barbarian rulers of the West could manage and cultivate prosperous and largely urban societies for two centuries, especially in places like North Africa and Spain, why did they finally “lose the plot” in the seventh century?

By the early years of the twentieth century this had become a pressing problem, and it was addressed by two outstanding historians of the time: Alfons Dopsch and Henri Pirenne. Both Dopsch and Pirenne devoted considerable effort to an examination of Italian and Gaulish societies during the fifth and sixth centuries, and both became prominent in their rejection of the notion of a barbarian-created Dark Age during that period. Yet Dopsch came to believe that he could detect a general “decline” of Roman culture in the years between 400 and 600, and he eventually threw his weight behind the idea that the Germanic peoples who ruled the West proved in the long run incapable of administering an efficient urban civilization. With time, thought Dopsch, the “barbarian” and uncivilized nature of these peoples prevailed, and, notwithstanding their initial efforts to save Roman culture and institutions, in the end they presided over the collapse of these very things.

Henri Pirenne studied the same epoch and used more or less the same materials as Dopsch. The conclusions he came to, however, were very different. Like Dopsch, he saw that there was no “Dark Age” in the first two centuries after the sack of Rome by Alaric (410), and that Roman culture and institutions survived. He saw too that the demise of this culture could be dated to the first half of the seventh century. Unlike Dopsch, however, he could find no evidence of a gradual decline. For Pirenne, the end of the late classical civilization seemed to come suddenly. What, he thought, could have caused it?

Early in the 1920s, he came to a novel and controversial conclusion: Roman society and the culture we associate with it had been destroyed the Arab conquests. Saracen pirates and raiders¸ he claimed, had blockaded the Mediterranean from the 640s onwards, terminating all trade between the Levant and western Europe. The cities of Italy, Gaul and Spain, which depended upon this trade for their prosperity, began to die; and the Germanic kings who controlled these regions, deprived of the taxable wealth generated by the same trade, lost much of their authority and power. Local strongmen asserted control of the provinces. These were the medieval barons. The Middle Ages had begun.

What Pirenne was now saying went completely against the grain of contemporary academic thought about Islam, which had come to see the Arabian faith as a civilizing, rather than a destructive, force. The debate which he ignited then has never really died or been resolved and, on the contrary, has only taken on a new and urgent resonance in the modern world. As we shall see, Pirenne’s thesis was accorded, for a while, somewhat grudging acceptance in some areas of academia, though even then he was viewed as the person to argue against. By the 1980s, however, a general consensus had arisen, at least in the English-speaking world, that Pirenne had been effectively debunked; and from that time on more and more books and academic studies of the period failed to mention him or his theory.

The anti-Pirenne consensus was largely, as we shall see, galvanized by archaeological work carried out in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s. There it was found that, whilst classical culture survived during the fifth and sixth centuries, there had nevertheless been a marked decline in all aspects of civilized life from the fifth century onwards. The Italian excavations were to form the basis of the argument presented by the most influential of Pirenne’s critics, Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse, who in 1982 published what was advertised as a definitive refutation of Pirenne. The book, Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe, proved to mark a watershed in the debate. Using mainly the Italian material, but also some data from North Africa, Hodges and Whitehouse argued the Graeco-Roman civilization was in terminal decline in the years prior to 600. So decrepit were the economies of Italy, Spain, and North Africa after the 550s, they declared, that classical culture did not need to be killed off by the Arabs: it was already effectively
dead by the time they arrived.

But there were serious flaws in Hodges’ and Whitehouse’s thinking, as we shall see. For one thing, the data they presented was extremely limited in its scope, and essentially failed to look beyond central Italy. Claims that the economy and civic life of North Africa had also collapsed before 600 can be shown to be without foundation. In Chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 we do what Hodges and Whitehouse failed to do and look beyond Italy to Gaul, central Europe, Britain and Spain, where we find apparently thriving and vital late classical cultures during the fifth and (more especially) sixth and early seventh centuries. This in spite of the fact that none of these societies – with the possible exception of Spain – can be described as major centers of classical culture, either in late antiquity or earlier. Indeed, the archaeology of western Europe in general, with the exception of Italy, shows a pronounced expansion of population, culture, and trade during the latter half of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh – precisely those years during which Hodges and Whitehouse claimed Europe and classical civilization was dying a slow and tortuous death. Everywhere we find evidence of expansion of cultivation, of population increase, of the growth of towns and the revival of building in stone, of the adoption and development of new technologies, and of new regions, such as Ireland, northern Britain (Scotland) and eastern and northern Germany, being brought within the orbit of Latin civilization for the first time.

So much for Europe. Yet, in order to get to the bottom of this question, we need to look further afield. For Pirenne, as for most of his critics, the debate about the “Dark Ages” was entirely a debate about what happened in Europe, particularly western Europe, and most especially in Gaul and Italy. But the West, with the exception of Italy herself and perhaps Spain, had never been much more than a backwater even at the height of the Roman Empire. The reality of the situation is described succinctly by Patrick J. Geary:
“During the more than five centuries of Roman presence in the West, the regions of Britain, Gaul, and Germany were marginal to Roman interests. The Empire was essentially Mediterranean and remained so throughout its existence; thus Italy, Spain, and North Africa were the Western areas most vital to it. However, the Empire’s cultural, economic, and population centers were the great cities of the East: Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, and later Constantinople. The West boasted only one true city … Rome. In the first centuries of the Empire, Rome could afford the luxury of maintaining the Romanitas [Roman territories] of the West. Still, these regions, which supplying the legions of the limes, or borders, with men and arms and supporting the local senators with the otium, or leisured existence, necessary to lead a civilized life of letters, contributed little to either the cultural or economic life of the Empire.” (Patrick J. Geary, Before France and Germany, pp. 8-9)
From this, it is clear that if we wish to chart the decline and fall of classical civilization we must not confine our gaze to the West, but must pay close attention to what happened in the East: It was here, and not in the West, that was located the core area of that civilization. Pirenne failed to notice this, perhaps because of the habitually Eurocentric mindset of academic culture in his time. Yet examine the East we must, and this is the task we set ourselves from Chapter 10 onwards.

As we shall see, whatever might be said about the disappearance of classical civilization in the West, in the East there is no question at all that it was terminated in the mid-seventh century, and that it was terminated by the Arabs. On this point Hodges and Whitehouse were strangely ambiguous: on the one hand, they recognized that the Arabs wrought immense destruction in the Levant, and they even admitted to the appearance in North Africa of a “Dark Age” following the Arab conquests; yet on the other hand they strove to suggest that classical civilization in the East was wrecked more by the Persians than by the Arabs, and that, in Asia Minor at least, classical civilization was already terminally damaged by the time the Arabs arrived.

Our own survey of the evidence leads us to a somewhat different conclusion: namely that classical civilization was indeed weakened by Byzantium’s destructive war with Persia, which commenced in 612; but that it was still sufficiently powerful and vibrant to recover from that conflict, had not the Arabs arrived immediately afterwards to devastate the region permanently. These are the facts as uncovered by archaeology, yet, as we shall see, they prompt another urgent question: What then was it about the Arabs, or, more accurately, about Islam, that could bring about such universal and complete destruction?

At this point we must pause to take note of the remarkable fact that very few of the historians who have commented upon Pirenne’s thesis have paid much attention to the nature of Islam or its beliefs. They have, virtually without exception, assumed that Islam is or was a faith no different from any other. Indeed, almost all of modern academia treat the religious systems of mankind as an amorphous whole, and see no difference between them. If they do pick out one for special criticism it is invariably Christianity that they target. There are, or have been, interesting exceptions to the rule, such as Joseph Campbell, who spoke of “the sleep of Islam” which overtook the Middle East in the seventh century; but in general twentieth century scholarship has been remarkably positive about the Arabian faith. Yet even a cursory examination of the tenets of Islam is enough to convince us that it is not a faith like any other; and that it is, on the contrary, a religio-political ideology whose fundamental principle is aggressive expansionism. In Chapter 13 we find that, through the doctrine of perpetual “holy war,” or jihad, plus the notion of entitlement central to sharia law, Islam had a thoroughly and unprecedentedly destabilizing influence upon the Mediterranean world. It was the perpetual raiding of Muslim pirates and slave-traders that brought about the abandonment throughout southern Europe of the scattered settlements of classical times and the retreat to defended hilltop fortifications – the first medieval castles. The same raiding led to the abandonment of the old agricultural systems, with their irrigation dikes and ditches, and caused the formation throughout the Mediterranean coastlands of a layer of silt just about the last of the late classical settlements.
We find then that Islam did indeed cause the end of classical civilization, in its heartland at least, the Middle East. Yet that statement does not exhaust the complexity of this question. For the three centuries which saw the rise of Islam and the Dark Ages in Europe, the seventh to the tenth – the three least known of our entire history – have other mysteries to unravel. And these are mysteries that archaeology has done little to resolve. Indeed, it may even have further deepened them.

Whoever studies early medieval history cannot fail to note the fact that, apart from the economic impact which Pirenne claimed to detect in the seventh century, the real cultural and ideological impact of Islam upon Europe only begins in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. Documents from that period onwards leave us in no doubt that the world of “the Saracens” was regarded by Europeans as one of fabulous wealth; a region to which they cast envious eyes not only on account of its riches but because of its learning and knowledge. From the late-tenth century onwards educated Europeans made continuous efforts to tap into the learning of the Arabs. And here of course we arrive at the very nexus of the radical disagreement over Islam which has bedeviled the study of early medieval history for two centuries. Here precisely is the reason why, on the one hand, some academics may describe Islam as tolerant and learned, whilst others, with equal conviction, can describe it as violent and intolerant. Whatever damage Islam may have caused Europe in the seventh century, argue the Islamophiles, it was more than compensated for by the knowledge and wisdom bequeathed to Europe in the tenth century by the same faith. For whilst Europe may have lingered for three centuries in a Dark Age limbo of poverty and ignorance, Islam enjoyed three centuries of unparalleled splendor and prosperity, a veritable Golden Age.

That, at least, has been the narrative until now. Yet over the past half century the discoveries of archaeology have undermined this picture, and have revealed facts which may well eventually compel a radical rethink.

Whilst some historians of medieval Europe, relying on the traditional written sources, have consistently argued for the removal of the term “Dark Age” from our historical nomenclature, the archaeological evidence has served only to demonstrate how thoroughly appropriate the term is. For try as they might, excavators have signally failed to discover any civilization worthy of the name in Europe between the late seventh and early tenth centuries. Indeed, the progress of research has repeatedly demonstrated that even the pitifully few monuments and artifacts hitherto assigned the “dark” centuries have, on further investigation, usually been shown not to belong to that epoch at all; but invariably either to the period immediately following the Dark Age, or to the period immediately preceding it.

Surely, archaeologists have said, ample proof that Europe was indeed a dark and barbarous – and largely unpopulated – land during those long years.

But the mystery has deepened further: for we now know that Europe is not the only region devoid of archaeology between the seventh and tenth centuries. The same gap is observed throughout the Islamic world. Here then is a real shock to the collective system! Whilst depopulation and non-culture might just have been expected in Europe, it was certainly not expected in North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. These regions, after all, formed the very heart of the Caliphate, the very core of population, commerce, and cultured life during the three centuries of what has been called Islam’s Golden Age. At this time excavators had expected to find luxurious mosques, palaces, baths, etc, standing in the midst of truly enormous metropolises. The fabulous Harun al-Rashid in the ninth century, after all, is supposed to have reigned over a city of Baghdad that was home to in excess of a million people. Cordoba, capital of the Spanish Emirate at the same time, is said to have housed half a million souls. Yet of this splendid civilization hardly a brick or inscription has been found! It is true that from the very beginning of the Islamic epoch there is occasionally (although infrequently) found some archaeology. This usually dates to the mid-seventh century. Then, after this, there are three full centuries with virtually nothing. About the middle of the tenth century archaeology resumes, and there is talk of a “revival” of cities in the Muslim world, just as in Europe at the same time. Indeed, the mid-tenth century reveals a flowering and in many ways splendid Islamic civilization, clearly more wealthy and at a higher stage of development than anything in contemporary Europe. Yet this civilization seems to spring out of nowhere: It is without any archaeological antecedents.

These discoveries have served to underline the dichotomy at the heart of all discussion on Islam, and have in fact added another strand to it: On the one hand, as we saw, in the mid-seventh century, there is proof of massive destruction carried out by the Arabs throughout the Near East. So great was the destruction that many of the cities and towns which were thriving under the Byzantines and remained prosperous until the first quarter of the seventh century were then abandoned and deserted, never to be reoccupied. Their gaunt ruins lie everywhere throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Yet on the other hand, immediately after this destruction, the Islamic regions were always believed to have enjoyed a “Golden Age” which lasted into the tenth and eleventh centuries. That, at least, was the narrative and the argument until recently.

We should note that the archaeological appearance of the first rich Islamic culture in the tenth and eleventh centuries coincides with written history which always indicated that the cultural impact of Islam only reached Europe in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
What can all this mean? Is this a conundrum that can be solved, or is it utterly beyond the ingenuity of men to get to the bottom of?

As we shall see in the final chapter of the present study, so great has this problem become that it has prompted some very radical, even outlandish, solutions. One of these, favored by not a few historians and climatologists, is that some form of natural disaster struck Europe and perhaps the entire earth during the seventh century. Several writers, referring mainly to medieval chronicles, speak of a mini-Ice Age or perhaps a period of global warming. Others look to the skies and see cometary or asteroid causes. These writers agree that there was a Dark Age, but that it was caused by nature, rather than man. Another school of thought, most influential in Europe, denies the existence of a Dark Age at all and claims that the three hundred years between the early seventh and early tenth centuries never existed, and were merely a fictional creation of scribes working for the Emperor Otto III at the end of the tenth century. The most important proponents of this theory are German writers Heribert Illig and Gunnar Heinsohn. It would be impossible to do justice to either of these theories or to examine all their implications in a volume, never mind a chapter. We shall look briefly at some towards the end of the present study. Suffice to say that whilst Illig’s thesis may be seen as solving several hitherto intractable conundrums (eg why does “Romanesque” art of the tenth and eleventh centuries look so much like Merovingian art of the seventh), it has been almost universally rejected by mainstream academia, and remains a decidedly “fringe” idea.
Leaving such questions aside, the present study concludes by noting that scholarship has now arrived at a several conclusions which are really beyond dispute, and which tend to offer definitive support for Pirenne.

First and foremost, the evidence suggests that classical or Graeco-Roman civilization was alive and well into the late sixth and early seventh centuries. This was particularly the case in the Middle East and North Africa, which were the ancient heartlands of Mediterranean culture, and in which were located by far the greatest centers of population, wealth, and industry. Evidence shows that until the first quarter of the seventh century these regions were flourishing as never before. But classical civilization was also alive and well in Europe, a region which (aside from central and southern Italy), had always been peripheral to Graeco-Roman civilization. And outside of central Italy we find none of the signs of decay that Pirenne’s critics claimed to have detected. On the contrary, Gaul and in particular Spain supported a thriving and vigorous late classical culture; and this was a culture that was growing, rather than declining. Indeed, by the latter years of the sixth century classical civilization had begun to spread into regions never reached by the Roman Legions, and Latin, as well as Greek, was now studied along the banks of the Elbe in eastern Germany, and in the Hebrides, off northern Scotland.

Secondly, the evidence shows that this culture went into rapid and terminal decline in the 620s and 630s. The great cities of Asia Minor and Syria everywhere at this time show signs of violent destruction; after which they were never rebuilt. Whatever archaeology appears on top of them is invariably impoverished and small-scale; usually little more than a diminutive fortress. Contemporary with the destruction of the classical cities, we find a universal decay in the countryside: Top-soil is washed away and a layer of subsoil, known as the Younger Fill, covers settlements in river-valleys and blocks harbors. This stratum appears throughout the Mediterranean world, from Syria to Spain, and is the geographical signature of the end of Graeco-Roman civilization. With the appearance of this layer, classical patterns of settlement and land-management are abandoned. This is the pattern too in southern Europe, where we now find a retreat of settlement to defended hill-top sites – the first medieval castles. Both these developments can be explained by the appearance of Muslim raiders and pirates throughout the Mediterranean coastlands from the 630s onwards; and if that is not the accepted solution, then no answer is forthcoming.

Thirdly, from the mid-seventh century onwards there is an almost total disappearance of archaeology in Europe and throughout the Middle East and North Africa for a period of three centuries. This disappearance, it seems, has nothing to do with what has always been called the “Dark Age” of Europe, because it appears also in the Islamic lands. By the mid- to late-tenth century cities and towns revive both in the Islamic and Christian lands, and (though the great cities of classical times are gone forever), the material culture of the new settlements looks strikingly reminiscent in many ways of the material culture of the seventh century.

That, in brief, is what the archaeology says. At the end of the present volume we take a brief look at events subsequent to the rise and spread of Islam. There we find that not only did the Arabs terminate classical civilization in the Levant and North Africa, and therefore cut Europe off from the humanizing and civilizing impulses which had previously emanated from those regions, but they now began, in the tenth century, to exert their own influence upon the West. And that influence was anything but benevolent. It is of course widely accepted that Islam had a profound cultural impact upon early medieval Europe. Indeed, the all-pervasiveness of that impact has been traditionally seen as underlining the cultural superiority of Islam at that time. Yet, as we shall see, in addition to some commentaries upon Aristotle, and a few scientific and technological concepts (which were not “Arab” inventions at all) Islam was to communicate to Europe a whole host of ideas and attitudes that were far from being enlightened. Most obviously, the concept of “holy war”, which Europe adopted (admittedly somewhat reluctantly) in the eleventh century, was entirely an Islamic innovation; as was the tendency towards theocracy (enshrined in the all-powerful medieval Papacy) and the suppression, by force, of heterodox ideas.
* * *

It goes without saying that a work such as this cannot claim to be exhaustive, or the last word. Many of the topics covered could profitably have been examined in greater depth; yet so diverse is the range of evidence and so wide the territories and epochs it covers, that a detailed examination of everything is a complete impossibility. I have been compelled to look at written and archaeological evidence for the fifth to tenth centuries from the western extremities of Europe to the borders of Persia. And, as might be expected, the literature dealing with these diverse eras and areas is immense, and growing more so by the day. So much has been written on the economic and political histories of the Byzantine, Frankish, Visigothic and Early Islamic states in the English language over the past twenty years that a complete bibliography might fill an entire volume of its own. But a bulging bibliography does not necessarily indicate a convincing argument or even a coherent line of thought. As such, I have endeavored simply to select some of the most representative material, and to examine the arguments and evidence found therein in detail. And since this is an examination of the Pirenne thesis I have concentrated, on the whole, on those authors who have dealt with his work, or whose own work has a direct impact upon his.

So the scope of the present work is limited. On the whole, I have tended to concentrate upon the evidence of archaeology. If we have learned anything about this epoch, it is that written sources cannot be taken at face value. They must be supported by archaeology. And the archaeology of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages has, so far, produced far more puzzles than answers.

So, much work remains to be done. Having said that however, I am convinced that the evidence now accumulated points decisively to a vindication of Pirenne, if not in exactly the manner he imagined. Islam did indeed terminate classical civilization in its main centers, in the Middle East and North Africa. Its impact upon Europe however was more nuanced, and did not perhaps amount to the economic catastrophe Pirenne believed. Temperate Europe was already economically self-sufficient before the arrival of the Arabs; and their presence in the Mediterranean did little more than block the importation to the West of certain eastern luxuries which were enjoyed by the elites of Gaul, Spain and Italy. Much more serious however was the termination of the papyrus supply, an event which led, inter alia, to the loss of the great bulk of the heritage of classical literature and to the general loss of literacy amongst the population of Europe. This led, very quickly indeed, to the “medieval” mentality with which we are all too familiar.

Emmet Scott is a historian specializing in the ancient history of the Near East. Over the past ten years he has turned his attention to Late Antiquity and the declining phase of classical civilization, which he sees as one of the most crucial episodes in the history of western civilization.


Franamo said...

Very interesting and relevant!

LowFlyer43 said...

Certainly a definitive statement of Islam being 1400 years of non-progress, only destruction.

LowFlyer43 said...

A definitive statement of Islam being 1400 years of non-progress, but one of destruction.

Unknown said...

Very interesting article.

nondhimmi said...

Read "AD 500" by Simon Young, a book about the so-called Dark Ages and he documents that during that time it was not so dark after all because even the Irish monks, clear up in the northwestern farthest reaches of Europe, had the Greek and Roman philosophers. They were not 'lost'.