Henri Pirenne wrote those words 80 years ago, against the grain of contemporary wisdom. What he meant was that without the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it would not have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire. Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world would have probably unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. It was a bold and well-argued thesis that received little support.
In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012), Emmet Scott vindicates Pirenne with a firm eye on archaeological data. He shows that the barbarian invasions and fall of Rome in the fifth century didn’t cause the Dark Age. The barbarians preserved classical civilization and the empire effectively survived under new management. The archaeological record is rather clear in this regard. There is no gradual decline in classical society from the fifth to seventh centuries, but instead a decline from the third to fifth, followed by a revival in the sixth and early seventh, which is then dramatically terminated sometime between 620 and 650. The lights went out, quite literally, with the Islamic conquests. People fled the coastline and began building hilltop castles to avoid slaughter and enslavement. The Mediterranean was no longer a highway but a frontier of piracy and plunder. The sea became a blockade, choking off trade and communication with Byzantium. Papyrus became a thing of the past, and literacy plummeted almost overnight to levels equivalent to those in pre-Roman times. By the mid-seventh century a “medieval” outlook had emerged, thanks mostly to Islam.
Even after 80 years Pirenne is resisted but usually on the basis of dated arguments that Scott critiques, and we’ll look at them right now.
The “Debunking” of Pirenne
Pirenne’s work was supposedly debunked in 1982 by the work of Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse, Mohammed, Charlemagne, & the Origins of Europe, and Scott devotes a good portion of his book to debunking them in turn. It’s not a hard task. To “prove” that Western Europe was in an economic and cultural death-spiral before the appearance of Islam, Hodges and Whitehouse relied mostly on evidence from central Italy, the one place we would expect to find societal deterioration. The whole balance of power in the Roman Empire had shifted to the east: Constantinople was founded in 324, and by the beginning of the 400s Ravenna supplanted Rome as the capital of the western empire. Rome was then sacked twice, in 410 and then 455, with the western empire dissolving in 476. With all of that — a huge drop in the Roman aristocracy, population, and general fortune — we would (rather obviously) expect a dramatic drop in the wealth of the settlements around central Italy.
That’s certainly not what happened elsewhere. Under the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in Gaul, and the Vandals in Africa, society was reviving and flourishing, especially in the sixth and early seventh centuries. The evidence shows expanding populations engaged in vigorous trade within Europe and with the eastern Mediterranean; new territories being brought into cultivation; growth of cities both old and new; clear proof of dramatic technical and scientific innovation; advanced learning and scholarship of all kinds. This was almost a renaissance, let alone a revival, and it was abruptly terminated in the early seventh century with the Islamic invasions. Hodges and Whitehouse’s debunking of Pirenne is thus discredited on a basic level. They used the exception (of central Italy) to argue a non-existent rule — and an exception we would expect to be exceptional in advance. Even the loss of Italy’s inactive population didn’t effect its overall demographic health under the Ostrogoths. By the 590s and 600s, for example, new churches were appearing all over Italy, which is usually a good gauge of vitality, since that’s where communities invest any disposable wealth. For whatever strange reasons, people have difficulty believing the Germanic invaders were capable of civilization, but they were.
In the East, Hodges and Whitehouse again blame the wrong people, this time the Persians. It’s true that the Persian War in 614 started the eastern fall, but it was the subsequent Arab Wars that brought the lasting devastation. As Scott says, there had been wars between Persians and Romans before; it was the way of Roman life for seven centuries. How is it that this particular Persian war (supposedly) led to the end of classical civilization in the east? No matter how destructive, wars are normally followed by treaties of peace, and then the recovery of economic prosperity. It always happened between the Romans and Persians, but it didn’t happen this time, and Hodges and Whitehouse have no answer as to why.
The answer is rather obvious: it was the Arabs, in the wake of the Persians, who laid the permanent waste. The religious concept of jihad was one of permanent religious war that made any kind of peace or genuine coexistence impossible. The annual obligation of jihad ensured ongoing war on Islam’s borders, while the provisions of sharia law meant that in lands taken over by Muslims, natives were provided no protection against bandits and herders who let flocks graze on and destroy the irrigated lands. Fertile areas became semi-desert, and cities became ghost towns.
So in the East…
The counter-narrative still prevails, however, that Islam saved the remnants of classical culture and through its “Golden Age” transmitted that learning to a benighted Europe. It’s true that some Arab rulers patronized universities and centers of learning, but it was only studies which had practical and utilitarian value — science and medicine. The Muslims had no use for literature, drama, painting, and narrative, and were often hostile to these. And even though science and medicine were supported, the only degree offered at an Islamic university was in religious law. Philosophy became a hobby for a select few and had no impact on daily life, which was the role of sharia in any case.
We also often hear that Jews and Christians enjoyed a protected dhimmi status in Islamic lands, but in practice they were anything but protected. Under sharia their rights were subordinate to Muslim rights, and they were often insulted, robbed, and killed with impunity. The dhimma system wasn’t one of benign taxation; it was a mafia-like extortion racket that kept Jews and Christians in humiliating servitude under degrading laws. Their protection could be revoked at a whim and often was.
While back in the West…
Pirenne had been saying that without the Islamic Caliphate, the Holy Roman Empire wouldn’t have been. Scott fleshes out Pirenne by showing that the impact of the Persian-then-Arab assaults on the Byzantine empire were so great, and the severance of western Europe from Constantinople so severe, that the Germanic kings of the west began asserting their independence in a reactive way. They started minting coins in their own image (under Clothar II, r. 613-629) and finally re-established the western empire under Charlemagne (r. 800-814) under a blooming theocracy that would come to mirror some of Islam’s worst elements. It would be the “Holy” Roman Empire whose authority no longer derived solely from its own military and economic strength (as in the time of the Caesars and Germanic kings) but increased dependence on church approval. For the first time ever, by the eleventh century, Christians began thinking in terms of holy war. The crusades were in defense against Islamic aggression to be sure (and I do think a necessary evil), but nevertheless in contradiction to the church’s one thousand year stand of religious pacifism. The culmination of “Charlemagne’s seed” came with Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216), who established the inquisitions to enforce absolute doctrinal conformity. This copied Islam’s inquisition 50 years before, to root out and torture its own apostates in Spain and North Africa.
Scott emphasizes that none of this excuses the medieval church. Everyone is responsible for their actions, and Islam can hardly be blamed on a moral level for Christian crimes against freedom of conscience. But there is causal if not moral blame, and we almost never hear of the causal connection between Islam’s inquisitions and those of the church. Until Innocent, tolerance had been the order of the day — for centuries in the Christian world. This was never true in Muslim lands, where religious dissent and apostasy was a capital offense. For Christians the use of force to enforce orthodoxy was condemned by the church fathers. Christians could be fierce in denouncing heretics, but only extremely rarely would a fanatic get violent about the matter, and when that happened the church spoke out. By the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, this had flipped 180 degrees: Catholicism now mirrored Islam in killing its own heretics.
The Appropriateness of the term “Dark Age”
Scott addresses this at some length, for the term has fallen out of fashion and for good reason. The Dark Age used to be understood as the period of the fifth to tenth centuries, and was characterized by the withering of intellectual life, with the church being the lead offender. It’s a myth that has been discarded to the extent that many historians dismiss the term “Dark Age” out of hand. Pretty much everyone now accepts that Christianity took the lead in preserving classical literature, encouraging literacy, and creating a more general humane environment. The Benedictines especially provided a network of model factories, centers for breeding livestock, halls of scholarship, and redress for social action — basically offering Europe a safety net of civilization to fend off the hordes of chaos. But who were the hordes? Many accuse the Germanic newcomers, and we’ve seen that to be wrong.
The term “Dark Age”, as Scott argues like Pirenne before him, actually is appropriate, but the period starts later and the culprits are the Arabs. Almost by definition, the Dark Age covers the 300-year stretch of barren archaeology that begins right after the Islamic invasions: the mid-seventh to mid-tenth centuries. Jihad brought the darkness, not the Germanic rulers.
Those “Missing” Centuries
This is something Scott keeps returning to, and it’s the most unnerving part of the book. Between the early seventh and mid-tenth centuries, there is almost a complete absence of archaeology in both Europe and the Islamic world. How can society have produced virtually nothing — either pottery, coins, or artifacts of any kind — for three centuries? This problem has become so acute and embarrassing that only crazy explanations are offered:
(1) Some natural or cosmic catastrophe destroyed huge portions of the populations sometime in the mid-seventh century.
The problem, as Scott points out, is that no plagues, earthquakes, floods are mentioned in any surviving documents, and (even more importantly) the archaeological record shows no layer of destructive sediment between the seventh and tenth centuries. Just the opposite: the early seventh century material lies directly underneath that of the mid-tenth, and appears to be culturally closely related to the latter. This has prompted the even more extreme theory that —
(2) The missing three centuries never existed. Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II wanted to legitimate the Ottonian kings in their claim to the imperial purple, and to live in the millennial year of 1000 AD, and so invented the Carolingian dynasty and inserted it and the years 614-911 AD into the calendar.
In other words, our history is 297 years off. Otto III really reigned in 699-705, and not 996-1002; the Norman Conquest happened in 769, rather than 1066, and the year we live in now is 1719, not 2016. While this conspiracy theory (known as the Phantom Time Hypothesis) is certainly amusing, and would admittedly resolve many historical puzzles in Europe and the Islamic world, it collapses elsewhere. The Tang Dynasty of China (618-906) receives archeological confirmation, and it’s hard in any case to imagine someone from medieval Europe convincing the Chinese to create a fake dynasty with bogus archives. It’s also rather hard to believe that attested figures like Alfred the Great never existed.
Crackpot theories, however, only force the question everyone tip-toes around: why does archaeology stop in the mid-seventh century and then suddenly resume in the mid-tenth? The only thing we can say with confidence is that the Arab conquests of the early seventh century were incredibly destructive in the regions they conquered (the Middle East, North Africa, and then Spain), and because of their stranglehold over the Mediterranean Sea cut off trade and communication with the eastern empire, plummeting Europe into a genuine Dark Age. The “Golden Age” of Islam supported by the archaeological record is a single century (between the tenth and eleventh) rather than four centuries (between the seventh and eleventh). And it was a Golden Age in terms of power and might only. It didn’t mean Islamic culture was more humane or enlightened, for it certainly wasn’t. What went on during the shadowed centuries remains a mystery.
Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited tells a story on the basis of evidence: The barbarian princes who took control of the western provinces in the fifth century were neither mindless destroyers nor ineffectual hold-outs. They adopted Roman civilization in due course and upheld the Roman institutions and customs, with the result that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the previous deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. They continued to see themselves as functionaries for the empire, and minted coins with the Byzantine emperor’s image. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, when the lights went out. After this time, western cities no longer thrived Roman-style. Luxury products imported from the east disappeared, as did literacy. The only thing which could have terminated Mediterranean trade and western culture so rapidly and thoroughly at this time was the Arab invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. And from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. It was a centuries long response that was usually more incidental than conscious, a lesson in cause and effect that prompts all sorts of interesting “what if?” questions.
Scott’s book is also a story of academic wrangling. Per the book’s subtitle, it’s the history of a controversy as much as history itself, and an unflinching look at how evidence is used, misused, or sidestepped to marshal our theories. Strongly recommend.