The Dark Ages: Speaking the Unspeakable

Richard Carrier has a post explaining why he thinks The Dark Ages Really Were a Thing, and he also links to Scott Alexander’s Were There Dark Ages?, both of which I recommend as remedies to the ongoing fad. That fad urges us to avoid the term Dark Ages — if not erase the term altogether from our vernacular — owing to a fear of labels that judge or over-malign the past. It’s true there were western accomplishments during the Dark-Age period, but those accomplishments have been exaggerated to create a counter-myth that there was no serious setback to civilization after the Roman Empire. There certainly was.

Admittedly I was once hooked on the fad. Until about a decade ago, I made a point of calling the Dark Ages the “Anglo-Saxon Period”, which is an accurate enough label for the 5th-10th centuries but also a bit constraining. I eventually got tired of subjecting truth and facts to people’s sensibilities. It’s indeed appropriate, as Carrier and Alexander argue, to speak of a Dark Age Period — that is, a period in the west when there was a dramatic societal devolution. However, I don’t believe the start of this devolution happened at the point usually assumed. The Dark Ages are usually taken as the 5th-10th centuries (as Carrier believes), whereas I believe the term rightly applies to the 7th-10th centuries. The first proponent of this view, of course, was Henri Pirenne in the 1920s and 30s.

Pirenne’s revival

Pirenne’s major work, Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937), argued that classical civilization was destroyed not by the Goths, Vandals, or Huns, nor the Christian Church, but rather the Arab invaders of the seventh century. The Islamic invasions in turn ended up changing the face of Christianity. The detachment of the west from the east — politically, culturally, and religiously — was a direct consequence of Islam’s arrival on the worldly stage. Pirenne concluded famously that “Without Muhammad, Charlemagne would be inconceivable,” meaning that without Islam, the Holy Roman Empire would have (in all probability) never come to be.

There has been renewed interest in Pirenne, for good reasons and bad, and in a post-9/11 age the bad reasons usually get more attention. European nationalists and American neocons have latched on to Pirenne’s work in order to justify foreign policies of intervention in the Muslim world (especially getting involved in regime-change wars), which is an abuse of historical scholarship. One of the better defenses of the Pirenne thesis is that of Emmet Scott. In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012) he affirmed Pirenne with an eye on archaeological data, arguing that there was no gradual decline in classical society from the fifth to seventh centuries, as commonly supposed. There was certainly a decline from the third to fifth centuries, but that was followed by a revival in the sixth and early seventh, which was then dramatically terminated sometime between 620 and 650. The lights went out, quite literally, with the Islamic conquests. The Arabs brought the Romans to their knees, conquered the richest parts of the Mediterranean, and turned the sea into a military frontier. 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” or “dark” outlook had emerged in western Europe, thanks mostly to Islam. It’s at this point that one may legitimately speak of the inception of the Dark Ages.

A paper available online by Bonnie Effros, “The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Hypothesis”, examines the current renewal of Pirenne’s ideas, though it’s not particularly helpful. Not least because she relies on the supposed debunking of Pirenne in the ’80s by Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse (see p 196 of the article). Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe: The Pirenne Thesis in the Light of Archaeology (1983) tried proving that western Europe was in an economic and cultural death-spiral before the appearance of Islam. But the authors relied mostly on evidence from central Italy, the one place we would expect to find societal deterioration, since 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 obviously expect a dramatic drop in the wealth of the settlements around central Italy.

That’s 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 archaeological record 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. This was a revival, not a deterioration, and it was abruptly terminated in the early seventh century with the Muslim invasions. Hodges and Whitehouse’s debunking of Pirenne is discredited on a basic level. They used the exception (of central Italy) to argue a non-existent rule. For whatever reasons, people continue having difficulty believing the Germanic invaders were capable of civilization.

In the East, Hodges and Whitehouse again blamed 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. 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.

Pirenne had supplied the answer, of course, which I take to be self-evident: 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.

The term “Dark Ages” is appropriate, but the period starts in the seventh century, not the fifth. Islamic jihad is what brought the darkness, not the Christian church or the Germanic rulers. That’s an unwelcome view in today’s age, where to even question the myth of Islam’s Golden Age is deemed “Islamophobic”, but there you have it.

And yet…

If the Christian church was not the cause of the Dark Ages, it would eventually become a major impediment to pulling out of that blackness.

Carrier, in his post, rightly notes that while Christianity did not cause the massive stalling of society, it did “guarantee by its take-over of the Western mind that nothing that needed doing to reverse that downfall would be done for at least a thousand years”, which is true. But at what point did Christianity become this kind of impediment? It started (per Pirenne and Scott) with Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.

Those who resist the term Dark Ages are often the same folks who romanticize or overvalue the Carolingians. Carrier’s swipe at the dynasty is a breath of fresh air:

“Even the so-called Carolingian Renaissance was a mere blip in this record, a brief, isolated, relatively unimpressive attempt at a recovery—that failed. Society wouldn’t really start pulling out of this hole until around 1000 A.D. The very pit of the decline was reached in the 7th century, but it took over two more centuries to get back to the rim of that hole, and over four more to get back to where Western civilization had once attained. And even that march up the wall of the pit was relatively inglorious. Compared to the High Roman Empire, the Carolingian era was barbaric, below even the level of societal wealth, sophistication and achievement of Classical Greece, which the Romans at their height had long since surpassed, and which no civilization on earth would obtain again until the Renaissance.”

Quite correct. The western empire under Charlemagne (r. 800-814) developed into 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 in some ways 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. Against such a legacy, Charlemagne’s half-successful efforts to revive literacy didn’t amount to much. The west fragmented into a besieged backwater as Vikings dominated the northern channels and Muslims strangle-held the South.

In Muslim lands, of course, religious dissent and apostasy had always been a capital offense, while for Christians the use of force to enforce orthodoxy was condemned by the early 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 against the violence. By the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, this had flipped 180 degrees: Catholicism now mirrored Islam in killing its own heretics, and the seeds of that mirroring go back to the ascendance of the Holy Roman Empire under the Carolingians.

So when Carrier concludes:

“Yes, the Dark Ages happened. They occupied the period from the 5th to the 10th century. And they took five hundred more years to fully recover from, bringing Western civilization back by the 15th century to all the peak markers of accomplishment that it had achieved by the 2nd century. That’s a thousand years we were set back. And yes, those ages were sufficiently dark in every measure to warrant the appellation. They dropped the Western world (and even, if less catastrophically, the Near Eastern world) to its lowest levels of decline by every measure not seen since before the rise of the Ancient Greeks who built up Western civilization on a foundation of democracy, technology, and science. The Dark Ages were an era we as human beings should look upon in shame, disappointment, and concern never to repeat what caused them or sustained them. They deserve the name.”

I agree with his summary statement but would put the start of the Dark Ages in the seventh century, not the fifth. Again: there was no decline in classical society down to the seventh century, but rather a decline from the third to fifth, followed by a revival in the sixth and early seventh, which was then dramatically terminated in the early to mid seventh. The result was much as people like Carrier and Alexander describe: dark times that went on longer than they should have, and that we should be comfortable “judging” with adequate labels.

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