The Better Sequel — Dune Messiah or Paul of Dune?

With the release of the Dune trailer, I’m rereading the classic series along with some of the volumes written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. For twenty years I’ve spurned these sequels, prequels, and midquels, holding fast to the wisdom that sons trying to carry on their fathers’ literary torches are bound to disappoint. Especially when cranked out in obscene quantity: there are thirteen of these novels, and their reputation is shaky to say the least. But I was determined to try some, and Paul of Dune was a priority. Some critics call it the sequel that Dune deserved in the first place, rather than Dune Messiah; I was skeptical of this claim but now agree with it. Having read Dune–>Paul of Dune–>Dune Messiah in my marathon, I will now review the latter two and explain why Paul of Dune is the better sequel.

[Note: Paul of Dune starts one year after Dune and covers the six-year period of 10194-10199, the first half of the jihad. Dune Messiah starts twelve years after Dune, and covers the two-year period of 10206-10207, as the jihad is winding down. I’m going to review Dune Messiah first, however, since it holds primacy of place in the canon.]

Dune Messiah: 2 ½ stars out of 5

Dune was an impossible act to follow, even for a genius like Frank Herbert. When you write the best sci-fic novel of all time (it remains so after 55 years), you don’t do yourself any great favors. Dune had everything — family drama, political intrigue, wilderness survival, action, introspection — and never for a split-second cheated the reader. Dune Messiah has little of any of that. Instead it has shitloads of sulking, as Paul drowns in the self-pity of his messianic woes. The plot is sketchy, revolving around a conspiracy against this Emo-Paul; the conspirators range from the half-competent to the ineffectual, and succeed mostly in scoring philosophical zingers against each other that the reader can’t make sense of. Messiah is essentially a chamber piece that reads like an interlude between Dune and Children of Dune, showing how Paul’s reign fizzles out before his son Leto’s will begin. This could have worked fine, with a little more story and a lot less gas, but Herbert evidently wanted to write a sequel that was different from Dune in every single way, even to the point of ditching the essentials of narration itself.

Herbert’s goal was admirable: Dune Messiah demystifies Muad’Dib and shows that in becoming a god, Paul Atreides became a captive of his own command — powerless to stop the jihad that devastated the universe. All fine and well. The Dune series, after all, is about the self-defeating nature of charismatics and messiahs. The problem is that Paul’s demystification is presented in a navel-gazing cloud without any real conflict (aside from the conspiracy-plot and a few family quarrels). There is the return of Duncan Idaho — resurrected as a ghola named Hayt — but since Hayt admits upfront to Paul that he was sent to destroy him, the suspense over this point is muted.

That leaves the suspense to be carried on Paul’s inner torments. Normally I love this sort of thing. Thomas Covenant is my favorite anti-hero; he’s the most depressing and self-loathing savior you can find in a work of fantasy. But he gets epic stories that rise above misery porn. Dune Messiah has nowhere to rise because it hardly goes anywhere. Add to this that its characters — the dwarf Bijaz, the ghola Hayt, and others — speak in an abundance of riddles and paradoxes that seem designed purely to bamboozle the reader. Portentous dialogue stretches on for pages, and it’s too abstruse to feel like anything of substance is being discussed. Many readers will feel used, if not abused, that a brilliant writer like Herbert has exploited his talents to serve up nonsense that only sounds philosophically impressive.

The best part is when Paul goes out in disguise among the people of Arrakeen, deliberately walking into a trap, knowing what will happen to him thanks to his prescient visions. Sure enough, the stone-burner bomb goes off, dissolving his eye tissue and rendering him blind. But he can still see, due to his prescience as the Kwisatch Haderach, and this throws his Fremen followers into disarray, since it is their unyielding custom to leave the blind to die in the desert. Strong scenes unfold: Paul’s command that Tleilaxu eyes be shipped by the government for every citizen blinded by the bomb; Korba’s trial before the Fremen naibs; Duncan/Hayt and Alia dancing around their lust for each other. This all comes in the last third of the novel, and it helps redeem the novel from being a total dud.

What we never get in Dune Messiah is the intricate world-building of the other five classic novels — Dune, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Dune Chapterhouse. After the magisterial canvass of Dune in particular, that’s quite a come-down. We don’t see the devastating impact of the jihad on other worlds; everything is set on the god-capital of Arrakis, mostly inside Paul’s city-temple. We’re left in the dark about the mysterious Bene Tleilax, how they resurrect people (like Duncan Idaho), create Face Dancers, and how they bred their own Kwisatz Haderach (like Paul) who failed. These are far more interesting questions than pretentious riddles. Thankfully they’re answered in Paul of Dune.

Before turning to that better sequel, however, I should acknowledge the power of the closing chapter in which Paul walks off into the desert to die. His last words reverberate in the ears of the Fremen: “Now I am free.” For Duncan Idaho the words have added resonance, since his ghola body has just been liberated from Tleilaxu control. A stage is being set for a new dynasty, and there’s something genuinely heartbreaking in Paul’s realization that the future no longer needs his physical presence. It’s the messiah’s fate to be rendered insignificant by the religion he calls into existence. I just wish the tragic ending could have paid off an epic worthy of a Dune sequel.

Paul of Dune: 4 stars out of 5

My low expectations for this book paid off, but frankly I would have been impressed with even modest ones. Though not as literary as any of Herbert’s books, Paul of Dune is certainly well written, despite the naysayers’ objections. It’s the sequel we all deserve, picking up the year after Dune ends and throwing us into Paul’s holy war.

We’re treated to characters who are offstage in Dune Messiah: Lady Jessica, Gurney Halleck, the deposed emperor Shaddam IV, and the key players Count Fenring, his wife Margot, and their vicious baby daughter Marie who proves to be a match for Paul’s sister Alia. We see Dune Messiah‘s Korba, chief priest of the Qizarate, in the early days of the Qizarate before he betrayed Paul. Controversially, we get Princess Irulan penning Muad’Dib’s biography as a propaganda piece: The Life of Muad’Dib, Volume 1, is understood to be the equivalent of the novel Dune, and contains hyperboles and outright lies, which in effect retcons Herbert’s series. While this has pissed off many fans, I find it amusing and in line with Herbert’s purpose: messiahs are not only dangerous, they leave legends in their wake that can’t be entirely trusted.

I was glad to see Gurney Halleck return to his home world of Giedi Prime. After four years of commanding fanatical Fremen across the galaxy — and wanting to murder most of them for their barbarisms — he is finally relieved from jihad duty by Paul and sent to reform the oppressive Harkonnen cesspool. Readers of Dune will recall that Gurney was tortured in slave pits as a young man on Giedi Prime, while his sister was made into a whore in a torture bordello, and then eventually raped and strangled in front of Gurney. Gurney’s first act upon arrival is to shut down the slave pits, and then to seek out the “pleasure” houses, whereupon he commands that the proprietor (the very same who oversaw his sister’s torments) be garroted in public:

The administrators remained silent. The proprietor squawked, began to argue, and Gurney pointed a finger at him: “Be thankful that I do not first command a hundred soldiers to sodomize you — some of them with spiked clubs. But even though that is what you deserve, I am not a Harkonnen. Your death will be swift enough.”

With the barbarisms of the jihad still fresh in his mind, Gurney aims for less severe methods to punish as he governs. He refuses to emulate the religious rule of the Fremen, though they obviously have Paul’s approval, and it’s hard not to see an implied critique of Islamic law (Fremen religion is an amalgam of many historic religions, but mostly Sunni Islam) in our real world. Back on Arrakis Princess Irulan levels her own critique, as she lambastes Paul for his warrior-based religion that has replaced democracy and freedom:

“I see no advantage in what you are creating: a fanatically united populace under a charismatic leader, following dogma instead of a bill of rights. You have thrown out the complex — and yes, inefficient — bureaucracy of the Landsraad. But you cannot replace it with anarchy. We need a safety net of laws and procedures, a uniform code by which decisions on all planets are made. And yet, you seek to do away with everything that preceded you.”

Paul Muad’Dib nonetheless holds his ground. He isn’t the Emo-Paul of Dune Messiah, drowning in self-pity. He’s an emperor who by god acts like one, and mans up to the vile shit he must endorse and keep carrying out for the “greater good”. At one point he even disguises himself as a common Fremen and goes off to a distant planet to fight in the jihad alongside his fanatical followers. Paul has doubts and misgivings, to be sure, just like in Dune, but he isn’t paralyzed by them. There are many passages in Paul of Dune which echo his prescient visions seen in the first novel, such as the following:

Only he, Paul Muad’Dib, could see the whirlwind, and the far worse fate that awaited the human race if his jihad failed. As he forged ahead into the future, he saw hazards in every direction, death and pain on every side. He only knew that somewhere beyond this jihad, perhaps many generations later, lay a safe harbor. He still believed he could guide humankind along the correct, narrow path. He had to believe it. For those who could not see the large and subtle tapestry of fate, however, this battle was a slaughter of helpless civilians.

The “correct narrow path”, of course, foreshadows the Golden Path revealed to Paul’s son Leto in the later books — Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, etc. The Golden Path is basically the plan for humanity’s long term survival. As God Emperor, Leto will keep humanity bottled up for centuries under his oppressive rule, so that once people finally break free they will scatter throughout the universe and become more diverse and stronger than ever before. In other words, the Golden Path will instill in humanity a genetic and cultural hatred of oppressive rulers, so as to ensure that humanity will never suffer under tyrants (like Paul and Leto) ever again. But for now, all Paul knows is that his jihad and barbaric rule is the best of bad alternatives, “a flurry compared with the titanic upheavals that lay ahead in the path of human destiny, upheavals that would be far more deadly if the jihad failed now”.

And while Paul contends with the ugly impact of his jihad, old enemies put plans into motion to reclaim his throne: the deposed Shaddam IV, for one, and Shaddam’s old ally and assassin Hasimir Fenring. It’s Fenring who ends up being the chief antagonist of Paul of Dune, and I enjoyed how he ditches his ex-boss Shaddam (whom he disdains as a twit) to pursue his own nefarious plot against Paul: he and his wife Margot plan to steal the throne for their baby daughter Marie, who is a product of the Bene Gesserit breeding program. On top of this is a bizarre side-plot alluded to in Dune Messiah: the defective Kwisatch Haderach created by the Bene Tleilax, named Thallo. Thallo becomes friends with the young Marie, and they shape up to become a deadly duo before Thallo goes insane and tries killing everyone around him. (Little Marie puts him out of his misery with her Bene Gesserit skills.)

Paul of Dune was clearly written by fans who love the first novel and wanted a proper sequel; it wasn’t cranked out to milk the cash cow. I’m looking forward to reading more of the Herbert/Anderson books, especially the Butlerian Jihad prequels. Those look promising.

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.

“No Separation of Church and State” in Medieval Europe: What it means and what it doesn’t

We’re often told there was no separation of church and state in medieval Christianity, and to an extent that’s true. Christian thought influenced political decision making. The church legitimated monarchs; secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.

But — and this is a big but — there was a very clear divide between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other. In some Christian lands that distinction became so sharp you’d hardly guess this was the time before or during the crusades. In England, for example, common law derived from local judges, and no priest or church figures were involved in it. Or in Castile (the Christian part of Spain), where local tradition-based law was written down in the fueros (town’s rights), confirmed by the crown in royal charters, and administered by popularly elected local mayors — with again, no priestly or church involvement in the law’s creation or application.

Everywhere in Catholic Europe, civil law was administered by the laity. Priests stuck to their own law: canon law. That wasn’t true in the Islamic world, where sharia law was both religious and civil without distinction. Religion was the law (and still is today in many Islamic countries), which meant that Islam was the law. Sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from a the private to the public, and Muslim clerics ruled over the daily life of the Muslim population. The public spaces (in this so-called “golden age” of Islam) were regularly patrolled by religious functionaries who had the powers of a judge over the people’s personal, social, and commercial behavior. One looks in vain to find an equivalent judge in medieval Catholic Europe — that is, a dispenser of the law who was also an expert in the New Testament and could officiate, lead prayers, and deliver homilies. Such priest-judges did not exist. And because common law evolved independent of royal or priestly power, it could have a politically liberating effect (long before the Magna Carta), not least in the ideas of people’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law. Freedom, in this sense, was wholly antithetical to sharia law in the Muslim world.

Something to bear in mind, the next time you hear that “church and state were inseparable” in medieval Europe. As far as the statement goes, it’s true, but few people understand what that means and what it doesn’t.

 

 

Muhammad and Charlemagne

moh_and_cha_revisited“Without Muhammad, Charlemagne is inconceivable.”

Henri Pirenne wrote those words 80 years ago, against a flood 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 affirms 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. Christian monks preserved the literary inheritance of the ancient world, and gave to Europe centers of scholarship. The archaeological record is 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 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.

9780801416156-usThat’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 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 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 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.

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 not 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 — in the seventh century, not the fifth — and the culprits are the Arabs. Almost by definition, the Dark Age covers the 300-year stretch of barren archaeology that begins after the Persian War followed by the Islamic invasions: the early seventh to the early tenth centuries. Jihad brought the darkness, not the Germanic rulers.

Those “Missing” Centuries

This is something Scott keeps returning to. Between the early seventh and early 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 acute and embarrassing that only crazy explanations are offered:

(1) Some natural or cosmic catastrophe destroyed huge portions of the populations sometime in the 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 certain 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 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 seventh century and then suddenly resume in the tenth? The only thing we can say with confidence is that the Arab conquests of the 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 wasn’t.

Verdict

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.