Did the Advance of the Caliphate Plunge Europe into a Darker Age? Part I
Henri Pirenne was one of the great medieval historians of history. He was known for his thesis, today called the Pirenne Thesis, that states that the Germanic tribes did not in fact plunge Europe into the Middle Ages, but in fact that the advance of the Islamic Caliphate in the 600s did. This theory, published in Mohammed and Charlemagne, was immediately controversial. Almost every other medieval historian’s reputation was at risk from this book, which defied the traditional 476-500 A.D. standard that a majority of Medieval Historians used. However, between historical and archaeological evidence, we can definitively say that the Pirenne Thesis is in fact correct.
Before I begin, I would like to point out a discrepancy in Pirenne’s research. In his book, Mohammed and Charlemagne, Pirenne often uses Gregory of Tours as a resource on trade. The issue with this that many historians stumble upon is the fact that there is no clear consensus on the reliability of Gregory. Thankfully, recent archaeology has allowed us to no longer have to worry about this discrepancy.
“Barbarians”, the Surprise Inheritors of Rome
The Germanic tribes, also known as “Barbarians”, are often credited as the largest reason for the fall of the Western Roman Empire, ranking above the economic difficulties and political instability of the Empire. It is foolish to think that the “Barbarians” wanted to destroy the Roman Empire; rather, they wanted to be a part of it, to become Romans. This is something widely recognized today, and a key part of Pirenne’s thesis overall in proving that the Germanics did not in fact end the Classical Era, but rather simply brought it into a new phase.
A good example of this is the story of the Visigoths’ entry into the Empire. Throughout the third century A.D., the Visigoths were living in relative safety. They were aware of the Empire’s presence and still wanted to be part of the Empire, but they could manage on their own. Starting in 375 A.D., however, a new Asiatic people known as the Huns, a conquering army essentially, began to ravage Germania (Central and Eastern Europe beyond the Roman frontier). The Germanic tribes began begging the Romans to let them in for safety. The Visigoths were the only ones accepted. Eastern Emperor Valens, the emperor who let the refugees settle, had them pay a very high price for entry into the Empire. They had to have all of their children taken from them. And if that weren’t bad enough, the Visigoths also were given barely enough food to survive as well.
The last straw for these Visigoths came when their leader, Fritigern, was invited to a dinner with the Romans, who were plotting to assassinate him. Upon finding out, and cancelling the dinner of course, Fritigern urged the Visigoths to rebel against the Romans. This revolt was a success, and the new Emperor, Theodosius, allowed the Visigoths to serve in the military, which is what they wanted the whole time. However, when Theodosius died in 395 A.D., the Visigoths revolted soon after under their new leader Alaric. Alaric had wanted the title of a Roman officer, and was refused one, and so he rampaged across the empire. Now although his destruction in Italy was most famous, I will instead focus on Athens. Upon entering Athens, Alaric didn’t just pillage the city, but he also enjoyed many of the pleasures of Athens. He asked to see the Parthenon, to have the works of Plato read to him, and to watch a play by Aeschylus. This deep respect for Roman civilization continued onwards after the fall of Rome itself in 476 A.D.
One of the ways in which this respect and admiration for Roman civilization continued was in the various government systems of the Germanic kingdoms. The Germanics set up kingdoms, monarchies in essence. The free assemblies had been abandoned in favor of the Roman way. The Germanics didn’t have emperors however, because they already recognized the sitting Emperor in the East. Even Charlemagne himself didn’t create the position of emperor, nor did he want it. In addition, the Emperor served as a mediator for disputes between the various kingdoms. Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths was an extension of the Emperor’s hand; he could only issue edicts, not laws, and was halted by the Byzantine Emperor from taking part in wars that he didn’t approve of.
In terms of the intellectuals of the time, we are in a perplexing situation. Monasctism had become all the rage as many ordinary citizens, who were able to take the challenge, went to monasteries to learn and study. Religious texts such as the New Testament were copied in these monasteries, but interestingly enough, Greek and Roman classics were copied as well. In addition, the two “great minds” of the fifth century, Boethius and Cassiodorus, both advocated the copying of religious texts and Greek and Roman classics alongside them. Boethius translated Aristotle’s works on logic into Latin (his translation was the only one available until the twelfth century), and probably translated arithmetic and music textbooks from Nicomachus, both of which were used in medieval education. Many Christians still followed the works of Plato as well.
The last area mentioned will be the culture and trade in the sixth and early seventh centuries. Merovingian Gaul up to 625-630 (before the lazy and incompetent do-nothing kings) was the center of prosperity. Churches were being built, ironworking boomed, and goods manufactured there, such as Frankish weapons, were traded as far north as Sweden. Even people in small settlements were able to acquire simple luxuries such as bronze and crystal jewelry. In England, while definitely not as politically aligned as Francia (Gaul) or Italy, the Classical spirit still thrived in art and architecture. There was also trade as well, and in Ireland missionaries were sent out to convert people to Christianity in Northern England (since England entirely lost Christianity with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons) and Central Europe. However, Italy was in a large state of decay throughout this time period, and never fully recovered. This could possibly be attributed to the widespread political instability between the invasions of the Ostrogoths, and then the Byzantines, followed by the Lombards and then the Franks.
From a traditional point of view, the “Dark Ages” was a time of widespread ignorance, poverty, and a lack of trade. Subsistence dominated this time period, which lasted until the 1000s, at least according to the traditionalists. The Fall of Rome was a mere event in a history of the Classical Era, and it didn’t change much on the cultural, economic, or political scene. Rome was already in a period of disintegration from the third century, and there was much instability. If anything, the “Barbarian” kingdoms were actually more stable than those of Rome after the initial warring to the 550s. The Visigoths, Franks (after the 530s), and Vandals were content to stay in their own spaces, and, if it weren’t for the conquests of Justinian, the Ostrogoths may have been able to fend off the Lombards and set up a more permanent kingdom. The intellectuals of the time promoted not just the preservation of classical knowledge, but even the adaptation of classical works. Trade and manufacturing boomed in many areas in the west where there were stable governments run by the same peoples (Unlike Italy), and the people themselves could even afford simple luxuries such as jewelry. Gaul and Ireland hosted the most prosperous generations yet. What some consider to be a “Dark Age” was no dark age at all. It was instead a period of prosperity and thriving trade which allowed for a Classical revival. However, all good things must come to an end, and this Classical revival did as well. How? That will be explained next time.
Woods, Tom. Charlemagne. Podcast Audio. Ron Paul Curriculum, MP3. http://www.ronpaulcurriculum.com/members/2000.cfm
Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 2001.
Hodges, Richard, and David Whitehouse. Mohammed, Charlemagne, & The Origins of Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Scott, Emmet. Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy. Nashville: New English Review Press, 2012.
Mazour, Anatole G., John M. Peoples, and Theodore K Rabb. People and Nations: A World History. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1983.
Woods, Tom. Rome and the Barbarians I. Podcast Audio. Ron Paul Curriculum, MP3. http://www.ronpaulcurriculum.com/members/1548.cfm
“Saint Gelasius I”. Infoplease. Last Modified 2012. http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/people/gelasius-i-saint.html