Did the Advance of the Caliphate Plunge Europe into a Darker Age? Part II
“…All good things must come to an end, and this Classical revival did as well.”
Welcome back! Previously on this multi-part series, I presented to you the history of Western Europe during the sixth and early seventh centuries, and how, in reality, the “barbarian” tribes were actually the inheritors of Classical Civilizatio rather than its destroyers. As a disclaimer, I would like to point out that this paper, the Pirenne Thesis, or any of the sources I use are not meant to disparage or offend Muslims. This is simply a multi-part series advocating for the Pirenne Thesis and showing how history supports it. So why were these conquests so bad for Europe? Well, first we must examine the conquests themselves as well as the concept of “Holy War” as was preached by Mohammed.
The Islamic Conquests and their Effects
The Muslim conquests of Egypt and the Levant were very quick, lasting a matter of a few years. This was in large part because the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanids were both exhausted by a very costly war that occurred between the two. But even before then, both Empires never really saw the nomadic herders of Arabia as a large threat. So it came as a large surprise to the Byzantines and Sassanids when they were both defeated by herders from Arabia, filled with the radical concept of “Holy War”. “Holy War” was war against the infidel. Any goods taken from infidels were “divinely” split amongst Muslim pirates. In addition, only truces, their purpose being to allow time to rebuild strength, could be made between Muslim nations and infidel nations (Yes, I am aware that many of today’s Muslims and Turkey (part of NATO) do not agree with this, but back then, the majority of Muslims did). Unlike the Germanics, who were essentially “Romanized”, the Muslims held steadfast to their new beliefs. The areas in which they conquered had all elements of Classical civilization wiped from them, save, of course, the ones that would benefit the Muslims. Rather than the Arab Muslims becoming Romanized, the Romans became Arabized.
One of the largest effects of the Muslims’ conquests of Egypt and the Levant was the Muslims’ ability to send large amounts of pirates, the likes of which hadn’t been seen for centuries, into the Mediterranean. The new Muslim pirates quickly started seizing ships and splitting the spoils among themselves, disrupting the success of trade missions and discouraging others from trading across the Mediterranean. Travelling across the Mediterranean was also unsafe for Europeans. A group of missionaries from England travelling to Rome chose an overland route to Rome rather than a quicker, cheaper route through the port of Marseille.
The influx of goods into Gaul and Western Europe also ended after the Muslim conquests. Papyrus was increasingly rare, and parchment was being used in its place since the 600s A.D. The last papyrus documents date from the late 800s, but these were private documents, and not government-issued. Around the same time, oriental spices such as black pepper vanish from European records. The spices that were around were very expensive. Not even the papacy had spices on their menu during road trips! Oil exports from North Africa had also ceased. By the time all of this was over, the only traders left were the Jews, who had to trade for a living, and the Venetians, who were the rising stars of European trade. There weren’t any signs of decay in Western Europe before the Islamic conquests. Afterwards, a decline ensued.
The Islamic conquests may have also impoverished the Muslim world as well. From around the time of the Islamic conquests to the late eleventh century, we find very little artifacts of any kind. The only places where we have found this evidence are in the few and far-between cities, and Southern Mesopotamia. Egypt, the Levant, and North Africa were all barren. Emmet Scott, in his book Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited points out three reasons for this.
“Either (1), the Arab conquests and the regime that followed were so destructive that they extinguished almost all settled life in the Middle East and North Africa for three centuries, or (2), some form of catastrophe, of a natural order, in the form of a plague or climatic disturbance destroyed a great percentage of the populations of the Near East and North Africa sometime in the mid-seventh century, or (3) the rise of Islam has been misdated, and that some form of error, of a fundamental nature, has swept into the chronology.”
In conclusion, the rise of Islam stopped almost all trade in the Mediterranean and pushed Western Europe into a period of subsistence. The rise of Islamic piracy in particular discouraged people from trading in the Mediterranean, in fear of both their lives and goods. Oriental goods such as rare spices and papyrus became increasingly rare, pushing Europeans to make their own goods or to simply live without them. The Islamic World may also have suffered as well from this catastrophe. And, it wasn’t just those areas that were affected by this rise either. Byzantium had experienced similar effects. That will be covered next part.
Hodges, Richard, and David Whitehouse. Mohammed, Charlemagne, & The Origins of Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Kinder, Hermann, and Werner Hilgemann. The Anchor Atlas of World History: Volume I: From the Stone Age to the Eve of the French Revolution. Translated by Ernest A. Menze. New York: Doubleday, 1974.
Mazour, Anatole G., John M. Peoples, and Theodore K Rabb. People and Nations: A World History. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1983.
Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 2001.
Scott, Emmet. Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy. Nashville: New English Review Press, 2012.