Did the Advance of the Caliphate Plunge Europe into a Darker Age? Part III

Last part I was describing the Arab Muslim conquests and their effects in general, those effects being the rise of piracy and the nearly complete stop of trade in the Mediterranean. This part will be about the effects that the Byzantine Empire suffered from the Islamic conquests, and how, surprisingly, it too collapsed into a Dark Age. The notion that even Pirenne himself had was that whatever may have happened to Western Europe, Byzantium was not a part of it and still continued to prosper. However, recent archaeological findings show that Byzantium had been hit very hard by the Arab Muslim conquests too. Let’s take a look.

The most obvious sign that conditions would be different after the Arab Muslim invasions is the loss of Byzantium’s richest and most populous provinces in Egypt, the Levant, and the rest of North Africa later in the seventh century. With these lands and the Sassanid Empire under their control, the Arab Muslims were able to cut off all trade to the Far East. They were also able to build and/or steal ships to use for piracy, which they did. In fact, it was Muslim piracy that discouraged trade in the Mediterranean in the first place. In addition to those two things, the Muslims also plunged the Levant, Egypt, and the rest of North Africa into a Dark Age where goods such as oriental spices and papyrus weren’t sent out for trade with the Europeans and cities there too were small.

There is also more evidence for this. One piece of evidence is the decline of cities in favor of hilltop fortresses, or the first castles. Castles, as we all know, are a classic symbol of the Middle Ages. Castles were also defensive fortresses. Why would a civilization just decide to build a bunch of castles? The only logical explanation would be the presence of invaders. These invaders were none other than the Muslims themselves, since the Sassanids lasted only a few years longer after the Persian war against Byzantium that occurred in the seventh century, before being conquered by Muslims, and the castles were used long after the fall of the Sassanids.

Another piece of evidence is the Younger Fill. The Younger Fill is an alluvial deposit, i.e. a large amount of eroded soil that had been reshaped by water in some way (in our case winter rains) and deposited in a non-marine setting. This one spanned across all of Southern Europe. There are two main theories as to the origin of the Younger Fill. The first is that climatic disturbances somehow caused it. However, no chroniclers at the time noted a significant change in climate. The other, more likely theory is that the Classical agricultural system experienced a total collapse and terraces were no longer maintained. The main cause of this collapse, as elaborated on by Hodges and Whitehouse in Mohammed, Charlemagne, & the Origins of Europe, was the lower demand for olive oil and wine. The two go further and point that this occurred in the late sixth or early seventh century. The Sassanid Persians seem to be at blame here, considering that they had been at war with the Byzantines at the time, however, the Younger Fill had also been spotted in Spain as well. The better explanation is that the Arab Muslim invaders had caused it, considering that they, unlike the Sassanids, were able to spread throughout the Mediterranean and were also able to build a permanent presence. It is also interesting to note that, rather conveniently, Hodges and Whitehouse left out the obvious reason for the lower demand for olive oil and wine. That reason was none other than Muslim piracy, which, as I have stated several times, discouraged merchants from trading in the Mediterranean, which resulted in an obvious lower demand for olive oil and wine. With this lower demand, many of the terraces used to grow grapes and olives would be abandoned, resulting in the Younger Fill.

There are many counter-arguments to the Pirenne Thesis, especially to the fall of the East. One of them tries to pit the blame of the decline of cities on the Persians. The main piece of evidence used is the events that transpired at the city of Ephesus after the Sassanid sack in 616. So what happened afterwards? Well, the Byzantines had decided to build a wall and hilltop fortress, a castle, in order to protect the city and harbor from future attacks. They say that it was the Persian attack that motivated castle building, and not the Islamic invasions. Now this may very well be true, but the Muslims solidified this change. The Arab Muslims gave the Byzantines reason to use their castles that they had built. As I elaborated on in my paper on the Franks, Charlemagne’s accomplishments wouldn’t be as impactful if Louis the Pious hadn’t made sure that those accomplishments remained intact. The same reasoning applies to the rise of castles and what it has to do with the Muslim invasions.

Another argument used against the Pirenne Thesis is that Emperor Justinian’s high taxes resulted in an economic recession, further adding to a slow decline of the Classical World. First off, we must know that there are many more aspects to a civilization than its economy. There is culture and politics as well. Although Justinian’s high taxes used to fund the military and cathedral building did cause a recession, the culture of the Classical World remained strong. Did the Great Depression bring American culture down with it? No, it didn’t. One could make an argument that American values may have even been strengthened as a result. American values didn’t wither away because of the Great Recession either.

The Byzantine Empire had been affected just as much as the rest of Europe by the Islamic invasions. With the decline of classical farming due to Muslim piracy and the construction and use of castles a Dark Age in Europe had begun. Even chroniclers who lived during this Dark Age period described Constantinople, the heart of trade in the east and the capital of the Byzantine Empire, as a ghost town. The fact that the Islamic invasions affected Constantinople itself to this scale, according to chroniclers at the time anyway, is stunning. The Muslims also made sure that castles weren’t just decorations but practical shelters that would be used to protect the people from raids. An empire once thought to be immune to the effects of the Dark Ages suffered from those very effects.

Works Cited

Hodges, Richard, and David Whitehouse. Mohammed, Charlemagne, & The Origins of Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 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.