So, the Vandals weren’t actually, you know, Vandals?

It is commonly thought that the barbarian Germanic tribes (ancestors of later barbarian French and Germans) invaded the west Roman Empire, extinguished the light of culture and learned urban life and brought about the dark ages so impressively imagined in this work.  Further, it is also thought that Islam, in conquering large swaths of the east Roman Empire and North Africa, did not have the same effect; rather, they preserved the learning of the Classical world, saving it up until it could be translated into Latin by industrious scholars in the late middle ages in Cordoba.

Thinking about this, it seems strange.  Why would the Arabs, renowned through later ages for their contempt for learning, have preserved the corpus of Greek and Latin literature?  The muslim armies bursting out of Arabia in the seventh century were no where near as civilized as the partially Romanized Germans.

And thinking more, in my reading about Belisarius and Justinian in the period right before the Islamic breakout, the German successor kingdoms in the west – Italy and North Africa – were, while not exactly up to par with Augustan Rome, not uncivilized.  The cities were still there, still trading, Latin was still being spoken and the ruling classes learned it and aped the manners of their Roman predecessors.

Well, this guy thinks that the Islamic – Arab expansion in the seventh century was the real cause of the Dark Ages:

Henri Pirenne’s posthumously-published Mohammed et Charlemagne (1938) presented to the academic world the results of a lifetime of research and study. His conclusions were stunning. The accepted narrative of western civilization, he maintained, was erroneous in a fundamental way. Classical civilization, the literate and urban culture of Greece and Rome, did not die as a result of the “Barbarian” Invasions of the fifth century. On the contrary, the great cities of the west, of Gaul, of Italy, of Spain and of North Africa, continued to flourish as before, this time under Germanic kings. These monarchs enthusiastically adopted the Latin language as well as Christianity, and regarded themselves as functionaries of the Roman Emperor — who by now however sat in Constantinople. Literature, as well as the arts and sciences, Pirenne found, continued to flourish in the western provinces until the middle of the seventh century. At that point, however, everything fell apart. Now, quite suddenly, a darkness — complete and total — descends. Gold coinage disappears and the great cities go into terminal decline. Within a generation, Europe is in the middle of a Dark Age. The light of classical civilization is utterly and completely extinguished.

What, Pirenne mused, could have caused such a total and dramatic disintegration? The conclusion he reached was almost as dramatic as the civilizational collapse he described. It was, to use Pirenne’s own phrase, explainable in one word: Mohammed. It can have been no coincidence, argued Pirenne, that all the luxury items of Near Eastern origin, which were commonplace in western Europe until the early seventh century, suddenly disappear in the middle of that same century — just at the moment Islam spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Islamic war and piracy must have closed the Mediterranean to all trade and strangled the economy of western Europe. Since the great cities of the west were dependant for their existence upon the luxury items imported from the east, these soon began to die. With the cities went the wealth of the kings, whose tax revenues disappeared: Local strongmen, or barons, seized power in the provinces. The Middle Ages had begun.

It was thus Islam, and not the German barbarians, who had caused the Dark Age of Europe.

Interesting.  John O’Neill, who wrote that post at Gates of Vienna, has written a book about the subject, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization. Downloadable, and at a reduced price of only $10.

He continues,

…the Byzantine Empire, which Glick [whose book O'Neill is savaging, - ed] asserts suffered little or no economic dislocation. Before commenting on the seventh century, we should note that the sixth century, just before the rise of Islam, was an epoch of unparalleled splendour for Byzantium: Justinian reasserted Imperial control over Italy and North Africa, and both he and his successors presided over a prosperous and opulent civilization. Great monuments, both civil and ecclesiastical were raised, and science and the arts flourished. This was the situation that pertained as far as the reign of Heraclius, in whose time Byzantium first came into conflict with Islam. Cyril Mango is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Byzantine history, a topic which he has covered in several volumes and numerous articles. Here’s what he says about the Empire in the seventh century, from the reign of Heraclius onwards:

“One can hardly overestimate the catastrophic break that occurred in the seventh century. Anyone who reads the narrative of events will not fail to be struck by the calamities that befell the Empire, starting with the Persian invasion at the very beginning of the century and going on to the Arab expansion some thirty years later — a series of reverses that deprived the Empire of some of its most prosperous provinces, namely, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and, later, North Africa — and so reduced it to less than half its former size both in area and in population. But a reading of the narrative sources gives only a faint idea of the profound transformation that accompanied these events. … It marked for the Byzantine lands the end of a way of life — the urban civilization of Antiquity — and the beginning of a very different and distinctly medieval world.”(Cyril Mango,Byzantium, the Empire of New Rome, p. 4) Mango remarked on the virtual abandonment of the Byzantine cities after the mid-seventh century, and the archaeology of these settlements usually reveals “a dramatic rupture in the seventh century, sometimes in the form of virtual abandonment.”(Ibid. p. 8) With the cities and with the papyrus supply from Egypt went the intellectual class, who after the seventh century were reduced to a “small clique.”(Ibid. p. 9) The evidence, as Mango sees it, is unmistakable: the “catastrophe” (as he names it) of the seventh century, “is the central event of Byzantine history.”(Ibid.)

Constantinople herself, the mighty million-strong capital of the East, was reduced, by the middle of the eighth century, to a veritable ruin. Mango quotes a document of the period which evokes a picture of “abandonment and ruination. Time and again we are told that various monuments — statues, palaces, baths — had once existed but were destroyed. What is more, the remaining monuments, many of which must have dated from the fourth and fifth centuries, were no longer understood for what they were. They had acquired a magical and generally ominous connotation.”(Ibid. p. 80)

So great was the destruction that even bronze coinage, the everyday lubricant of commercial life, disappeared. According to Mango, “In sites that have been systematically excavated, such as Athens, Corinth, Sardis and others, it has been ascertained that bronze coinage, the small change used for everyday transactions, was plentiful throughout the sixth century and (depending on local circumstances) until some time in the seventh, after which it almost disappeared, then showed a slight increase in the ninth, and did not become abundant again until the latter part of the tenth.”

We know that the loss of the Syria and Egypt were a huge blow to the Byzantines. (Who, of course, didn’t call themselves Byzantines – they were Romanoi.) Eliminating the Germanic kingdoms in North Africa and Spain would have done no less harm to the economies of the west. And we know that later, the Arab states to the south and east of the Med were a huge barrier to trade – the entire European exploration effort was largely an attempt to bypass that blockage. Arab pirates and fleets in the Med were a constant threat to European trade in the Middle Ages and beyond. Why should we imagine that it was any different a few hundred years earlier?

O’Niell goes on to discuss evidence of the prosperity and wealth of Visigothic Spain:

And so it goes on. One dark inference and assertion based on unsubstantiated sources after another. Take for example his comments on mining and metallurgy under the Visigoths:

“The economic regressiveness of Visigothic Spain is well illustrated by the failure of the Goths to carry on the vast mining enterprise begun by the Romans, who removed from Iberian pits a wide variety of metals, including silver, gold, iron, lead, copper, tin, and cinnabar, from which mercury is made. The relative insignificance of mining in Visigothic Spain is attested to by the winnowing of the full account given by Pliny to the meager details supplied by Isidore of Seville, who omits any mention, for example, of iron deposits in Cantabria. The most important Roman mines have lost their Latin names, generally yielding to Arabic ones — as in Almadén and Aljustrel — probably an indication of their quiescence during the Visigothic period and their revival by the Muslims. The Goths may have allowed their nomadic foraging instinct to direct their utilization of metal resources. In some areas mined by the Romans they probably scavenged for residual products of abandoned shafts that remained unworked, and metal for new coinage seems largely to have been provided by booty captured from enemies or from older coins fleeced from taxpayers.”

Read that again carefully: The only evidence he has that mining declined under the Visigoths is the “meagre details supplied by Isidore of Seville” and the fact that the most important Roman-age mines in Spain are now known by Arabic names. This hardly constitutes convincing evidence upon which to make such a sweeping statement; and it stands in stark contrast to the vast wealth, in gold, silver and precious stones, that the Arabs themselves claimed to have carried off from Spain.

Sounds interesting. O’Niel has guest posted at Gates previously – and I had checked out his book, but it seems to me that it was $20 before. At ten, I think I might pick it up, or else find a copy of Pirenne.

[wik] You can download a copy of Pirenne’s Muhammed and Charlemagne here at scribd.


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  • Red


    I’ve read the same account that you did and it makes perfect sense. Barbarian people tend to go to great lengths to keep the systems they conqueror going once they recognize how much better the system is. The roman system was largely the free trade system of today and shutdown of sea communication would definitely destroy it.

    His arguments pointing out the lack of papyrus due to the fall of Egypt are even more powerful and convincing. Hard to keep learning alive if costs of recording knowledge is very high.

  • 2

    Started reading Pirenne, it’s fantastic. I’d recommend it highly.

  • Bram


    I’ll have to read. There were probably other factors – pre-Viking Pagans in Northern Europe and a small-pox plague – but the spread of Islam certainly put the most pressure on Christian Europe.

    As for those learned Arabs – I don’t recall much of the great Library of Alexandria surviving their visit.

  • 4

    [...] Update: I downloaded Pirenne’s Mohammed et Charlemagne, and now I’pm totally sucked in.  I don’t think I’ll be reading anything else [...]

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