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Mohammed and Charlemagne, Revisited

April 7th, 2011 by Andrew Bostom |
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A guest book review/essay by the Norwegian writer, Fjordman.

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 was written by Chris Wickham, a Professor of Medieval History at the University of Oxford, England. He was also the editor of the work Marxist History-writing for the Twenty-first Century from 2007, which received praise for its distinctly Marxist outlook in International Socialism, a journal associated with the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, a party of revolutionary Socialists.

The Inheritance of Rome consists of roughly six hundred pages densely packed with names, often excessively so compared to deeper insights into historical trends. Although the author has dedicated several chapters each to the Byzantine and Arab Empires in addition to Western Europe, which is fine, he is rather weak in comparing how these cultures used the Greco-Roman heritage differently, for instance Greek natural philosophy or secular Roman law.

He talks about Arab conquests and “raids,” but doesn’t explain Islamic Jihad as a word or concept. By reading this book and this book alone you will have no understanding whatsoever of the fact that Europe was for over a thousand years targeted by a religiously sanctioned war of conquest, certainly not that in the minds of many Muslims this drive for world domination continues to this day. In fact, you will learn more about Tunisian olive oil than about Jihad.

Even though he writes extensively about Charles Martel and the Carolingians, he barely mentions the Battle of Poitiers in AD 732 when Martel’s troops halted the Arab Muslim advances into Western Europe north of the Pyrenees. This is, quite frankly, incomprehensible when considering the amount of detail he spends on issues that are of lesser importance.

I am not claiming that there is no information of value in these six hundred pages. I did find bits and pieces of interest here and there. Yet the book suffers from fundamental flaws and should for that reason not be used as the main source of information about this era. It may at most be used with some caution to supplement information you get from other, better works.

Wickham mentions The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, one of the most famous stories from the Thousand and One Nights collection of traditional Middle Eastern fairytales, along with Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Many of these tales have a pre-Islamic origin in Persian, Indian or Egyptian folklore. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but is it surely a sign of the times that the author mentions fairytales, but says almost nothing about the unique institution of Jihad or the fact that Europe and the rest of the world have been at the receiving end of an unprovoked religious war for nearly 1400 years.

The Iberian Peninsula very slowly converted to Islam in the face of continuous pressures and discrimination, but the process took centuries there as elsewhere. Major centers became majority Muslim first. Wickham states (page 342) that “A sign of this is the strange minority movement known as the ‘martyrs of Córdoba’, Christian extremists led by Eulogius (d. 859) and Alvar, who deliberately provoked their death in the capital by insulting Islam in public in the 850s. There were less than fifty of them, and they were clearly unrepresentative of the still-large Córdoba Christian community, despite the fascination their writings (conveniently in Latin) have had for recent scholars; but the desperation of their stand implies that they saw only extreme measures as adequate against the steady advance of Muslim hegemony.”

Notice how this acclaimed professor without a hint of irony calls Christians “extremists” merely for standing up for their religion. Muslims killed them for “insulting” Islam, which has been punishable by death for Muslims and non-Muslims alike since the birth of this creed.

Professor Wickham cites the Cairo Geniza documents, a large collection of Jewish manuscript fragments found in the storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, which illuminate the social history of this medieval society. He doesn’t mention how Bat Ye’or, who was born in Egypt, and others have proven from these documents that the lives of non-Muslim dhimmis was difficult, dangerous and always humiliating under Muslim rule. The jizya, the special tax imposed on non-Muslims as a punishment for merely existing, constituted a serious financial burden for the poor. The Koran 9,29 indicates that the payment should imply a degree of humiliation and that the dhimmis should “feel themselves subdued.” Shelomo Dov Goitein, a German-Jewish Arabist who earlier had a somewhat romantic view of the relationship between Jews and Muslims, was forced to reconsider after studying this material in detail (here, p. 170):

“…in general, taxation [by the Muslim government] was merciless, and a very large section of the population must have lived permanently at the starvation level. From many Geniza letters one gets the impression that the poor were concerned more with getting money for the payment of their taxes than for food and clothing, for failure of payment usually induced cruel punishment… An Islamic state was part of or coincided with dar al-Islam, the House of Islam. Its treasury was mal al-muslumin, the money of the Muslims. Christians and Jews were not citizens of the state, not even second class citizens.”

The influential Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) asserted that the definitive break between the Classical world and the Middle Ages in the West was not the downfall of the Western Roman Empire following the partition in the year 395, but the Islamic conquests in the seventh century. While civilization in Europe had previously always been centered on the Mediterranean, the center of power was now established north of the Alps for this first time.

Post-Roman Western Europe was a mosaic of “barbarian,” usually Germanic kingdoms: the Ostrogoths in Italy; the Vandals in North Africa (who sacked Rome in AD 455 and whose name, justly or not, became a synonym for senseless destruction, vandalism); the Suebi in the Iberian Peninsula (Galicia and northern Portugal); the Visigoths in Spain and south of the Loire; the Burgundians, possibly of Scandinavian origin, in the valley of the Rhône.

The Anglo-Saxons established themselves in Britain. By the early 500s there was not an inch of soil in the West that was subject to the effective rule of the Emperor in Constantinople, but they still recognized his authority in theory. Even Clovis I (ca. AD 466-511), the Christian king of the Franks and founder of the Merovingian dynasty which ruled much of the Gaul (France) until the rise of the Carolingians in the eighth century, prided himself upon receiving the title of consul. No one before Charlemagne ventured to assume the title of Emperor.

The Romans left various legacies, from the roads and legal traditions they used for keeping their far-flung Empire together for such a long time to, eventually, the spread of Christianity. Above all, the imperial idea itself was kept alive in Europe by more or less legitimate heirs to Roman imperial claims well into the modern era, in some cases into the twentieth century. The city of Rome continued to exist in diminished size after the Empire. It wasn’t completely under the control of the Carolingians, but it enjoyed great prestige as the cradle of the imperial tradition. Most kings/emperors, including Charlemagne in the year 800, were crowned there.

The vast Carolingian Empire of the ninth century was divided into three parts. The Treaty of Verdun in 843 divided the territories into three kingdoms between the grandsons of Charles the Great (Charlemagne) and surviving sons of Louis the Pious. The middle realm soon fragmented, but West Francia or the West Frankish Kingdom became the precursor France. East Francia, centered on the German-speaking lands of Central Europe, evolved into the Holy Roman Empire, which survived in name at least for many centuries. It was formally abolished in 1806 by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), who had crowned himself Emperor.

The designation “holy” dates back to Frederick I (1122-1190), with the byname Barbarossa (Italian: “Redbeard”), who was crowned Emperor by the pope at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1155. He drowned while on the Third Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims.

Wickham is critical of Henri Pirenne’s work Mohammed and Charlemagne, published posthumously in 1937. Pirenne argued for the partial continuation of Mediterranean Roman civilization after the collapse of effective imperial rule. Wickham states – correctly – that his theory was largely “pre-archaeological.” Later studies have demonstrated that Pirenne underestimated the extent to which trade declined in the western Mediterranean region. Roman civilization collapsed almost entirely in the northernmost province of the old Empire, Britain, and there was much less shipping in the West well before the Arab invaders arrived.

Nevertheless, while Pirenne’s thesis does have to be modified in some of its details, he remains correct in pointing out that the Arab invasions brought major additional changes and that nobody in the West dared to call themselves “emperor” before the Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries AD. Previously, they had referred at least in theory to the Emperor in Constantinople. Yet the Eastern and Western provinces, the latter including the pope in Rome, drifted further apart after the Muslim presence complicated communications and drastically altered the political situation and military dynamic of the Mediterranean world.

From the mid-700s on, navigation between the Italian Peninsula and what remained of the once-proud Byzantine Empire almost ceased due to Muslim piracy. There was no longer any major traffic in what the Romans had called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), except for the Adriatic and the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean that was still largely controlled by the Byzantine fleet. As Ibn Khaldun proudly proclaimed, “the Christians could no longer float a plank upon the sea.” A little bit of commerce was maintained by the Jews, who existed as minorities under both Christian and Muslim rule and were able to trade among themselves.

As Pirenne states in  Find all the books, read about the author, and more.Mohammed and Charlemagne (page 174), “It may be said that the Islamic invasion was as decisive for the East as for the West of Europe. Before this invasion the Emperor of Constantinople was still the Roman Emperor. The policy of Justinian in this respect is characteristic: he claimed that the entire Mediterranean was subject to the Imperial authority. After the invasion, on the contrary, the Emperor was reduced to the defensive in Greek waters, until in the 11th century he appealed to the West for assistance. Islam immobilized and engrossed him.” Navigation continued in diminished quantities only in the Christian East, or the Orient, where a few ships sailed from Venice along the Adriatic coast. In southern Italy and the Byzantine heartland, a civilization survived with cities. Page 184:

“In the Occident, on the contrary, the coast from the Gulf of Lyons and the Riviera to the mouth of the Tiber, ravaged by war and the pirates, whom the Christians, having no fleet, were powerless to resist, was now merely a solitude and a prey to piracy. The ports and the cities were deserted. The link with the Orient was severed, and there was no communication with the Saracen coasts. There was nothing but death. The Carolingian Empire presented the most striking contrast with the Byzantine. It was purely an inland power, for it had no outlets. The Mediterranean territories, formerly the most active portions of the Empire, which supported the life of the whole, were now the poorest, the most desolate, the most constantly menaced. For the first time in history the axis of Occidental civilization was displaced towards the North, and for many centuries it remained between the Seine and the Rhine. And the Germanic peoples, which had hitherto played only the negative part of destroyers, were now called upon to play a positive part in the reconstruction of European civilization. The classic tradition was shattered, because Islam had destroyed the ancient unity of the Mediterranean.”

Muslims did not create the European weakness of the post-Roman era, but they certainly exploited it for a long time. Gradually, new political, military and cultural institutions emerged in the West out of the ashes of the Roman world, a new version of European civilization. It is possible to see parallels to the situation today, when Muslims and other external enemies prey upon internal European weakness. Perhaps, now as then, over time novel political institutions and innovations will evolve out of this chaos to reverse European decline and restore cultural innovation and dynamism on the Continent. Only time will tell.


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