Pirenne and his Detractors

John J. O’Neill returns with a review of Thomas Glick’s attack on Henri Pirenne in his book Islamic and Christian Spain.

Charles Martel

Pirenne and his Detractors
by John J. O’Neill

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.

It might be imagined that the appearance of such a radical hypothesis would have prompted widespread debate. At the very least, we might imagine it would have been the subject of a genre of critical work. Yet the astonishing thing is that, in the English-speaking world at least, the thesis of Mohammed and Charlemagne has been largely ignored. It is true that a few historians, who tended to be somewhat maverick themselves, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, did give Pirenne due acknowledgement; but in general his ideas were ignored. On the contrary, new books continued to be published which failed even to mention Pirenne, and which presented a view of the past identical to that which pertained before the publication of Mohammed and Charlemagne. As an example of this genre, we might mention David Levering Lewis’s recently-published God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (2008), a book that scarcely mentions Pirenne, and which basically ignores everything he said.

Yet Pirenne’s work has not been entirely overlooked by English-speaking academics. Of recent decades several volumes have appeared which purport to offer a comprehensive rebuttal of the Belgian historian. The most important of these is Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe, by Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse (Cornell, 1983). This latter seeks to show that new archaeological evidence, not available to Pirenne, thoroughly disproves his thesis. Another work, by Thomas F. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, (Brill Publishers, 2005), which shall be the subject of the present paper, reiterates some of Hodges and Whitehouse’s arguments, and claims that Pirenne was not only wrong, but that his thesis was diametrically the opposite of the truth. In other words, what historians have been saying more or less unanimously since the latter nineteenth century is the truth: Islam did not destroy civilization in Europe, it saved it!

Glick begins by offering a broad view of Pirenne’s argument:
– – – – – – – –
“In Pirenne’s view, the conquest of the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, of Spain, and of strategic islands had shut off the mainsprings of the movement of world trade which had flourished during the late Roman times, with the result that western Europe felt an intensification of ruralization and was impelled to return to a closed, moneyless, ‘natural’ economic system. The conquests, then, set in motion a chain of events that was, centuries later, to result in the shifting of the balance of power in Europe from the Mediterranean region northward.” (p. 19)

That is a fair summary of Pirenne’s ideas; and Glick has little time for them: “In fact, the Islamic conquest had more nearly the opposite effect than that posited by Pirenne: it opened the Mediterranean, previously a Roman lake, and, by connecting it with the Indian Ocean, converted it into a route of world trade.” (p. 19) So, in Glick’s view, not only did Islam not cause an economic blockade, it actually opened Europe to influences from the Far East, which had previously been debarred. “Initially,” he says, “there was no dislocation of the international economic system and, in the 690’s when ‘Abd al-Malik tried an economic blockade against the Byzantine Empire, only a limited and partial closure was achieved: only the eastern Mediterranean was affected, and although the flow of certain items, such as papyrus, was interdicted, other products, such as spices, traveled as before.”

Glick here makes several astonishing claims, for which he provides no supporting evidence. To begin with, he asserts that, at the start, there was “no dislocation of the international economic system,” and that even after the 690s, when a deliberate attempt was made to blockade the Byzantine Empire, “only a limited and partial closure was achieved.”

I leave aside here the voluminous evidence presented by Pirenne to demonstrate the complete disappearance of all eastern products from western Europe by the middle of the seventh century (ignored by Glick), and move onto the question of the Byzantine Empire, which Glick 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.”(Ibid. pp. 72-3). Yet even the statement that some coins appeared in the ninth century has to be treated with caution. Mango notes that at Sardis the period between 491 and 616 is represented by 1,011 bronze coins, the rest of the seventh century by about 90, “and the eighth and ninth centuries combined by no more than 9.”(Ibid. p. 73) And, “similar results have been obtained from nearly all provincial Byzantine cities.” Even such paltry samples as have survived from the eighth and ninth centuries (nine) are usually of questionable provenance, a fact noted by Mango himself, who remarked that often, upon closer inspection, these turn out to originate either from before the dark age, or after it.

When archaeology again appears, in the middle of the tenth century, the civilization it reveals has been radically altered: The old Byzantium of Late Antiquity is gone, and we find an impoverished and semi-literate rump; a Medieval Byzantium strikingly like the Medieval France, Germany and Italy with which it was contemporary. Here we find too a barter or semi-barter economy; a decline in population and literacy; and an intolerant and theocratic state. And the break-off point in Byzantium, as in the West, is the first half of the seventh century — precisely corresponding to the arrival on the scene of the Arabs and of Islam.

So much for Glick’s assertion that Byzantium was unaffected by the rise of Islam! The argument is, essentially, over; and Pirenne is the winner. If even Byzantium, the mighty capital of the Eastern Empire, were reduced to penury by the second half of the seventh century, how can we expect the rest of Christendom to have escaped unscathed? Pirenne’s vindication is absolute and complete. Yet since Glick devotes thirty pages in his book to the attack on Pirenne, it behooves us at least to pay him the compliment of examining some of the other arguments he presents. His reasoning with regard to Byzantium is not encouraging, but, it might be that he has elsewhere mustered weightier evidence.

Reading through his work, however, we find that it continues more or less in the same vein. His style of writing is opaque and convoluted, and it is usually by no means clear what he is trying to say. We hear, for example, of a “tacit alliance of the Umayyad Emirate with the Byzantine Empire in mutual opposition to the Franks,” (p. 20) though there is no evidence that such alliance ever existed. And, we must ask ourselves, even if it did, what would be its relevance to Pirenne’s thesis? What is this hypothetical alliance doing in these pages at all other than provide a distraction and a muddying of the waters?

This impression of bad faith on the part of the author is reinforced again and again as we read on. Hard on the heels of the above statement Glick proceeds to hint at the mighty benefits Europe accrued by its association with Islam: “By the tenth century, when the Muslims had taken control of strategically important islands (Crete, Sicily, the Balearics) Islam effectively controlled the Mediterranean, which did not constitute a barrier to trade, but rather a medium whereby all bordering states could participate in a world economy, fertilized by healthy injections of Sudanese gold.” (pp.20-1)

Such a statement oozes mendacity. Even Glick must be aware of the fact that the only trade linking the Islamic world with southern Europe in the tenth century was the slave trade! Why is this information suppressed? Why is there no mention of the ravaging of the coastlands of northern Spain, France, Italy, and Greece by Muslim pirates; a ravaging so intense that large areas near the seashores became uninhabitable? Some Christian states in the region (most notably Venice and, to some degree, Byzantium), it is true, did become involved in this vicious traffic, but these were the exception. Glick neglects also to mention that most of the “Sudanese gold” arriving in Europe at this time ended up in Scandinavia; and that the whole Viking phenomenon, which devastated much of northern Europe for about two centuries, was intimately tied to the Muslim demand for white-skinned female slaves and eunuchs. (See for example Hugh Trevor-Roper’s comments on this in The Rise of Christian Europe)

Again, if so much gold were now arriving in Europe, why was this not translated into gold coinage? In answer to this, Glick treats us to a large paragraph in which he waffles on about “relative value” of gold and silver, and basically tells us that in Europe during the seventh to eleventh centuries silver was more valuable than gold; and hence they minted their money in silver. What he fails to tell his readers is that virtually all coinage — even bronze coinage — was extremely scarce during these centuries, proving beyond question that the continent was impoverished and reduced to a barter economy; just as Pirenne claimed.

The reality is, that, whilst the Muslims paid for their human captives in gold and silver, the amount they paid was tiny in comparison with the amount of gold reaching Europe during the fifth and sixth centuries, during which time the Gothic and Frankish kings minted large quantities of gold coins.

Further reading convinces that Glick is, in fact, pursuing an agenda, and that he has little interest in the facts. So, for example, he claims that though “there was no economic closure, the two halves of the Mediterranean world were no longer united by a common heritage, and in this sense — that of mutual perceptions — the conquest did erect a barrier which, although permeable to many kinds of cultural elements, perseveres to this day.” (p. 21)

What he appears to be saying here is that, although the Muslims didn’t actually attack and enslave Christian Europeans, Christian Europeans thought that they did!

Glick next proceeds to look at the diffusion of scientific and intellectual ideas.

“The Muslims inherited the Roman Empire, not only its territory but its peoples. The importance of this fact has been obscured by the vast cultural changes which formerly Roman territories underwent. By unifying the area again, the Muslims created a medium through which technologies and ideas could be easily diffused from one end of the Empire to the other.”

This is little more than the old canard that the Arabs enabled the free flow of ideas from the Far East to the West. Glick does admit that the Arabs plundered “Roman ruins for their materials without regard to the origin or aesthetic worth of the structure,” but nevertheless contrives to argue that they respected Roman civilization, or at the very least had an “ambivalent” attitude to it. To his credit, he does admit that most of the technical and scientific innovations of the period which Europeans have traditionally ascribed to the Arabs, actually came from the Far East — most particularly from China and India — and that Persia — pre-Islamic Sassanid Persia — was largely instrumental in diffusing these to the west.

“The movement of diffusion created by Islamic expansion in the high middle ages was, in general outline, from China and India in the East, radiating by land through central Asia, by sea to southern Arabia and the eastern Mediterranean, and then westward to North Africa and Europe. The East-to-West movement is constant; the Islamic world is its focal point; and, throughout, Persia appears to have been an extremely active hearth of cultural innovation in a wide variety of areas — trade, technology, science, the revival of pharmaceutical interests, art, literary themes, music, agricultural technology and culinary tastes. The central place of Persia in this movement seems explicable in terms of the high level of economic development of the Sassanid Empire relative to the Arabs during the epoch of conquest. The Persian economic system (based on dynamic urban centers supported by intensive irrigation agriculture, which permitted the maintenance of a large population) provided the model utilized by the Arabs in the economic development of the conquered areas. Persia’s economic domination in the East helps to explain the diffusion of specifically Persian techniques, artistic themes, and ideas to the West in early Islamic times.” (p. 23)

There follows a lengthy discussion of roads and systems of transport in the High Middle Ages (i.e. from the eleventh-twelfth centuries onwards), which can hardly be said to be relevant to Pirenne’s thesis.

Glick next examines the Visigothic state in Spain prior to the Islamic conquest. Here he endeavours to portray a divided and stratified society that was already in an advanced sate of decay before the arrival of the Muslims. He admits that the ruling Visigoths formed a relatively small proportion of the population — half a million Visigoths as against about eight million Hispano-Romans. This would imply that the economy should have continued more or less as it had been before the Visigothic conquest: and Spain was noted to be one of the Roman Empire’s most prosperous provinces. Yet Glick will have none of this. He argues that the country was an economic ruin when the Arabs arrived; and that this was primarily the result of natural disaster.

“The Hispano-Romans followed the general pattern of Mediterranean agriculture: cereal grains (wheat and barley), grapes, and vegetables grown in irrigated fields in the Ebro Valley and the Eastern littoral. What is clear is that the entire economy was in a state of profound disarray and agriculture was ruined as result of a series of natural disasters beginning in the seventh century. Perhaps we can accept at the root of this string of bad harvests, famine, and plague Ignacio Olagüe’s theory of a general climatic shift in the western Mediterranean world, beginning in the third century A.D., which had the result of making the climate drier and hotter and which reached crisis proportions in the high middle ages, forcing a greater dependence on irrigation agriculture in North Africa and Spain. Medieval chronicles noted famine and plague in the reign of Erwig (680-686), when half the population was said to have perished. Plagues of locusts were reported. There can be no doubt that the constant political turmoil of late-seventh- and early-eighth-century Spain take on more poignant meaning if set against a background of worsening harvests, prolonged drought, famine, and depopulation. Moreover, it makes more intelligible the shift in the balance of peninsular agriculture, away from dry-farming and herding, towards an increased reliance on irrigated crops, during the Islamic period. Islamic society in Spain was able to adjust to an arid ecology by directing the flow of economic resources into the technological adjustments required to increase irrigated acreage, whereas the Visigoths understood only a herding, forest ecology and could not adjust to any other.” (pp. 30-1)

Amidst all the verbiage here the only evidence proffered are the medieval chronicles which “noted famine and plague in the reign of Erwig.” But medieval chronicles noted famine and plague all the time, and their reliability is now regarded as suspect, to say the least. This is very poor grounds for such a sweeping statement about Spain’s economy during a period of one-and-a-half centuries.

His pronouncements on Spain’s urban economy at the time are hardly less ridiculous. He tells us that, “Visigothic trade was largely in the hands of Jews, who formed a numerous minority, and foreigners.” This, he claims, could have had repercussions: “When economic recession set in, Jews were blamed and a regressive cycle of restrictive anti-Jewish legislation could only have led to more disruptions of trade.” (p. 29) The reader will here note the phrase “could have.” And this, essentially, says it all. Glick is speculating and clutching at straws. He is trying to paint a picture of a decayed and degenerate civilization, already in the clutches of its own Dark Age, a Dark Age which the Muslim invaders had nothing to do with. “The barbarian invasions [of the Visigoths],” he claims, “were further responsible for the physical ruin of much of the urban plant built by the Romans,” and “Archaeological evidence demonstrates that when the Muslim invaders arrived in 711 many Hispano-Roman cities were already largely buried in subsoil.” This latter is an extremely bold statement. The reference Glick provides is a Spanish one (Leopoldo Torres Balbás, Ciudades hispano-musulmanas, Henri Terrasse, ed., 2 vols. (Madrid: Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, n.d.), I: 27 n. 38, 32-34). I am unable to check this out, yet I find it remarkable that this statement flies so completely in the face of a plethora of other evidence which indicates that Visigothic Spain was a rich and opulent society. The great majority of the Visigothic architectural heritage has of course now disappeared, but enough has survived to convince us that this was a flourishing epoch. We may mention, for example, what is perhaps Spain’s oldest surviving church; the seventh century San Juan, from Baños de Cerrato in the province of Valencia. In Visigoth times, this was an important grain-producing region and legend has it that King Recceswinth commissioned the building of a church there when, on returning from a successful campaign against the Basques, he drank from the waters and recovered his health. The original inscription of the king, cut in the stones above the entrance, can still be discerned. Several bronze belt buckles and liturgical objects — as well as a necropolis with 58 tombs — have been discovered in the vicinity.

The impressive Gothic Cathedral at Valencia itself also has a crypt from the Visigoth era.

Again, the elegant Ermita de Santa María de Lara, at Quintanilla de Las Viñas, near Burgos, is a masterpiece of the Visigothic architectural style. Among its outstanding features is an unusual triple frieze of bas reliefs on its outer walls. Other surviving examples of Visigothic architecture are to be found in the La Rioja and Orense regions. The so-called horseshoe arch, which was to become so predominant in Moorish architecture, occurs first in these Visigothic structures, and was evidently an innovation of their architects. Toledo, the capital of Spain during the Visigothic period, still displays in its architecture the influence of the Visigoths.

None of this looks like the signature of a declining and barbarous culture. And the evidence of archaeology is confirmed by the testimony of the Arab conquerors themselves: On their arrival in Spain the Muslims were astonished at the size and opulence of its cities. Their annalists recall the appearance at the time of Seville, Cordova, Merida and Toledo; “the four capitals of Spain, founded,” they tell us naively, “by Okteban [Octavian] the Caesar.” Seville, above all, seems to have struck them by its wealth and its illustriousness in various ways. “It was,” writes Ibn Adhari,

“among all the capitals of Spain the greatest, the most important, the best built and the richest in ancient monuments. Before its conquest by the Goths it had been the residence of the Roman governor. The Gothic kings chose Toledo for their residence; but Seville remained the seat of the Roman adepts of sacred and profane science, and it was there that lived the nobility of the same origin.” (Cited from Louis Bertrand and Sir Charles Petrie, The History of Spain (2nd ed. London, 1945) p. 7)

Not much sign of decline here! Another Arab writer, Merida, mentions Seville’s great bridge as well as “magnificent palaces and churches,” (Bertrand and Petrie, pp.17-18)

All of this makes us wonder about the statement that the Roman cities of Spain were destroyed by the Visigoths. Importantly, Glick fails to mention the almost complete non-appearance of Islamic remains in Spain during the first two centuries of the country’s Islamic epoch. This is a topic that has been covered in some detail by Heribert Illig in his Wer hat an der Uhr Gedreht? (1999). If we can find virtually nothing from the years 711 to circa 950, how do we know that the Roman cities covered by a layer of subsoil were destroyed by the Visigoths? Is it not more likely — indeed, much more likely — that these cities were destroyed by the Islamic Conquest — a conquest of the Iberian Peninsula that was infinitely more violent and prolonged than the Visigoth conquest two centuries earlier.

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. (See Louis Bertrand, op cit.)

Glick’s portrayal of the Visigoths as nomadic pastoralists verges on the comic, given the fact that they had left their nomad existence behind two centuries earlier and had adapted so completely to the Roman style of life (remember they never constituted more than a tiny minority of the Spanish population) that they left not a single Germanic word in the Spanish language. Glick goes on:

“Thus the failure of the Visigothic state, seen in its unbalanced economy, as well as in its disjointed and incohesive social organization, was also reflected in its technological atony, which was at the core of the elite’s inability to adapt to any ecology other than that with which it was originally familiar: the men of the woods never strayed too far from there. They were unable to build on the Roman base. In 483 the duke Salla repaired the Roman bridge at Mérida; yet in 711 the Arabs found the bridge at Córdoba in ruins …” (p. 31)

On this last point, it seems never to have occurred to Glick that the Visigoths themselves destroyed the bridge to prevent the further advance of the Arab armies. This is a basic rule of warfare.

I need continue no further. Glick fills another twenty pages with the same type of half-truths and whole fabrications. Visigothic Spain, as well as contemporary Italy and Gaul, were, in spite of what Glick tries to prove, cultured and prosperous societies. The evidence shows that the revelations of modern scholarship, particularly archaeology, have given further support to Pirenne, and the latter’s thesis is now proved beyond reasonable doubt.

John O’Neill’s book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, is published by Felibri Publications. For information, see the Felibri website.

27 thoughts on “Pirenne and his Detractors

  1. Hey, I have an idea. Rather than address any of the criticisms of my own work – which would require disposing of a number of inconvenient facts – I’ll find somebody who’s written something totally ridiculous – an easy target – and shoot a bunch of bullseyes in it. That way everybody will be distracted away from thinking about how easy a target I am!

  2. In the article O´Neill says that visigoths in Spain ` left not a single Germanic word in the Spanish language´.
    Well, he could have researched a little on that point. There are a lot of examples:
    “orgullo, ufano, guerra, talar, rapar, robar, triscar, estampar, gana, guardar, botín, ropa, ganar, galardón, escarnir, bando, bandido, bandera, guiar, espiar, heraldo, barón, ardid, estribo, brida, espuela, anca, burgo, feudo, guisar, yelmo, rueca,….”
    I could go on and on.

  3. Baron
    As af great fan of both you and also “mostly” of Caroline Glick ,it would set my mind at ease to hear what she might, or might not, have to say about this other Glick-person . Consistency is a hard thing to find , and should be celebrated when found.

  4. By the tenth century, when the Muslims had taken control of strategically important islands (Crete, Sicily, the Balearics)

    Is there any writing on the potential Islamic influence on the rise of the Sicilian mafia? Mafia “protection” schemes are so much like how the dhimma is administered that I can’t help but wonder if they consciously modeled themelves after their conquerors.

    “Persia appears to have been an extremely active hearth of cultural innovation in a wide variety of areas”

    This is a bizarre assertion. After the Islamic invasion Persia entered a swift and prolonged cultural decline, just like everywhere else conquered by Islam. If I recall correctly, Muslims did a pretty good job destroying pre-Islamic artifacts at Persepolis.

  5. Sigh.
    O’Neill just doesn’t get it:

    a) Pirenne’s thesis that 5th and 6th and early 7th centuries were “flourishing” is just false.
    There hadn’t been any scientists of any note for..centuries, for example. Slavish commentators, yes, but those simply don’t count.

    For that matter, not even in the hey-day of the Roman Empire, we may ask:
    Were are the Roman scientists? The Iberian scientists? The Gaulish scientists? The British?

    None of them exist, or ever existed. Only the Greek scientists existed, and they had steadily declined in number&influence from the Hellenistic period.

    Rome was NOT an empire where the sciences flourished, they languished, and merely architects and (military) engineers carried those traditions in the Western part of the Empire. Once that fell, there were no one to pick it up for a long time.

    b) Just because a) is false doesn’t mean that Glick and other islam-apologetics is right about Islam’s beneficent influence. They are not.
    That is why this part of O’Neill’s argument is much better.

  6. Histfan, is “history” the study of ideas, only, or their practical application? If the former, then you’re right, the Romans were “merely architects and (military) engineers.” I have no doubt that Pythagoras and Diophantus, etc. were fine Greek fellows and Omar Khayyam was a heckuva Persian. Still, many “fans” of history see genius in the practical application of ideas…possibly more merit than that of armchair scribblers. Regardless, the history of Islam is kleptocracy writ large. They steal from outsiders when they can, from each other constantly. All of the worst accusations about the Middle Ages (accurate or not) are true of Islamic culture today.

  7. “Still, many “fans” of history see genius in the practical application of ideas…possibly more merit than that of armchair scribblers.”

    In that case, if engineering and practical technology was so flourishing and innovative in Roman periods, we should have seen, for example:
    a) The development of the Catalonian forge
    b) The development of wind&water-mills
    c) Deep ploughs suitable for dark soil
    d) Development of harness for horses so that they could be used in agriculture rather than oxen.

    a)-d) were revolutionary technological developments, mainly of Carolingian times, that were critical to ensure Europe’s development and eventual hegemony.

    “Regardless, the history of Islam is kleptocracy writ large.”

    Yes, and so what?
    It is irrelevant in judging Pirenne’s thesis.
    Although it is, of course, relevant against Glick’s idea that Islam somehow saved Europe.
    It did not, Europe saved itself.

  8. Histfan, I conceded that the Romans were not great innovators. So you are repeating yourself.
    Regarding relevance and Islamic culture, you ask “So what?” and then concede that my point addresses Glick’s thesis. Moreover, it is relevant to the purpose of Gates of Vienna.
    Wisdom is not the accumulation of knowledge: it is the application thereof. Get some.

  9. The problem is the unwritten rule among historians in the West that one must not disparage Islam. This rule is now at the basis of Western self censorship and its dhimmi mentality. The biggest example is the block headed idea in the West that Islam saved the West, a whopper of a distortion of history, a lie so large and defended by Western historians so desperately that it seems that the intent is to disarm the West of all possible defense against the Islamic jihad which is rolling at it whether it acknowledges it or not. Unless the dominate dhimmi mentality is dislodged the West will sleepwalk itself into terminal decline.

  10. “Histfan, I conceded that the Romans were not great innovators. So you are repeating yourself.

    No, that was not at all what you were blathering about.
    THIS is what you talked about:
    “Still, many “fans” of history see genius in the practical application of ideas…possibly more merit than that of armchair scribblers”

    That is, you hailed the Romans as PRACTICAL technologists in contrast to THEORETICAL.
    I then gave numerous examples of PRACTICAL, non-theoretical advances in technology that a peaceful Empire ought to have been able to figure out on its own, if it were not for a general lack of interest.

    This is NOT a repetition of the first charge I made, namely that the Romans were not good theorists, either.

  11. It is most definitely true that the myth most needed to be crushed is that Islam somehow “saved” or carried on the civilization of antiquity.

    They never did, the dhimmis did that, to the extent that they were allowed.

    However, precisely because it is so important to crush this myth, we cannot, as O’Neill does, create fairy-tales of the Roman Empire, or the impact of the Germanic tribes on its territory.

    The blast of Islam was catastropic in its own right, we merely lose credibility to fantasize about the gloroiusly inventive Roman civilization carried on, as best they could, by simple-minded, but noble Germanians.

    It never was anything like that at all, and we should try to stay out of the myth-making business altogether.

  12. My blather began with the statement “If the former, then you’re right, the Romans were ‘merely architects and (military) engineers.'”
    Evidently that’s not a concession. Then I use the word “possibly” in reference to giving more weight, historically, to architectural and military achievement than to “armchair scriblers.” That is, some people prefer doing over theory. You reinforce that perspective with your list of Carolingian achievements. I concluded by saying “Regardless” of the weight one may place on theorizing versus doing, Islam is bankrupt in either department.

    Overall, I set forth a simple dichotomy with freedom for folks to have a preference regarding historical “merit.” Without a doubt, this would appear to be “blathering” to someone who scans and reacts instead of reading and thinking.

  13. @HistFan I feel the need to challenge some of your statements. Perhaps you should study history a bit more before you go railing against things.

    First off, your insistence that only science is the mark of a Flourishing Society. In truth, Science did not exist during this time period, rather there was something called Alchemy. Alchemy is the progenitor or all sciences and many technologies we have today. There were Alchemists of note during this time, but they left few if any record for two reasons: a) Alchemists felt that the rest of the world was not ready for their knowledge and would only use it to destroy themselves and b) Through out history there have been purges by Christian and Islamic religious forces that have destroyed such documentations i.e. Library at Alexandria.

    Also, much scientific progress was made during this time. Mechanical Computers that could equal anything from the 1960’s in output. Steam power was Discovered back then, but for various reasons failed to be put to use. Other examples exist. Indeed, who knows what innovations were made and lost due to the destruction of the Library at Alexandria.

    In regards to the innovations listed that the Roman’s didn’t make, I wish to look at them.

    A) In regards to the development of the Catalonian forge, there is not much I can say. I haven’t studied the history of metal craft, but judging my how well Roman civilization worked for thousands of years, I’d say they didn’t make it because they didn’t need it at the time.

    B) In regard to the development of wind & water mills, there is evidence that the Romans did have water-mills/water powered industry. While perhaps not wide spread, it did exist. The difficulty in finding more of this is that it has been over a thousand years of other development and wood doesn’t survive the ages well.

    C) In regards to the development of Deep plows suitable for dark soil, the answer for that is simple. In Europe, the only dark soil is found in Northern Europe. In the Mediterranean, there is only light soil and the Greeks and Romans already had developed plows for their terrain. They didn’t need to develop the ability to plow heavy Northern European soil when that territory was controlled by Germanic Tribes and the Romans already had plenty of other “bread baskets.”

    D) Again, the harness technology wasn’t needed as oxen were sufficient for farming and Horses were of more use on the battlefield, drawing chariots, or other none agrarian activities. Your average farmer couldn’t own a horse, and even in the modern era oxen are used more often than horses in farming.

    Necessity is the mother of invention, but simply because a society doesn’t invent something it has no need for doesn’t make it backward, as you suggest the Roman Empire was. I do not understand your desire to insist that the Roman Empire was less that it actually was. Also, you allege that these are technologies a peaceful empire should have been able to create. The Roman Empire was never truly at peace, and the Carolingian Empire you hail was not at peace either. The Carolingian Empire was constantly at war and invented those above listed things because they needed them, as the pre-existing Roman tech was not able to deal with the colder and harsher Northern Europe climate and terrain.

  14. Also, I wish to state something about the Article’s mention of Vikings. The truth of the matter is Vikings did sell slaves, and probably sold some to the Arabs. However, one must realize that most Viking interactions with Islam were those of War, not trade. Vikings raided Islamic territories and that is most likely how Arab coins came to Scandinavia. The Varangian Guard in the Byzantium Empire were commissioned directly to the Emperor, and while they kept peace in the city, they were responsable for holding off the Islamic invasion. If my study is correct, it was only during their time in Byzantium that there was any sort of stalemate. As soon as the Norse left, Byzantium started suffering losses again to Islamic forces. There is some evidence coming to light that the reason the Vikings came from their homelands was to stop the Forced Christainization of their peoples and the destruction of their culture. They would have been just as hostile, if not more so, to Islam, which is far more destructive to Pagan peoples and cultures that even Christianity.

  15. Visigothic Spain was increasingly a well-ordered society in which the former nomadic Gothic elite merged with the Hispano-Romans to form the nation of Spain. To say so is not anachronistic, since Isidore of Seville himself said it around 620. In a very real sense, Spanish identity was forged under the Visigoths, as was the profound legal tradition of constitutional rule, in which the king to be legitimate must be seen to be just, or he forfeits his authority. These basic rules, so important for the rule of law, are formulated in the decrees of the Councils of Toledo of the 7th century. The reality of a strong Spanish identity is proved by the fact that the Spanish fought back against the Muslims and began the Reconquista, a feat unparalleled by any other Christian people. All through the early Reconquista, Spanish sources point to the Gothic era as a golden age to be inspired by and to be recovered.

  16. Visigothic Spain was increasingly a well-ordered society in which the former nomadic Gothic elite merged with the Hispano-Romans to form the nation of Spain. To say so is not anachronistic, since Isidore of Seville himself said it around 620. In a very real sense, Spanish identity was forged under the Visigoths, as was the profound legal tradition of constitutional rule, in which the king to be legitimate must be seen to be just, or he forfeits his authority. These basic rules, so important for the rule of law, are formulated in the decrees of the Councils of Toledo of the 7th century. The reality of a strong Spanish identity is proved by the fact that the Spanish fought back against the Muslims and began the Reconquista, a feat unparalleled by any other Christian people. All through the early Reconquista, Spanish sources point to the Gothic era as a golden age to be inspired by and to be recovered.

  17. “The Varangian Guard in the Byzantium Empire were commissioned directly to the Emperor, and while they kept peace in the city, they were responsable for holding off the Islamic invasion. If my study is correct, it was only during their time in Byzantium that there was any sort of stalemate. As soon as the Norse left, Byzantium started suffering losses again to Islamic forces.”

    Dear me.

    Next time you try your hand on history, don’t muddle up the two Basils?

  18. I fail to see how I have mixed up any Basils, as I did not mention any, but rather was speaking to the state of the Empire and the actions of the Varangian Guard. The simple fact is that Muslims continued to encroach on the Byzantium empire and it was the Varangian Guard, recognized as the most powerful military force in the Empire, that would be sent to fight this encroachment.

    I will note, Histfan, that your complaint was the only thing you could find fault with in my comments, judging by your silence. The next time you try to “discredit” someone via this method, remember that it does nothing to invalidate the arguments and facts used to disprove your complaints with certain facts of history that are well recognized and that proved your rant wrong.

  19. I haven’t yet read O’Neill’s or Pirenne’s books, but I’ve looked up everything I could find out about them online. I think the main theory–that Islam destroyed Classical civilization–is compelling, given what we know about Islam’s intolerance for everything non-Muslim. I will probably end up buying both books.

    There’s another not-widely-accepted theory that I’m interested in: that in 535 AD something happened which caused a sharp global cold spell and perhaps crop failures. Tree ring data from various locations seem to support it. The cause was most likely a major volcanic eruption, possibly Krakatoa. An impact explanation is less likely, since a land impact would have left a crater that would be obvious today, and an oceanic impact would have caused a mega-tsunami. I’m unaware of any evidence for either.

    So my idea is that the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, along with whatever happened in 535, weakened but did not destroy Mediterranean civilization. But those events caused some disruption and left it vulnerable to the Muslim invasion a century later, which administered the coup de grâce.

    There is one part of O’Neill’s book that I find disturbing: his entertainment of the idea that medieval chroniclers invented three centuries out of whole cloth. While I did find an interesting PDF that argued for the idea, I note that the word “astronomy” does not appear in it.

    One of the reviewers at Amazon points out that eclipse records date the war between the Greeks and Persians in the fifth century BC pretty precisely. I would also call attention to the history of Halley’s Comet, which has been observed back to 240 BC. Sir Edmund Halley recognized it as a member of the solar system in the 17th century and predicted its return in the mid-18th century. Before him, comets were regarded as random apparitions but skywatchers, especially the Chinese, noted their appearance and brightness, along with dates and where in the sky they were seen. Because the comet’s position relative to Earth’s position is different at each passage, each apparition is different. For example, the 1910 apparition was very favorable, and the Earth even passed through the comet’s tail. The comet appeared large and bright, and many people saw it. The 1986 apparition was extremely unfavorable, with Earth on the opposite side of the Sun when the comet reached perihelion. Many people in the Northern Hemisphere never saw it at all. Modern astronomers can calculate its orbit with great precision, and can determine its dates and location for any apparition in the past. They can then comb through ancient Chinese records and determine whether or not a comet that was described was indeed Halley. Thus they can match early Chinese descriptions with the known orbital elements. If the “phantom time” hypothesis were true, the Chinese records would not agree with the modern orbital calculations. Since they do, I don’t see how the “phantom time” hypothesis can possibly be correct.

    (Oddly enough, the closest known approach of Halley’s Comet to Earth occurred in 837, right in the middle of the disputed centuries. However, it was probably too far south to have been seen from Europe.)

  20. histfan —

    Gates of Vienna’s rules about comments require that they be civil, temperate, on-topic, and show decorum. The name-calling in your comment violated the first of these rules.


    histfan said…

    “I fail to see how I have mixed up any Basils,”
    Of course you did not, because you [seem to be unaware] of them.
    ” as I did not mention any, but rather was speaking to the state of the Empire and the actions of the Varangian Guard. The simple fact is that Muslims continued to encroach on the Byzantium empire”

    In the middle 9th century, under Basil 1 (the Macedonian), the Byzantines had a major period of resurgence. This was also the time when the Vikings attacked Constantinople on occasion.

    The Varangian Guard was established a century later, under..Basil 2 (the Bulgar-slayer).

    I have no patience arguing with [people who lack a thorough grounding in historical fact].

  21. Histfan, in reply to your comment on my being ignorant of history, might I ask something? Why is it, if I am so ignorant, that you can only find one flaw with my comments, and that being a rather small and debatable one at that, seeing as the Vikings who formed the Varagian Guard most likely started as Viking Mercs who were hired independently before they’re being made a legitimate part of the Empire’s Military.

    You are probably correct in your mentioning that the Norse Vikings were Attacking Byzantium during something of a resurgence. However, seeing as Islamic Jihad is a constantly waged battle, Byzantium was doubtlessly under pressure and harrasment by Muslims even during the resurgence. My own work indicates that while the Vikings attacked Constantinople and Byzantium and failed to destroy it, in the process they discovered the threat of Islam and decided to join with Christian Byzantium to defeat a larger foe. Still, not being there in person, it is hard to know for sure.

    By the way, the next time you want to call someone Ignorant, I recommend that you prove ignorance in more than one small area. The fact that you have failed to do anything in regards to my other comments takes the power from your words.

    Respectfully, The Norse Alchemist

  22. “My own work indicates that while the Vikings attacked Constantinople and Byzantium and failed to destroy it, in the process they discovered the threat of Islam and decided to join with Christian Byzantium to defeat a larger foe”.

    Hmm..not really.
    The Varangians were mercenaries, in the beginning recruited from the scandinavian countries.

    Under the later Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, they kicked the Arabs out of Sicily.

    However, at this time, the middle eleventh, the Normans (under leadership of the sons of Tancred) established itself both there and in Southern Italy, to the extreme annoyance of the..Byzantines.
    The Varangians are most known from fighting the Normans (their cousins, so to speak) on behalf of the Greeks; not the least since from the latter half of the 11th century, the Varangians were mostly recruited from..displaced Anglo-Saxon nobles who were eager to get back at the Normans for 1066 and all that.

    That they had a particular axe to grind with the Muslims depended more upon their employers’ whims than their own.

    History is fascinating, particularly when you get into the details…

  23. NorseAlchemist:
    1. “In truth, Science did not exist during this time period, rather there was something called Alchemy”
    This is wrong-headed, on numerous accounts.
    a) We sure had scientists/engineers back then, like Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria, Ptolemy etc.
    b) We also had mathematicians like Erastothenes, Apollonios, Diaophantos and many others.
    None of the above were alchemists, but can be called scientists.
    c) Alchemy certainly existed as well
    d) Note that all of these guys were..Greek, rather than Roman, Gallic or British, for that matter.

    ” b) Through out history there have been purges by Christian and Islamic religious forces that have destroyed such documentations i.e. Library at Alexandria.”
    Most of the alchemy we know of has been through the Islamic provenance, and precious little of this had any use in the establishment of REAL science&technology.

    “Mechanical Computers that could equal anything from the 1960’s in output.”
    Dead wrong.

    “Steam power was Discovered back then, but for various reasons failed to be put to use.”
    Sure enough. It was developed by..the Greeks, not the Romans.

  24. HistFan, I do not wish to start a fight with you. That said, I find it facinating you would complain about my ignorance of Byzantium History, and then go on to miss-speak about Alchemy, at topic it is clear you have been misinformed about.

    Had you read carefully you would have noted that I said Alchemy is the thing all modern science has come from. Science, as we know it, didn’t come about until a few hundred years ago. This a provable fact. Before then there were Alchemists, who sometimes used the title of Natural Philosophers. I’m guessing that you didn’t know Isaac Newton was an alchemist who considered his work in alchemy far more important than his work in the more “scientific” fields for which he is better known for. This is a common story in the history of science, used to discredit alchemy and remove the spiritual history of the thing we now call Science.

    Engineering, like most other fields of that nature including Metalwork, relied on Alchemy for many of their skills and knowledge of materials, just as Engineers do with Science today.

    In regards to mathematicians, these too were alchemists, for Mathematics was considered as much magic back in those days as it was “science” and any alchemist worth his salt knew math.

    It is true that many of the people we know of that created incredible things were Greek, however, with the loss of the Library at Alexandria and its knowledge, it is hard to say that only Greeks could create such advances. That would be analogous to saying that only Jews can create scientific advances, great art, or high culture in the Modern World. Yes, the do a lot, but they are not the only ones.

    As for the Ancient Mechanical computer’s power, I trust my sources. And I think you’re over-estimating the power of a 1960’s computer.

    As for Islam being the preserver of Alchemy and responsible for its transmission back into Europe, I wish to correct you. Alchemy was Created in Egypt and grew to its power there, spreading to the Greeks and Romans, as well as the Asian regions now known as China and India, while covering everything in between. It is true that much Alchemical knowledge was Lost in Europe after the Fall of the Roman Empire, but much was preserved in Byzantium and else where. It is a known fact that Islam destroyed alchemical knowledge, as it did with all other Pagan/Non-Islamic knowledge, culture, etc. While Alchemy did come back to Europe from “Islamic” nations, if you had been keeping up with the current debate and research going on due to the NASA announcement, you would realized that most “Islamic Origin” things like our numeral system, algebra, and so on for nearly every Islamic Gift, was in fact from East Asia or from the peoples of Byzantium re-entering Western Europe and bringing their knowledge with them.

    As for Alchemy having given precious little to Science, I recommend you do more research. The Fathers of Modern Medicine from back in the Middle ages and Renaissance were all Alchemists. As mentioned before Isaac Newton was an alchemist. The list goes on and on, even into the 18th and 19th centuries, you will find that many “scientists” were secretly alchemists, and this knowledge was either kept secret by themselves or by later generations of scientists who didn’t want their new field of atheistic inquiry to be over-shadowed by the spiritually and materialistically superior art of alchemy which took far longer to learn and was far more complex than their own “Real Science.”

    by the way, I am aware that my user name is Norse Alchemist. If you think that makes me biased, fine, but recognize that in the case of alchemy, I might know a thing or two you have not been able to learn from Science in regards to its history.

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