The West’s Cultural Continuity

The incomparable Brussels Journal, long a friend of this blog and other Counterjihad sites, has at long last gone dormant. Thomas F. Bertonneau was a regular contributor there, and has kindly offered to republish some of his pieces here.

The following essay about Western cultural continuity and the myth of the “Islamic Golden Age” has been expanded with a newly-written afterword by the author.

The West’s Cultural Continuity

Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne

Reviewed by Thomas F. Bertonneau [Originally posted at The Brussels Journal in 2008]

Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners — Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold — to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term Dark Ages to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic assertions in the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term Dark Ages insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. Yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are — to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film — ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler, Bede, reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic myth-collector Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city — an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.

Facts like these could easily be multiplied — and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable new book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation.

For American readers, Gouguenheim’s title will have a familiar resonance. Henry Adams called his study of medieval European civilization Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres. Adams took Gothic Christianity, as typified in the discourses of Aquinas and Abelard and in the architecture of the Lady Churches, to have begun its flowering in the monastery at Mont Saint-Michel on the French Atlantic coast that also figures in Gouguenheim’s account. Adams thought of the High Middle Ages as a dynamic, spiritually adventurous, and, in its way, modern period, directly the precursor of our own technically accomplished and intellectually audacious modernity. Gouguenheim has something of Adams’ view of the medieval world’s clear-sightedness and vigor and he begins by addressing the prevalent méconnaissance of those vital centuries, which in his judgment indeed established the kernel, or rather the “roots,” of our own. If, “for a long time, the cultural history of Europe in the High Middle Ages was presented in negative terms,” and if “the fall of the Roman Empire associated with the Germanic conquests had, in the course of the Fifth Century of our era, made a brutal rather than a progressive end to antiquity” — or if that is what people thought, Gouguenheim asserts: yet “in reality, recent work in ancient and medieval history has shown that the period of the Fifth to the Eighth Centuries was not so catastrophic, the effects of dislocation while quite real being mitigated by elements of continuity.” Greek Christendom constituted one such continuity, as already mentioned. It stood in somewhat aloof reserve, but it had the character of a resource capable of responding to western queries.

Gouguenheim cites the fact that educated Latin-speaking westerners, even after Boethius, could command Greek as explaining in large part the dearth of Greek texts in Latin translation between 500 and 1100 AD. But Latin compendia of Platonist and Aristotelian teachings did circulate, as did medical handbooks in the tradition of Galen. The Latin-speaking Church Fathers thus undertook their reflections “with the help of the logical categories of Greek thought,” such that classical philosophy “impregnated” their arguments as a type of “intellectual matrix.” One could bolster Gouguenheim’s observations in this regard by a reference to Bryan Ward-Perkins’ recent study of The Fall of Rome (2005), in which he remarks that even among the Gothic usurpers of Roman sovereignty in Spain, Gaul, and Italy, civilized individuals emerged who prized classical learning and did their best to preserve it. Theodahad (he reigned as King of Italy from 534 to 536) offers the outstanding case, having been “learned in Latin literature and Platonic philosophy,” even though he “kept his Gothic moustache.”

In Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel, Gouguenheim points out that a Greek demographic presence linked the culminating period of Late Antiquity with the incipient phase of the Middle Ages in the West; and that presence persisted for centuries. “In the Europe of the High Middle Ages, many regions sheltered knots of ethnic Hellenes: Sicily, Southern Italy, and again Rome.” These communities supported literate elites, who contributed actively to the Latinate majorities among whom they lived, giving rise to such notable figures as Gregory of Agrigento (born 559), who became bishop in his native city later in life; George, Bishop of Syracuse, killed by the Arabs while on a mission to them in 724; Saint Gilsenus (mid-Seventh Century), a Greek-born monk living in a Roman monastery who evangelized in Hainault with Saint Armand; and Simeon of Reichenau, known as “The Achaean,” who belongs to the Tenth Century. In men like Simeon this Byzantine Diaspora reached well beyond Mediterranean Europe into the Rhine and Danube regions. Not only Greek but also Syriac Christians became additional mediators of the classical heritage at this time, driven from their homeland by the Jihad. “Paradoxically,” writes Gouguenheim, “Islam from its beginning transmitted Greek culture to the Occident by provoking the exile of those who refused its domination.” So, to be fair, did the Puritanical spasms of Byzantine court-theology in its regular iconoclastic moods. The persecuted iconodules, like the Syriac Christians, often sought refuge in Italy, Spain, or France.

Gouguenheim makes clear the conscious and deliberate indebtedness of the Carolingian Renaissance to these sustained currents from the East; he emphasizes the importance of the Carolingian Hellenophile project to the preservation and recirculation of Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian thought before the school of Aquinas. “From the court of the Carolingians to that of the Germanic emperors of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, one does not cease to encounter men who interested themselves in Greek knowledge and culture.” Gouguenheim mentions how Pépin (reigned 751 — 768) petitioned the Pope for Greek texts and how Paul I responded by committing to royal custodianship various “liturgical books, manuals of grammar and orthography, of geometry [and] works of Aristotle and pseudo-Dionysius” along with “men capable of translating them.” Charlemagne himself employed an Italian of Greek background, Paul Diacre (720 — 799), “to teach Greek to the clerics” at a moment when a marriage seemed possible between his daughter Rothrude and a Byzantine prince. Charles le Chauve (reigned 840 — 877) “was fascinated by Greek culture, to the point that he asked the Irish savant Duns Scotus Eriugena to translate the work of [pseudo-Dionysius] towards 855.”

With respect to Aachen, Gouguenheim senses an “irresistible attraction for the Greek authors,” which carries over into the Ottonian period and even intensifies. “The reputedly obscure centuries of the Middle Ages were in reality animated by multiple intellectual rebirths.” Gothic Christianity, far from being averse to or irreconcilable with antique philosophy, “succeeded in the task of integrating antique culture within the Biblical framework of which [Christendom] was the issue.”

In addition to passing remarks, Gouguenheim devotes a separate chapter to the classicizing tendencies of the Syriac and Arab Christians, as distinct from their linguistic cousins and brethren in the Islamic faith. As part of Byzantium, of which their main region of Cappadocia was a province, Syriac Christians played a central role in constituting the Eastern theological discourse during the medieval centuries, continuing to do so even after they had fallen under the sway of the Caliphs, thereby assisting in the westward transmission of Attic and Alexandrian lore. Gouguenheim writes: “Insofar as one speaks of ‘Arabic-Muslim culture’ in the Seventh through the Tenth Centuries, one commits an anachronism… because the culture was at that time barely Muslim and was Arab only by displaced appellation.” Truly, “Syriac is closer to Hebrew than to Arabic,” and the elites of the Nestorian and Monophysite dispensations could generally boast bilingualism in their own tongue and the Koine of the Empire. The jolly idea of Muslim competence in classical learning, as Gouguenheim argues, rests on a misunderstanding: what Islam knew of Greco-Roman wisdom, which it possessed at no time extensively, it knew largely thanks to Syriac scholars. “The Syriac [Christians] were in effect the essential intermediaries of the transmission into Arabic of the philosophical texts of the ancient Greeks,” who generously gave far more than the reluctant takers took. Obtuse westerners betray their lack of discrimination and their poverty of real knowledge in failing to differentiate between Syriac culture and the Arabic-Muslim culture that, by means of the Jihad, conquered and cruelly stamped out Nestorian (and Coptic and Byzantine) society.

Unlike their Muslim beneficiaries, however, the Syriac Christians could assimilate the full range of Greek logic and speculation. The Johannine Logos stemmed from the Greek Logos and the Christianity of the Patres — whether Greek, Latin, or Syriac — therefore comported itself as a rational theology. Already in Late Antiquity, Cappadocians and Syrians stood out as the chief developers of Neo-Platonism; emperors both Pagan and Christian sought counsel from the professors of Antioch’s renowned Daphnaeum. In a chapter on “Islam and Greek Knowledge,” Gouguenheim notes that for Muslims, on the other hand, the Logos constituted an inassimilable scandal, subversive of the absolute submission to Allah’s commands, as articulated in the Koran, that the name Islam denotes. Islam kept of Greek thought “in general [only] that which could not come in contradiction with Koranic teaching.” Furthermore, “Greece — and so too Rome — represented a world radically foreign to Islam, for reasons religious, but also political”; and, unlike the Latinate and Frankish peoples, “Muslims did not interest themselves in the languages of those whom they had conquered” because “Arabic was the sacred language par excellence, and that of revelation.”

More aggressively, “Muslim rejection of — or indifference to — Greek knowledge manifested itself again through the destruction of the cultural centers that were the monasteries, the Muslims not acting in this way any differently from the Vikings.” One could remark here, however, that the Vikings at least had the decency after two centuries to cease their predatory behavior and settle down as members of Christendom.

Multiculturalists and Islamophiles have pointed to the Abbasid establishment in Spain (Andalusia) called the Bayt al Hikma or “House of Wisdom” as proof of Muslim enthusiasm for classical learning. Gouguenheim demonstrates that this is another “seductive” misunderstanding, to which the fanciful eagerly yield. The “House of Wisdom” never functioned, other than as a Koranic school, and even in that capacity it enjoyed only a truncated existence.

Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel celebrates a central figure, Jacques de Venise (Twelfth Century), who, not only metaphorically, brought Aristotle to Mont Saint-Michel. Jacques was a cleric of Venetian origin, as his name tells, who studied in Constantinople before reestablishing himself in France. Jacques, as Gouguenheim phrases it, through his Herculean labor of scholarship and translation, supplies “the missing link in the history of the passage of Aristotelian philosophy from the Greek world to the Latinate world.” It is a matter of colossal importance that Jacques, as Gouguenheim reports, “translated a considerable number of Aristotle’s works directly from Greek to Latin, making him a pioneering figure.” (Emphasis added) According to the story prevalent today, Aristotle in his fullness returned to the ken of Christendom through a complicated chain of transactions, beginning with supposed Arabic translations out of Greek, and then, by way of Moorish generosity, from Arabic back into Latin and over the Pyrenees. But the story does not wash. It is plagued by linguistic problems, which Gouguenheim duly rehearses. It is flatly demolished by what Gouguenheim has discovered concerning Jacques’ work. Jacques’ manuscripts, which are in almost every case the earliest attested for a given Aristotelian opus, swiftly gained a reputation, well founded, for being the most accurate and idiomatic. Jacques’ translations gained wide currency and formed the basis for an Aristotelian revival all across Western Europe.

As Gouguenheim writes, “The two great names of theological and philosophical reflection in the Thirteenth Century, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, utilized [Jacques’] Greco-Latin translations.” In a manner, Jacques brought his project to too fine a point of perfection, reestablishing the Aristotelian tradition so effectively that his own pioneering status lapsed into oblivion, exactly in proportion as knowledge of The Metaphysics and The Analytics came to be taken for granted. Many of his original manuscripts lay unrecognized in the archives at Mont Saint-Michel until recent decades.

Perhaps the most stimulating of Gouguenheim’s chapters is the antepenultimate one, under the title of “Problems of Civilization.” “Medieval Islam,” Gouguenheim notes, “had not developed any real curiosity for societies exterior to it.” While the magnum opus of Persian literature, The Thousand Nights and a Night, saw its first European translation early in the Eighteenth Century, neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey ever interested any Muslim translator. “This absence of curiosity explains in part why the Middle Ages seem to comprise a paralyzing confrontation of several centuries, more often violent than peaceful, which the shared monotheistic belief better sustained than it ameliorated.”

But the notion of a common monotheism, while hopeful, might be misleading:

To proclaim that Christians and Muslims have the same God, and to hold to that, believing thereby that one has brought the debate to its term, denotes only a superficial approach. Their Gods do not partake in the same discourse, do not put forward the same values, do not propose for humanity the same destiny and do not concern themselves with the same manner of political and legal organization in human society. The comparative reading of the Gospel and the Koran by itself demonstrates that the two universes are unalike. From Christ, who refuses to punish the adulterous woman by stoning, one turns to see Mohammed ordaining, in the same circumstances, the putting to death of the unfaithful woman. One cannot follow Jesus and Mohammed.

Christianity was ready, moreover, to receive, not only the philosophy, but also certain basic political principles, of the ancient Greeks, particularly of the Athenians, such as “liberty, reason, and democracy.” Christian Europe in the medieval centuries was, indeed, in a position to admire in the ancient heritage — and to adopt critically from it — whatever might enhance its Gospel-based conviction of the free will and fundamental dignity of the individual. Thus the Attic achievement in particular lies at the elective root of a paradoxically self-identifying European culture. Islam knows only that it is Islam whereas Europe, when at its best, has always understood that it is itself and yet something else at the same time. A European sense of intellectual insufficiency and need gave unexpected strength to the progress and consolidation of the medieval mind. Europe would prove itself “permeable” in a way that Islam could not — convinced as it was of its own perfection ab origine. Thus, concludes Gouguenheim, “the Hellenization of medieval Europe was the fruit of Europeans,” who discovered, on their own, their filiations with the ancient societies.

Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most significant publications of the last few years. It is, I believe, destined to become a classic — not only in its original French, but also in the other European languages, once it has been translated. It dispels a myth, an invidious one that has long been central to the perverse palaver of western self-hatred. For those who, like me, command their French a bit unsurely, Gouguenheim’s prose is a miracle of balanced sentences and clear meaning. I would say that Gouguenheim’s study has a potentially large audience outside the academy and could become something of a popular success in the Anglophone nations.

Afterthoughts December 2015: Gouguenheim’s study has only increased in relevance since its appearance seven years ago, although that relevance remains largely opaque in the Anglophone world. Thus far, no British or American publisher has brought forth an English-language edition. As must anyone who presents evidence against the grain of the dominant narrative, Gouguenheim has come under a barrage of hasty attempts at deconstruction. In the familiar jargon so-and-so “has shown” that Gouguenheim is an incompetent scholar or worse yet a juggler and con-artist of the facts. An article by Pieter A. M. Seuren of the University of Nijmegen typifies the response. Let us first recall Gouguenheim’s thesis: First that there was continuity between Classical Civilization and Early Medieval Civilization; second that this continuity was philosophical and historical; third that it was also, but not primarily scientific; and fourth that the old story of how Muslims gave Europeans the gift of their own Greek and Roman heritage is a baseless myth.

Seuren argues by ignoring Gouguenheim’s thesis. Instead, showing that Europeans in fact learned something of mathematics and something of medical science from the Muslims, which no one denies, he declares Gouguenheim’s argument null and void. Yet when referring to mathematics, as in his discussion of Fibonacci (not, incidentally, an Early-Medieval person), Seuren uses the term “Indo-Arabic.” Thus while Europeans owed some mathematical insights to Muslim middle-men, the real debt was to Hindu science. Seuren also makes the fantastic claim that Gouguenheim pays insufficient attention to the role of Rome in the transmission of Greek knowledge to medieval Europe. In the first place, the claim is untrue; in the second place, it is massively contradictory in Seuren’s own desperate project of disestablishing Gouguenheim’s arguments and documentation.

Gouguenheim also faced harassment from the institution that employs him, the École normale in Paris. Colleagues, if that were the word, circulated a petition denouncing Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel and its author: “The work by Sylvain Gouguenheim contains a certain number of value judgments and ideological positions regarding Islam. It is currently being used as an argument by groups of xenophobes and Islamophobes who express themselves openly on the Internet.” (Translation by “Tiberge” at Gallia Watch) The phrase “is being used” belongs to a grammar of bigotry that later cropped up in the l’Affaire Breivik. The Norwegian mass-murderer “had read” this or that on the Internet; therefore, this or that “was being used” by Breivik to stoke his sociopathy, so the authors of this or that were guilty along with the actual perpetrator. George Orwell wrote eloquently about distortions of language for propagandistic purposes. He would be unsurprised by the treatment of Gouguenheim’s book.

Readers would do well to pair their study of Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel with Emmet Scott’s recent revisitation of Henri Pirenne’s argument in Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937). Pirenne claimed, on good evidence, that the notion of a collapse of the Western Roman Empire in and the end of Latin Civilization in the Fifth Century was insupportable. In fact, and despite a change in leadership from an old Roman senatorial class to a new Gothic aristocracy, the Late-Antique economy continued in Gaul, especially around the Côte d’Azur, for two more centuries. The real blow to that economy came with the Muslim blockade of the Mediterranean and the subsequent relentless raids culminating in the assault on France and the conquest of Iberia. The Late-Antique economy depended on competent book-keeping. When the blockade barred European shipping from the sea and cut off the supply of paper from Egypt, the conduct of business faltered. Far from owing anything to the Muslim world, as Pirenne sees it, Early-Medieval Europeans suffered a fatal blow from Muslim intransigence and hostility. The subsequent two centuries were impoverished, but not from any intrinsic cause; nor were those centuries intellectually bereft — something that Pirenne knew three quarters of a century ago.

Pirenne writes: “The Germanic invasions destroyed neither the Mediterranean unity of the ancient world, nor what may be regarded as the truly essential features of the Roman culture as it still existed in the [Fifth] Century, at a time when there was no longer an emperor in the West.” Whereas “countries like Africa [i.e., North Africa] and Spain… had always been parts of the Western community… in these countries another religion made its appearance, and an entirely different culture.”

Scott, picking up Pirenne’s line of thinking, has brought to bear on it seventy-five years of archeology and document-studies. In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012), Scott rejoins the debate. Although high-school and college history textbooks and the advocates of Multiculturalism tell us that while Europe was huddling in illiterate villages Islam was enjoying an enlightenment heyday from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley to Andalusia, building the fairy-tale architecture of great cities like the ones depicted in The Thief of Baghdad, Sinbad the Sailor, and other Hollywood extravaganzas — in fact, as Scott emphasizes, the evidence for this civilizational efflorescence is non-existent. Pirenne’s continuum from the Fifth through the Seventh Centuries is indisputable; and Gouguenheim’s intellectual continuum is likewise fully documented; but the investigator’s spade finds a different and startling hiatus stretching from the mid-Seventh Century to the mid-Tenth Century. Scott reports for this period “the apparently almost complete disappearance of archeology,” implying a severe demographic retraction, dilapidation of the infrastructure, and the cessation both of repair and new construction. This happened moreover not only in Europe but in North Africa, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, and, to the Chagrin of Islamophiles, in Spain. “Indeed, the absence of archeology in both Europe and the Islamic world during these centuries has now become so acute and embarrassing that it has elicited some radical explanations.

One senses in Scott’s survey of the proposed explanations the usual floundering and flailing in order to avoid the obvious one. Naturally, scholarship invokes climate-change although not in this case of the anthropogenic variety. One writer cited by Scott even invokes “an encounter with an enormous comet.” The obvious answer that all politically correct people skate backwards to ignore has to do with Islamic, or at any rate Arab, aggression along the northern littoral of the Mediterranean and elsewhere, where raiding commenced in earnest in the mid-Seventh Century. The addition of “and elsewhere” is important because during this period traces of Byzantine civilization disappear from Egypt and Syria and nothing replaces them. In North Africa the Roman-Visigoth civilization disappears and nothing replaces it. It is likewise for Spain. In Italy and France, in concert with the population shrinkage, the survivors of the catastrophe abandon the coastal cities and towns and wall themselves up in mountaintop castles and fortifications. A phenomenon known as the “Younger Fill” puts itself in evidence at the end of the Seventh Century.

“The Younger Fill” is a fascinating topic. It is a type of sediment associated with river-valleys. It results from the abandonment and natural erosion of terraces and represents, in Scott’s summation, “the final decline of classical cultures, around the sixth to eighth centuries.” In his discussion of the precise dating of the “Younger Fill,” Scott disputes the claim that it belongs with the break-up of the Imperial administration in the West. Rather, Scott pegs it to the onset of the blockade and the raids. Ironically, the best evidence for dating comes from Anatolia, where the “Fill” is also present. Scott writes, “In the Eastern Mediterranean, which formed the very epicenter of antique civilization, the Younger Fill, and with it the abandonment of the classical system of agriculture, occurred in the years after 614, probably the two or three decades after.” This conclusion makes it likely that the “Younger Fill” in North Africa Western Europe corresponds to a similar date — and that date corresponds, once again, to the commencement of Arab-Islamic aggression.

Not only, then, did the Rise of Islam entail the deliberate destruction of the Late-Antique civilization, which was by that time an incipiently Christian civilization; but insurgent Islam built nothing to replace that civilization. Supposing this to be true (and Scott’s evidence is impressive), “the much-vaunted Islamic Golden Age would be revealed (just as Islam’s critics have long suggested) as little more than the final afterglow of the splendors of late Sassanid and Byzantine civilization” — or, in the West, of the Romano-Gothic civilization that took over the governance of the Occidental Empire. “By the third or perhaps fourth decade of the seventh century classical civilization began rapidly to disappear,” Scott writes; and “with the disappearance of the cities came the decline of the classical system of agriculture,” such that “enormous areas of previously cultivated and fertile land became barren and overgrown, a phenomenon almost certainly explained by the Arab custom of allowing their herds to graze on cultivated fields.”

A quarter of a century later, “the great majority of urban settlements in Europe and throughout the Near East were abandoned.” It must be stressed that this dissolution of an immemorial way of life shared by Pagans and Christians, unlike the cold-spell in the middle of the Fifth Century, was not a natural phenomenon but humanly, and it seems implacably driven.

The case of Spain is particularly embarrassing for proponents of the “Benevolent Islam” theory of Western history. Scott surveys the archeology of Spain in the period of interest. Investigators have put to rest the claim that the Visigoths were nomadic savages: On the contrary, they preserved the old and built anew; they had a burgeoning economy in the Sixth Century. “Reccopolis, for example, established by Leovigild in 578, was to become a major administrative and commercial center, and excavations at the site have dramatically illustrated the shear wealth and sophistication of Visigothic society at the time.” By contrast, none, not a single one, of the legendary achievements of early Umayyad Spain has revealed itself to the urgent search to find such things. As Scott writes, “The abundance of archeology from Visigothic times contrasts sharply with the virtually complete absence of… archeology from the first two centuries of the Islamic epoch.”

Cordova, for example, which was supposed to have been the Paris of its day, with a population of as many as a million people, yields up only desolation. “Try as they might, archeologists have found hardly anything, hardly a brick or inscription, for the two centuries prior to the mid-tenth.” From the Tenth Century onward there are archeological remains, “but the settlement is absolutely nothing like the conurbation described by the Arab writers.” The deeper the geotome probes, as it seems, the more deeply the investigator finds himself in a Twilight Zone of pseudo-theses where, as the title of an old Firesign Theatre comedy album put it, everything you know is wrong. The more that writers like Gouguenheim and Scott demonstrate that everything we know (or have been told) about the history of Islam is wrong, the more the adherents of the fiction complain that there is nothing to see here — nothing at all. In a way they are right.

Dario Fernandez-Morera is another scholar who has contributed to this debate and whose work is relevant to Gouguenheim’s. In an article first published in Intercollegiate Review, Fernandez-Morera tackled what he called “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.” Where Scott looks primarily to archeology, Fernandez-Morera, like Pirenne and Gouguenheim, is a documentarian. He has studied the laws and edicts published by the Islamic rulers of Spain during their hegemony, and accounts by non-Muslims of life under their rule, to show that the oft-repeated story of “Al Andalus” as a Multicultural Utopia is as empty as empty as an archeological dig in Cordova. In particular, Fernandez-Morera attacks the image of Islamic Spain as the true Enlightenment before the actual, much-belated Enlightenment, practicing an elegant freedom of discussion and ideas. Fernandez-Morera cites a glowing description of the intellectual broad-mindedness of Abd-al-Rahman III, supposedly a protector of religious conscience among his subjects. “The admiring words of the contemporary Muslim historian Ibn Hayyan, however, reveal a different picture: Abd-al-Rahman III, we are told, kept Islam safe from religious dissension, ‘saving us from the trouble of having to think for ourselves’; under him ‘the people were one, obedient, quiet, submissive, not self-sufficient, governed rather than governing”’ he succeeded by applying religious inquisition efficiently, ‘persecuting factions by all means available…chastising the innovations of those who drifted away from the views of the community.’”

Morera finds more evidence for the destruction of libraries than for their formation and cultivation: “In the eleventh century… the man of letters Ibn Hazm saw his books burned and was imprisoned several times.” Similarly, “the fourteenth-century thinker Ibn al-Jatib was persecuted, exiled to Morocco, and assassinated in prison.” A feminist riff in Multiculturalism’s paean to Islamic Spain is that under Muslim rule women had rights in Iberia that they enjoyed nowhere else. Not so, Fernandez-Morera argues: “Ibn Abdun lists numerous rules for female behavior in everyday life: ‘boat trips of women with men on the Guadalquivir must be suppressed’; ‘one must forbid women to wash clothes on the fields, because the fields will turn into brothels [and] ‘women must not sit on the river shore in the summer, when men do.” Fernandez-Morera concludes that “the average woman in Andalusia was treated much the same as elsewhere under Islamic sharia, with practices like wearing the hijab[,] separation from men, confinement to the household, and other limitations that did not exist in Catholic lands.”

I would stress the convergence of these studies. Gouguenheim’s disestablishment of the “Muslim-Mediator” theory of the Renaissance runs parallel to and is massively consistent with Scott’s disestablishment of the “Robust Muslim Civilization” theory; and both find complementation in Fernandez-Morera’s myth-busting of “The Andalusian Paradise.” These are texts that will not find their way into college reading-lists or onto the book-displays of Barnes and Noble. They fly under the radar and where they make an impression they attract cheap harassment. That is the condition of truth under the politically correct regime.

Thomas F. Bertonneau has been a college English professor since the late 1980s, with some side-bars as a Scholar in residence at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, as a Henri Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and as the first Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has been a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and two books, Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities (1996) and The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006). He is a contributor to The Orthosphere and the People of Shambhala website, and a regular commentator at Laura Wood’s Thinking Housewife Website.

31 thoughts on “The West’s Cultural Continuity

  1. Wonderfully done, though sad in the extreme. Those who believe it can’t happen again are the very same ones who don’t believe the First Islamic Desolation ever happened to begin with.

    The Jews know. They saw it happen within living memory and they’re leaving Europe again, while they can still get out. At least this time they have a place to go…even as Obama makes peace with nuclear Iran.

    • I completely agree with both the French author, M. Gougueheim and M.Bertonneau. I had to refer briefly to the same subject, and in similar terms, culturally we owe nothing to Islam. I am bracing myself for the up coming tsunami from the politically correct when two of my books are published next February. The subject is the influence of the Jewish cabala on Spanish Late Gothic architecture. Since one of the master masons involved is Simón de Colonia, the son of Hans von Köln, the subject is the influence of the Jewish cabala on European architecture. Except for three papers I published on Anuario de Estudios Atlánticos between 2004, 2013 and 2014, we know very little on the subject. Four months ago I was told that such a subject cannot be touched upon in future. Taboo.

  2. Karl Ferdinand Werner, a distinguished German historian, demonstrated decisively, for once and for all, the continuity between late Roman Antiquity and the so-called Middle Ages.

    Jacques Heers, a distinguished French historian, demonstrated the absurdity of the facile claims on the supposed Arabic contribution to Western society, and furthermore pointed out that semantic acrobatics and misrepresentations involved served to mask a hidden agenda.

    Readers of French will welcome Heers’ “L’histoire assassinée” and Werner’s “Naissance de la Noblesse”.

    • “Naissance de la noblesse”
      – Very interesting!

      Going back to Constantine the Great, Werner sheds light on all that is owed to the aristocratic model in Christian Europe, based again, on Roman noblesse.

      Werner, studied in Heidelberg, and has taught European history in France over long periods.

      Frédéric Lenoir

      Another interesting author who understands very well the history of the success of Christian Europe, is Frédéric Lenoir. By choosing any of his numerous books translated into several languages, you cannot go wrong. Lenoir’s vast knowledge gives you an excellent comprehension and a basis to widen your understanding, both of history, culture and our own time.

  3. If the arabs have given anything beneficial to the world, it is despite islam and not because of it.

  4. In W D Elcock’s ‘The Romance Languages’, 1960, Elcock points out of Muslim Spain that ‘in AD 1049 even the canons of the Christian Church were rendered into Arabic for their preservation’. It seems to me that it would have been Christians who did that. I don’t see what motivation Muslim Arabs could have had. Why? Vellum or paper would have been no less combustible with Arabic manuscript than with Latin. Fear of book burners?

  5. This is such a great article! Thank you! Some of it was familiar to me as I’ve read Pirenne. The abandonment of agriculture reminds me of the situation in some African nations where the white farming land was appropriated and turned over to the local people who have let is go to wrack and ruin for the same reason the Muslims did. Farming was not part of their culture!

    ‘Muslim’ architecture is another hoax. It derived from the Persian pre-Islamic culture.

    The problem today is that Muslims. despite ALL evidence to the contrary, are utterly convinced of their superiority!!! This defies logic, realism and implies their religious ideology has made them STUPID.

    Exactly the same can be said of Marxist Political Correctness. It has abandoned REASON in favor of DOGMA. It has rejected the truth wherever PC foolishness is exposed. So we are confronted with TWO doctrines pretending utopia but both based on intolerance of rational critique and both supporting appalling personal morality – subjective irrationality in the West and denial of human dignity under Islam.

    • DiMu-

      As someone that studied architectural history and almost wound up an architect, I agree 110% that the Islamic architectural “tradition” is utterly laughable compared to what was achieved in the West and the Orient.

    • Another, perhaps primary source, of “Muslim” architecture is the Byzantine basilica. There is a peculiarity about early mosques: None is oriented to Mecca but rather to Petra, which was the center of the pre-Islamic Arab Empire, whose religious inclination was to the Monophysite heresy of Christianity.

  6. OK, my French is terrible and I would like to read the book that has been critiqued. How do we go about establishing a foundation for its translation and publication?
    I have always wondered why Christianity holed itself up in monasteries when it was given the command to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. The answer is that Europe was overrun by Islam and the diseases they brought (the Black Plague began in Naples and travelled north, ostensibly from a ship full of dead men who had sailed from Philistia) and the monasteries were preserving the light of the Gospel unto the day when it could shine again.
    I always knew that the narrative wasn’t quite right but I didn’t have any way of researching the facts of the matter. I was told to take my teachers’ word for things.

    • Actually, in some instances, the monasteries were built on the edge of civilized territory and contributed to the evangelization of Europe.

      • We should not forget the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of monasteries and churches in Egypt, North Africa, the Levant, Anatolia, and even farther east in Central Asia – that were brutally obliterated by the Jihad. Smyrna, Antioch, Ephesus, and other Anatolian cities were thriving centers of Byzantine-Christian civilization.

    • Off the top of my head, the plague outbreak you’re probably referring to started in 1346, when a Genoese trading ship full of dead or dying men approached the harbor of Messina, Sicily. By the time the harbor masters got a clue what was happening and tried to quarantine the ship, it was too late, some of the rats had made it to land.
      Based on what I’ve read, the plague seems to have originated in SE Asia, come to the Middle East via trading routes and -ships and remained fairly widespread in the region until the 19th century. It likes desert environments.

    • I recommend “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” by Thomas Cahill.
      An easy and engrossing read that gives a good sense of Roman civilization at the fall, and of Celtic civilization before conversion.

      It fits with Kepha’s comment about monasteries at the edge of the civilized world.

  7. I don’t wish to be contrary but Voltaire did write this:

    “The Koran teaches fear, hatred, contempt for others. Murder as a legitimate means of spreading and maintaining this devil’s doctrine. It denigrates women, divides people into classes and demands blood and more blood.

    That a camel driver creates an uproar in his one-horse town; that he wants to make his fellow citizens believe that he had a talk with the Archangel Gabriel; that he brags he was carried away to Heaven and received there a part of this indigestible book, whose every page makes healthy human reason quiver; that to create respect for this book, he subjects his land to fire and sword; that he strangles fathers, abducts daughters; that he offers those defeated the choice of death or accepting his faith.

    That, of a certainty, is something no one can excuse, unless he was born a Turk or superstition has extinguished any natural light of his understanding.”

    Which sums it up rather nicely in my view.

    • A succinct description of the horrid tribal structure of those desert tribes of Arabia who made their living by robbing caravans that were forced to traverse their dangerous territories.

      Arabs understand life from the point of view of a leech. One never has to actually *do* anything, produce anything, invent anything…just lie in wait for the fruits of that work to come through on their way somewhere else. The oil under their sands allowed them to continue Leech Life…

      An illustration of Voltaire was used as the cover image on a book which printed all of the Mo Toons – a book published when it was dangerous to do so.

      Muhammad: The "Banned" Images

      • …which I see is listed on Amazon, but unavailable. Oddly their subsidiary Abe Books (when did that happen?) has it second hand, for $150 or more.

      • Not parasites.

        Not too bright but they are lucky to be sitting on a sea of oil.

        Parasite isn’t quite right.

      • I know someone who worked in Saudi Arabia about 30 years ago and learned that if you wanted work done, you shouldn’t expect an Arab to do it. He also said you always had to watch your back.

    • Yes, that is Voltaire. I was thinking rather of Zadig, where the Persian court although conspiracy-ridden is nevertheless represented as a kind of acme of aesthetic refinement. And is there not a wisdom-bearing dervish in Candide who makes vatic pronouncements that might be those of M. Arouette himself?

  8. One of my favorite resources of incidental yet vital knowledge about almost anything concerning the accomplishments of the West vs. the fantasy accomplishments of Islam is the Fjordmann Files–
    replete with little known or regarded aspects of civilizational development. My favorite category is those sections beginning with The History of (“Beer” or “Music” etc.). Rich, relaxing and edifying.

  9. I’m far from being knowledgeable about the Classics or History of any sort, but I found reading this exposition to be quite fascinating; almost to the point where I find myself wondering whether to study the above on my own.

    I’m also wondering exactly why Gouguenheim isn’t able to get his text translated and of course published. Seems to me the answer is written into Mr. Bertonneau’s “assessment” of the various critiques of this work. In other words, we well know the answer and it’s not pretty…

    By the way Dr. Bill Warner shows very graphically in one of his excellent videos, the Muslim blockades in the Mediterranean, of Southern Europe and North Africa, followed by the invasion of Spain.

  10. Mohamedans taking slaves in Iceland

    Guðríður Símonardóttir (1598 – December 18, 1682) was one of 242 people abducted from the Westman Islands, Iceland in 1627″

    Snorri Sturluson
    For classical training, Snorri Sturluson’s fosterfather’s grandfather studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. So, according to tradition, Snorri in turn, would study at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

    Source: Snorri, born 1178, was a student at Sorbonne, under Philippe-Auguste.

    • Snorri was a Christian, a Catholic, who had profound respect for the myths of northern heathendom – in extraordinary contrast to the Koranic hatred for anything and everything other than the Koranic.

  11. “Bayt al Hikma or “House of Wisdom” as proof of Muslim enthusiasm for classical learning”

    From the text above.

    It may be interesting to take into consideration several traps of anything for nuances and details, to ideas being lost in translation through times, cultures and languages.

    Seen from an illiterate of the desert’s point of view, anything to do with letters may seem to do with “wisdom”, although in reality, not having directly to with wisdom and being wise, as such.

  12. I offer my hearty thank-you’s to those who have taken the time to read my article. I would very much like to translate M. Gouguenheim’s book. Alas – there seems to be no interest. I will certainly explore Werner and Heers. Merry Christmas to all.

    • @Thomas F Bertonneau

      Thank you!

      I immediately took an interest in Gouguenheim’s book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel, I think, when it was first published, but never got around to finding the book, still knowing that I would keep it in mind and one day read it because of its importance.

      Having walked the ancient streets on Mont St Michel, makes it all the more exciting to read this book. I recommend anyone to visit Mont St Michel. However many tourists there are you should always be able to find little corners for moments of solitude and contemplation.

      I do hope you will take it upon you to translate this book, Thomas F Bertonneau! The interest will be there once the book is translated, I’m sure. What is more, the market should be vast, as not only Europeans, but also a lot of Asians visit Mont St Michel all year round. Bon courage:)

      Merry Christmas & Joyeux Noël to all!

  13. Churchill noted this very effect:
    “ Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.”
    “The River War”, 1899.

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