Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe

by Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse

May 17th, 2009

I've not posted any book reviews for a while, not because I have stopped reading, but because I have been extremely busy with my work. Moreover, I have been doing a lot of re-reading of books, in many cases re-reading single chapters in pursuit of refining my hypothesis about the history of thinking. However, one book that I re-read from cover to cover deserves a review: Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the common wisdom among historians is the Rome was destroyed by the barbarian invastions of the fourth and fifth centuries. However, at the same time, evidence was accumulating that the Germanic invaders, while destroying Roman political structures, were eager to preserve the Roman culture and economy. They took over the top levels of Roman society and redistributed land to their supporters, but they kept the system intact. This created a bit of a problem for historians: if the barbarians didn't kill Roman civilization, what did?

In the 1930s, Henri Pirenne, a Belgian historian, came up with a novel explanation: Islam killed Roman civilization by disrupting Mediterranean trade. Before Islam, the Mediterranean Sea bustled with trade that maintained the economic vigor of Roman civilization, even as its political structures were being destroyed by the invading barbarians. But the Islamic conquests in the seventh century put an end to Mediterranean trade, which in turn caused the European economy to wither. The inevitable result of this was Charlemagne, who replaced the Mediterranean civilization with a new civilization centered on Europe rather than the Mediterranean.

The Pirenne Hypothesis eventually won favor, largely because it was strongly supported by the few written sources we have from that time period. However, those years are called the Dark Ages because we have so few written records from that time. Yes, the written evidence, all in all, seemed to support the Pirenne Hypothesis -- but there wasn't much of it.

But in the latter half of the 20th century we have seen a great deal of digging up of Europe's past, and we now have a huge mass of archaeological data. Much of this data, when taken in isolation, doesn't amount to much: shards of pottery from a thousand locations, occasional finds of coin hordes (people buried their treasure in secret places so that barbarians wouldn't take them -- then the owners died and the secret of their coin hoards died with them.) The amount of data is now so massive that we can start cross-correlating it to learn a great deal about those Dark Ages.

That is precisely what Hodges and Whitehouse do in this book. They trace through the mass of archaeological data to show that the Pirenne Hypothesis is wrong. Roman civilization had already withered by the time Islam appeared on the scene. The Arabs didn't so much conquer North Africa as occupy it. How else could a few thousand warriors have accomplished so much? (Arab armies were all smaller than 10,000 men during the conquest phase.)

Here's an example of how these two historians pulled off their coup: There's a certain type of pottery called African Red Slip that was manufactured in the Maghreb (North Africa from Tunisia to Morocco). It is quite distinctive. Archaeologists have found it all over the Mediterranean. But they have also found that it disappeared from places like Spain and Italy starting around 600 CE -- decades before the Islamic conquest. Similarly, evidence from Carthage shows that imports of pottery sharply declined during the same time period. Indeed, there's lot of evidence showing that Mediterranean trade declined sharply in the late sixth century and was almost nothing by the time the Islamic conquests started.

There are plenty of other indications of economic collapse prior to the Islamic conquests. Building of new churches in Italy, as well as reconstruction of old churches, came to a standstill. Lots of small farming villages were abandoned during those days.

Although we cannot be sure of the cause of this collapse, we have a prime suspect in the bubonic plague. It first hit the eastern Mediterranean in 542 CE, and it wiped out millions of people. It's important to realize that plagues such as this were never one-off events: instead, they started off with a big sweep, and then recurred at intervals of a few decades in different places all over Europe and Africa for perhaps 150 years. One historian estimates that, in toto, European population was roughly halved by the plague. The Black Death that hit Europe in 1348 reverberated through the continent for another 250 years. Thus (although the authors of this book do not explore this speculation), it might well be that the bubonic plague of the sixth century prepared the ground for the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.

What does any of this have to do with Charlemagne, you ask. By conquering the southern shore of the Mediterranean, the Arabs did destroy the main trading system that provided the foundation of classical civilization. This in turn forced Western civilization to shift its center of gravity northward, and that in turn made it possible for Charlemagne to unite Europe around this new system. That's what set the basic political architecture of European civilization. After Charlemagne died, his empire was divided among his three sons to produce what are now the modern states of France, Germany, and Italy.