Unlearning the Dark Ages


The best thing about reading iconoclastic, revisionist historians is that, in the process of reading and understanding their works and their ideas, you learn just how badly your schooling has let you down. Such was certainly the case when I read the truth about the Great Depression through the work of Amity Shlaes and her outstanding The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. Such was true of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, which proved to be a thorough demolition job of the "standard" understanding of the (minimal) differences between fascism and communism. Such was the result of reading Thomas DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln.

And now, to that distinguished list, I must add a new book: Emmett Scott's superb precis analysis of one of the most controversial theories in the field of classical and post-Roman history, Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy.

The book looks at the groundbreaking work and analysis of French historian Henri Pirenne, who came up with what was at the time the most radical rethinking of the history of the Dark Ages ever proposed. And to understand just why his proposal was so strange and so difficult for mainstream historians to digest, we need to briefly look at the "accepted" view of the way that the Dark Ages came about, how they led to the Middle Ages, and finally how the Renaissance came about.

The "Received Wisdom"

If your schooling was anything like mine, you were taught that the period following the fall of the Roman Empire, up until the advent of the Carolingian Age (i.e. the age of Charlemagne and his descendants) was a true "Dark Age", in which the wisdom, literacy, and artistic accomplishments of the Roman Empire decayed and disappeared as civilisation itself retreated and, at certain points, was in danger of dying out completely. You were taught that the 6th through to the 9th centuries were a time of backwardness and decay, and that during this time the great cities of antiquity withered and died as the empire that the Romans had spent centuries to build up, crumbled into dust in the West and was tenuously guarded in the East by Byzantium. You were taught that the Church became an instrument of terror and repression, suppressing knowledge and condemning those who pursued forbidden topics as witches and heretics.

You were even perhaps taught that the Islamic world flourished into a true Golden Age as Europe retreated into backwardness and squalor. You were told that it was the Islamic world's preservation of ancient Greek and Latin texts that saved European civilisation; when Arabic and Persian scholars took those same books, translated centuries earlier into Arabic, back to Europe to be translated right back into European languages, the resulting transfer of knowledge kicked off the great rebirth of the Renaissance and eventually culminated in the Enlightenment.

All told, you were taught to think that the period from about 550AD (or thereabouts) to very roughly 850AD or 900AD was a three-century-long period of barbarism and backwardness so terrible that it very nearly destroyed what was left of Europe.

An Easily Believed Yarn

Obviously, I am skipping over certain key details here, but that is very broadly the historical consensus that existed before Henri Pirenne walked onto the scene. Both Edward Gibbon and J.B. Bury, perhaps the greatest historians the world has seen since Herodotus and Plutarch, argued convincingly, based on the evidence available to them at the time, that the disappearance of Roman civilisation from Western Europe resulted in a truly terrible Dark Age, and that it was Islam that saved the West. And that meme has persisted down to the present day, to the point where it is taught as near-Gospel in high schools and universities the world over.

There is just one problem with the entire theory: it is complete and arrant nonsense.

So said Henri Pirenne, who attacked the consensus understanding of the history of the period on every front. Drawing on the most up-to-date archaeological discoveries made up to that point, and looking carefully at geological, climatological, and contemporary source data, his conclusions were starkly at odds with the prevailing wisdom:
  • Contrary to popular belief, the barbarians who settled the territories once occupied by Roman legions rapidly became Christians and Romanised all on their own, and quickly re-established a civilisation that was in many ways even more advanced than the one it had replaced;
  • Trade between Europe, Britain, North Africa, and the Eastern Roman Empire flourished between 476AD and 650AD, creating massive prosperity and economic growth;
  • The population of Europe did NOT shrink gradually but in fact entered a boom period, which abruptly cut off when the true Dark Age descended upon Europe;
  • Most crucially, the specific reason why a Dark Age hit Europe was Islam itself
That last conclusion is by far the most unsettling. Henri Pirenne did not deny that a Dark Age did indeed descend across Europe; what he contested was the specific dates which were accorded to the period. And his analysis showed that the true Dark Ages corresponded virtually perfectly with the first great wave of Islamic expansion.

A Controversy Revisited

As can be imagined, such a radical revision of accepted historical narrative was a huge shock to most of Pirenne's contemporaries. In his analysis of and expansion upon Pirenne's work, Emmett Scott notes that even today, most historians find Pirenne's conclusions so difficult to swallow that they force themselves through all sorts of contortions of logic, evidence, and fact to avoid the extremely uncomfortable realities that those ideas would lead to.

Yet the evidence itself is beyond dispute. And Mr. Scott presents that evidence in a book that is a true pleasure to read.

He starts with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire itself, and carries on with his analysis all the way through to the latter 11th Century, when the Middle Ages were well and truly established. And his analysis, presented calmly, clearly, and in considerable yet fascinating detail, is extraordinary.

The history in this book reads like a detective story- and what a fascinating story it is. His tale is the forgotten history of a Europe that we are only now beginning to see and understand.

As Mr. Scott points out, the fall of the Roman Empire was not in fact quite the rupture that we are taught it was in school. It was actually basically a simple transition; the last Roman emperor simply stepped off the throne and handed the crown to the Germanic chieftain Odoacer. At that point in time, the population of the Roman Empire had indeed been in long-term decline; the stock of "ethnic Romans" had dwindled significantly, hence the reason why barbarian Germanic and Gothic tribes were allowed to settle within Roman territories in exchange for their service to the Empire. And that downward trend in population did continue into the early 6th Century.

But then something remarkable happened. The "barbarians" began to civilise. And they did so at a truly astonishing pace.

The Visigothic kingdoms of Spain emerged into a true Golden Age. In Gaul, the Merovingians consolidated and united the Gaulish tribes into a true nation and began building upon the centuries of accumulated wisdom of the Romans and the Greeks. England, a frontier outpost long abandoned by the Romans at that point, rebuilt a true Christian civilisation; Caledonia (Scotland) and Hibernia (Ireland), dreary and miserable islands that they were, also began to experience rapid social, technological, and spiritual progress, thanks in no small part to the introduction and rapid uptake of the Christian faith to those benighted lands.

From Spain in the west to Carthage in the south to Byzantium in the East, a true Mediterranean civilisation began to take shape. The existence of expensive and expertly crafted African Red Slip pottery was proven well into the 7th Century in the northern reaches of former Roman territories, including Britain. In the East, the Byzantines held the line against the Persians, but were strong and flourishing in their own right.

Mr. Scott presents a true mountain of evidence showing that there was no Dark Age in Europe, right up to the middle of the 7th Century. In its place was an advanced culture in which art, science, and literature flourished at a rate not since since the days of the Rome of Marcus Aurelius. Not even the great plague of the Emperor Justinian's time, in the mid-6th Century, could put a stop to Europe's rapid pace of development.

Within and through it all, the Holy Church spearheaded the revival and revolution. The Benedictine order of monks proved instrumental in preserving, recording, and building upon the knowledge of the ancients. As Mr. Scott points out, there is no other group in all of human history that has done more to advance the knowledge and happiness of our species, and there is no institution in history that has ever done more for Mankind than the Church of Christ.

And then, suddenly, it all went horribly wrong.

Rupture

From the second half of the 7th Century, the evidence tells us that something happened which irrevocably changed Europe's fate. The advances of the previous two hundred years came to a screeching halt. Thriving metropolises were wiped out almost overnight, never to be resettled. Population growth crashed; trade across the Mediterranean collapsed; the fortunes of the Byzantines lurched from disaster to catastrophe with almost monotonous regularity for the better part of three hundred years.

And so the situation remained, until the Carolingian Age was well and truly established, and mediaeval Europe came into existence.

We know what the Middle Ages were like- or at least, we think we do. In reality, what we were taught in school about the Middle Ages is also basically wrong- in reality, the Middle Ages saw the advent of another advanced civilisation which was brought to its knees by the Plague. But that is not the era with which Pirenne or Scott concerned themselves. They were interested in the reason why an age of progress and expansion collapsed so quickly.

The answer can be summed up in one word: Islam.

The archaeological and historical evidence that Mr. Scott presents shows beyond a doubt that the extremely sudden reversal in Europe's fortunes coincides perfectly with the beginnings of the first wave of Islamic expansion, following the "prophet" Mohammed's establishment of a power base in Medina as a warlord.

In the latter quarter of the book, Mr. Scott presents a powerful analysis of the Islamic doctrine of war and shows that the canonical origin story of Islam, already highly suspect, is basically garbage. He further points out that the reason why the Arabs were able to expand so rapidly is not because of any great military skill on their part; the Arabs, a nomadic and squabbling people, were hugely outnumbered and outclassed in every way by the Byzantine Empire. Instead, it is far more likely that they made an alliance with the Sassanid Persians, and that the early victories of "Arab" Islam were in fact backed and financed by the vast wealth and power of the Persian empire in the East.

And anyone who knows anything about Islamic doctrines regarding warfare, piracy, the taking of slaves, and the division of the world into dar al-Harb and dar al-Islam will know that Mr. Scott is talking perfect sense when he points out that it was the rapid expansion of Islam that caused Mediterranean commerce and prosperity to come to a crashing halt almost overnight.

A Myth Debunked

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Mr. Scott's work is his analysis of the much-ballyhoed "Islamic golden age". This is another standard trope that we are all taught in school. We are taught to believe the politically correct lie that Islam was an enlightened religion of peace, which fostered scientific advancement, mathematics, medicine, physics, optics, and literature at a pace never seen in the West.

This is almost all complete BS.

In reality, whatever advances that the Islamic world made during the Dark Ages, which it created, were due to the works of far greater philosophers and authors from the Roman and Byzantine eras. In fact, the greatest findings attributed to "Arab" mathematicians and philosophers were actually Persian in origin. Indeed, the great advances in mathematics, such as the "Arabic" numbering system and the "Arabic" concept of zero and the "Arabic" method of algebra, are all Indian and Greek discoveries given a fresh coat of paint by Persian philosophers.

The true face of the Arabic Islamic empire of the time was in fact remarkably similar to what we see happening with ISIS today. It was backward, intolerant, abusive of Jews and Christians alike, utterly ruthless in dealing with pagans, violent, intolerant, and totally incapable of responsible governance over the territories that it conquered- which were once the wealthiest and most advanced creations of the children of the Roman Empire.

There is far, far more to this remarkable book than I can possibly do justice to here. But I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the history of Islam's interactions with the West. It is a scholarly work of the first order that is as readable as any best-selling thriller, and as thought-provoking as anything that Thomas DiLorenzo has ever written. It will make you sit up and think; it will shock and amaze you; and you will very likely walk away from it with your entire understanding of the post-Roman era of history turned upside-down.

Comments

  1. Dammit. Another book to add to the growing pile.

    BTW - since you posted on Jacksonianism, "Divine Providence" - which that Jacksonian article is basically a chapter of - is also well worth reading.

    Forgotten Man was excellent, as was LIberal Fascism - though Goldberg's follow-up work wasn't as good.

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    Replies
    1. Interesting, I'll have to see if I can find a copy of that book of Mead's.

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  2. I have known for years the Islamic "Golden Age," such as it was, was the work of Christians, Jews and liberal Muslims.

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    Replies
    1. Unfortunately, that notion of an Islamic "Golden Age" is still taught as historical fact in most schools. Hell, my own parents believe that nonsense. One of them was a history teacher.

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