Radical view of the dark ages

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Bear with this one, people because if it’s right, it changes everything.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, from George Santayana (1863–1952).

“The hasty reformer who does not remember the past will find himself condemned to repeat it.” from John Buchan (1875–1940).

The history of modern scholarship is not just a dry history of dates and events but of collusion and the putting of utter bollox, for political reasons.  Just because it came out of supposedly august bodies and was the new imposed orthodoxy, does not make it right.  There is evidence that the documentary record differs wildly from the archaeological record  and this in itself leads us to reexamine the very underpinnings of today’s society.  At a minimum, it causes a rethink of just what did go on in the middle ages and how it’s come down to us.

A review of those times by Emmet Scott [December 2011] is abridged below, in order to cover the main points as succinctly as possible but still it’s a longish piece.  Hope you’ll attempt it.

Archaeology has now established:

That civilization – more properly called “classical civilization” – survived the fall of the Empire and was not, in any case, a creation of the Romans at all, but of the Greeks, which the Romans imbibed wholesale, and which they proceeded, with their conquests, to spread throughout the western Mediterranean and northern Europe.

This Graeco-Roman civilization may be described as largely urban, literate, and learned, and characterized by what could be called a rationalist spirit. It was a society which, in theory at least, respected reason and the pursuit of knowledge, and which was not given to religious extremism or fanaticism. We know that this civilization did not come to an end with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It survived in Constantinople and the Eastern Empire, and it survived too even in the West, a region administered, from 476 onwards, by “barbarian” kings and princes.

The rulers of the Franks, Visigoths and Ostrogoths – and even of the Vandals – tried hard to preserve the culture and institutions they found in place when they crossed the Imperial frontiers. Yet, in spite of all this, Graeco-Roman civilization did indeed die in the West, and it died too in the East. In both regions it was replaced, eventually, by a society and civilization that we now call “medieval,” a society whose most outstanding characteristics were in many ways the precise opposite of the classical; a society that was overwhelmingly rural, generally illiterate, had a largely barter economy, and tended to be inward-looking rather than open and syncretic.

The thesis of Henri Pirenne, a Belgian historian of the early C20th whose specialism was the early medieval period, [was] that the real destroyers of classical civilization were the Muslims.

It was the Arab Invasions, he said, which broke the unity of the Mediterranean world and turned the Middle Sea – previously one of the world’s most important trading highways – into a battleground.

It was only after the appearance of Islam, claimed Pirenne, that the cities of the West, which depended upon the Mediterranean trade for their survival, began to die. With them went the entire infrastructure of classical culture. Pirenne found that from the mid-seventh century onwards a host of luxury products, which had hitherto been common in Gaul, Italy and Spain, disappeared, and that with them went the prosperity upon which classical culture depended. Towns shrank and society became more rural.

Many scholars in a different camp claim Pirenne has been debunked but I for one have a jaundiced view of so-called debunkings and claims of having “demolished someone” are more usually claims heavy on bare assertion and light on foundation, e.g. with WTC7 in 2001.

Certainly there are issues with Pirenne and one of the main ones is that he concentrated mainly on Western Europe and argued from there, whereas he should have included the east and the Arab world itself in the argument. Certainly, the Enlightenment scholars [the word 'Enlightenment' a bone of contention in itself] were hellbent on de-Christianizing history and it was only logical they’d embrace Islam as a civilizing influence:

Enlightenment scholars began a detailed examination of early medieval Europe. As they did so, they began to notice how great was the debt owed by medieval Europe to the Islamic world. They read letters, official documents and chronicles, which seemed to point to Islamic Spain and the Islamic Middle East as the source of all real knowledge and learning at the time.

They read accounts of how European scholars slipped across the borders of the Islamic world, often in disguise, to learn their secrets. They noticed how European thinkers of the time, from Abelard to Roger Bacon, couched their debates in the language of Islamic scholars such as Averroes and Avicenna.

They noticed that very many of the scientific and scholarly terminologies found in the languages of Europe, were of Arab origin. We used the “Arabic” numeral system, which gave us the concept of zero – a direct borrowing from the Arabic zirr, whilst our word “algebra” was directly taken from the Arabic al-jabr.

They found indeed that numerous technical and scientific terms, such as alcohol, alkali, etc, and many others, were of Arab origin.

True, even then Muslim pirates were a problem in the Mediterranean, and Muslim societies – most notably the Ottoman Empire – were rather impoverished and often brutal. But these negatives were increasingly viewed as an accident of history, not as something logically deriving from Islam.

After all, if slavery was then a problem in the Muslim world, had it not been a problem too in the Christian world? And if the Muslims killed apostates and heretics, did not the Christians do the same until the seventeenth century?

The trend towards a negative view of European civilization accompanied by a positive view of Islamic civilization continued throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed the “talking up” of Islam went rather precisely in tandem with the “talking down” of Christianity.

This was particularly the case amongst a certain class of politicized intellectuals, who, as the nineteenth century progressed, adopted an increasingly hostile approach to all things European; and the trend only accelerated with the First World War.

Essentially, what archaeology did was take over where literature left off. If C18th scholars said that Western Europe let civilization slide and if that was the uniform view coming out of universities, then who was the common man to argue with the experts? C20th archaeology was only going to confirm that, was it not? The common man, the undergraduate, anyone in fact was never going to see through the “Enlightenment scholar” and charge him with following an agenda, particularly when it had become the new orthodoxy.

Yet the archaeology did not support the Enlightenment scholar”:

It had been known, since the time of Gibbon at least, that the “Barbarians” had not intended to destroy Roman civilization. The archaeological evidence proved that they did not.

On the contrary, it became increasingly clear that classical, or Graeco-Roman, civilization had survived the Barbarian Invasions of the fifth century, and that there had even been, in the sixth century at least, something of a revival of that civilization, at least in places like Gaul and Spain. Yet the world of Rome and her civilization did indeed come to an end, and that event, it was increasingly clear, occurred sometime in the seventh century.

After that time, the western world was distinctly medieval in all respects. But why, it was asked, should this have occurred? If the barbarian rulers of the West could manage and cultivate prosperous and largely urban societies for two centuries, especially in places like North Africa and Spain, why did they finally “lose the plot” in the seventh century?

Saracen pirates and raiders¸ he claimed, had blockaded the Mediterranean from the 640s onwards, terminating all trade between the Levant and western Europe. The cities of Italy, Gaul and Spain, which depended upon this trade for their prosperity, began to die; and the Germanic kings who controlled these regions, deprived of the taxable wealth generated by the same trade, lost much of their authority and power. Local strongmen asserted control of the provinces. These were the medieval barons. The Middle Ages had begun.

It was quite vital that the rationalist narrative was not sidetracked, there were powerful forces in society committed to its ubiquity, e.g. the Frankfurt School in the last century, so interestingly, the attempt at debunking coincided with the major push in schools and colleges to kill off anything but the rationalist narrative and thus:

The anti-Pirenne consensus was largely galvanized by archaeological work carried out in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s. There it was found that, whilst classical culture survived during the fifth and sixth centuries, there had nevertheless been a marked decline in all aspects of civilized life from the fifth century onwards. The Italian excavations were to form the basis of the argument presented by the most influential of Pirenne’s critics, Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse, who in 1982 published what was advertised as a definitive refutation of Pirenne.

They argued the Graeco-Roman civilization was in terminal decline in the years prior to 600. So decrepit were the economies of Italy, Spain, and North Africa after the 550s, they declared, that classical culture did not need to be killed off by the Arabs: it was already effectively dead by the time they arrived.

The data they presented was extremely limited in its scope, and essentially failed to look beyond central Italy. Claims that the economy and civic life of North Africa had also collapsed before 600 can be shown to be without foundation. In Chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 we do what Hodges and Whitehouse failed to do and look beyond Italy to Gaul, central Europe, Britain and Spain, where we find apparently thriving and vital late classical cultures during the fifth and (more especially) sixth and early seventh centuries.

This was accepted by the establishment without question:

Indeed, the archaeology of western Europe in general, with the exception of Italy, shows a pronounced expansion of population, culture, and trade during the latter half of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh – precisely those years during which Hodges and Whitehouse claimed Europe and classical civilization was dying a slow and tortuous death.

Everywhere we find evidence of expansion of cultivation, of population increase, of the growth of towns and the revival of building in stone, of the adoption and development of new technologies, and of new regions, such as Ireland, northern Britain (Scotland) and eastern and northern Germany, being brought within the orbit of Latin civilization for the first time.

So what we have is an ideologically driven agenda undercut by the very archaeology which was meant to reinforce it. And here is the full fury of the debate. Zeroing in almost exclusively on Western Europe was the error of Pirenne but it was also the error of his debunkers – when the cradle of civilization in classical times was never those outposts but closer to the middle-east:

Patrick J. Geary, Before France and Germany, pp. 8-9:

“During the more than five centuries of Roman presence in the West, the regions of Britain, Gaul, and Germany were marginal to Roman interests. The Empire was essentially Mediterranean and remained so throughout its existence; thus Italy, Spain, and North Africa were the Western areas most vital to it.

However, the Empire’s cultural, economic, and population centers were the great cities of the East: Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, and later Constantinople. The West boasted only one true city … Rome.

In the first centuries of the Empire, Rome could afford the luxury of maintaining the Romanitas [Roman territories] of the West. Still, these regions, which supplying the legions of the limes, or borders, with men and arms and supporting the local senators with the otium, or leisured existence, necessary to lead a civilized life of letters, contributed little to either the cultural or economic life of the Empire.”

Emmet Scott continues:

Whatever might be said about the disappearance of classical civilization in the West, in the East there is no question at all that it was terminated in the mid-seventh century, and that it was terminated by the Arabs.

On this point Hodges and Whitehouse were strangely ambiguous: on the one hand, they recognized that the Arabs wrought immense destruction in the Levant, and they even admitted to the appearance in North Africa of a “Dark Age” following the Arab conquests; yet on the other hand they strove to suggest that classical civilization in the East was wrecked more by the Persians than by the Arabs, and that, in Asia Minor at least, classical civilization was already terminally damaged by the time the Arabs arrived.

Classical civilization was indeed weakened by Byzantium’s destructive war with Persia, which commenced in 612; but … it was still sufficiently powerful and vibrant to recover from that conflict, had not the Arabs arrived immediately afterwards to devastate the region permanently. These are the facts as uncovered by archaeology, yet, as we shall see, they prompt another urgent question: What then was it about the Arabs, or, more accurately, about Islam, that could bring about such universal and complete destruction?

This is the point of the debate which the modern rationalist is hellbent on preventing because these days, arm-in-arm with rationalism goes PCism, the global agenda and the marginalization of the Judaeo-Christian influence. In fact it is spitefully and vindictively pursued. It is not in the interests of modern scholarship to concede it might have been the Arabs themselves at fault, that their fabulous civilization might have been a fabrication or at a minimum – an exaggeration [as distinct from that of Persia] or that classical civilization might well have gone on if it had not been forcibly destroyed by the Muslim hordes.

This is a major, radical readjustment of worldview and flies in the face of the agenda in which we’re currently hurtling towards the denouement. Powerful forces are aligned against the real archaelogical record coming out in all its implications.

And this is borne out by what we know of Islam in the current day, especially at its most pernicious in C21st Britain – the clash of cultures, he warzone. The Islam of that time [C7th] bears an uncanny resemblance to that of today. Islam is not just a religion – it is:

A religio-political ideology whose fundamental principle is aggressive expansionism. Through the doctrine of perpetual “holy war,” or jihad, plus the notion of entitlement central to sharia law, Islam had a thoroughly and unprecedentedly destabilizing influence upon the Mediterranean world.

It was the perpetual raiding of Muslim pirates and slave-traders that brought about the abandonment throughout southern Europe of the scattered settlements of classical times and the retreat to defended hilltop fortifications – the first medieval castles.

The same raiding led to the abandonment of the old agricultural systems, with their irrigation dikes and ditches, and caused the formation throughout the Mediterranean coastlands of a layer of silt just about the last of the late classical settlements.

When you think it through, a bloodthirsty, expansionist movement like that is hardly going to be a cultural mecca and one way to see that was, as my father did, to stand on the bank of the Jordan and look one way towards a fertile Israel and the other towards the shifting sands of undeveloped Arabia. That image says more than 10 000 words.

How to account for these anomalies?

Apart from the economic impact which Pirenne claimed to detect in the seventh century, the real cultural and ideological impact of Islam upon Europe only begins in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.

Documents from that period [C10th] onwards leave us in no doubt that the world of “the Saracens” was regarded by Europeans as one of fabulous wealth; a region to which they cast envious eyes not only on account of its riches but because of its learning and knowledge. From the late-tenth century onwards, educated Europeans made continuous efforts to tap into the learning of the Arabs.

And here of course we arrive at the very nexus of the radical disagreement over Islam which has bedeviled the study of early medieval history for two centuries. Here precisely is the reason why, on the one hand, some academics may describe Islam as tolerant and learned, whilst others, with equal conviction, can describe it as violent and intolerant.

Whatever damage Islam may have caused Europe in the seventh century, argue the Islamophiles, it was more than compensated for by the knowledge and wisdom bequeathed to Europe in the tenth century by the same faith. For whilst Europe may have lingered for three centuries in a Dark Age limbo of poverty and ignorance, Islam enjoyed three centuries of unparalleled splendor and prosperity, a veritable Golden Age.

That, at least, has been the narrative until now.

You see the difficulties for the rationalist here. He needs to lay the “darkening” of Europe at the feet of the Church; though he couldn’t care less about Islam as a religion, he needs to exonerate it from blame for bringing down civilization in its higher form and causing the bestialization of life for mankind until something different arose. The rationalist claims we don’t know about the C7th to C10th all that much and yet the archaeological evidence is there and it’s really quite clear.

In fact it gets worse. When compelled to focus on those three centuries and expand that focus, not only to the remnants of the old empire in the east but to the Arab world in itself, the picture is not one easily explained:

Whilst depopulation and non-culture might just have been expected in Europe, it was certainly not expected in North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia.

These regions, after all, formed the very heart of the Caliphate, the very core of population, commerce, and cultured life during the three centuries of what has been called Islam’s Golden Age.

At this time, excavators had expected to find luxurious mosques, palaces, baths, etc, standing in the midst of truly enormous metropolises. The fabulous Harun al-Rashid in the ninth century, after all, is supposed to have reigned over a city of Baghdad that was home to in excess of a million people. Cordoba, capital of the Spanish Emirate at the same time, is said to have housed half a million souls.

Yet of this splendid civilization hardly a brick or inscription has been found! It is true that from the very beginning of the Islamic epoch there is occasionally (although infrequently) found some archaeology. This usually dates to the mid-seventh century.

Then, after this, there are three full centuries with virtually nothing. About the middle of the tenth century, archaeology resumes, and there is talk of a “revival” of cities in the Muslim world, just as in Europe at the same time.

Indeed, the mid-tenth century reveals a flowering and in many ways splendid Islamic civilization, clearly more wealthy and at a higher stage of development than anything in contemporary Europe. Yet this civilization seems to spring out of nowhere: It is without any archaeological antecedents.

So we have a problem which is not going away, just because it does not fit our narrative. What transformed a bloodthirsty Islamic tradition, which is reprised today, into the flowering of culture reported in the C10th?

Scholarship has now arrived at a several conclusions which are really beyond dispute, and which tend to offer definitive support for Pirenne.

First and foremost, the evidence suggests that classical or Graeco-Roman civilization was alive and well into the late sixth and early seventh centuries. This was particularly the case in the Middle East and North Africa, which were the ancient heartlands of Mediterranean culture, and in which were located by far the greatest centers of population, wealth, and industry.

Evidence shows that until the first quarter of the seventh century these regions were flourishing as never before. But classical civilization was also alive and well in Europe, a region which (aside from central and southern Italy), had always been peripheral to Graeco-Roman civilization.

And outside of central Italy we find none of the signs of decay that Pirenne’s critics claimed to have detected. On the contrary, Gaul and in particular Spain supported a thriving and vigorous late classical culture; and this was a culture that was growing, rather than declining.

Indeed, by the latter years of the sixth century, classical civilization had begun to spread into regions never reached by the Roman Legions, and Latin, as well as Greek, was now studied along the banks of the Elbe in eastern Germany, and in the Hebrides, off northern Scotland.

Secondly, the evidence shows that this culture went into rapid and terminal decline in the 620s and 630s. The great cities of Asia Minor and Syria everywhere at this time show signs of violent destruction, after which they were never rebuilt.

Whatever archaeology appears on top of them is invariably impoverished and small-scale; usually little more than a diminutive fortress. Contemporary with the destruction of the classical cities, we find a universal decay in the countryside:

Top-soil is washed away and a layer of subsoil, known as the Younger Fill, covers settlements in river-valleys and blocks harbors. This stratum appears throughout the Mediterranean world, from Syria to Spain, and is the geographical signature of the end of Graeco-Roman civilization.

With the appearance of this layer, classical patterns of settlement and land-management are abandoned. This is the pattern too in southern Europe, where we now find a retreat of settlement to defended hill-top sites – the first medieval castles.

Both these developments can be explained by the appearance of Muslim raiders and pirates throughout the Mediterranean coastlands from the 630s onwards; and if that is not the accepted solution, then no answer is forthcoming.

Thirdly, from the mid-seventh century onwards, there is an almost total disappearance of archaeology in Europe and throughout the Middle East and North Africa for a period of three centuries. This disappearance, it seems, has nothing to do with what has always been called the “Dark Age” of Europe, because it appears also in the Islamic lands.

By the mid- to late-tenth century, cities and towns revive both in the Islamic and Christian lands, and (though the great cities of classical times are gone forever), the material culture of the new settlements looks strikingly reminiscent in many ways of the material culture of the seventh century.

That, in brief, is what the archaeology says.

It would probably start it

In fact, there is a case for scrutinizing even more closely the golden Arab eras of the C10th to C12th [in European eyes] and they do not come up looking anything like the way they’ve been portrayed:

Not only did the Arabs terminate classical civilization in the Levant and North Africa, and therefore cut Europe off from the humanizing and civilizing impulses which had previously emanated from those regions, but they now began, in the tenth century, to exert their own influence upon the West.

And that influence was anything but benevolent.

It is of course widely accepted that Islam had a profound cultural impact upon early medieval Europe. Indeed, the all-pervasiveness of that impact has been traditionally seen as underlining the cultural superiority of Islam at that time.

Yet, in addition to some commentaries upon Aristotle, and a few scientific and technological concepts (which were not “Arab” inventions at all) Islam was to communicate to Europe a whole host of ideas and attitudes that were far from being enlightened.

Most obviously, the concept of “holy war”, which Europe adopted (admittedly somewhat reluctantly) in the eleventh century, was entirely an Islamic innovation; as was the tendency towards theocracy (enshrined in the all-powerful medieval Papacy) and the suppression, by force, of heterodox ideas.

So, what are we left with? Firstly, an unexplained fall of civilization coinciding with the rise of Islam and in all the areas touched by it. Secondly, a modern rationalist narrative which wants to solely blame Europe for this in order to eliminate the eternal enemy – the Christian “superstition”.

That there are three main forces at work globally today – Them [including the rationalists, socialists, PCists and globalists], Islam and thirdly, the remnant rump of the Judaeo-Christian civilization which once was, now mumbling in the corner to itself – is hardly in dispute. Then are are a few other global players – China and Russia are two, possibly Japan but even their higher echelons are in thrall to Them.

It’s a weird, essentially three cornered contest in which there is little compromise. The rational atheist will take issue at being lumped in with Them – he thinks he’s supporting a new golden age of enlightenment and freedom but in such a polarized struggle, he is, in fact, aiding and abetting Them in tearing down the third force, the traditional Europe, let’s call it, with the help of radical Islam – strange bedfellows. Powerful forces indeed when many who might be supporting the preservation of our society are actually unwittingly aiding its destruction.

Often we hear the rational atheist say we don’t need history. Well of course. When history, supported by archaeology, gives a radically different view of the world to that which the rationalists have been pushing since their first venture, the Voltaire-fuelled French bloodbath, then history is consigned to the dustbin of the unstudied. No need to burn books – just send in 20 000 rationalists and feminists to rewrite them.  Make the Marcuses, Ginsbergs et al the new folk heroes.

That’s where we are today and all we see going on out there is the playing out of the final act in this particular play. There may be other plays later in the season, there might not.

Once and Future King?

We’ll just have to wait and see.

4 Responses to “Radical view of the dark ages”

  1. Mark Wadsworth February 12, 2012 at 13:09 Permalink

    Hang about here, you making one heck of a leap of logic here, that “atheists” all want us to be taken over by Islamists. I’m an atheist, and clearly, I am strongly opposed to Islam, Islamists, terrorists and Arab influence generally.

    I am also perfectly happy for this country to be run along Christian lines, this is something we’ve been doing for over a thousand years, it’s just tradition.

    I also think Christians who say that “atheists do not believe in God. Therefore they have no morals” are downright stupid and betray an alarming lack of awareness of history.

    Christianity (and probably Jewish & Hindu religions, what do I know) did not invent these “values” (like not killing, lying, and so on), these “values” were always there (or did Greeks and Romans spend the whole time lying to and killing each other? methinks not) and Christianity sensibly adopted them.

    And as many atheists as Christians (probably more, actually) believe that it is wrong to tell lies or kill etc.

  2. richard February 12, 2012 at 14:51 Permalink

    Hello James, I happen to be an atheist as well and agree with Mark and also to a large extent with yourself in this article.Facts are facts, and Christianity has been of immense benefit to mankind. It is also under sustained attack by “them” for obvious reasons. Incidentally I was somewhat dismayed by the actions of a secular humanist who has invoked the might of the State to stop councillors praying. Not only has a fine old tradition been destroyed, not only have councillors been made uncomfortable in their workplace, but even worse the power of the State has been invoked to stop people following their consciences using the modern religion of “I must not be offended!” No rational atheist at work here, just some knob hiring bullies at the expense of the taxpayer. And successfully painting those of us who are free from superstition as the enemies of free speech.

  3. dearieme February 12, 2012 at 16:29 Permalink

    Civilisation disappeared from most of Britain before Mahomet was ever heard of. Here, at least, the German and Gael destroyed civilisation – aided, very likely, by at least one burst of plague.

    And when the Celtic church returned from Ireland to Britain, the Roman Church set out to destroy it.

  4. James Higham February 12, 2012 at 17:29 Permalink

    Dearieme – none of which negates the thrust of the post re the surrounds of the mediterranean.

    Mark and Richard – I’ve just been talking about the point with one of these atheists and he takes the same point of view as me – the average person might not believe but that’s a far cry from the bus-side daubing, council procedure fanatical rabid atheist who is the one that’s a huge problem.

    There is a blogger who has also done just this. Ostensibly a libertarian, he decided that in a post on radical Islam, that Islam and Christianity are the same thing, though one says live peaceably with all men and the other says kill, kill, kill. So he puts up a pic of Jesus as if He had done something wrong.

    That’s mania. Voltaire’s frothing at the mouth was mania, Dawkins’ carry-on is mania – these are the vocal and influential so-called rationalists who are as rational as leftist. I’ve a post coming up about a Christian fundamentalist doing similar things so they don’t escape by any means.

    I read a piece on libertarian socialists – what, sort of like blackish-white and wettish dry? One’s for freedom – the other’s for coercion by the State or community.

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