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Henri Pirenne on the impact upon Europe of the advance of Islam

Mohammed and Charlemagne
Henri Pirenne
Barnes & Noble, 1992

In view of the debates, controversies, outraged cries and tactful statements regarding the relationship between Islamic and (for want of a better word) Western civilizations, it is of interest to read this classic work (his last) by the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne. And when the reader comes to its end and wonders how to sum it up, prior to making a judgement, what could be more convenient than to find that the author, in his Conclusion, has done it for him in masterly fashion? So here it is, almost seventy years after the author’s death.

From the foregoing data [some 260 pages, broadly dealing with the Mediterranean economy from 300 to 800 AD], we may draw two essential conclusions:

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 5th century, at a time when there was no longer an Emperor in the West.

Despite the resulting turmoil and destruction, no new principles made their appearance; neither in the economic or social order, nor in the linguistic situation, nor in the existing institutions. What civilization survived was Mediterranean. It was in the regions by the sea that culture was preserved, and it was from them that the innovations of the age proceeded: monasticism, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the ars Barbarica &c.

The Orient was the fertilizing factor: Constantinople the centre of the world. In 600 the physiognomy of the world was not different in quality from that which it had revealed in 400.

The cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam. The result of this advance was the final separation of East from West, and the end of the Mediterranean unity. Countries like Africa and Spain, which had always been parts of the Western community, gravitated henceforth in the orbit of Baghdad. In these countries another religion made its appearance, and an entirely different culture. The Western Mediterranean, having become a Musulman lake, was no longer the thoroughfare of commerce and of thought which it had always been.

The West was blockaded and forced to live on its own resources. For the first time in history the axis of life was shifted northwards from the Mediterranean. The decadence into which the Merovingian monarchy lapsed as a result of this change gave birth to a new dynasty, the Carolingian, whose original home was in the Germanic North.

With this new dynasty the Pope allied himself, breaking with the [Eastern, Byzantine] Emperor, who, engrossed in his struggle against the Musulmans, could no longer protect him. And so the Church allied itself with the new order of things. In Rome, and in the Empire which it founded, it had no rival. And its power was all the greater, inasmuch as the State, being incapable of maintaining its administation, allowed itself to be absorbed by the feudality, the inevitable sequence of the economic regression. All the consequences of this change became glaringly apparent after Charlemagne. Europe, dominated by the Church and by the feudality, assumed a new physiognomy, differing slightly in different regions. The Middle Ages – to retain the traditional term – were beginning. The transitional phase was protracted. One may say it lasted a whole century – from 650 to 750. It was during this period of anarchy that the tradition of antiquity disappeared, while the new elements came to the surface.

This development was completed in 800 by the constitution of the new Empire, which consecrated the break between the West and the East, inasmuch as it gave to the West a new Roman Empire – the manifest proof that it had broken with the old Empire, which continued to exist in Constantinople.

An academic medieval historian tells me that Pirenne has been “superseded” and it may seem to some readers that his emphasis on the continuity of a Mediterranean-based economy after the barbarian invasions is overdone, but there is no doubt that he makes his point that the discontinuity and disruption after the Muslim incursions was far greater; the Arabs, in contrast to the barbarians who adopted the language and religion of the conquered population, successfully imposed both their language and religion. Trade across the Mediterranean largely came to a stop; merchants and gold (and papyrus) disappeared and so did the ports and cities through which merchandise was imported and consumed. The sea was no longer a route of commerce, but a region of chaos, to remain so for more than a thousand years. Western Christian civilization moved north and contact with eastern, Byzantine Christendom was lost, so that when it was resumed during the Crusades, the two had evolved into incompatibility, as geographically separated races evolve into non-hybridizable species. Though Pirenne does not claim it, there could be not be a more damning collection of evidence that the replacement of the Christian culture of the southern and western Mediterranean seaboard by an Islamic one was one of the greatest catastrophes to befall Europe.

5 comments to Henri Pirenne on the impact upon Europe of the advance of Islam

  • toolkien

    We can be glad to some extent that the Mediterranean region and the musulmans themselves were fractured into Western and Eastern components, each pursuing differing, uncoordinated ends. It is doubtful that Europe would have survived if hegemony had been maintained. It was a close call as was.

  • D Anghelone

    So here it is, almost seventy years after the author’s death.

    Reincarnated as Oriana Fallaci?

  • > there could be not be a more damning collection of evidence that the replacement of the Christian culture of the southern and western Mediterranean seaboard by an Islamic one was one of the greatest catastrophes to befall Europe.

    Well, that rather depends on what you think of what went before and what came after:

    Roman model – all powerful centralised state

    Feudal model which northern and western Europe, cut off from what had previously been civilization and left to their own devices, came up with – society of interest groups with rights. Crown not absolute – first among equals in the nobility. Some concept of checks and balances, of law being above the whim of the king. Church, barons, in some cases merchants / free cities have inalienable rights (hence capitalism – impossible without security of property). Even some peasants are “freemen” with rights.

    Later transition to freer society with concept of universal inalienable human rights and state with limited rights/powers possible from feudal NW Europe, not elsewhere. Would (?) not have happened if anything like the western Roman Empire had survived.

    Grossly oversimplified caricature – what else do you expect in a weblog comment – but perhaps worth thinking about.

  • Taylor

    I was wondering what everybody else thinks about the part that Pirenne portrays the Jews as playing in this period of European History. It’s interesting that he portrays them as the moderate go-betweens that kept limited non-violent contact open between the arabian and eruopean world.
    I would also like to know what the Nazis thought about it (they would have been around when he wrote the book, but not when it was finally published). He may be seen as ading crediblity to the idea of a jewish plot to take over the european economy.

  • Charlemagne

    re Last point: In fact the Jewish Khazars were go-betweens – castrating and selling Westerners to Islam as slaves down the Danube. (Hugh Trevor-Roper.)