The beginning of the Dark Ages are usually dated to the deposition of the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 AD. It is widely held that following this event Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages by the combination of the Germanic invasions and the spread of Christianity. Many documentaries and books depict barbaric hordes of German Goths, Vandals and Other tribes descending on the Roman provinces in the 400 and 500’s AD and destroying the high culture of the Mediterranean Basin. This disaster was supposedly supplemented by the spread of a backward, superstition ridden Christianity. Early Christians are usually depicted as not only backward and superstitious but also devoted to ignorant, anti-intellectual blind faith and according to this received version of history the combination of these two cultural calamities plunged Europe into ten centuries of chaos which destroyed classical learning and economic prosperity.
This is the anti-Christian picture that was popularized by Edward Gibbon in 1776 with his publication of the very widely read “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” It was a theme picked up by many who followed and is still prominent today.
If you believe this scenario you should definitely read “Mohammed and Charlemagne” by Henri Pirenne, after you read this book you will realize that the above is an extremely inaccurate picture of what actually happened.
Pirenne was a leading medieval scholar of the early Twentieth Century. He published “Mohammed and Charlemagne” in 1937 long before the current chaos in the Middle East. His ideas were widely accepted among the academics of his time but unfortunately have been largely forgotten or ignored of late. The basic argument of the book is simple; the Fall of the Roman Empire is normally dated to 476 AD when the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed by the Odoacer the leader of Germanic Foederati. In the aftermath of this action German Tribes moved into Italy and other Roman provinces and established a series of Gothic Kingdoms.
The current view is that Europe then plunged directly into the Dark Ages. However when Pirenne examined everyday life inside the provinces of the former Roman Empire following the Germanic invasions he found that little changed. The aqueducts and sanitation systems continued to work, the schools remained open, taxes were collected, the road system was maintained, foreign trade was abundant, money was coined and the standard of living remained high. His detailed examination of the period’s records shows very clearly that life continued virtually unchanged for the next 250 years.
This is no surprise, as it must be remembered that the German invaders had no desire to destroy the Roman Empire, their objective was to live in it and enjoy the fruits of its higher standard of living. While the Germans did initially engage in taking of booty and pillage they nevertheless soon settled down and adopted the Roman way of life. They adopted Roman agricultural practices, Roman law, Christianity and in most areas Romance languages.
The Coming of the Dark Ages
However when we get to the early 700’s AD life begins to change drastically: coinage disappears, artisans are forced to give up their trades and go back to living on the land, books disappear, schools close, the roads and aqueducts and other infrastructure are no longer maintained and the standard of living throughout the Roman world begins to decline sharply.
What happened? The answer is quite simple. This was when the Islamic armies began their war against the West. Starting in the late 600’s AD these armies invaded Egypt, North Africa and the old Fertile Crescent area. With them they not only brought Islam they also brought practices, which resulted in economic catastrophe for the entire region from which it has never recovered even to this day.
Roman, Egyptian and Persian agricultural practices were destroyed in most of the conquered territories. As a result food production plummeted and ancient agribusiness was replaced by subsistence farming. Cities were abandoned as their inhabitants were forced back on to the land in order to avoid starvation. The Fertile Crescent area of Iraq and Iran suffered particularly harshly as the loss of the old technology, especially well planned irrigation works, resulted in the use of crude methods of irrigation, which led to the contamination of the Tigris – Euphrates Basin through salt percolation and turned it into the barren desert seen today.
The other economic killer was the Islamic destruction of the old overland trading system. In the ancient world there had been large scale foreign trade extending from China to Britain. The Islamic refusal to deal with the “Infidels” led to the decline of this trade and the destruction of the second most important component of the ancient economy: trade with India, China, Persia, Egypt and the other advanced economic centers of the ancient world. This trade did not recover until the Age of Exploration when Europeans discovered how to sail around the Islamic barrier to foreign trade.
Why is this Important?
The Dark Ages were an enormous setback for European civilization. Today most of the world believes that Christianity shares a great deal of the blame for causing this disaster, even going so far as to compare it unfavorably in a revisionist version of history which depicts Islam as the savior of ancient western knowledge.
This revisionist version of history is far from the truth, if you doubt it I challenge you to read “Mohammed and Charlemagne.”