Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited (75 Books – XLVIII)

When reviewing Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets, I mentioned that although it’s a good book and well worth reading, Jones did not go into a lot of detail, but focused on the big picture and a handful of people and dramatic events. Those who enjoy getting into the nitty-gritty of archaeology, academic studies, and the like, though, will appreciate this book on medieval history, Emmet Scott’s Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited.

Scott examines the question of what, exactly, terminated Classical, Roman civilisation. Though the fall of the Western Roman Empire is typically dated at 474, it’s not clear when Classical civilisation gave way to what we would recognise as Medieval Europe. The standard view has been that it was a slow decline into the Dark Ages brought about by the Barbarian invasions in the centuries leading up to 474 or so, but Scott defends and updates a theory put forward by Henri Pirenne in his 1937 book Mohammed & Charlemagne, that Classical Civilisation continued until it was quickly destroyed by the Moslem conquests in the early-mid Seventh Century.

Scott spends much of the book examining archaeological evidence that indicates that recognisably Roman architecture and lifestyles continued throughout most of what had been Roman lands up to the Moslem invasions of the Near East, North Africa, and Spain. Rather than destroying Latin culture, the Germanic barbarian invaders had apparently been largely absorbed into it. This is why, for example, Spanish, French, and other Romance languages have little trace of Germanic syntax, whereas English, from one of the few places where Classical civilisation was undone by invading barbarians, is a Germanic language.

Now, the Arabs are often credited with preserving much of Greek philosophy and learning, but Scott demonstrates that men in the so-called “Dark Ages” actually were familiar with the Classics. They were only lost in Europe after the Arab conquest of Egypt, which was the major source of papyrus that Western scribes used, and Arab piracy and slave-raiding made much of the Mediterranean effectively uninhabitable and inhospitable to trade. Scott writes, “even the short periods of official peace [from Arab wars of conquest] were disturbed by the ‘unofficial’ activities of privateers and slave-traders. For centuries, Muslim pirates based in North Africa made large parts of the Mediterranean shore-line uninhabitable, and it is estimated that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries alone they captured and enslaved something in excess of a million Europeans.”

As for the fate of the Classics in Moslem lands, Scott is not impressed by their supposed respect for learning. He points out that many of the scholars active in Moslem countries were not themselves Moslem, but Christians and Jews living under Moslem rule. Furthermore, while they did preserve and foster a good deal of science, they were only interested in fields with practical applications, like medicine or physics. Scott is very harsh in his judgement, writing, “the very fact that knowledge has to plead its usefulness in order to be permitted to survive at all speaks volumes in itself. Is not this an infallible mark of barbarism? And we should note that even the utilitarian learning which the earliest Caliphs fostered was soon to be snuffed out under the weight of an Islamic theocracy (promulgated by Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century) which regarded the very concept of scientific laws as an affront to Allah and an infringement of his freedom to act.”

Scott does a fine job presenting all of his evidence in an approachable manner, without ever dumbing-down or oversimplifying things for a popular audience. If you’ve any interest at all in this period of history, I’d highly recommend checking it out.

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