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Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of…
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Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe

by Richard Hodges

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Here is a fascinating little book that considers the link between archaeology and historiography (all good History is also historiography) and offers some thoughtful reflection on the imagined boundary between Antiquity and the Middle Ages in Europe.

Henri Pirenne—in a series of books and monographs written in the 1920s—suggested that the arrival of the Arabs in the Mediterranean region during the century after Mohammed’s death was responsible for ending Roman hegemony in the West and creating the conditions for the rise of Charlemagne’s empire, which in turn established the economic and cultural patterns that shaped the Middle Ages. Pirenne’s innovation was twofold: first, in considering the interactions between the ancient and medieval worlds, thereby challenging the 19th c. notion of a clear break coinciding with the Fall of Rome; second, in broadening the scope of enquiry to include southern Europe, North Africa, northern Europe and Scandinavia, Byzantium, Muslim Spain and west Asia. Hodges and Whitehouse here undertake a reevaluation of the Pirenne thesis and test hypotheses advanced by some of Pirenne’s critics.

One implication of Pirenne’s thesis was that Muslim armies emerging from the Arabian Peninsula bore greater responsibility for the fall of the western Roman Empire than did the Germanic tribes. Hodges and Whitehouse take as indicators of Roman vitality the scope of commercial activity and demographics, and the evidence from these measures is mixed. The archaeological evidence indicates no traumatic disruption of Mediterranean commerce coinciding with the arrival of barbarian tribes during the 4th & 5th centuries, but a marked decline a century or so later. Excavations among towns in the Roman countryside indicate dramatic population decline during the 4th & 5th centuries, which the authors (and others) regard as the consequence of almost continuous warfare, declining agricultural production, social unrest, mass movements, and perhaps plague. According to Hodges and Whitehouse, then, the Decline of Rome (by a combination of internal and external factors) began before the arrival of Arabs in the Mediterranean region, undermining a key contention of the Pirenne thesis. The authors conclude that Islamic expansion was a symptom of the deep-rooted social and economic decline of the Roman World, not a cause.

And what of Pirenne’s suggestion of a link between Islam and the rise of Charlemagne? Numismatic evidence from Scandinavia and Russia indicates the existence of extensive trade networks linking east and west during the ninth century, with the Norsemen as intermediaries. According to Hodges and Whitehouse, North Sea trade organized by the Vikings gave Charlemagne access to Abbasid silver which, in conjunction with Frankish trade with Anglo-Saxon England and along the Rhine, was essential for the consolidation of Charlemagne’s empire. Without substantiating Pirenne’s contention that an ‘Arab blockade’ of the Mediterranean isolated the Carolingians, the archaeological evidence does suggest that commercial exchange between the Franks and the Abassids was crucial for the extension of Charlemagne’s realm.

Can we say, with Pirenne, that Mohammed made possible Charlemagne? Perhaps. We do know that, a generation after his death, Charlemagne’s empire dissolved into a patchwork of duchies and kingdoms that were to form the scaffolding of the Middle Ages. And, as Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe makes clear, the real worth of Pirenne’s thesis was not in conjuring a new set of explanations for the Fall of Rome, but in shifting the boundary between the Classical and Medieval worlds from the Fall of Rome to the Carolingian moment.
6 vote HectorSwell | Mar 29, 2011 |
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