Mohammed and Charlemagne

Mohammed and Charlemagne

In 1935, Henri Pirenne, the doyen of Belgian historians, died full of years, leaving behind the manuscript of what was to be his most important work entitled Mohammed and Charlemagne. The book was published after his death, and in 1954 it was published in English, and became the basis for much discussion about the transition from the late Roman world to the new world of Charlemagne.

In it, Pirenne argues that in the West the Germanic invaders largely retained the structures of the Roman Empire.  They admired the luxury and sophistication of the people they were conquering, but simply wanted the riches for themselves.  Trade in the Mediterranean largely continued.  The big change came with the Muslim conquests which totally destroyed the Mediterranean trade routes, so that the luxuries that supported Roman civilisation could not be imported.  There was therefore a hiatus, and thus when Charlemagne had himself crowned as Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day AD 800, he marked a new beginning that was to form the basis for medieval and indeed modern Europe. He wrote:

“It is therefore strictly correct to say that without Mohammed, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. In the seventh century the ancient Roman Empire had actually become an Empire of the East; the Empire of Charles was an Empire of the West… The Carolingian Empire or rather the Empire of Charlemagne, was the scaffolding of the Middle Ages”.

His thesis was fascinating because it was to a considerable extent economic history – it might even be described as archaeological.  His most famous example of the break in trade was the evidence for the abandonment of papyrus in favour of parchment as a writing material. Papyrus was mass produced in Egypt and was cheap and effective.  However in the sixth century the trade routes were cut off and papyrus had to be replaced by parchment, which being prepared from the skins of animals is very expensive: thus the disappearance of papyrus and its replacement by parchment as a writing material marks the catastrophic breakdown of the trade routes.

His use of this sort of evidence was a breakthrough for economic historians, and he deserves in many ways to be considered as one of the predecessors of the ‘new’ archaeologists of the 1970s.  But this also has its dangers because since he wrote, archaeology has come of age and evidence in increasing amounts has become available, and archaeologists and economic historians have been vying with each other to make use of this evidence to correct and amend the Pirenne thesis.

A major criticism put forward by Chris Wickham in his history of The Inheritance of Rome is that Pirenne lays far too much stress on long-distance trade: most of his argument concerns luxuries which are marginal to the economic system. There is dispute too over the extent of the decline in the fifth and sixth century. Certainly literary evidence from the monasteries continues, but archaeology shows a rapid decline of town life and the disappearance of villas in this period.  The disappearance of, or rather the decline of trade is also contentious, as much as the decline appears to have taken place before the Islamic conquests.

Dark Age Naxos 2013 886

Naxos in the 7rh and 8th centuries, showing how settlement had become concentrated in the hilly interior, far from the coasts which were threatened by pirates.

Nevertheless the decline took place; the best evidence I have discovered comes from the Island of Naxos in the middle of the Aegean.  In classical times, as indeed in modern times the population is spread around the coasts rather than in the mountainous interior.  However by the eighth century, all the maritime settlements are abandoned and the early Byzantine material is only found in the interior: piracy was clearly endemic. It was best not to risk settling on the coast.

In northern Europe by the sixth century, Roman town life had come to an end and a new set of towns had arisen, known to archaeologists as emporia.  The best known of these is Dorestad at the mouth of the Rhine, where Dutch archaeologists have carried out extensive excavations revealing a thriving trading town, active in the sixth to seventh centuries.  There are others such as Quentovic in northern France, Ribe in Denmark, Hamwih near Southampton, and the town of Lundenwic established three miles to the west of Roman London, in the area now occupied by Covent Garden and long known as the Aldwich, or the old wick.  It was abandoned when on Christmas Day in 886, Alfred the Great established London within the safety of the old Roman walls.  These wic towns mark a hitherto unknown intermediate stage in the development of Dark Age Europe, but all seemed to go in decline by around 800.


Charlemagne and Pippin the Hunchback: 10th century copy of a lost original, which was made back between 829 and 836 in Fulda for Eberhard von Friaul. (Wikipedia)

The position of Charlemagne too has long been slightly mysterious.  He was a charismatic figure who tried to establish an early renaissance: he reformed the coinage, introducing the divisions into pounds, shillings and pence.  He introduced learning, revived architecture – the classic example being the plan of an ideal monastery preserved in the library of the Monastery of St Gall in Switzerland.  And in a magnificent piece of theatre, he went to Rome where he had himself crowned as Holy Roman Emperor in a spectacular Roman ceremony performed by the Pope on Christmas Day AD 800 – the Holy Roman Empire survived at least in form down to the nineteenth century.  But the Carolingian experiment seemed to peter out under the attacks of the Vikings.  Charlemagne perhaps put too much emphasis on the church and the monasteries to provide the backbone of administration, and monasteries are not really designed to be the backbone of civil administration. The qualities of a good monk are very different from the qualities of a good administrator.

Charlemagne’s renaissance therefore remains somewhat a flash in the pan and the new towns of the Carolingian world – Aachen, Paderborn and Hildesheim were not destined to become the centres of Medieval Europe.  And Europe remained backward compared with what was happening in the East.  In the Muslim world, Charlemagne’s great contemporary was Harun al Rashid, the caliph of Bagdad, the greatest town in the Muslim world with over a million inhabitants, at a time when the greatest town in the western world, Rome, had barely ten thousand inhabitants.  But Harun al Rashid recognised Charlemagne and in the grand traditions of gift exchange decided to send him two gifts, an elephant and a clock.  The elephant was transported by ship to Pisa where he was disembarked.  Archaeologists have not yet discovered a ship big enough to carry an elephant and wonder where the quay was where an elephant could be disembarked.  Nevertheless the elephant then plodded his way across the Alps and arrived at Charlemagne’s court where he was much admired.  He then accompanied Charlemagne on a military expedition to Germany, and finally died on the Luneburg Heath.  The clock was even more of a marvel for it chimed and exhibited mechanical prowess far beyond anything that could be achieved in the west.

But even Bagdad was not the greatest town in the world at that time.  China had recovered strongly from the chaos that followed the decline of the Han dynasty in AD 200 and by AD 800 the Tang dynasty with its capital at Xian was at its height.  The wealth of these two great states was well displayed by a shipwreck recently discovered off the Island of Belitun in Indonesia.  This was of an Arabian dhow returning from China presumably for the Muslim world, though somewhat off course in Indonesia.  She was laden with gold and silver and lead ingots, and over 60,000 porcelain vessels of the highest quality.  The quality of the porcelain was something that would not be attained in the west for another millennium, while the sheer numbers attest to the factory-scale production that prevailed in Tang China.  Compared to all this, western Europe was a backwater that we study intensely, for it is our own backwater, and we want to see how it was that it formed the basis for our later development. But it would not be for another thousand years that Europe finally emerged from the Dark Ages, and would be able to achieve the extent of civilisation that had already been achieved by Greece and Rome.


And here we come to the end of my story, with the final collapse of the Roman empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

All that is now left is to invite you to read my Conclusions



24th May 2014