Review of Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne

I began summarizing this book more than half a decade ago, but, due to laziness, never finished. In a burst of interest in Late Antique history, I finally read the book over a couple days yesterday. It’s very good, if somewhat exaggerated in parts of its thesis.

This is a book about Gaul in general and southern Gaul in particular from the late fifth century to the mid-ninth. Other barbarian kingdoms do make their appearance, but only tangentially, if at all, as they had a tendency to not survive for very long, either being conquered by other barbarians (Sueves, Burgundians), conquered by Byzantines (Vandals, Ostrogoths), or conquered by Arabs (Visigoths). The most discussed, thus, of the non-Frankish barbarian kingdoms by Pirenne are the Lombards, as they are the only barbarian kingdom to survive past the Umayyads, followed closely by the Visigoths, the longest lasting of the non-Frankish barbarian kingdoms. Pirenne, though certainly a very good historian by any measure, doesn’t care about the Arabs, nor does he particularly want to. His Arabic focus, so far as it exists, is exclusively on how the Arab conquests transformed Core European civilization. The book has three major points. The first is to demonstrate the Romanizing, non-Medieval nature of the barbarian kingdoms as of c. 500 from the fiscal, social, and commercial perspectives, and their complete lack of cultural influence by Germania. This portion of the book is almost entirely correct, marred only by the failure to sufficiently note the degradation of the Late Antique economy and society in both the barbarian kingdoms (e.g., Arles was abandoned c. 550) and the lands reconquered under Justinian over course of the sixth century (rural Tunisia and Italy show substantial declines) and by an exaggeration of sixth century continuities. If anything, Pirenne would be surprised to what great extent the Franks adopted Roman civilization and the continuity of north Gaulish exchange networks following the Frankish conquest; it is today known that the population of Flanders almost entirely arrived there from the North after c. 390 and that Late Roman pottery exchange networks persisted in northern Gaul well into the sixth century (see Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages). The second point is a theory of the end of the Late Antique economy, state, and society in the West. Pirenne attributes this degradation to, firstly, the Arab conquests reducing international trade and commercial tax revenue and, secondly, the degeneracy of the Frankish monarchy between c. 550 and c. 650 giving an opening to the growing power and militarization of the landed aristocracy. The third point is to describe Carolingian civilization. Pirenne takes a highly exaggerated, almost comically dim view of it. In Pirenne’s view, the economy of Gaul in general, and Southern Gaul in particular, declined between c. 550 and c. 750 (this is almost certainly wrong), international trade, interregional trade, education, and Roman civilization in general becoming tightly restricted over those years. Instead of a Mediterranean-focused, secular, popular education system of the time of Isidore of Seville, clerical High Latin based on the works of Germanic scholars had become dominant in the extremely elite-focused education system of the time of Charlemagne, as foreign to Gaul as to Anglia. The emphasis on Latin poetry under the Merovingians shifted to one on Germanic songs under the Carolingians. This description of Gallic cultural change may well be correct, but the excessively dim view of the economy, which Pirenne frequently contrasts with the eighth century Romano-Greek sphere (which, if we recall, was far more damaged by the Arab conquests than the Gallo-Frankish, even if it started from a higher level), cannot be right. Dorestad and Quentovic, which Pirenne minimizes as short-lasting, unrepresentative, and regionally limited, had a much more widespread trade than any part of the Mediterranean (including even Umayyad Palestine) after c. 720 (when it continued to greatly expand until the Viking raids, see on this, Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 680-690). As Wickham states, on the basis of archaeological evidence,

in northern Gaul the period 450–600 can probably be seen as a general nadir for urbanism, the seventh century and especially the eighth as a period of revival; this trajectory certainly distinguishes the north of Gaul from the south.

(Framing the Middle Ages, p. 677)

The appearance of new towns in sixth- and seventh-century northern Gaul, together with the striking commercial wealth of Cologne, are among the first signs that the old northern frontier of the empire was turning into a political heartland, that of the Merovingian Franks

(Framing the Early Middle Ages p. 681)

Given the grave error of Pirenne’s ironclad connection of cities with international trade, it is clear he cannot be right on Gaul as a whole experiencing urban decline from c. 550 to c. 750, though he is quite correct that northern Gaul experienced more positive changes than southern Gaul at this time. If anything, the growing power of the aristocracy from c. 550 to c. 850 was the result, not of the degradation of commerce, but the recovery of landed aristocratic wealth combined with the aristocracy having been militarized during the course of the sixth century. Pirenne’s description of the Late Antique/Early Medieval monetary system is also limited. He unnecessarily neglects the localization and debasement of Western gold coinage during the late sixth/early seventh centuries and his view of the Carolingian silver standard is dim beyond any plausible reason.

Despite its very brief length by modern standards, the book is breathtaking in scope. It is a must-read for anyone studying the period, both for its largely solid content and for its massive future influence. If anything, Pirenne offers a much more coherent picture of Late Antiquity than most of its exponents offer today; he views the growing orientalization of Roman culture as a product of Persian influence and as essential in explaining the cultural shifts of Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean. Pirenne is surely entirely correct on the disastrous impact of the Arab conquest on the Mediterranean trade and the Byzantine Empire. If fact, he understates his case for the East; the Arab conquest of Egypt and Syria was much more economically devastating for the Byzantine Empire than for the Visigothic, Frankish, Lombard, and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Even for Italy, it caused a collapse in fineware production (see Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 732) and caused extensive economic disasters in Carthage (Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 641). Pirenne’s description of the extreme Arab-caused eighth century nadir in Mediterranean trade and travel as the time Medieval European (Latin in particular, but the case, which the author doesn’t make, could also be made for Greek) civilization was born is fascinating. Perhaps, however, Pirenne’s greatest sin is overstating the effect of the Mediterranean trade on the Gallic economy, which was already quite self-sufficient as early as the third century (see Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 800-801). Of course, even small degrees of economic contact can and do coincide with major cultural effects. But that is no reason to exaggerate the Mediterranean trade’s purely economic importance for the West.

The book does demonstrate powerfully that the Arab conquest of the country from Spain to Syria prematurely forced trends which would increasingly become visible over the course of the period c. 1200-1850. The break of Core European civilization with that of Greece and Egypt was inevitable. But it need not have come so soon.

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

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