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.

Summary of Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne, Chapter I

A few days ago, I heard about Henri Pirenne’s book Mohammed and Charlemagne, which I will summarize below, as I’m reading the book so you don’t have to. Over the past week, I have become quite interested in how the barbarian invasions and the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate affected Western Europe. Bryan Ward-Perkins [excellent quality pirate version of his medium-quality book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization here] considers the barbarian invasions to have severely degraded economic and cultural activity in the Roman cultural sphere in Western Europe (though less than in Britain) and does not mention the conquests of the Caliphs as having any impact on Western Europe at all. Over the next few days, I will attempt to coherently sum up the evidence relating to the transformation of the Roman Empire from a unified Mediterranean-wide naval power to the small monarchy we find in the early 9th century AD and the economic processes that relate to this political decline.

Chapter I of Mohammed and Charlemagne:

*By the mid-5th century AD, the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist as a serious political entity and its entirety had been split up among the barbarian kingdoms and their puppets.

*By 500 AD, the barbarians in the present-day Roman cultural sphere in Western Europe ruled in the name of the Roman Empire. They did not seek to conquer its entirety or replace it with their own culture or empire. No barbarian claimed to be Emperor from the Fall of Rome to the rise of Charlemagne.

*The barbarians were not contemptuous of Rome, nor did they think themselves superior to the Romans. The Roman cultural sphere only retrenched along the Rhine and some of northern Gaul. While there was some barbarian looting, the barbarians only wanted to enjoy the benefits of Roman rule.

*The barbarians had little to no long-term influence on the culture and language of the Roman cultural sphere.

*Barbarian law in the Roman cultural sphere eventually became assimilated into Roman law. Arianism disappeared by 600 AD.

*The barbarians were at least as corrupt and amoral as the Romans.

* Though there was clear intellectual and artistic decline in the barbarian-controlled Roman cultural sphere, the Roman cultural sphere survived due to lack of superior alternatives and the power of the Latin church.

* The Ostrogoth administration attempted to preserve Roman culture. The Vandals lived as an extractive elite that expropriated the population and persecuted Catholics, but even the Vandal kingdom quickly abandoned Germanic culture and adopted the manners and customs of the old Roman administration. The Burgrundians were almost completely Romanized soon after their invasions.

[comment by me: The nature of the economic situation in Tunisia and southern Gaul between the 2nd and 9th centuries AD must be settled through archaeology.]

* The barbarians were not at all culturally innovative.

* The Frank kingdom preserved less of Roman administration than the other barbarian kingdoms, but introduced no new Germanic cultural features. The Frank population merged easily with the Gallo-Roman, and the Gallo-Romans quickly became a part of the Frankish ruling class.

* The tax system under the barbarians drew in massive amounts of revenue.

* Under the barbarians, bishops played no part in the government and the king was the state, with the church being subservient to him. The church played no formal part in confirming the king. This is a contrast with the later strength of the church’s influence on the state in Western Europe.

* Under the barbarians, the church remained socially prestigious and a massive recipient of government subsidies.

* All the barbarian kingdoms, with the sole exception of that of the Vandals, recognized the legitimacy of the current eastern Emperor. The Vandals struck coins in the name of the Emperor Honorius, thus recognizing the legitimacy of past Roman emperors.

* Justinian’s conquest of North Africa was quick and complete; the conquest of Italy was hindered by Ostrogoth resistance after an initial quick surrender of the Ostrogothic kingdom, but by 554, after much spilled blood, the conquest of Italy was complete. The Ostrogoths and Franks never allied.

* The Visigoth kingdom continued to recognize Justinian as legitimate even after his armies took the entirety of the kingdom’s coastline.

* Justinian’s Spanish and North Italian conquests were very short-lived.

* The Lombards were the first barbarians to enter Italy to rule like barbarians.

* In the second half of the 6th century AD, the Pope was still subservient to the Emperor.

* Were not for the Empire’s break with the Frankish kingdom in the sixth century AD, the Lombard kingdom would have been destroyed.

* By 600 AD, the Lombards had begun a process of Romanization, the cultural influence of the East was continuing its expansion, and the Empire was still the most powerful political entity in the Mediterranean.