How Muhammad created Europe

Historians are still arguing about why and how (and even when) the Roman Empire fell — and by extension why, how and when the “Middle Ages” and “Europe” (ie, northwestern Europe as we understand it) began.

One theory is that the answer is to be found, somewhat surprisingly, not in northwestern Europe but on the opposite side of the former Roman Empire. This story-line involves Muhammad, Islam and the Arab conquests in the century after Muhammad’s death in 632. The stages of those conquests you see in the map above.

In this post, I want to introduce that thesis to you and the one it tried to replace.

I do this not in order to endorse either thesis, but in order to celebrate the elegant and imaginative beauty of the thought processes of the two historians who produced them.

These two thinkers are

  • Edward Gibbon and
  • Henri Pirenne,

and I am hereby including them into my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers.

(Which reminds me: Scientists and philosophers are currently over-represented on my list, so I am also retroactively including the historians Herodotus, Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. Thucydides is already on the list.)

And at the end of the post, I’ll ponder what this eternal debate about Rome tells us about intellectual theorizing in general.

My source, besides the books of Gibbon and Pirenne, is Philip Daileader’s excellent lecture series on the Early Middle Ages.

I) Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon

Gibbon was a typical specimen of the Enlightenment. He hung out with Voltaire, considered religion (and especially Christianity) a load of superstitious poppycock, trusted in human reason and was enamored by the classics.

Being a man of independent means, he was able to devote all his time and energies to investigating what he considered the great mystery of antiquity. Why did the Roman Empire fall?

The result was an epic work of beautifully written English prose called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The first of its six volumes came out in the year of America’s Declaration of Independence.

The book was so powerful that its thesis turned into what we would call a meme. Ask any semi-literate person today why the Roman Empire fell and he is likely to answer something like this:

Barbarians invaded → Rome fell

Gibbon’s thesis in more detail


In brief, Gibbon believed that the Roman Empire was

  1. in part a victim of its own success, having prospered so much that its citizens had become soft, and
  2. in part a victim of Christianization, which replaced the pagan warrior ethic with an unbecoming concern for the hereafter.

As Gibbon famously said, Rome’s

last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister.

This corrosion of morals or values, according to Gibbon, left the Western Roman Empire (Diocletian had divided it into two halves, east and west, for administrative purposes) vulnerable to the blonde hordes from the north.

And thus, federations of Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine and Danube and ransacked the Roman Empire, eventually sacking Rome itself and deposing the last (Western) Roman emperor in 476.

The Ostrogoths and Lombards took Italy, the Visigoths took Spain and the Franks took Gaul (→ Francia, France).

Within a few generations, one Frankish family, the Carolingians, seized power. Under Charlemagne (= Carolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse, Charles the Great), the Carolingians then united much of western Europe, an area that happens to overlap almost perfectly with the founding members of the European Union.

In the nice round year of 800, Charlemagne, the king of Francia, became a new Emperor. He sparked a small cultural and economic recovery (the “Carolingian Renaissance”), but his descendants bickered about inheritance, and the Carolingian empire split into what would become France, the Low Countries and Germany.

And there we have it: “Europe”.

II) Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne

Like Gibbon, Henri Pirenne was a man of his time. But that time was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Historians now felt that “moral” explanations of history were a bit woolly and preferred to think in terms of impersonal, and primarily economic, forces rather than great individuals or events.

And this led Pirenne, a Belgian (and thus a Carolingian heir), to a very different, and extremely original, thesis. The title of his monumental book, Mohammed and Charlemagne, essentially says it all.

The Pirenne thesis begins with a view that, first of all, nothing noteworthy “fell” in 476. Who cares if an emperor named, ironically and aptly, “little Augustus” (Romulus Augustulus) was deposed in that year? Roman civilization went on exactly as before. To most Europeans, nothing whatsoever changed.

That civilization was

  1. urban
  2. Mediterranean and
  3. Latin in the West

The Germanic tribes in fact came not to destroy but to join this civilization. They had entered the Roman Empire long before 476 to live there in peace, but were forced repeatedly to move and fight. When they eventually deposed the Romans, the Barbarians settled in the Roman cities and gradually adopted Latin (which was by this time, and partially as a result, branching into dialects that would become Catalan, Spanish, French etc).

Most importantly, the Mediterranean (medius = middle, terra = land) remained the center of this world, and trade across its waters enriched and fed all shores, north and south, east and west.

So what changed?

What changed was that Muhammad founded Islam, united the Arabs and then died. Suddenly, the Arabs poured out of the desert and conquered everything they encountered.

Look again at the map at the very top. In effect, the Arabs conquered the entire southern arc of the former Roman Empire until Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) stopped them near Poitiers in France.

The Arabs thus split the Mediterranean in two. Suddenly, the “Mediterranean” was no longer the center of the world, but a dividing line between two worlds.

Ingeniously, Pirenne then inferred the rest of his thesis from archaeological finds: In the years after the Arab conquests, papyrus (from Egypt) disappeared from northwestern Europe, forcing the northerners to write on animal hides. Locally minted coins disappeared, too. Gone, in fact, was everything that was traded as opposed to produced locally.

The Arabs, Pirenne concluded, had blockaded and cut off northern Europe from the rest of the world. Europe thus became a poor, benighted and involuntarily autarkic  backwater.

This, finally, amounts to the “fall” of Roman civilization in northwestern Europe. Roman cities, administration and customs disintegrated. Europe becomes a small and isolated corner of the world.

It is within this then-forgettable corner that the Carolingians rise and create “Europe”. As Pirenne famously said:

Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.

III) So who was right?

I promised to ponder what this debate might say about intellectual theorizing in general. Well, here goes:

1) Nobody needs to be wrong

As it happens, neither Gibbon nor Pirenne have ever fallen out of favor. Both are still considered to have got much of their interpretation right. The caveat is merely that their theses are considered … incomplete.

We encountered such a situation when talking about Newton and Einstein. Einstein in effect proved Newton “wrong”, and yet we have never discarded Newton, just as we won’t discard Einstein when somebody shows his thinking to have been incomplete.

2) Progress = making something less incomplete

Although both Gibbon’s and Pirenne’s theses were incomplete, they add up to an understanding that is less incomplete, so that others can make it even less incomplete.

This, in fact, is what has been happening. Subsequent historians have wondered why, if their theories were true in the West, the Eastern Roman (ie, Byzantine) Empire did not fall for another millennium.

Regarding Gibbon: The East, too, faced Barbarian invasions (from the same tribes). And the East was even more Christian than the West. So something must be missing in Gibbon’s explanation.

Regarding Pirenne: The East, too, was cut off from the south by the Arab conquests (though perhaps not as much).

IV) One possible omission: depopulation

So, even though both Gibbon and Pirenne, may well have been right, that there had to be at least one more factor: disease.

Perhaps it was smallpox arriving from China, and later plague. Perhaps it was something else. (The theory of massive lead poisoning is now discredited. Again: They had lead pipes in the East and the West.)

Whatever the disease(s), the population of the Roman Empire collapsed. And the West, which had fewer people than the East to begin with, became largely empty.

Its cities were deserted. Rome’s population was 1 million during the reign of Augustus but 20,000 by the time of Charlemagne. People used the Roman baths of northern cities as caves. New city walls were built with smaller circumferences than older city walls.

Fields and land lay fallow, too. We know this because taxes were levied on land (not labor), and tax revenues fell due to agri deserti, “abandoned fields”.

Viewed this way, both the Germanic invasions that Gibbon focussed on and the Arab invasions that Pirenne focussed on were perhaps not a cause but a symptom of the fall of Rome. It seems likely that the Germans and Arabs showed up because there were few people blocking their way, and conquered for that same reason.

If we ever find out the complete answer, it will be because Gibbon and Pirenne pointed us in the right direction.

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40 thoughts on “How Muhammad created Europe

  1. About 20 years ago—in the early stages of my short-lived acting career—I did a play called Der Untergang des Römischen Reiches (The Collapse of the Roman Empire). While I remember all sorts of petty details about the production, I forget the thesis of the play itself, so I don’t recall why the Roman Empire collapsed according to the playwright. I believe it had something to do with bureaucracy.

    (Americans always say forget when they mean forgot, and I increasingly find myself adopting this solecism in tense.)

    • I played a foot soldier named Septimus. To prove it, I posted a pic here. I’m the tall one second from left. The other guy is Erwin Leder, better known as the Obermaschinist in Das Boot. His specialty, though, was to do Karl Valentin impressions, so there’s a Bavarian connection to all this. (Not sure about the rather un-Roman-looking microphone in front.)

      The gist of the play, as I recall, was that bureaucracy would bring down Austria just as it had driven the Roman Empire into the ground. According to Ronald below, Ugo Bardi’s essay also deals with bureaucracy’s role in the empire’s demise. So perhaps that’s another piece in the multifactorial puzzle.

    • Those are four mighty fine-looking Romans. Good thing there was no updraft, or you in your tunic might have made for a Marilyn-Monroe-style pic.

      Impressed that you acted with Leder.

    • I’m sure he hears the same in reverse all the time.

      Since you’re out on the Coast, please remind me to submit that pic to the casting director should you hear credible rumors about a gay remake of The Seven-Year Itch. Otherwise, I’ll just produce and direct it myself. After all, I’m no less Austrian than the guy who helmed the original.

      Speaking of Austria, I just returned from a brief trip over there. You know what my mom was doing several hours each day? Walking around in the garden with a bucket collecting snails. Literally. Due to prolonged precipitation, Niederösterreich is currently plagued by a snail infestation of Biblical proportions. Of course, I immediately told her the snail joke you had shared with me the other day. (For those who just tuned in, said joke is posted here. Don’t speak German? Tough.)

      Back to the topic at hand. What if snails had a hand in bringing down the Roman Empire? Image a similar snail infestation in and around Rome, and the Romans, in their little sandals, slipping like crazy on the lubricious mollusks and falling all over each other while attempting to go to battle against the invading Visigoths, who may have worn snail-proof cleats and hence held the advantage of firmer purchase on the ground, thus beating the tumbling Romans to a pulp.

      Just a theory.

    • The first reader of the Snail Theory approves it with virtually no reservations. I especially like your use of the term “lubricious” to describe them because based on my experience (we have more than our share down here) they seem to constantly exhibit both definitions of that word. Get me the salt shaker!

      Anyway, I know it’s uncool to reference your own posts in a comment, but the other reason I like the snail theory is because I’ve wondered the same thing. This is my very first WP post:

  2. You have a mastery of this, evident in your ease of expression. Thank you for sharing it.

    Do you have a perspective on the Islamic contribution to the Renaissance and Western civilisation in general?

    • No perspective that has any credibility, but a general sense that the contribution of Islam was HUGE.

      For many centuries, “they” were the civilized (technologically and culturally) ones and “we” were among the most backward people in the world and in history.

      I’ll just give you one contribution of a huge list: The number 0 (zero). Where would we be without the concept of zero? And we got it from the Arabs.

    • I thought zero came from India; the concept, not the place holder. I can bring this up knowing pedantry is tolerated here in other matters about which I have no clue. Back me up Richard.

    • Let’s split the diff, Mr C:

      Wikipedia (which, as we all know, is infallible though changing by the minute) tells us:

      “The Hindu-Arabic numerals and the positional number system were introduced around 500 AD, and it was introduced by a Persian scientist, Al-Khwarizmi.[6] Al-Khwarizmi’s book on arithmetic. This book synthesized Greek and Hindu knowledge and also contained his own fundamental contribution to mathematics and science including an explanation of the use of zero.
      It was only centuries later, in the 12th century, that the Arabic numeral system was introduced to the Western world through Latin translations of his Arithmetic.”

      So WE (Westerners) got it from the Arabs, but the Arabs got it from the Indians.

  3. Very interesting. I’m sure the fall was much more of a whimper than a bang.

    You’ve pointed out some things I was never aware of and I wonder how the so-called “Dark Ages” relate to this. My history lessons said that Rome fell, boom, and the Dark Ages descended. Is it a question of who was writing the history of the time, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, or was there a massive economic depression in Europe (aided and abetted by the Church) in the post Carolingian period?

    • The current thinking, as best I can divine it, is that the depression and depopulation started in the late (Western) Roman Empire and bottomed out in the seventh century. By the time, the Carolingians took over, Europe had actually started a recovery in population and economy of sorts (from a low base).

      That said, I do think the Dark Ages were pretty dang dark. It’s fashionable nowadays not to use “judgmental” terms like “dark”, but I don’t like fashions. Perhaps I’ll do a post on how dark the darkness was.

  4. “People used the Roman baths in northern cities as caves.”

    How did they use them as caves? For what purpose?

    This is a funny representation of the poor hygiene that we all read about the Dark Ages in jr. high. Actually, I think my teenage son would do the same.

    • You should imagine abandoned Roman towns with empty gymnasia and baths (the cultural hot spots of those towns in Roman times).

      Whoever found those baths did not fill them with water (perhaps did not even understand that that had been their purpose) but lived in the hollows, building some sort of roof over them.

      Your teenage son and I would have felt right at home, but you would have hated it.

  5. I love your history stories. Several random observations:

    1. I have never heard or used the splendid word autarkic. You used it in such a cool sentence. I am going to use it with my junior high grammar students this week.

    2. You raise observations that point East v West and North v South. Not an archetype but a motif through history and literature? (might be an interesting post)

    3. The underbelly of the Mediterranean was far more fertile (in a number of ways..population, for example) than the upper torso of Northern Europe. Weren’t the Muslims owners, if you will, of that underbelly?

    4. Thank-you for providing such lovely early morning reading. Much appreciated.

    • you leave me no choice. Replace “autarky” with “autonomous collective” starting at 1:20:

      And yes, the “underbelly” (Egypt and Northern Africa around Carthage) were the bread baskets of the Mediterranean.

  6. You may be interested in Ugo Bardi’s essay “Peak civilization – The Fall of the Roman Empire”, published on TOD Europe about a year ago, .
    According to him, it was the central bureaucracy’s increasing taxes on land over the centuries that pulled off depopulation which, eventually, became the Empire’s undoing – by a decreasing tax base.
    The main reason for these ever higher taxes – and debasing of the currency – was the obligation of the authorities to pay the legions, both mainstay and ever hungrier parasite of the Empire.

    The conseqences of depopulation in the final stages of the Empire have been beautifully described by Iain Pears in his novel “The Dream of Scipio”.
    Click on the image to read the backflap text.

    • Thanks for those great links, Ronald. I’ll definitely read Bardi’s essay.

      “The Dream of Scipio” intrigues me, since the title seems to refer to an imagine conversation between, my memory fails me, Scipio (Aemilianus, not Africanus) and Cicero.

  7. Hello again! What a fine piece on an enormous topic. It is so easy to get bogged down in the details of “The Fall of the Roman Empire” that one seldom sees the issue with the context you offer here.

    Whenever I think of this question about “the fall” the word “everything” comes to mind. A short list with some overlapping elements:

    lack of a system for the peaceful transition of power, military commanders seeking the imperial power, armies jockeying for power, increasing difficulty in getting people to serve in the army, not only high but oppressive taxes and a tax system with many loopholes and exemptions and one that disproportionally hurt farmers and the middle class, friction between the military and civilians, an expensive military, simply hiring Germans as individual soldiers gave way to hiring whole tribes, compulsory labor, military draft exemptions, an increasingly large, corrupt and inefficient civil service (bureaucracy). . . to name a few.

    And that leaves out bigger issues one could more easily debate, like the roles of religion, tensions with/mistrust of the Eastern Empire, incompetent leaders and good leaders who died before they could do enough good, fatal mistakes, the rise of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, Germanic migrations, the appearance of the Huns, and (later) contempt for the German peoples who were prevented from assimilation by many measures.

    But I was not familiar with Pirenne and hope to investigate his work soon. As Pirenne and you say, Rome didn’t simply go “poof!” in 476; the “federated” German tribes West outside the Italian peninsula, (Vandals, Visigoths, Burgundians, et cetera) had been existing and independent for some time. Also, Oadacer had effectively already controlled Italy proper, thus giving Romulus Augustulus the boot from Ravenna was and remains more symbolic than anything.

    Also, while it was not one event to suffer from, it was not one event to undo either. Justinian’s attempt at restoration was ultimately unsuccessful even though Belisarius reclaimed much of the Italian peninsula and John Troglita did the same in North Africa.

    So, all very bad indeed! But some of those problems look a little familiar, don’t they? We must ask ourselves, did they not see their problems? Did they ignore them? Were they paralyzed, perhaps by entropy or complexity?

    • Definitely paralyzed by entropy and complexity, but also by hubris I’m sure. We’re too big/powerful/smart to fail.

      I wonder if they has an analogous point at which their ideal shifted from the equivalent of Audrey Hepburn to the equivalent of Paris Hilton and if that could in any way be linked to decline and fall. Just thinking out loud here.

    • You’ve clearly been studying this in depth, Nick. Impressive.

      I think your point about entropy chimes well with the Tainter thesis.

      Thomas, if Hepburn>Hilton is a leading indicator, as you seem to suggest, then we’re clearly done for here in the US

    • Goodness, Tom, the very thought of a finite Hepburn/Hilton tipping point is terrifying.

      I wish I could claim to have actually finished Gibbon. I’ll get to those last volumes some day! The last new work I read was Peter Heather’s 2006 “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” which was very good. His thesis of collapse centers on Hun-and-Germanic-related issues, though not exclusively of military nature. He also criticizes/reevaluates many of the above points I mentioned, sometimes persuasively and sometimes not. Good scholarship overall, though.

      I went back to look at that famous conclusion to the fourth book of Gibbon and was reminded of, as you say, how beautiful the prose is. Likewise I took note of his love of Polybius. I followed Gibbon’s footnote to Polybius’ Histories VI and was surprised how similar their theses were: Gibbon’s statements of the sowing of tensions that destroyed the unity of the polis and the “liber et legalis homo” Polybius praised. Likewise for Gibbon’s descriptions of the Roman military and Polybius’ description of a Roman funeral.

      Interestingly, Polybius notes that while the religious customs may have been superstitious, they were useful to keep the majority (fools) tempered by pageantry, pomp, and “invisible terror.” (Thinking out loud: there’s a certain parallel here, Gibbon/Polybius and Livy/Machiavelli?)

      What an endlessly fascinating topic; the breadth of the topic of “the fall” both exhilarates and frustrates.

    • That embryonic theory by Polybius about religions is of course roughly how evolutionary biologists now understand religion: as a heritable proclivity that gives a group coherence and thus an adaptive edge over other groups, leading to the spreading of the trait. More or less.

  8. One thing to note: you did not draw a cartoon of Muhammad or make a joke. Humor, regarding Muhammad, is unacceptable. This, I do not understand.
    Perhaps we could channel George Burns or somebody who routinely makes jokes about g……..o……..d.

    That is one aspect of the Muslims I have never understood, but then, what do I know?

    Maybe one of your Muslim readers could lend insight into this. Why no humor regarding M……………..d?

    • Have you thereby volunteered to provide the humor about M………d?

      Nice knowing you.

      Seriously, your point is well-taken and deep: Anything and anyone who flees from humor cannot, ultimately, deserve seriousness.

  9. I’m vaguely aware that pictorial representations of Mohammed are forbidden under Islamic law because his glory cannot be captured by an ordinary mortal, no matter how good an artist. Any man who creates Md.’s image is presuming himself to be equal to the prophet , which counts as punishable arrogance.

    In fact, this was true not only for Md. but for everything else, because god created the natural world and you didn’t dare rival his handiwork with your own creativity. However, painting flourished under the Mughals (who were Muslim) in India around 16th c. A.D. so not everyone has stuck to the rules. The Mughal emperor Akbar even tried to create his own religion, which is probably a worse offence than doodling a bit in your spare time, but the almighty clearly let him off, because he was one of the most prosperous and successful Mughals of all time.

    As for why no non-pictorial Md.-based humour, I’ve never understood either.

    • Fun post–great read.

      Susan, thanks for that bit on Akbar. I remember learning back in history class that he was a ‘tolerant ruler,’ but i had no idea he actually tried to found his own syncretic religion: … a man ahead of his time. Or with a lot of time on his hands. Either way, pretty cool.

      As for the theme of ‘Md.-based humour’ … i’d venture to say (at risk of sounding severely unhip) … the off-limits factor is basically what defines ‘the sacred.’ I don’t mean just in a dogmatic or cosmological sense, but in a social one. There are certain things societies seem to need to keep completely unsullied by normal human affairs, and all our mundane weaknesses. In contemporary Western culture (a broad brush, i know), these might include things like human rights, freedom from slavery, the principle of mutual consent between adults, etc. …

      In Russia, for instance, you’ll notice that the jokes are much darker, going places that are just downright violent or racist to Western sensibilities…. Russian sacredness must just lie elsewhere (i’ll avoid the cheap shot and leave vodka out of the equation, here… i have Russian heritage so i figure i can get away with this.)

      In any case, don’t mean to weigh down the conversation–just made me ponder and so thought i’d add my two cents (Canadian).

      Great blog, Andreas.

    • Thanks, Susan and halewi.

      I dimly recall that “Mughal” comes etymologically from Mongol, ie from a blending of the conquering Mongol warrior horde with the local population and Islam. Perhaps this entailed a softening of the dogma?

      Certainly, Islam kept getting softer as it spread southeast, to indonesia.

      Halewi, good point about making us aware of the things we might (unwittingly) consider sacred. That said, we nowadays consider humor and satire, and the right thereunto, sacred itself.

  10. That is a good point, haelwi,I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

    Your point about humour and satire being sacred, Andreas, got me thinking about the right to free speech.Freedom of expression is sacred in democracies, so the right to poke fun at things must be defended. But by that logic, ‘hate speech’ must also be defended, even if it incites violence-after all, the mob could have chosen to ignore the provocation.

    I don’t know about other countries, but in India even a verbal ‘attack’ on a religion or race is punishable by law. The liberal in me is offended by this on principle, and also because this means books are banned, movies are censored, and a lot of time and public money is wasted in our courts by fanatical groups filing charges on grounds of their sensibilities being hurt.

    On the other hand, this law is also practical, because in a large, multicultural and mostly illiterate population, communal tensions can have horrific repercussions.

    To return to the original question-why are there no Md. jokes?- in India, at least, it’s because you might go to jail for it.

    • “…the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant.” Ridiculously Clever Vladimir Nabokov

      You might go to jail for telling a joke? Doesn’t that just add to the irresistibility? Hasn’t anybody else (unsuccessfully) tried to stifle a fit of giggles in class?

    • Thanks Susan for weighing in here.
      Your answer regarding India–that one might go to jail for joking about Muhammad–still doesn’t get to the heart of the question. Jail is the punishment but why?

      Still waiting for a Muslim reader to help me understand why joking about M in words, pictures—and hey, not just joking, but questioning–can lead to banishment and hit squads.

      For comedians, the word “sacred” just begs for a joke, right?

    • Oh gosh, Jenny. I see we are kindred spirits here. I hadn’t read your comment before I submitted mine. I was willing to “take it in the shorts” or be “banished to my room” just to see my mother’s Southern upset and dinner table ruckus when I said, “crap”, a no-no word in our home.

      Then all the younger siblings would start laughing, mother would get up from the table, daddy would start yelling and I would say, ” God. All I said was crap!” and the whole pot stirred up again in a whir.

      I would have been lost without God and crap.

  11. Love the Nabokov quote, Jenny. And the anecdote, Cheri.

    You’ve got me racking my brains again, Cheri. Perhaps it boils down to the fact that fundamentalists have no sense of humour. So the liberal Muslims the world over may want to crack jokes about Md, but they keep quiet, or at the very least they keep it among themselves and never make it public, because the fear of reprisal is too great. This is why you can go to jail for telling a joke in India-extremist groups can start rioting in protest and you’d be held responsible, or you’d be dragged into court under the law I mentioned above. It is also why Salman Rushdie had to go underground and travel with police protection for a long time after the Satanic Verses came out. Actually, if you’re starved of Md. jokes, you can buy a copy, if it’s still in print.

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