Norman Cantor is a well-known professor of history at New York University and an expert in the medieval epoch. His works are always detailed, well-sourced, and usually acclimatized to the liberal-left wing academic world. Thus much of his information runs along the mainstream of political-historical thought – which makes some of what he discusses either wrong, out of date; or illogical. This book, which is at times accessible, is a forest of information jammed into a small landmass, which can be a useful guide, on some select topics.
It is impossible to review such a work which covers 1000 years of history and would require a book just to go through the various themes and ideas enunciated by Cantor and either support or refute them. One chapter in particular however, is interesting and captures the essence of what Cantor is trying to tell the reader – that the medieval era was an epoch drenched in poverty, misery, superstition and untrammelled misery, especially when compared to the airy world of light, sophistication, wealth and advancement displayed by the Arab-Muslim world. The Roman world – an oppressive Oriental state in reality, based on slavery, exploitation, high taxes, and which did not create anything worthwhile in the last 300 years of its existence – is held aloft as cultured, high-brow, resplendent and civilized. Almost the opposite of reality. The Roman empire collapsed into 3 Germanic empires under which, wealth, transport, living standards, innovation and agricultural production rose dramatically.
Cantor's academic view is largely bunk and has been proven such by archaeology, Arab and Christian chronicles and the base fact that Europe by 900 AD was the wealthiest place on the planet able to expel Arabs [by 1250 AD the Moors were relegated to a tiny corner of Spain and expelled from Italy and France by the 11th century]; the Avars, the Mongols, and the Vikings. A weak, impoverished, superstitious and stupid society never would have accomplished this along with the hundreds of inventions which formed the basis of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the modern world. It defies common-sense to make such a claim.
In any event Cantor has a chapter called, 'Justinian and Mohammed'. Cantor like most if not all academics, is very sympathetic to Islam and Arab imperialism. He calumnies Christian Europe for its devotion to shrines, relics and false Gods; but is strangely indifferent to the moon cult of Mecca and the Muslim prostration to the male Meccan moon deity ali-ilah. Perhaps that is because Cantor does not know that much about Islamic ritualization, paganism, blood-lust and its cult of death and submission. Or it is because like most academics Cantor hates Christianity, and Western civilization. This would be rather strange for a professor of history paid by the Western taxpayer, but much of life is illogical.
Cantor maintains that, “The Byzantine and Moslem impact on western Europe was less important than was the Germanic influence.” [p. 123] This statement does not make much sense. All three forces were vital in the creation of modern Europe, along with Christianity, Roman and Greek legacies and a host of other factors. Put it differently. Would Europe have developed in the same way if Islam for example had never existed ? Of course not. Europe never would have developed the idea of Holy War – an entirely Muslim concept; never would have spent men and treasure on defending itself against Islam; would not have seen 5 million of its people [just in the West] enslaved; would not have witnessed the massive destruction of Spain over 5 centuries which only ended around 1250 AD with a decisive Christian victory; and it would not have seen the Mediterranean trade and political-economy so distorted, ravaged and interrupted which must have had a deleterious impact on all facets of European life. These are facts that Cantor simply ignores.
Byzantine's influence was also profound. Justinian was the 6th century Byzantine Emperor who tried to reunite the Eastern and former Western Rome empire. He succeeded but only pyrrhically. Justinian was an icon, a man whose influence did shape history and rather decisively; “Justinian (527-565) had a greater influence on the development of Byzantium than any other emperor between Constantine and the tenth century.” [p. 124] Justinian's reign saw the creation of Christendom's most impressive church – the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. He also created 'the Justinian code', centralizing and codifying all Roman law into 3 volumes [p. 125]. This legal framework was far different than the Germanic legal system which was more flexible, case based and individualized. Justinian's code was a perfect legal system for an emperor, since it enshrined the King or primus-inter-pares as the embodiment of all law. It became the basis for the legal code of modern Europe [p. 126].
But Justinian also destroyed Byzantium paving the way for the successful irruption of Islam across the frontiers of the Eastern empire. Justinian persecuted 'heretics' especially the 'Monophysites' [believers in the one nature of Christ and not in the 3-natured or Trinity of Christ], in Syria and Egypt. This destructive malevolence helps explain why the Arabs conquered the Levant and Egypt so easily a century later [p. 127]. Simply put, the population was battered, over-taxed and sick of religious oppression.
Justinian's attempts to reconquer North Africa and Italy drained the empire of its men and resources [p. 127]. It took 30 years to defeat the Goths in Italy and this long campaign ruined Italy economically. There was widespread de-urbanization within Italy, with cities such as Rome, Naples and other major centres emptied of their populations [p. 128]. to pay for these colossal struggles the Eastern empire's subjects were assaulted by an array of enormous tax increases and sur-charges, which led to social unrest and even minor revolts [p. 129]. By the end of Justinian's reign the weakened Byzantine's found themselves under assault from the east by Persia and from the north by Germanic tribes. Justinian's successor Heraclius saved the Eastern empire from both invasions, but at a heavy price. [p. 129] By the early 7th century the Eastern empire was exhausted, de-populated, over-taxed and under-manned militarily.
So far so good in Cantor's account. All true. But then he turns to Islam – a topic that he has never seriously studied – and becomes quite lost. Some of the more obvious and incorrect themes that Cantor peddles in this chapter about Islam include:
The Arabs were superior fighting men:
“It took the Arabs who were far militarily far superior to the Germans, seven centuries to take Constantinople.” [p. 123]
The Arabs were defeated many times by 'Germans' including the Franks and northern Spanish kings from 720 to 737 AD. Militarily and man for man, the Arabs were inferior in face of the superiority of Western European arms and society. They won their early empire thanks to the devastation by over 100 years of intra-Christian warfare. Even the eastern Germans were clad in heavier armor; had more advanced technology including high backed saddles and better weapons; than the Arabs. The Muslims could not take Constantinople until gun powder and cannons were invented – both of them perfected by Europeans, not Muslims.
Arabia was prosperous:
“We should also forgo the assumption that Arabia was an impoverished desert.” [p. 133]
Arabia was a backwater compared to its neighbours. It was poor and beggarly. One of the main impetuses for the Jihad was the attraction of urban centers, wealth, gold, a higher living standard and beautiful women, all to be found to the empires bordering the desert kingdoms.
Islam is a religion:
“Of all the great religions of mankind, Islam is most suited to serve as a universal religion.” [p. 133]
Islam is not a religion – there is no Golden Rule, no ethical code, no gratitude, tolerance or acceptance of others. It is a political theology of war, racism and supremacism. Cantor even admits this by stating, “Holy war is one of the pillars of Islam.” [p. 135] How can an ideology which adjures war be called a religion ?
The Koran is wonderful:
“The Koran emphasizes the value of family life, and while, for the Moslem who can afford it, four wives are allowed, the most rigorous precepts of sexual morality are enjoined upon all members...” [p. 135]
He has never read the Koran. Polygamy precludes 'family values'. Only an academic would say that having a harem and multiple wives is a 'family value'. What gibberish.
“The Islamic religion, then, is an optimistic one.” [p. 135]
Islam is an entirely negative theology. There is no free-will, no self-determination and no individualism allowed. You just submit to Mohammed and Allah and that is it. Women are ½ the worth of a man. Arab male Muslims rule the hierarchy in which females, Christians Jews, Blacks and slaves are treated as 'cattle and pigs'. It accepts and expands slavery. What is optimistic about any of this except Arab and Muslim males getting virgins, wine, and nubile young boys in 'heaven' [the Koran never mentions the goodies that Muslim females are to get in heaven......] ?
“It is obvious that the Christians were eager to accept the faith of their conquerors and to free themselves from the civil disabilities that were imposed upon those who remained outside the Islamic faith.” [p. 135]
Millions of Jews and Christians were killed or enslaved in the Arab-Muslim holy wars. Some would have converted to Islam to avoid the Dhimmi or second class status taxes found in the poll-tax [Jiyza]; the Kharaj [production tax which took 50-70% of your wealth]; or the Avariz [ad hoc taxes] which were used to fund local projects, harems, wars or other items of import for the Muslim ruler. Dhimmitude slaughtered and taxed into oppressive millions of people. Very few would have been 'eager' for such a programme.
Ignores the Arab destruction of the Mediterranean world:
“The Latin-Christian peoples deprived themselves of the benefits of Moslem civilization through their self-imposed political and cultural isolation.” [p. 140]
“But the actual cutting off of Europe from Mediterranean trade was only momentary, if it ever occurred.” [p. 143]
As with many academics Cantor keeps confusing himself. On the one hand he says that the 'greatness' of Arab civilization was lost on Europe because the Europeans - being the stupid Christians that they were -- 'walled' themselves off. On the other hand he says that the Arab wars against Christendom had no impact. So what was it ? If the Arab incursions into the Christian world were so benign, than natural patterns of trade, economics, and political-economy would have produced inter-empire dissemination of ideas, specie and culture. But the base and cruel reality is that the Muslims waged a Jihadic war of extermination against Europe for 1200 years. War by necessity precludes quaint ideas about harmony, earnest discussions and cross fertilization of cultural accroutrements - at least as envisioned by academics. Europe was not 'isolated' but assaulted.
Cantor also dismisses Pirenne's thesis that the Arab annihilation of Jewish-Berber-Romano-Christian society around the Mediterranean had much of an effect on Europe. In fact he states that trade was still brisk between east and west and that commerce and society were perhaps slightly affected. This is bizarre. Jihadic war is by nature and impulse genocidal and terrifying. Millions of non-Muslims were killed and enslaved. Spain was raped. The littoral areas of southern Europe were targets of jihad, raids, and plunder. Papyrus, spices, and other oriental products and their trade dropped off precipitously. Only an academic could conclude that jihadic war, in which the intent is to eradicate the non-Muslim society in question, would have only had a marginal impact on European society.
The rest of his thoughts on Islam only get worse. But you get the idea. Cantor is 'mainstream' academia. He has two major themes: first, the Christian world was degenerate, confused, corrupt, and inferior to the Islamic and second, that the takeover by Islam of much of the Levant, Africa and Mediterranean world was a blessing. According to Cantor, Islam is a universal 'religion' of austerity demanding a purpose in life, and blessed with 'family values'. The absurdity of this world-view is hardly worth pointing out – except that it is rife within the academic-political-and media elite.
The main value I found in Cantor's work is the recurring thought I had whilst reading it. We need fewer academics in the West and more people who can think and see reality for what it is. The evolution of the first universities of Bologna and Paris, to what we have today, has in many ways, not been a positive.