Pirenne was a well-known expert on medieval history before the first World War. Whilst interned in a German prisoner of war camp he started and completed several completed books. Mohammed and Charlemagne describe the impact on Western Europe from the Mohammedan incursions and Jihad starting in the 640s in North Africa and in particular, the eradication of trade, coin, materials and urban life which was pronounced by the mid 8th century. Hence the atheist appellation ‘Dark Ages’. But like the modern, well-paid philosopher-‘scientist’ they don’t tell you why Europe may have been darker than it would have been, if allowed its normal development and trajectory. ‘Dark Ages’ as a term has no historical validity, and the dislocation caused by the Muslim Jihad is barely admitted.
‘Romania’ before the Germans
Rome did not ‘fall’ in 476 A.D. This is anti-history. As Pirenne depicts, the Roman empire had long been managed by Germans and various tribes. 476 was simply a more formal deposition to recognise the reality of German power within the empire, an ascendancy of fact dating from 410 A.D. Rome was a Mediterranean empire. The Germans were not of the Mediterranean. Post 476, very little changed.
“…the most striking, and also the most essential, was its Mediterranean character. Although in the East it was Greek, and in the West, Latin, its Mediterranean character gave it a unity which impressed itself upon the provinces as a whole. The inland sea, in the full sense of the term Mare nostrum, was the vehicle of ideas, and religious, and merchandise…..as one travelled away from it civilisation became more rarefied. The last great city of the North was Lyons.”
Rome was a consumer city. Constantinople in the 5th century AD was the world’s largest city and a manufacturing centre and a maritime, trading entrepot. Rome was not. The Orient or East was far more active, urban and richer than the West. Rome and the West of the empire utterly depended on Constantinople for trade, specie and goods production. A similar relationship exists today in many areas where China and eastern lands ship manufactured products of all sizes and varieties to de-industrialising, de-manufacturing, Western states.
The Syrians and the Jews controlled the maritime traffic moving from East to West and back again. Jews and Syrians were found all over Western lands, in some citieds like Marseilles constituting a majority along its harbour area. They brought papyrus, spices, ivory, wines, silk, fabrics, art and manufactured product to the West. The entire Roman empire used the gold solidus, a common legal framework and Christian ethos and religiousity dominated the culture and minds of the population.
The German tribes starting in the 4th century entered the Roman empire and accepted all they encountered. They converted to Christianity, become Romanised, learnt Latin and supported existing Roman institutions. They added nothing. Before the 5th century most of the Roman army was already fully Germanised under the guise of the word ‘Roman’. The Vandals, Goths, Suevians and others achieved notoriety as skilled soldiers and generals.
The Huns and other Asiatic tribes ‘pushed’ large groups of Germans into the Roman empire starting in the 4th century. Entire peoples migrated across Roman frontiers along the Danube or Rhine. The upheavals in both Roman East and West were many, but the salient point made by Pirenne is that by 439, after defeating the Romans twice, the Visigoths were masters of much of Gaul and at the same time the Vandals took the important and food producing province of Africa. It was the Vandal takeover of Africa which presaged the complete collapse of the old Roman order.
With the Vandal subjugation of Africa, Rome was largely without food. Its army could not be resupplied, its million population now at risk of starvation. In 441 the Romans attacked the Vandals in North Africa but were defeated. The richest parts of the empire were now German including Carthage the second largest Mediterranean port after Constantinople, Byzacium and Numidia.
At the same time the Huns ravaged and murdered in a great swathe along the plains from Thrace to Gaul. By 451 Attila and the Huns were laying waste to the Roman civilisation along the Loire valley. The Roman general Aetius, with his Burgundian, Visigothic, and Frankish allies soundly defeated Attila in 453 near Troyes. The Vandals in 455, after the murder of the Roman emperor refused to recognise his successor and sacked Rome. The Visigoths also proclaimed themselves independent from Rome in Gaul. The depositions of Romulus as Roman emperor in 476 was a formality, not a crash or a fall. The German tribes in various regions took over the Roman empire, its structure, institutions and civilisation.
And this is Pirenne’s important thesis. Nothing changed post 476. The empire under new masters continued along as before. Trade was still robust, the solidus and specie still used and minted, the East-West flow of materials unaltered, the African production of food and its dissemination still essential and continuing, the use of papyrus for writing and administration flowing from Egypt into the Roman urban areas undiminished in flow and quantity. The ports were still full, the urban economies still operated under Roman law and Christian influence, the art, textiles and manufactured items used in daily life, still produced and consumed. No shuddering crash, no thunderous implosion, the sun still rose in the East and set in the West. The Roman empire never crashed – until the Muslim Jihad arrived in 637 A.D. and destroyed the unity, coherence and cultural singularity of the Roman Christian Mediterranean-based empire.