Charlemagne minus Mohammed?
By Richard Hodges
Lecture given at the British School at Rome (2013)
Introduction: On 28th January it will be 1200 years since Charlemagne died in 814. His legacy was immense. Poems and epics over the next half-millennium ascribed to him the status of the architect of Christian Europe, a crusader against the Arabs and Ottomans. This mythic importance was to grow greater still. Montesquieu and Voltaire traced the roots of the enlightenment to him. Then, in the aftermath of the First World War, the Belgium historian, Henri Pirenne fixed Charlemagne’s role forever in his classic, posthumous history of Europe: Mohammed and Charlemagne. In this influential text, a keystone of world history since its publication, Pirenne concluded:
‘It is therefore strictly correct to say that without Mohammed Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. In the seventh century the ancient Roman Empire had actually become an Empire of the East; the Empire of Charles was an Empire of the west…. The Carolingian Empire, or rather, the Empire of Charlemagne, was the scaffolding of the Middle Ages’.
Somewhat accurately, Chris Wickham recently commented that this phrase ‘fits in with the longstanding metanarrative of medieval economic history which seeks to explain the secular economic triumph of north-west Europe.’ As Wickham set out to show, this triumph needs reassessment.
Nevertheless, Pirenne’s canonical thesis has held most historians in thrall. Indeed, drawn to its simplicity, like moths to a flame, popular European history still slavishly follows his interpretation. In fact, as my colleague David Whitehouse and I argued thirty years ago, the first systematically assembled archaeological evidence showed that the collapse of the Roman Mediterranean, except in the Levant, clearly predated Mohammed. The Arabs did not destroy ‘the Roman pond’. Pirenne was wrong! However, we concluded in 1983 that Charlemagne was the architect of the renascence of Latin Christendom thanks, in particular, to silver acquired from the Abbasid Caliphate. Our archaeological revision in support of part of Pirenne’s thesis has been widely adopted. The most important support has come from Michael McCormick’s in his marvelous Origins of the European Economy. McCormick, following Sture Bolin’s re-working of Pirenne’s thesis, sought the origins of Charlemagne’s renascence in the connections with the Umayadds and especially the Abbasids in the Near East. Slaves were the primary export from Christendom and Scandinavia; in return silver and precious goods were imported in small but politically significant amounts. These imports, he argued, fuelled the take off of the political economies of Latin Christendom and the west Baltic communities. McCormick concludes: ‘So in a paradoxical and profound sense, perhaps Pirenne was right, even when he was wrong: without Mohammed, there would have been no Charlemagne’. In sum, McCormick wrote ‘communications between the Frankish empire and the eastern Mediterranean world surged in the final decades of the eighth and the first decades of the ninth century….never again in the history of Europe did they come close to the low levels that prevailed before 750’. Other recent studies of the history of the Mediterranean Sea – by Horden and Purcell – The Corrupting Sea, and by Abalafia – The Big Sea – have essentially accepted this revised Pirenne paradigm. By contrast, Wickham contends that the Merovingians and Carolingians had no interest in the Mediterranean. Their focus, he argues, was on building relations with the Popes in Rome.