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on 27 November 2014
Emmet Scott's "Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited" is a book arguing in favour of the so-called Pirenne thesis, proposed by the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne almost a century ago. Pirenne argued, contrary to received wisdom, that the Muslims (rather than the Germanic barbarians) were responsible for the "Dark Ages". Roman culture was weakened already before the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but experienced a revival of sorts under the "barbarian" Goths, Vandals and Franks. Roman culture and classical learning even reached Saxon Britain (which was pagan) and Celtic Ireland. The East Roman Empire wasn't even in crisis. This positive development was cut short by the Arab Muslim conquests, which decimated the East Roman Empire, cut off Europe from international trade (the loss of cheap papyrus being particularly detrimental to classical learning) and turned the Mediterranean into a sea of extensive Muslim piracy and slave-raiding.
While the Pirenne thesis is interesting, Scott's book is weighed down by a number of even fringier ideas. Thus, he suggests that the Golden Age of Islam under the Abbasids in Baghdad and the Umayyads in Spain is really a myth, and that the three centuries between (most of) the seventh century and (most of) the tenth century didn't even exist (!), being invented by German court historians during the reign of the Ottonians. Velikovsky, much? The author also suggests that the seventh century Persian invasion of the Byzantine Empire (which weakened it and made it easy prey for the Muslim Arabs) was really a *Muslim* invasion, the Muslims somehow having converted Sassanid Persia to Islam (without anyone noticing?).
The author also frequently contradicts himself. On the one hand, Islam was a rapacious, super-jihadist, nomadic, barbarian creed from the start. On the other hand, Islam didn't really exist during the seventh century, proven by Persian and Syrian "Muslim" coins with Sassanid or Christian motifs. The whole idea of three missing centuries also contradicts the Pirenne thesis, since - of course - these centuries constitute the Dark Age the thesis is supposed to explain! If we go directly from the Muslim conquests to the High Middle Ages, it's hard to see how Emmet can blame the Muslims for anything worse than destruction during the actual conquests , but that happens during all wars. Even Emmet admits that the Muslims had a high culture during the tenth and eleventh centuries, which came immediately after the conquests, under the "three missing centuries" scenario.
Not everything pointed out by this apparently pseudonymous author is incorrect. Current mainstream historians also have a more balanced view of the "barbarians" and the Age of Migrations following the so-called Fall of Rome. The author is probably right that the Byzantine Empire wasn't particularly stagnant before the seventh century crises. He is also right that the Muslims took over the fruits of classical civilization when conquering Persia, Syria and Egypt. Classical learning would have survived even without the Muslims. Personally, I think that both Roman and Persian cultural influence may have been strong in far-away Scandinavia. Where did the Norsemen get their "Vedic" legends? The author also suggests that the raiding of the Vikings was due to Muslim demand for slaves and booty, the mostly pagan Vikings trading with the Muslims in Russia. This, too, sounds like an interesting idea.
Overall, however, I think "Muhammad and Charlemagne revisited" is too fringey to have a real impact on those seeking for the historical truth beneath all the distortions.