On colonial mindsets and the myth of medieval Europe in isolation from the Muslim world

An idea that well-meaning people with no background in medieval history often bring up to me when attempting to relate is that the medieval period was certainly a glowing time for civilization – if one is explicitly and only discussing the Arab world. This idea gets hurled at me when I am pointing out what the term Dark Ages means, or discussing the bathing habits of medieval Europeans, or just trying to have a quiet pint in peace for the love of Christ. As I say, I do think it comes from a place of wanting to correct an inaccurate and overly European historiography. People want to prove that they understand there is more to the world than one peninsula and that multiple histories are available. They want to show that they understand that non-White people are capable of innovation. They also want to show that they have learned something and are able to critique dominant historical narratives. While all of this is all very charming, it is also inaccurate, and ironically ideas like this – far from elevating Arab history – simply play into a colonialist narrative in history, but from another angle.

As regular leaders of the blog will no doubt be aware I regularly stan medieval Arabic culture. If you asked me where I would live in the medieval period I always say the Iberian peninsula where I (as a noted lady) would have a better chance at determining my own career and indeed just partying. I have written repeatedly on the racism of ignoring Arabic luminaries like Ibu Sinna, and have attempted to highlight the interconnected nature of the medieval world and the ways in which trade, both commercial and intellectual, enlivened medieval Europe. All of this is to say that I am more than aware of the fact that there was a whole hell of a lot of interesting stuff going down in the medieval Arabic world. So, I agree with statements like these to a certain point. The trouble that I have has to do with the idea of Europe as a hopeless backwater in opposition to the glories of the Arab world.

Obviously one of the major reasons I disagree with this position is that it is just flat out wrong. I should hardly need to say by now that the idea that there is an intellectual downturn in early medieval Europe (or indeed medieval Europe more broadly) is a part of a specific imperial colonialist historiography which seeks to argue that any point when Europe wasn’t violently subjugating the world around it was necessarily a bad time. To this way of thinking, when the Roman Empire goes around turning everyone into slaves and violently opposing anyone it can get its hands-on things are good, because also some amphorae are traded across the Mediterranean; but when there isn’t one giant state oppressing everyone things are bad because fewer amphorae. This is obviously a stupid and racist position which presumes that the nice things which rich Romans enjoyed (slaves and hegemony) were available to everyone, and also requires us to just ignore the fact that slaves are people. Rome wasn’t a very nice time for the great majority of individuals, and the medieval period had plenty of nice things for the average person – you just got fooled by a later medieval advertising campaign for art and a bunch of people who wanted to do slavery in the modern period.

A Christian and a Muslim playing chess in thirteenth-century al-Andalus, from Alfonso X’s El Libro de los Juegos

Accepting the idea that Europe did suck in the medieval period is automatically ascribing to this racist and imperialist version of history. In order for a society to be good and have worthwhile things it doesn’t need to be constantly attacking other cultures and enslaving people. Look inside yourself if you think that is true.

Another reason why this falls down as an argument is also that the whole “Europe as an isolated not trading enemy in opposition to the Arab world which had nice things and was gloriously well-connected” thing is not how things happened. If, for example, we look at trade routes in the earlier medieval period as a starting point we see that is in no way the case. We do see a drop off in international shipping when the Roman Empire collapses. This is because the Empire itself used to ship goods along with moving troops in its fleets of tax-funded vessels. This existed alongside independent trading, which also moved stuff like olive oil from the Iberian peninsula or amphorae out of what is now Tunisia. Once there is no longer a state propped up by taxation doing shipping itself, shipping across the Mediterranean also slumps. That does not mean that it stops.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, which shows the medieval conception of the Middle East (at the top) as the centre of the world.

While we see a decline in movement, the key here is that we see a decline, not a total cessation. Movement very much continued throughout the early medieval period, and we have ample pot-shard based evidence to back that up. Yes certainly many people shifted to making their own potery, but rich people could still get their hands on the good stuff if they wanted to.

You know when European shipping in the Mediterranean really slowed down? After the Muslim conquests. Where there had been a lively shipping economy suddenly there were a bunch of real bad ass guys who had carte blanche to intercept the ship of any infidel they could find. Oh and if you could take some of their land while you were at it, that would be great. All of this was made possible famously, the Umayyad conquest of Hispania went really well, felling the Visigothic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula and turning all those olive orchards over to Muslim rule. In quick succession,  you then see the establishment of the Emirate of Ifriqiya on the North-African coast, as well as the Emirate of Sicily on, well, Sicily. In other words, a lot of the Western Mediterranean just wasn’t Christian any longer, so it’s kinda weird to blame Europeans for not maintaining trade routes there. You can’t simultaneously demand that Europeans trade more with the Muslim world while ignoring the fact that the Muslim world was also a part of Europe, and very much interested in dominating any extant trade routes.[1]

This narrative also completely ignores the fact that there was thriving trade which existed all through this period.[2] We have plenty of records on port tolls and taxes which tell the story of luxury goods crisscrossing the continent and across the Mediterranean, regardless of who was doing what.[3] Walrus ivory and amber from the Baltic coast ends up at the Eastern Roman court in Constantinople. Furs, honey, and elephant ivory popped up basically anywhere anyone had the gold to trade for it. Oh and gold, which largely came from Africa, was around the shop too. Indonesian spices like pepper and nutmeg featured happily in European cuisines, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan was being ground into ultramarine. You want luxury goods? They were there, because trade was still happening. It just wasn’t happening on an imperial scale – an undertaking which I will again remind you takes a whole lot of slaves to maintain. The idea that Europeans were an unwashed and unrefined mass in opposition to the glories of life in the Arabic world just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

A medieval European grocer selling spices, Amb. 317.2° Folio 75 recto 

The backward post-Roman Europe versus glories of the East narrative also very helpfully ignores the fact that one of the glories of the East was the still extant Eastern Rome – with its afore-mentioned capital in Constantinople. (You may also know it as Byzantium, but we are trying to be precise here.) Of course, Eastern Rome was one of the big losers in the whole Muslim conquests thing, losing its extremely valuable territory in Egypt, which accounted for a huge amount of its tax revenue. It also very famously lost the near east more generally. Having said all that, it was still a major maritime power, owning territory on the Italian Peninsula in what is now Calabria and Apulia. Constantinople was still very much about that Roman life in the medieval period, with a keen popular interest in Chariot racing, a lively trade with the near East and Western Christendom, and even what could be seen as a sort of pre-modern welfare state, ensuring that its citizens in cities always had enough grain to eat. If we want to pretend that everything was bad and gloomy in medieval Europe compared to the Arab world because Rome collapsed, how then do we account for the fact that it was actually still going at that time, and trading just fine?

Obviously then, narratives of trade stopping totally in medieval Europe are incorrect and overwrought, but why would I say that buying into them supports a colonialist narrative? The answer to that is saying that Europe didn’t have anything nice, as opposed to a flourishing Arab world is a way of justifying the violent incursions on the part of Europeans into the Middle East.

The Court of King Alphonso X “The Wise”. His scriptorium was one of the most important places for copying Arabic texts into Latin and then disseminating them throughout Europe.

These arguments usually hinge on the idea that before the Crusades, Europe was a disgusting place full of people who didn’t bathe and nothing but unsalted porridge to eat. All of that changes, in theory, with increased contact to the Middle East with the establishment of the Crusader States in the middle east. The theory goes that it wasn’t until Europeans were able to carve their own ports out along the coast of the Levant that anything nice got into Europe at all. Without Europeans at Jaffa, there would be no spices, oranges, or rice in Europe. Hell, without all that religious violence maybe Europeans never would have anything nice ever!

That is not only factually incorrect, but it is a way of justifying what amounted to centuries of attempts to violently subjugate the Holy Land. Sure, all that violence was unseemly – but access to the Silk Road! It also amounts to a convenient justification for modern imperial and colonial violence. Well Europe was a terrible hell hole! What choice did they have other than to sail around the globe, enslave huge swathes of people, do a spot of genocide and begin to extract all possible value from any native people! After all, everything they had before they started in on the colonising in earnest was bad.

None of this is either historically correct, or acceptable.

We can, and should, point out the major advancements that Mulsim society presented to the world. There is absolutely no doubt that there was a tonne of interesting stuff going on in the near East, and I in no way dispute that assertion. What is incorrect is the idea that medieval Europe was cut off from that brilliance, a backward hole where there was no trade, no spices, no intellectual culture. Europe and South Western Asia have always been connected, and indeed the term “Arabic World” very much includes huge swathes of Europe at various points during the medieval period. If you want to say medieval Europe is a sad foil to the Muslim kingdoms, how do you account for the several European Caliphates? If you want to say that without the Roman Empire Europe lost everything bright and worthwhile, how do you explain the still up and running Eastern Roman Empire? If you want to say that without post-Crusades trade there never would have been meaningful trade in Europe how do you explain all the fucking trading?

Crusader envoys and two men discussing renewal of treaty between King of Jerusalem and Sultan of Egypt – from Walters Ms. W.137 / Walters Art Museum.

The desire that many have to defend the medieval Arab world and its culture in the medieval period is laudable. I in no way am here to argue that it had a lot of good stuff going on. However, pretending that all of this had nothing to do with the European world and trade, or that the only place where intellectual advancement was happening was the Arab world is simply incorrect. The medieval world was complex, interconnected, and very much a part of an on-going scholastic tradition. To argue that without violent force Europe would have languished as a dull afterthought it to argue for imperial colonialism. Medieval Europe was a vibrant and well-connected place, and it could have continued to be so without all of the slavery and genocide. Europeans didn’t need to rape and pillage their way through the world to learn and grow. They just did it because they could.

Pro-imperialist historiography is the air that we breath here in the decaying carcasses of the modern Imperium. I am extremely sympathetic to the urge to celebrate non-white cultures, and I spend quite a lot of time doing so myself. However, to argue that this was happening without any contact with Europe, and that Europeans cannot think or enjoy luxuries without also being involved in a violent imperial enterprise is extremely dangerous. I know that the people who make this argument think they are being enlightened, but they are still making a pro-imperial argument when they trot out tired myths about the medieval period. We don’t undo the colonial historiography by agreeing with it. We need to write our own history which admits that every world culture has something useful and beautiful to offer us all, and that a better world can be achieved without the subjugation of others.

[1] This is a massive simplification of a fascinating subject, and trade continued notwithstanding. See D. Valérian, “The Medieval Mediterranean”, in P. Horden and S, Kinoshita (eds.), A Companion to Mediterranean History, https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118519356.ch5
[2] On post Roman trade see, Michael G. Fulford, “Byzantium and Britain: a Mediterranean perspective on Post-Roman Mediterranean Imports in Western Britain and Ireland”, Medieval Archaeology, 33:1 (1989), 1-6.
[3] See, for example, N. Middleton, “Early medieval port customs, tolls and controls on foreign trade”, Early Medieval Europe, 13 (2005), 313-358.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on medieval Islamic advancements culture, see:
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, The Myth of Progress and Being Racist, Part II

For more on myths about the medieval period, see:
Plague Police roundup, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace
How to win friends and influence people in medieval Europe on History Hit
If you are going to talk about the Dark Ages, you had better be right
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, The Myth of Progress and Being Racist, Part II
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
I assure you, medieval people bathed.
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
On the Concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
FUCK YEAH Genghis Khan – an emergency pubcast
On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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