Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century, gold, garnet and millefiori / British Museum, Creative Commons
Geography and Medicine under the Abbasids
Ptolemy maps of Western Europe and Arabia / Vatican Library, Creative Commons
We have talked about the mathematical researches of the Arabs combining Persian, Greek, and Indian mathematics and, of course, with contributions of their own. So that the enumeration, the use of zero are from India, but the development of algebra is a unique contribution of this period and of these people. Let’s talk briefly about geography.
There was a contemptuous description of Palermo by a tenth century geographer, Ibn Hawqal. And the point of that is not Palermo or anything like that, but just the fascination that the Muslim world had for travel, for geography. Geography both of a quantitative kind– measuring, navigation, figuring out to get from place to place– and of a kind of curiosities of the world kind, of different customs, different peoples, different products.
So these geographers were employed by the caliphs, for example, to figure out the circumference of the world, to figure out the relationship between land and water in the world. This is an interesting form of speculation. If you look at Christian maps of the world up to 1300 or so, they show almost no oceans, all huge amounts of land mass. This is partly, it’s thought, an interpretation of something in one of the apocryphal books of the Bible that seems to suggest that seven-eighths of the world is land.
Ptolemy, whom we spoke about last time, the Greek geographer, author of this book known as the Almagest or Geography, translated into Arabic as one of the first projects of this House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Ptolemy has a different picture. And Ptolemy is the first geographer received in the medieval period to suggest that there’s an awful lot of water. And that you could get around much of the world by water.
Although crucially, Ptolemy does not think that you can go around Africa. Ptolemy has a kind of Antarctic land mass that connects with Africa. And it was only the Portuguese at the end of the fifteenth century– specifically in 1498, well really, 1489– who demonstrated that you could go around Africa, and thus from the Atlantic Ocean into the Indian Ocean. Crucial, crucial discovery.
But this question of how much water is there versus how much land is there– a sense of the entire world– is a problem investigated by these geographers. Many of these guys are indefatigable travelers. So there’s this book by Al-Muqaddasi, M-U-Q-A-D-D, usually known in English as the Best Division for Knowledge of the Regions. Completed in 985 after twenty years of traveling.
But the greatest traveler of the Islamic premodern world was Ibn Khaldun, who is much later but worth at least mentioning here, 1332 to 1406. And he started from his native Tunis and traveled as far as China and Indonesia.
And then, finally, a scholar named al-Idrisi, another one of these travelers, geographers, was hired by the Christian king of Sicily, Roger the Second, in 1138 to put together a map of the world with accompanying descriptive texts. And it is an aspect both of the respect accorded to the Arab geographers in the Christian world, and the fact that despite our tendency to see these two worlds as opposed– after all 1138 is the era of the Crusades– there’s quite a fair amount of collaboration, interchange of knowledge between the Christian kingdoms of Europe, and the Islamic world– the Islamic kingdoms– of the Southern Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Eighteenth-century engraving portrait of Galenus by Georg Paul Busch / Wikimedia Commons
Finally, medicine. We’re not exhausting the subject studied by the Arabs, but I wanted to give you math, geography, and medicine as three examples. The main authority for the Arabs, the person that they translated with the most assiduity and interest, was Galen, a physician who wrote in Greek at the time of the Roman Empire. And Galen is the person who is responsible for the transmission, if not invention, of the notion of the four bodily humors. This model of physiology dominated medicine until the eighteenth century, let’s say.
This is the notion that within human beings there are these four fluids that are essential building blocks of character and of health. They are both mental and physical factors in health or in illness. And they correspond both to the four elements– the four basic things out of which the world is built according to Greek science– and to the interaction of the corresponding four climates or four tendencies.
So the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. These climates or tendencies are hot, dry, moist– hot, dry, moist, cold– right. Hot, cold, moist, dry. And the four humors– these are liquids that are inside our bodies– are bile or yellow bile, which corresponds to fire, which is hot and dry. Blood, which corresponds to the element of air, and is hot and wet. Phlegm, mucus, P-H-L-E-G-M, which corresponds to water, and is cold and wet. And, finally, black bile, which is earth, and cold and dry.
Key to this idea of the humors is the notion of balance or equilibrium. And in this it resembles Chinese medicine, Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and indeed, at least conceptually, notions that people have of their own bodies. That the experience of illness or of mental distress is one of imbalance, of the predominance of one element over another.
So the healthy body is in a state of equilibrium, while disease is part of a fluctuation due to imbalance. But people are never completely balanced, at least not for long. Everybody has some, what’s called temperament. A “temperament” is a favoring of one of these humors. So and we still use these terms without particularly being interested in their origins. So melancholia, or the melancholic temperament, which is associated with sadness, lethargy, what would be medicalized now as depression, is from a predominance of black bile. Melan– black. Cholar– bile. In Greek, melancholia.
There’s the choleric temperament, people who tend to be angry, irritable. And this is from regular or yellow bile, predominance of that. Or sanguine: sort of more optimistic, more risk taking. Predominance of blood, the sanguinary humor.
This is the basis of an awful lot of medical theory of physiology, of understanding of disease and its treatment, as well as its prevention through things like diet. There are lots and lots of medical writings and doctors in the Islamic world. The most famous is known in the West as Avicenna, Ibn Sina, 980 to 1037. He is a Persian, active in Persia.
And he, like many of these doctors, was not just a physician, but a musicologist and a philosopher. He wrote medical writings on physiology, diagnosis, treatment, and medication. His work was translated into Latin and known in the West as the Canon. The Canon of Avicenna was the standard work taught in medical schools until the seventeenth, eighteenth century.
Again, I wouldn’t say that I would be desperate to be alive in the eleventh century in order to have better medical care. There is no– the humors don’t really work; it’s not scientifically true, but so what? We are interested in the world views in aspects of how people look at things. Certainly, many aspects of this medical care were superior to what was available elsewhere. It was based on observation. The observation obviously couldn’t be MRIs or CAT scans. The observation, however, was much closer than that even undertaken by the Greeks.
An awful lot of what might be learned of disease was through urine. And the examination of the urine is almost somewhat the symbol of being a doctor, that in some Western illustrations of medicine you know that the person is a doctor because he’s holding up this little flask and examining its properties.
So, again, you weren’t supposed to– in some societies– cut up bodies for autopsies. We all know things like the circulation of the blood, the role the heart in that were not properly understood for many centuries later. But this is the most elaborate and successful model of medicine and practice of medicine in the civilized world at this time.
The Collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate
Abbasid Empire / Wikimedia Commons
So this is a splendid civilization. I hope I’ve given you some slight indication of that. Why does it collapse? This is partly a question of why does any civilization collapse. Time tends to ruin everything. The Abbasids were victims of the same divisive tendencies we’ve already seen at work within the Islamic world right from the beginning.
Religious strife, particularly but not exclusively the Sunni/Shi’ite division. Dynastic, that is to say, internal or familial problems. Resentment at taxation. In the beginning, as we said, the Islamic conquerors taxed rather lightly. But as the ability to rely on confiscated estates of nobles, the Church and the state faded as the Abbasids became the state.
Like all states, they started to run out of money. They had a large army, they had a large court, they had a large administrative structure to maintain. And then, as now, people tend, rightly or wrongly, not to appreciate the role of government in everything, and to be resentful of having to pay for it.
The fundamental problem, as Wickham points out, is that the Empire was too big. And here, we’re back where we started with the Roman Empire. Empires tend to fall because they are too big. And being too big they tend to overreach. In other words, they’re already big and they try, if not to get bigger, at least to deal with more enemies. Because as you get bigger you develop more enemies. And as you get bigger you also develop more fears of external enemies.
So to say that the Empire was too big is not to say anything very innovative or unusual. The real question is why does there come a point at which this bigness is fatal? In other words, the Abbasid Caliphate does fine from 750 to 910 and then it falls apart. Why does it fall apart when it does? And I don’t have a great answer for that, except to point to the other divisions, or to misfortune: having poor Caliphs, having Caliphs who don’t last for a long time and are overthrown.
Nevertheless, states start to split off from the Caliphate. The first, right from the beginning, is Umayyad Spain. And Wickham talks a little bit about the civilization of Umayyad Spain. But you start to have the splitting of places like Egypt, under the Shi’ite Dynasty the Fatimids by the tenth century.
What’s interesting is that these societies are run very much like the Abbasid Caliphate. Although they are large, they are more practical, compact, and somewhat easier to hold together. They have the same kind of cultural efflorescence, scientific curiosity, sensuality of culture, luxury products. Indeed, Umayyad Spain would have the reputation of the height of civilization in Christian Europe of the tenth century.
A nun writing from a German monastery in the tenth century named Hroswitha, Hroswitha of Gandersheim, describes Córdoba, capital of Umayyad Spain, the largest city in Europe– excluding Constantinople, the largest city in Western Europe at this time– she describes Córdoba as “the ornament of the world”. She had never visited it. She’s a cloistered nun in a monastery in Germany. Nevertheless, for her this is the most splendid place in the world. Splendid in terms of wealth, population, culture, learning.
And Ornament of the World is the title of a book by our colleague in the Spanish department, María Menocal, written about ten years ago, describing medieval Spain and its civilization. Cordoba would be a center for learning among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
So this series of cultural accomplishments by the Arabs, as I said, may come as a surprise, but it should not be. The surprise element may be, as we’ve said now more than once, the ability of the Arabs to assimilate other traditions and to remain as conquerors. That is, these two things are related. They remain as conquerors even though the Caliphate does not survive. The Arabs are still the dominant force in Egypt, North Africa, and much of the Middle East. And where they are not dominant, Islam remains the dominant faith of places like Persia, modern Iran, and further east.
So just because the Caliphate falls does not mean that Islam loses power and it doesn’t mean that the civilization of Islam fails. At least, not at this point. I hope then we can see that Islam is a thing in itself, a historical force in itself, developed in our period, but also to some extent an heir to the Roman Empire. Remember I said that there are three heirs to the Roman Empire– the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, most obviously the Western kingdoms– and when we come to Charlemagne next week we’ll be talking about this much more aggressively– and the Islamic world.
It’s also, however, the heir to some other cultures. It’s the heir to Sassanian or Persian culture, for example. So it is not exclusively to be understood as a successor to the Roman Empire, but then again, neither is the west of Europe and there is Byzantium. And those are the things that we’re going to be discussing in the future.
So any observations thus far, or problems thus far? The Islamic world, these three lectures clear as can be? Imprinted in your mind like the Seal of the Prophets? OK.
The Importance of the Seventh Century
Europe c.650 CE / Wikimedia Commons
So what about the seventh century? Now we’re backtracking a little. Because with the Abbasids we’d gotten up as far as the tenth century. I want to go back to the seventh century because it’s the crucial turning point of the early Middle Ages. Even though we’re in the tenth week of this course– is that right?– here we are at its hinge, I think. Or at least we can get the lay of the land.
This is a little bit like approaching a shoreline which you see very vaguely, and then suddenly actually you can start to see the houses and see which are the mountains that are far way, and which are the hills that are in the harbor, and so forth and so on. So I hope that– I mean, the course differs from many other history courses in that beyond just the fall of the Roman Empire, you don’t have an instinctive feel for what this course is about, what its contours are. So what I’m trying to do is not just point to a turning in the road, but I’m trying to show you the road itself through the proverbial forest and the trees.
Partly what we’re concerned with is periodization. Now what are the time periods? Is the classical world and then the medieval world? Is it something called the classical world on intermediate period called Late Antiquity and then the Middle Ages? What does the course title, “The Early Middle Ages”, mean when its successor is called “The Birth of Europe”? We’re going to change that, by the way, maybe we’re going to combine these into one course called the Middle Ages, but that’s for the future.
So periodization. And then when are we talking about as the borders of these periods? It’s a murky period that covered by this course, roughly 284 to 1000 or Diocletian to the year 1000. Murky but important, as I hope you see already. The development of such absolutely fundamental world historic things as state-sponsored Christianity, Islam, the ideas of political power in Europe as nations as opposed to the universal Roman Empire. All of these things take shape in our period.
The traditional periodization concentrated on the fall of the Roman Empire. And while everybody admitted this was somewhat of an arbitrary date, and indeed its origins and consequences in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire extend to the second century AD and go on to the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, nevertheless, 476, the deposition of the last Roman emperor ruling from Ravenna by the barbarian chieftain Odoacer, who then proclaims Italy to be part of the Eastern Roman Empire, or at least loyal to the Eastern Roman Empire, that loyalty largely a fiction.
In the traditional periodization 476 is then followed by something called the Dark Ages. And the Dark Ages end, depending on your point of view, with the growth of the European economy in the tenth or eleventh century, with the rediscovery of Latin classical culture in the twelfth century, or with the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century.
Certainly, the Renaissance artists regarded everything that came before them as the Dark Ages. And it is they who call medieval architecture “Gothic”, by which they don’t mean a complimentary term. Because if there’s one thing the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is not, it’s not Gothic in the literal sense. It has nothing to do with the Visigoths or the Ostrogoths. We have a few little remnants of Visigothic and Ostrogothic architecture, and it’s not like that at all.
But for Vasari and people like this– Italian Renaissance writers– all this was just junk. It was just junk of the past. It’s just the Dark Ages. The sun rose in Florence sometime after Dante, is what most people continue to believe.
And as a medievalist I long ago gave up fighting this and embraced it. The Dark Ages are cool. I know Halloween is over but, nevertheless, we all know that the Middle Ages is far more fun than the Renaissance. Who wants proportion and logic and severe classical lines, when you can have gargoyles and weird stuff? I’m preaching to the converted, right? You’re in this class. If you didn’t like weirdness, you’d be taking—well, what would you be taking? I think I’ll just leave that. We’re not in competition in this department.
So I’m trying to argue that this period is more than just a long nap for people just waiting for something like the Italian Renaissance. There is this book that is on the cutting edge of scholarship of this period that is called The Long Morning of the Early Middle Ages, which I think is not a felicitous title, much as I admire the people who put this together who are at another university not all that different from this one. By “long morning” they don’t mean brunch.
That’s what I would have called it, The Long Brunch of the Early Middle Ages. People enjoying eggs Benedict on the smoldering ruins of the Roman Empire– eggs Benedict, right? The Benedictine Rule. [LAUGHTER] OK. OK.
So we’ve seen that 476 is not a cataclysmic turning point. OK. It’s not a cataclysmic turning point because, first of all, the Roman Empire survives in the East as we’ve said. [LAUGHTER] So I think we should turn this off for just a minute or two if you don’t mind.
The Seventh Century as a Turning Point
Islamic (left) and Christian (right) Spain / Wikimedia Commons
Why the seventh century, seriously? It is a better claim to the status as pivot for this roughly 700 year period than 476. It is in some sense the end of the classical world. It is in some sense the end of whatever we want to call this, Late Antiquity. This is for basically four reasons.
One, and the most obvious, is the rise of Islam. The rise of Islam and its consequences. The breaking apart of the Mediterranean into different regions. Although I’ve stressed the ties between Islam, Greece, Persia, between the northern and the southern Mediterranean, between Islamic Spain and Christian Spain, nevertheless, the conquest of the Arabs in the seventh century and the early eighth century create somewhat of a break up of what had been a united Mediterranean under the Romans. They’re different religious, cultural, and trades zones.
Under the Romans, North Africa and Italy had been really very close together. Had much more in common with each other than say Italy and Northern Gaul or Britain. Augustine sails between North Africa and Italy all the time. They’re quite close. But we think of them as being far away because in the modern world, and indeed since the Islamic conquests, they’ve been culturally and economically very different.
So this breaking up of the Mediterranean creates– and I’ll elaborate on this in a moment– doesn’t create the birth of Europe exactly, but it creates Europe as a kind of separate region. Naturally, from the geographical point of view, Europe has always existed as a continent. But here we have the beginning of the distinction between Europe and Asia and Africa without the kinds of close ties that we’ve seen connected the Mediterranean, the two shores of the Mediterranean, which mainly because they’re different continents and, indeed, the third shore of the Mediterranean in the East, technically in Asia. Now these start to fall into different cultural and political realms.
So the first aspect of the seventh century is this breakup of Mediterranean unity, the breakup of this aspect of the Roman legacy. And if I’ve emphasized that there are three heirs to the Roman Empire, the fact that there are three heirs to one fortune shows that they are distinct.
Second, and related to this, the rise of Northern Europe. What had been peripheral in the Roman Empire starts to become much more central. And when we come to Charlemagne you’ll see this. Around 800– well, 800 exactly– is the year in which Charlemagne is crowned Roman emperor in Rome itself by the Pope as it turns out. But already, this importance of Northern Europe is evident in some things we’ve been talking about.
The Irish missionaries, for example. The role of Ireland in preserving knowledge and in diffusing Christianity. The role of Britain. The fact that, as I said, Britain at the time of Bede, was the most cultivated heir to the Latin learning of the Roman Empire. And the fact that this should be true in the eighth century shows some kind of difference, some kind of change, since in the Roman Empire these had been peripheral areas. The further north you went, the further away from the Mediterranean, the less civilized the society was.
The third aspect of this turning point, a third way in which we have a kind of shift, is the crisis and reshaping of the Byzantine Empire. The loss of Egypt to North Africa, Palestine, and Syria, which take place in the seventh century. And we’ll talk about this more next week. But the decline of the cities of the Byzantine Empire, the militarization of society in the Byzantine Empire.
In fact, the seventh century is the era of the Byzantine Empire that most resembles the fifth century for the Western Roman Empire. If we preserve the term “Dark Ages” reluctantly, the West goes into a period of what Wickham calls “radical simplification of material culture.” That is to say people become poorer and less in contact with the wider world. And this happens in Byzantium in the seventh century.
So it’s not that the Eastern empire survives completely intact, but that its collapse is later than that of the Western empire. But crucially, again as we will see, that collapse is not total. It’s not as complete as that of the West. The Byzantine Empire would just barely survive the seventh and eighth centuries, and by the ninth century enter into a period of efflorescence that we will be describing.
But this society is not really Roman anymore on some fundamental level– fundamental level including control of Rome and Italy. The basis of the Byzantine Empire will be Anatolia, that is Asiatic Turkey and the Balkans, modern Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Serbia, and so forth.
Constans II, Byzantine emperor from 652 to 668, leaves Constantinople after the first Muslim siege intent on creating a new capital in the West because Constantinople is too vulnerable. In other words, he envisages a Eastern Roman Empire, but with its capital in Sicily. He moves his capital eventually to Syracuse, Siracusa in modern Sicily. He’s the last emperor to visit Rome. Well, the last eastern Roman emperor actually to put in an appearance in Rome.
As I’ve said, these emperors would call themselves the Roman emperor until the day the Turks penetrated the walls of Constantinople in 1453. But they weren’t really emperors of Rome in the sense of control over the city of Rome after 664, the last visit of an emperor to Rome. And then four years later he was murdered in Syracuse.
Well, the fact that the emperor is murdered is not all that unusual. A lot of these emperors get murdered, get their noses cut off in lieu of murder. The notion being that if you’re mutilated you can’t be an emperor again. And then one of these emperors—as we’ll– again, we’ll discuss this– comes back even though his nose is gone.
But what this means is the end of this experiment in moving the seat of the Empire. It moves back to Constantinople. And Constantinople, for better or worse– and surprisingly, a lot for better– remains the capital of this powerful, if limited, empire.
The seventh century, however, should not be seen as a time when these realms are completely isolated from each other. The Islamic, the Eastern, the Western. It is still possible to travel. And, indeed, Brown emphasizes this. The archbishop of Canterbury in the end of the seventh century, Theodore, came from Tarsus in Anatolia, Syria. Many of the popes of this era were of Syriac or Greek origin.
A historical painting from Hasht Behesht palace, Isfahan, Iran, from 1669 / Wikimedia Commons
This starts to fade, however, as Islam takes control over more and more of the former Eastern Roman Empire. So not only do you get a diminution in communication and cultural exchange between the Islamic world now as it is and the Christian world, you get less between East and West. In the West people no longer tend to know Greek outside of Rome and the papacy. And by the eighth century, even in Rome, this knowledge is much, much diminished.
So Persia could be oriented towards Mesopotamia or could be oriented more towards the East, towards India ultimately. And this is partly for extraneous reasons. The rise of these people called the White Huns who press Persia from the East and take over modern Afghanistan and even what’s now Eastern Iran.
Persia has been a kind of off stage presence in this course. But in terms of trade, there had been a great deal of interaction. Trade and culture. The Silk Road. Traffic in spices. There have been a tremendous traffic in religious ideas, as well. Nestorianism becomes strong in Persia, the heresy of the fifth century. Manicheanism, which we discussed in relation to Augustine comes from Persia. A lot of apocalyptic thinking in both Islam and in Christianity. The focus on the end of the world and what God has planned for sinners and for the justified, comes from Persia, as well.
Now, however, in the seventh century and the eighth century start to see a hardening of the boundaries. Western Europe is less in contact with the East. It’s less in contact with Byzantium, with which it has religious disputes. And it is out of contact with these influences coming from the East from as far as Persia, that characterized the period that we began with and up to now.
And this is reflected in the changing of the center of gravity of the Caliphate that we alluded to last time. The move from Damascus to Baghdad is not only a strategic decision or a cultural decision, but it’s a de-Mediterraneanizing of Islam. Its capital is now within the former Persian Empire. And if it doesn’t mean a Persianization of the Caliphate, it certainly means that Islam is not really a Mediterranean religion and certainly not exclusively.
And then, finally, in the West the seventh century sees the end of a secular elite. When we began this course we talked about the Roman Empire as characterized by a civilian or senatorial elite of wealthy people of cultivation, who are not only literate but who are scholarly and artistically inclined. These people are gone by the seventh century. In their place is a smaller and somewhat different elite, at least elite understood by learning, of clergy. It’s at this point that monasteries and churches become the repository of the classical legacy and are run by the almost sole literate people in society.
Pirenne Thesis and Conclusion
Henri Pirenne / National Portrait Gallery, London
So, how do we put these things together, these phenomena together? One way of doing this that was very popular in the mid-twentieth century was what was known as the “Pirenne thesis”, named after the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who was active in the teens, twenties of the twentieth century. The Pirenne thesis goes like this:
The Roman Empire did not fall in 476. It continued, if not as a political entity, as a sociocultural and most especially, economic entity. Because the Mediterranean and Mediterranean unity were what characterized the Roman Empire from the start, and this was not disrupted by the barbarians. Mediterranean trade continued to exist. Gold coinage continued to exist.
What ended them was not the collapse of the Empire in the West, but Islam. That the Arab invasions cut off the different pieces of the Mediterranean and ended Mediterranean trade. And with the end of the Mediterranean as this key entrepôt, or economic heartland, new centers were created, particularly Northern Europe.
The rise of Northern Europe that I mentioned here was most obvious in the ascent of Charlemagne. Charlemagne, crowned emperor in Rome in 800, was by no means from Rome or Italy, but was from the Frankish realm. The lands of his family were in what is now Belgium, Western Germany, the Netherlands, and Northeastern France. His capital was not Rome. He went there to be crowned. His capital was rather in Aachen, a city that is in Germany but only barely. It’s very close to the Dutch border. Very close to Belgium, as well. Very close to Luxembourg. And quite close to France.
He is a representative then of Northern Europe. Aachen had been known to the Romans because it has hot baths, and that’s why Charlemagne chose it also: natural hot springs. But it is not part of the olive oil and wine-growing regions of the Mediterranean that we saw were what the Romans loved, and what they considered to be civilization.
For Pirenne then, the rise of Charlemagne is made possible by Mohammed. And, indeed, his master work was called Mohammed and Charlemagne. Here, the periodization is definitely Islam. Islam creates Europe because Europe is the antithesis to the world created by Islam. Pirenne had no ideological opposition to Islam. For him Islam is simply a facilitating factor in destroying the ancient world. And by ancient world, he means the Mediterranean.
Well, this is one of those elegant theories that has been disproven. It’s been disproven largely by archaeology, which has shown that there’s lots of trade in the Mediterranean. That the arrival of Islam by no means disrupted trade, by no means disrupted these contacts.
But it is true that beginning with Islam, beginning with the seventh century, there is a drifting apart of cultural and political realms. We can start to identify three different civilizations.