After Justinian turned out the lights in Italy, western Europe stumbled blindly into a period we call the Dark Ages. This is the part of history most of our schoolbooks skip over, and there is no reason why the busier class of readers should not skip this chapter and go straight to the next one. In fact, if you are exceptionally busy, you may wish to flip ahead to the very last chapter of the book to see how the story comes out.* There is no use in dawdling on the journey when you can teleport straight to your destination. You will miss nothing but fifteen centuries of war and devastation, broken only by the occasional doomed attempt to improve the human condition. You will probably even find it difficult to tell the difference between the twenty-first century and the sixth, from which you may deduce that nothing has really changed in that millennium and a half; and if nothing has really changed, than clearly there has been no real history worth reading. Go ahead. We’ll see you in Chapter 42.

——Now that all those insufferably impatient pessimists have gone, the rest of us can enjoy a more leisurely stroll through history, beginning with the Dark Ages, which will reveal themselves as the era when everything that was really important was happening.

You may recall (if you have any short-term memory whatsoever) that, when we left Justinian, he had destroyed civilization in the West and made most of the East hate him. We should not neglect to mention that he had bankrupted the empire, which, considering the amount of revenue he had added to it, must be counted as not the least of his accomplishments. The crushing taxes that followed did little to make Constantinople more popular in the provinces, and most of the spectacular conquests of Justinian’s reign were undone shortly after he died. The empire did maintain an “exarchate” of Italy for some considerable time, but “Italy” consisted mostly of a second-floor office in Ravenna with a sign on the door that said “Out to Lunch.”

In the rest of the West, the nations of modern Europe were being founded. That was not, of course, what it looked like at the time: what it looked like was a bunch of barbarian thugs squabbling over territory and stealing whatever was portable. But those barbarians were carving out territories that more and more resembled the map of Europe today. It just goes to show you that you can never see history when you’re in the middle of it. What our newspapers today describe as gang turf battles may be what future historians describe as nation-building.

We have already mentioned the Franks and their scheme to turn Gaul into France. At about the same time, gangs of Angles and Saxons (and Jutes, but nobody cares about the Jutes) were muscling in on Britain, carving the island into little territories for each clan, each territory under the control of a particular thug who had become successful enough to call himself a “king.” This is actually important, because Angle-land or England (apparently nobody cared about the Saxons either) would later turn out to be something of a big deal in history, so it is necessary for us to take note of its beginning now, when the ancestors of the English are grubby illiterate heathens. Who would have guessed that the half-grunted interjections of those brutish thugs would one day evolve into the elegant refinement of the language you see on the page before your eyes?

For a while the progress of the English (as we must eventually resign ourselves to calling them) was checked by the Britons’ King Arthur and his mighty deeds of valor, unless Arthur never really existed, in which case never mind. England’s first and greatest legendary hero was thus the implacable foe of the founders of the English nation, who would later idolize him, whether he really existed or not. This is the first instance of what will become a striking pattern in English history: the English will spend years of all-out effort in fighting an enemy—Joan of Arc, Washington, Napoleon, Gandhi—and then celebrate that enemy as one of their greatest heroes. It makes perfect sense to the English, but it utterly baffles their neighbors, who find that the surest way to win the hearts of the English is to inflict some catastrophic defeat on them.

Eventually, the English settled down and began to fight one another instead of the Britons, whom they insisted on calling “Welsh,” an Old English word meaning “dirty foreigner.” Our narrative, therefore, must lurch back to the East, where at just about the same time an Arabian named Mohammed was hearing God talk to him.

Soon Mohammad began to tell other people what God had said. As a former merchant, Mohammed had a keen eye for marketing. His new and exciting variation on the monotheistic theology of Abraham caught on and vent viral, and soon he had a considerable group of followers, which attracted the unfavorable attention of the authorities. Unlike the Christians, however, the followers of Mohammed’s Islam fought back when they were persecuted, and they had a habit of winning those fights. By the time Mohammed died, he had shown all of Arabia who was boss. Two generations after that, the whole east, south, and west of the Mediterranean belonged to the new Islamic caliphate.

Why did Islam spread so fast? Well, it is always very bad historical practice to assign a single cause to a complex historical event that must of necessity have had many causes. But, in a word, Justinian.

It was Justinian who made his subjects loathe the government in Constantinople. It was Justinian who launched the greatest persecution of Christians since pagan times against millions in his empire whose crime was in not accepting, or not understanding, the technical language of theology as promulgated from the capital. It was Justinian whose lavish spending led to unbearable taxes for the masses.

Then came the Arab armies dictating their harsh terms of surrender: “You must pay lower taxes and accept the license to practice your religion without suffering the extremes of torture for your faith.” For some reason, the people of the eastern and southern parts of the empire practically gave up without a fight. Not only did the Arabs take the better part of the Roman Empire, but they conquered Persia as well.

And why did they conquer Persia, too? This is one of history’s delightful little jokes: about fifteen minutes before the Arab conquest, the Eastern Roman Empire had finally and utterly destroyed the power of Persia, after seven centuries of constant rivalry and war. It was really the Empire’s most magnificent single accomplishment, but no one remembers it, because the Byzantine conquest of Persia lasted for about as much time as it takes oatmeal cookies to bake. Then the Arab conquerors swept into the defenseless, demoralized, and disorganized Persian Empire and made themselves at home.

The new landlords thus inherited not one but two vast empires with entrenched bureaucracies and long traditions of civilization. Not very surprisingly, it was the Islamic world that pedaled the bicycle of civilization for the next few hundred years. While the stubby remnant of the Roman Empire carried on pretending it was still the center of the universe, and the rest of Europe stumbled around in the Dark Ages banging into the furniture, the vast Islamic empire to the south and east carried on civilization in the grand style, mixing the ideas it had inherited from Greece, Rome, and Persia with the clear simplicity of Islam to create a flourishing urban culture that was distinctly its own. In fact, the Caliphate is so interesting in itself that it is a pity it does not form part of history proper except when it comes in conflict with its European neighbors. No matter how much the Muslim world may have accomplished, we must therefore resolutely ignore it if we are writing a respectable history of the world.

In contrast to life in the Caliphate, life in western Europe had become so unattractive that countless thousands decided to escape it. Leaving behind the broken-down cities and overgrown farms, men and women flocked to religious establishments, the only places left where life had any certainty, and where the world seemed to make a bit of sense. Many of these new monks and nuns came from the upper crust of the old Roman society. They could not retain possession of their fortunes when they took their vows of poverty, but they discovered a clever little loophole. If they donated their wealth to the religious establishments they were entering, they were technically giving it to God, but practically taking it with them. Monasteries were a good bit safer from pillaging by the nominally Christian barbarians than private houses, so the cloistered life looked like a good investment even to the most avaricious. Monasteries began to look more like gentlemen’s leisure clubs than ascetic refuges from the temptations of the world. And that was a very good thing.

It was good because the monasteries were thus enabled to pickle what was left of civilization, so that it would be preserved for distant future generations who would have the time to enjoy it. Only in a monastery could a man spend time among old books and be told he was doing a good thing. The lower classes, as usual, had no time for literature, and the new barbarian rulers thought reading was for sissies. But monks were actually supposed to spend time reading old books—and, more to the point, copying them. We owe almost everything we have of classical civilization to the gentlemen of leisure who invested their hoarded wealth in the nearest monastery.

Outside the monasteries, on the other hand, life was poor, nasty, brutish, and short, if not always solitary. The only organization that retained any respect at all for the civilized life was the Church. Fortunately for civilization, the Church had a few tricks up its sleeve.

*This refers, of course, to the printed version of the book, which will appear later this year. You may still skip ahead if you have a working time machine and promise not to hold Dr. Boli responsible for any wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.


  1. Unfortunately, my time machine is in the shop, so I’ll have to savor each chapter as it comes out, when it comes out, rather than skipping to the end and reading them all at once.

    Another fine chapter, and due to this being one of the areas of history on which I am personally a bit less knowledgeable than I’d really like to be, I can’t really see anything obvious to add. My sister, however, is a medieval historian of the sort who throws any handy object at anyone who calls this particular period “The Dark Ages”, so of course I’ll have to show it to her. Luckily, Dr. Boli lives well out of object-hurling range of my sibling. Unluckily, I do not, so I will probably have to dodge a few impromptu missiles on his behalf.

  2. Doug says:

    “their harsh terns”?

    “Girl, that fish really went to your hips.”
    “Oh, she TOTALLY had her beak done.”
    “I don’t know how she puts up with his squawking…”

    • Heh. Two and a half years later, that particular typo hasn’t been fixed yet.

      It’s become fashionable for present-day thinkers to wax nostalgic about the way the Islamic conquerors of Spain and the Levant were tolerant of Christians and Jews, in contrast to the way their former (and/or later) Christian overlords would torture and oppress religious minorities. But if you look at how the Andalucian or Turkish rulers actually treated their non-Muslim subjects, it resembles the way Blacks were treated in the Jim Crow South. Special taxes, shut out from full participation in local government, forced to live in certain areas and/or wear special clothing to advertise their status as a minority not fit for polite company…yep, sounds like tolerance only by comparison with the slightly worse conditions in contemporary Europe.

      • Dr. Boli says:

        Dr. Boli hates to fix typos when people have made amusing comments on them. It spoils the joke.

        Your point about the Islamic conquerors is well taken. The problem, as Dr. Boli sees it, is this: Europeans and their colonial descendants have gone from thinking themselves uniquely good to thinking themselves uniquely bad, but the one thing they cannot bear to think is the truth, which is that they are not unique at all.

  1. […] this day in 627, the Roman Empire in the East finally broke the power of the Persian Empire after more than seven centuries of nearly constant conflict—the longest, and therefore most […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *