Lecture: The Early Middle Ages

From the 7th to the 10th centuries, Western Civilization was influenced by four main groups. The first were the Germanic barbarians, who were settling into organized communities and converting to Christianity. Latin Christendom would consolidate under the Carolingian dynasty. The second was the Byzantine Empire, the empire ruled by Christian leaders and imbued with Greek culture -- the old Eastern Roman Empire. The third were the Muslims, who would ultimately impact Europe greatly, particularly in preserving the knowledge of Rome and Byzantium. And the last were the 9th century invaders (Vikings, Magyars and Saracens), whose raids would help explain the advent of feudalism. The medieval economy would expand only after they had also settled in Europe.

The Rise of Islam

The seventh century saw the rise of Islam, starting in Arabia and spreading to the edges of Europe by AD 750.

"Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah" in ArabicMuhammad was a member of the Quraysh tribe in Arabia. The Arabian peninsula, going back to ancient times, had been home to traders on the coast and Bedoin tribes inland. Muhammad and his followers would have been influenced by both traditions. They would have had knowledge of Judaism and Zoroastrianism from international trade, and of the hospitality and harsh desert environment of the Bedouins. This environment led Bedouin tribes to always offer hospitality, even to enemies, because the harsh conditions could kill at any time. Many Muslim peoples who live in desert environments continue the tradition to this day.

The Quraysh tribe was responsible for the upkeep of the Ka'aba, a temple in Mecca dedicated to the pantheon of Arabian gods. To tell the story of Muhammad, of course, we get into the legends of Islam. As with the life of Jesus, about which we have information only from the Gospels compiled much later, the life of Muhammad is told through Muslim stories about him. Having grown and married a wealthy older woman, Muhammad began to hear voices, which his wife interpreted as revelations from God. The intermediary was the archangel Gabriel, the same angel who had spoken to Daniel in the Jewish tradition, and who informed Mary of her pregnancy in Christian tradition. Once convinced to share these revelations, Muhummad was considered a prophet in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Ultimately he and his followers travelled to Medina, where he was accepted by the Jewish community there, and returned to Mecca with converts to take over the Ka'aba and sanctify it for the one God. The name "Allah" for God was likely chosen because Allah had been the superior god in the Arabian pantheon, so his name was thus easily understood. As Islam expanded, it did so as a partly political, partly religious force. But it also was an economic tool, as regions that converted to Islam were thus able to access increasingly global trading arrangements and benefit from them.

Old map: The Moslem Empire, 750 AD

Jihad is the spreading of Islam. Although it could take place through force, more often leaders and regions converted voluntarily, but "just war" was acceptable against pagans. Jews and Christians, at first persecuted, were later determined by Mohammad to be "People of the Book". Jews and Christians had also been blessed by the revelations of the one God, and the prophets of Judaism and Jesus himself were considered important in bringing those revelations to the world. But Muhammad is seen as the last prophet God will ever send. My interpretation is that it's as if God sent the Jewish prophets, and the Jews tried to be good but were unable to be completely righteous, so He send Jesus and the same thing happened.

Muhammad was sent, not with an interpretive message or narrative story, but with the exact words of God, channeled verbatim through the archangel Gabriel. These revelations were ultimately complied into the Qur'an, which unlike the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament is not comprised of stories or history. For this reason, Muslims are supposed to learn the Arabic language, the original language for these messages.

The Five Pillars

Islamic religious obligations are focused on the Five Pillars. The word "Islam" means submission, as in submission to Allah, and humility before him. As befits a religion that derives from the desert, the pillars also include social responsibility as well as personal worship.

1. Shahadataan: The Declaration of Faith

This is the simple declaration that "There is no God but God (Allah), and Muhammed is his prophet". The person who believes and states this, even though no one may hear, is considered a Muslim (a practitioner of Islam). Islam thus takes the "portability" of God, which we last discussed in regard to the Hebrews, to its logical extent. There is no need to be a member of a congregation to practice Islam, although community traditions encourage it.

2. Salaah: Prayer

Muslims pray five times a day, at appointed times, facing Mecca. (If you visit a hotel in Indonesia, an island nation where it's easy to get confused, there are arrows on the ceiling pointing toward Mecca.) The willingness to stop what you're doing to remember God is an important part of the devotion of the faith.

3. Sawm: Fasting

In addition to fasting for repentence or observation, there is a month of fasting. The annual Ramadan is celebrated with fasting from sunrise to sunset each day. This teaches forbearance, since overeating at night would cause discomfort and sickness.

4. Zakaah: Charity

When one has wealth, one is required to share it. Traditionally, beggars give Muslims the opportunity to fulfill Zakaah, and thus they have standing in the stories and legends of Muslim cultures. The wily beggar is a popular character in tales like The Thousand and One Nights (where stories of Aladdin also come from). In Muslim societies, transients begging money are given alms by people passing in cars. Even the taxation system is part of almsgiving in most Muslim countries -- paying taxes is considered a sacred responsibility since the money is redistributed to support social services.

5. Hajj: Pilgrimage

Once in a Muslim's lifetime, if it is possible for him/her to go, s/he must visit the Ka'aba at Mecca and pray there. Worshippers must remove all signs of distinction from others (jewelry, fancy clothes) and wrap themselves in plain cloth to enter the Ka'aba, where they join others to walk around the temple, believed to have been built by Abraham, the Jewish patriarch. People come daily from all over the world.

After the death of Muhammad, followers were divided as to whether the leader of the faith and the political empire should be descended from Muhammad or chosen by merit. Those who believed that the political leader must be Muhammad's descendant eventually became known as the Shi'a (from "Shi'at Ali," or "the party of Ali", Muhammad's son-in-law and closest male relative). Thus the division between the Sunni (those who follow the Sunnah, or secular writing of Muhammad, instead of his descendants) and the Shia began very early and Muslim history.

Islam's Golden Age (8th - 9th c.)

In the 8th century, although the Abbassid caliphs (princes) had connections to Muhammad, they ruled as Sunni and controlled the Arab world from Baghdad in astrolabeIraq. We study the Abbassid caliphate and the other Muslim dynasties of that era because this era marks the height of Islamic culture in the Middle Ages. Many of the most influential figures, however, were from Persia or Spain.

For example, the Persian physican and chemist Al-Razi was head of the hospital in Baghdad in the early 10th century. He wrote 200 treatises on medicine and chemistry, including clinical studies of smallpox and measles. He is considered the father of pediatric medicine for distinguishing children's diseases, and wrote on eye disease. All this plus he wrote philosophy.

Scientific instruments invented during this age included the astrolabe (pictured left). Although invented in classical times, many uses for it were discovered by Muslim scientists, including the calculation of the times of sunrise and sunset (important to prayers) and its use for navigation at sea.

The use of paper, adopted from China during this time, made printing and distributing information more practical. Parchment, made of animal skin, was expansive to manufacture.

Other advances of the era include trigonometry, biological evolution (a good example of lost knowledge that needed to be reconstructed later on), and advances in optics that would later lead to progress in both telescopes and microscopes. And history. Al Biruni, an 11th century scientist, physicist and geologist, saw commonalities among all religions (his specialty was Hinduism, and he had visited India). Here's his analysis of the flood story:

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In addition to Baghdad, other Muslim areas also thrived in intellectual progress. Persia was home to Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the west), a 10th century medical scholar whose books became the standard textbook in western medieval universities. His works carried on from Hippocrates and Galen, helping preserve and advance classical medical knowledge.

Islamic works are not just examples of the preservation of classical culture. One of the reasons we study this era is because Muslim cultures during this time not only kept the classical knowledge of Greece, the Hellenistic Empire, and Rome for future generations. Their scholars, supported by rulers who (like Charlemagne in the west) cared deeply about intellectual heritage, advanced significantly on the ideas of previous generations. When medical, astronomical, geographic, philosophical and scientific knowledge was filtered back into Europe, it came in an improved and advanced form.

The caliphs of Islamic states could patronize science and the arts (did I mention this was the height of Islamic art and architecture too?) because they had aquired vast wealth from trade. The networks extended throughout West Asia and the Mediterranean, including northern Africa and Spain. Jewish merchant activity gives an idea of its extent, here recorded by Ibn Khordadhbeh, postmaster-general of Baghdad, in 847.

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European invasion

Over a century before they had to deal with the expansion of Islam in the Byzantine Empire, Europe was subjected to invaders from all sides. In addition to Muslim Saracens raiding southern ports, Magyars were moving in from the east, and Vikings from the north.

The Vikings had an extraordinary impact in the 9th century. They came by sea, attacked coastal communities, plundered the goods, and left again. Unlike the Germanic peoples, they were not yet Christianized, and so considered monasteries and churches, with their vast wealth, a great source of booty. The raids were reported by monks and other literate peoples:

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Political rulers could not respond quickly to such raids -- most kings were too far away to mobilize troops and help in time. As a result, government throughout Europe became more localized. Kings granted land (fiefs) to the vassals (the vassal just below the king is called a "lord"). The lords pledged to serve the king militarily when he called. These lords in turn granted some of their land to their own vassals and knights, who would also provide military service to them and thus up the line to the king if needed. Feudalism is the name given by historians to the contractual arrangement between kings/lords and their vassals/knights -- military service in return for land. Land, laid out in manors or estates, provided income for the owner by producing surplus agricultural goods. Villagers on a manor thus became serfs, who were "tied to the land" -- when a manor changed hands, the serfs stayed put.

Mouse over the parts of the manor to see what they're about:


At first, fiefs were given to a particular male vassal and his immediate family for use during his lifetime. After his death it would revert to his lord, although the family might keep it if they paid some money. But over time, lords and vassals began to consider the land as theirs and the right of their descendants so long as they paid up each time the generation changed. This strengthened the hold of great families on the land, but weakened kings because they eventually could not control the land directly. However, the system meant that all the territory could be defended.

Lessons of History

1. Early medieval Europe was shaped by the influences of Islam and invasions from the east and north.

2. Islam, based on the idea of submission to God, was adopted over a wide area.

3. Feudalism developed in response to a need for local government.

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