How to Save a Civilisation – the 10th Century Crisis

A sixteenth-century painting in Beverley Minster of Æthelstan with Saint John of Beverley
Dylan Moore / Painting: Beverley Minster

It’s very easy to be depressed and lose a sense of hope these days.  Trump, lockdowns, climate scams, immigration and public finances out of control, race baiters trying to erase our history…  The question arises: is Western civilisation finished, no longer possessing the mettle to survive?  It’s not a view I share because we have been here before and come through, although that is no cause for complacency because to come through the present existential challenges facing us, we need to learn some hard lessons from the past and respond accordingly.

I have always been interested in inflexion points in history, moments where everything seems to change together so what went before seems wholly different to what follows.  I’m not talking just about political change, or economic change, but deeper change, the change of peoples or their fundamental beliefs as well as economic and other changes.  An example would be the period from circa 450 to 600 AD in Western Europe when languages, culture, peoples, states, economies, religions were all completely transformed over half a dozen generations.  Another would be 1450 to 1600 AD, not quite as dramatic, but encompassing the Renaissance, Reformation, the emergence of the nation state from the ruins of medieval monarchy, the Age of World Exploration and trade, and the beginning of the modern era.

Why am I so interested in these inflexion points?  Well, partly because I have long had the sense we’re living in one ourselves.  They seem to happen every 500 years or so, a period of total flux, the breaking of a log-jam of historical forces.  The outcomes are not pre-ordained at all though – they are for men and women to strive and to shape.  Thus, today we see yet another attempt to recreate the Roman Empire in Europe, mass alien cultures migrating, arguably invading, the information technology revolution working its way through economies and societies.  No one knows how any of this will pan out, but if we do not understand the risks and the processes at work, what we now call European Christian civilisation may no longer exist for our great grandchildren.  Hell, they may not even speak English or know anything about us.

I’ve chosen the inflexion point of 850 to 1000 AD because it’s very relevant.  European civilisation was facing an existential crisis and looked set to fall and be replaced by things wholly alien, and yet… and yet… it miraculously rose from near collapse to overcome the challenges, to transform itself, but still to be European Christendom, with huge advances in literature, art, law and science just around the corner.

So, what were the challenges and the nature of the crisis?  In 850 AD Christendom was effectively limited to France, the Low Countries, the northern fringes of Spain, the British Isles, mainland Italy, south western Germany, Greece and Asia Minor.  The latte two were what remained of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire clinging on grimly against attacks from the Muslim Arabs, pagan Bulgars and waves of other steppe barbarians behind them.  In the West Charlemagne’s attempt to restore the Western Roman Empire with his crowning as Emperor in Rome had faded with his death and the Empire fell apart.  He had however conquered and Christianised the pagan Saxons tribes and checked the Moors at the Pyrenees.

However, by 850 AD things in the West were looking grim.  The Vikings were marauding almost unchecked around the western coasts, picking off the weaker kingdoms, Muslim raiders were established in Provence and cutting the Alpine passes, raiding the Mediterranean coasts and carrying off huge numbers of Europeans into slavery.  How bad were things?  So bad that in 846 a Muslim fleet and army almost captured Rome and were able to loot St Peter’s with very little opposition.  So bad that the Papacy was a corrupt joke, the plaything of Roman clans such that there were often several competing Popes and in 897 Pope Stephen dug up his predecessor and rival Pope Formosus and put his corpse on trial.  So bad that the English Saxon kingdoms were falling one by one to the Vikings and only Wessex survived by the skin of its teeth.  So bad that France was in chaos with no central authority and the Vikings besieging Paris. So bad that Crete was Muslim and the Byzantine European Empire barely stretched thirty miles inland from Constantinople. So bad that Hungarian raiders were plundering southern Germany, Austria and northern Italy almost every year, taking vast numbers of slaves. So bad the Christian Spain was reduced to the Cantabrian mountains of the far north, with many of those in Muslim controlled Spain converting to Islam.

Divided, chaotic, ill-led, surrounded by aggressive invaders on every side.  People despaired, cultural collapse seemed imminent.  So, what changed such that seemingly inevitable final collapse was transmuted into victory and advance?   Well four things changed, four sequences of remarkable people living broadly concurrently, but all four groups shared some qualities, beliefs, even if they clashed at times.  Who were they?

Firstly, starting at home, the three greatest monarchs we English have had in a sequence: Alfred the Great, his son Edward the Elder and nephew Athelstan, the greatest of them all.  We all know about Alfred, how he saved Wessex, but what is less well known is how he fortified the kingdom, built a small navy, advanced scholarship including learning to read and write in Latin himself as a grown man.  Edward is the least known, but he conquered the Danish kingdoms south of the Humber while Athelstan completed the job, and was recognised as the first king of the British Isles by the Celtic and Gaelic rulers.  Of course, England later fell to the Danes and Normans, but these three left it the best administered and the first nation state in Europe, so strong that it absorbed its later conquerors and wasn’t absorbed by them.  Things would have been very different if Wessex had fallen in the 860s.

The second and, most important in my book, were the Ottonian Saxon dynasty of Henry ‘the Fowler’, and his son, grandson and great grandson Otto I, II and III, and not forgetting three of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages, Otto II’s widow Theophano (a Byzantine princess), his mother and sister.  Quite possibly Theophano was the most remarkable of all the exceptional personalities mentioned here – stunningly beautiful, a Byzantine Greek queen widowed early with a baby son, she had to exercise regency powers and managed to defeat her internal and external enemies in a foreign warrior male world.  She is well worth a study in herself.

Having been forcibly incorporated into Christendom, the Saxons were within three generations to save it.  They welded the loose and failing eastern part of Charlemagne’s realm together, defeated the invading Slavic tribes, smashed the Hungarians such that the latter converted to Christianity and established an ordered kingdom, took much of Italy and secured it from Islam.  Ultimately their threat forced the Danes to be absorbed into Christendom by acculturation, and thence the rest of Scandinavia.

Thirdly, was the rejuvenation of Byzantium under the ‘Macedonian’ Emperors Nikephoros Phokas, John Tzimiskes and Basil II ‘the Bulgar Slayer’.  Of these only Basil wasn’t a military usurper to the throne, but had been a child co-Emperor to both.  Again, another beauteous Byzantine Empress called Theophano was a remarkable character, married to Nikephoros after her first husband Emperor died, conspired with John Tzimiskes to murder Nikephoros and was then betrayed by John.

Nikephoros worked out how to defeat the Muslim armies by indirect warfare and developed an efficient army. He reconquered Crete and drove the Muslims from the Aegean, reopening the trade routes, retook Cyprus and Cilicia in south eastern Turkey.  John Tzimiskes, despite murdering Nikephoros, carried on his war. A brilliant general he went on the offensive conquering Syria, Lebanon and parts of modern Israel from the Arabs, before dying young from disease or poison depending on whom you believe.  If he had lived another few years it’s likely that he would have retaken the Holy Land and Egypt with incalculable consequences for the long term of the region as these countries still had very large native Christian populations.

After John’s demise, Basil succeeded as lead Emperor after some dynastic politicking.  Basil wasn’t an ‘Easterner’ like Nikephoros or John, but was focused on recovering the Balkan provinces of the Empire, which meant subduing the powerful Bulgarian kingdom.  It took him decades of hard warfare, but in the end he was completely successful and gave the empire a secure northern frontier for the next two centuries.

Furthermore, these were more than just military men.  Both Nikephoros and Basil redistributed land from the rich to the poor to increase the military qualified male population, Nikephoros deported all Muslims from reconquered lands, all three were hot on corruption, and the economy strengthened as a consequence.  More than anything, they gave Byzantium its confidence back and ensured that Islam was in retreat for the first time in its history.

Finally, the men and women, mainly clerics, who were responsible for what can be called the Early Medieval Renaissance.   The clerical and intellectual elite understood all too well the civilisational crisis they were facing and that it wasn’t just political or military, it was cultural and, in their world view, spiritual.  In the early 800’s the Catholic Church was a mess, divided, disorganised, shockingly led, in retreat.  By 1000 AD it was transformed with an internal discipline, had converted must of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, bringing these areas into Christendom as coherent states, and was providing the West with a coherent cultural counter-argument to perceived Islamic superiority.

It started in the monasteries and nunneries, the intellectual power houses for the West for over a thousand years, where brilliant clerical scholars like the Irishman John Scotus Erigena and Gerbert of Aurillac (later Pope Sylvester under Oto III) re-engaged with the Classics and philosophy, brought Arabic mathematics into the West and were merely the high points in an intellectual upsurge. So, alongside military and political renewal came cultural and intellectual renewal, the sense of Christendom fighting back against the encroaching darkness.

So how do we put all of this together?  The great warriors and statesmen staved off defeat, started the advance, but as we all know great leaders are invariably followed by worse and all too often their achievements don’t last.  But these did, even those of the Byzantines for a time.  Why?  Because of the fourth group of men and women, most humbly born, educated in the monasteries, creating a fervent Christian intellectualism, one that reconfigured the surrounding pagan barbarian peoples, advanced learning in many fields, to a great extent created a common higher culture across all of western and northern Europe so that men like Gerbert could be born to a peasant farming family in France, study in a monastery and then in Spain, visiting Muslim controlled areas and libraries, be recruited to work under the Ottonians and finally end as a successful Pope for a time.

And here is a lesson for our own time.  Just focusing on the politics of the challenges is to miss the deeper issue.  Our challenge is that our intellectual elite hate their own culture, admire alternatives that are proven time and again to be wicked and disastrous, that too many of even the decent people no longer believe in anything other than self-gratification.  We no longer believe in ourselves, our culture, our foundational beliefs and assumptions.  And how can you persuade people to suffer, to fight and die for something you no longer believe in yourself, how can you make your foes despair of victory if they see you doubt yourself?  This is why we are facing our crisis.  If 9th and 10th century Europeans could rise to the challenge, surely we can?

© JD de Pavilly 2021

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