Posts Tagged ‘Charles Martel’

31. Historical development of civilization


NB. In the following lines I handle a more limited definition of ‘civilization’: not as an equivalent of ‘culture’, but: the activity or mechanism of replacing somebody’s loyalty to his clan or tribe into loyalty to a state or land. So more in the classic meaning: civilized versus barbarian (tribal).

Monotheism, as discussed before in chapter 17, is a characteristic product of the Iron Age. An age of warfare. An age of intensifying trade and improving agricultural techniques. An age of slavery and other sorts of exploitation, and of luxury of the exploiting elites. An age also of tribal raider bands, robbing and burning villages and towns. In summary: an age frustrating the social, peaceful core of human nature.

Of course thinkers were pondering about restoring ancestral moral behavior: the human condition of paradisiacal times before overpopulation complicated human life, the times represented by ancient danced and sung creation stories about the Big Ancestor. The most renowned of these early thinkers was Zarathustra. Unlike later forms of monotheism, his belief in Ahura Mazda (Zoroastrianism) focused on morally responsible behavior and mitigating tribalism, and it had a strong civilizing effect on his believers. As we saw before, the early Jewish patriarchs adapted elements of this Zoroastrian monotheism to dress up their own power-establishing ideology.

In this chapter we will discuss the civilizing power of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For generation after generation, the individual adherents of such religions did believe in the goal and the plan, the perspective and the aim, the target and the object, the intention, the scope and the intent, the design and the meaning, of such a belief system. This belief held big states together, and provided rulers with an important tool to quench social unrest and prevent revolution. Belief can make individuals cooperative. Belief is socially important.

Belief is also personally important, as it can be the foundation of self-confidence. Tennis heroes such as Nadal and Federer need to believe in their own power to be motivated for success, and for football players the same applies. To be successful in an enterprise, one has to motivated for putting energy in it; for to be motivated one has to believe in the goal and the feasibility of the enterprise. Belief and trust are closely related feelings. Both are important for building and maintaining one’s self-image.

Belief in one monotheistic God often has a collectivistic character: an individual is nothing and God is all. The individual’s significance depends from his importance to God. The individual’s salvation depends on God’s mercy. Another aspect of monotheistic belief is that it is not innate: its dogmas and laws have to be taught. God belief is part of our human inheritance only in so far that during a million of years, our ancestors were singing and dancing their world as created by the Big Ancestor.

The collectivistic character of monotheism originated from and joined the tribal mentality. A clan member feels himself a part of his clan in the first place: his individual identity comes in the second place. For a western consumer, whose identity is primarily an individual matter, this is difficult to comprehend: he is a product of the Western tradition of individualism that started with the printing press, social mobility, education, humanism, Reformation, Enlightenment, industrial revolution and in the end Free Market. That tradition is absent in the background of Islamic monotheism, which originally had rather tribal roots in Mohammed’s Arabia. For a while (during the caliphate of Cordoba) Islamic civilization became the most advanced in the world, but after a decline of trade the Muslim power waned and Islamic civilization sunk into fundamentalist rigidity and backwardness. No printing press, no social mobility, no humanism, reformation or enlightenment, no development of individuality.

In the Middle Ages, nothing in western Europe was more political than religion. The church in every parish – nearly always the most imposing building – was as much a symbol of worldly control as a shrine to God. Where the western world took over 500 years to become more secular, it would be unreasonable to expect the Muslim world could manage the same feat in just a few decades.

Back to the Late Iron Age. The newly introduced monotheistic and collectivistic God was grafted onto the stem of an innate, more generic god belief. Monotheism is not part of our natural inheritance, it is part of a culture. It is a recent patriarchal invention. The propensity to religiousness is innate, but the monotheistic God belief is not. This is a relevant notion, because today ever more Western people no longer feel a bond with monotheist God belief. What did cut the threads is the introduction of television in the sixties, which introduced new models of being human for identification. These new models, stemming from a consumer-oriented free market, were far more attractive than the old model of the churches. In a few generations the bond with monotheism was gone for ever more consumers. But the innate religiosity is much firmer rooted in our genes by over 100,000 years of linguality and animistic religion practice, singing and dancing some kind of creation story.

First, let us look at the civilizing character of Judaism. Unlike Zoroastrianism, the new Jewish God belief did not aim at mitigating tribal warfare and raiding: for the Judaic patriarchs, it primarily had a financial-economic purpose. As for Christianity: it was only the episcopal organization of this sect that made it attractive as state religion for Constantine the Great. It did not become a civilizing instrument until under the Carolingian kings. As to the Islam: it had such a civilizing role from its beginning. This was its founder Mohammed’s only purpose, and for creating of a Muslim empire the creed functioned perfectly.

It was this Muslim power and efficiency, that around 750 AD for the Frankish leader Charles Martel was a greater threat than the raiding of uncivilized Saxons. So most of his organizational and military talent was dedicated to keeping the Muslims behind the Pyrenees. It was his formidable political talent that stopped the first Islamic attempt to conquer Europe. Would it have been a disaster if Charles Martel had been a lesser genius and when Islam had become the ruling religion all over Europe? We intend to think that in that hypothetical case, the Islam might have never developed fundamentalism, and might have functioned as a moderated civilizing monotheism. However, it missed three crucial elements: episcopal and papal organization, monasteries and celibacy.

Charles Martel already used missionaries such as Boniface to control the Frisians, and he won the loyalty of several important bishops and abbots by donating lands and money for the foundation of abbeys such as Echternach. He unified the Franks under his banner and defeated the Saxons. But to him, the invading Muslims in Aquitania were the real threat: a powerful military force, quite different from the tribal warriors such as the Frisians and the Saxons. He knew he needed a full-time, trained, professional army. Until then troops were only available outside the sowing and harvesting seasons, but Charles needed them year-round, and he needed to pay them to compensate for the missed harvests. To obtain money, he seized church lands and property.

With his well-trained infantry, Charles managed to defeat the Muslims at Tours-Poitiers in 732: one of history’s most consequential battles. The result was a Christian Europe: a system of fiefdoms loyal to local nobles and ultimately to the King (later emperor). Charles secured the support of the ecclesia by donating land and money for founding monasteries and churches, as he needed the ecclesiastical hierarchy for its administrative capacities. The pope from his side was highly dependent on Frankish armies for his independence from Langobardic and Byzantine power. The Byzantine emperor still considered himself to be the only legitimate Roman Emperor and thus ruler of all the provinces of the Roman Empire, whether recognized or not. So after the death of Charles Martel (741) the pope crowned his son Pippin, and decades later Pippin’s son Charles the Great, as Emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire”.

Copying monk in scriptorium

Besides the lacking ecclesiastical organization and monasteries, the Islamic monotheism lacked a third important element: celibacy. Without the care for a family and progeny, the Christian clergy could spend all their time and energy for ecclesiastical work. In the libraries of the monasteries, some monks could dedicate their entire life on hand-copying books and other activities related not just to religion, but also to arts, sciences and civilization in general. For example, many classical Roman texts known to us today would have been lost forever, if they had not been copied by monks in the Middle Ages. This applies to works of Tacitus, Livius, Plinius, and Archimedes: the cultural and scientific revolution that began in the Renaissance, was for a large part founded on pre-medieval works that had been preserved by copying monks.

Of course, other factors played a role as well in the surviving of a Christian culture in medieval Europe: such as the moderate climate, the variety of soil types and thus of agricultural products, the potential of large rivers such as the Loire and the Rhine to function as “natural highways” for transporting products, all in combination with the already mentioned “balance of power” between secular and religious authorities.

Charles Martel laid the foundation of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ by establishing monasteries etc. His grandson Charlemagne and his successor Louis the Pious invited scholars from all over the Christian world to their court in Aachen. Famous among them was Alcuin of York (735-804), who standardized a curriculum for use in the Carolingian schools, wrote textbooks, created word lists, established the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometric, astronomy and music). Also famous was John Scotus Eriugena, who succeeded Alcuin at the Palace School. This Irishman was one of the most original thinkers of the entire Middle Ages.