NL XLII: The First Barbarism: The Saracens

Index to this series

Executive summary: The barbarians who overran the Western Roman Empire were not barbarists in Collingwood’s technical sense. However, “in the seventh century a movement inspired by hostility towards everything Roman … and everything Christian, flared up on the south-eastern frontier of the Roman world” (42. 22). This movement was therefore barbarist. Failing to conquer Europe, either from the east at Constantinople, or from the west at Tours, the movement settled down and ceased being barbarist—by the account in Chapter XLII, “The First Barbarism: The Saracens,” and later, in Collingwood’s New Leviathan. I check this account against more recent sources; it is barbarist to think that the “movement” in question, or indeed any movement, must always be barbarist; I look at the “civilization” of the British Empire as portrayed in a story of Maugham, and I compare a character of the story to Collingwood.


Collingwood’s historical account of barbarisms is a minefield, if one wishes not to sound like a barbarist oneself. The four examples will be

  1. the Saracens,
  2. the “Albigensian Heresy” (or the Bogomils),
  3. the Turks, and
  4. the Germans.

The very formula “the X”—definite article followed by national or quasi-national adjective—this has a barbaric use in branding a people with indelible features. A retort then is “not all X,” as in “not all men.” Collingwood issues such a proviso himself:

45. 68. Please observe, Reader, that I am not talking about all Germans. I do not say that all Germans are liars. I know of some who are not; those heroes, for example, who continue in spite of everything the Nazis can do to run their secret wireless station and keep on printing Das Wahre Deutschland.

Das wahre Deutschland, from a Swiss antiquarian bookshop, Antiquariat Peter Petrej

I have already mentioned Collingwood’s assertion, to be seen in Chapter XLIV, that the Turks have given up barbarism, even as the Germans have embraced it. Before this, he will observe that even different religions are not inherently incompatible:

44. 8. The Saracens’ intention to destroy Christendom was based on a too fanatical interpretation of Islam; for there is room for it and Christianity, as posterity has now seen, in the same world. It was based on a misunderstanding by the Saracens of what they themselves stood for.

Collingwood does not explain the term Saracens, but we might take it describe Arabs or Muslims, historically perceived as a threat to Europe. They were a threat, and then they stopped being one. To believe that they must always be a threat is a kind of Manichaeism, which is what the Albigensian heresy also is; and this will be considered as a form of barbarism in the next chapter.

Collingwood describes his working method as I might mine: “I profess only to be a plain man telling a plain story, the story of various successive barbarisms as I find it told by Gibbon and a few other authors whose works happen to be on my shelves” (45. 96). I have more recent authors, and the internet.

From Patrick Mérienne, Atlas mondiale du Moyen Age, a souvenir of the Cluny Museum, July 15, 2009

One of the more recent authors is María Rosa Menocal, whose 2002 book Ornament of the World is subtitled, How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Collingwood does not spend much time on this period, or on the earlier time when, as Menocal says,

Out of their acquisitive confrontation with a universe of languages, cultures, and people, the Umayyads, who had come pristine out of the Arabian desert, defined their version of Islam as one that loved its dialogues with other traditions. This was a remarkable achievement, so remarkable in fact that some later Muslim historians accused the Umayyads of being lesser Muslims for it.

Before the Umayyads engaged in dialectic with other traditions, they were merely “acquisitive.” Before that, by Collingwood’s account, the Muslims, the Saracens, were merely destructive. Let us see.

Menocal, Ornament of the World

Barbarism being a revolt against civilization, if there are going to be barbarists, there has to be a civilization (42. 1). For Collingwood, this is Roman civilization, which has become European civilization. Call him Eurocentric, but his urgent concern is the German attempt to destroy this civilization, and

45. 96. … I think it not wholly without interest to read once more how the professed champions of barbarism, embattling themselves time and again to make an end once for all of the thing we call civilization, have not so much perished at the stroke of lightning from heaven as withered away in the very hour of their victory, or even after it …

If, in 1942, we think there is something unique about the German threat (45. 1), this is only because the passing of time is a source of error (45. 11), which has led us to think that barbarists of the past were always barbarists (45. 12).

45. 2. We look at the records of these ancient barbarisms as people look at what they call history, with eyes half shut, blurred into something romantic; but you and I, if we know what we are about, have to look at the German barbarism (which concerns us, because it is happening now) with our eyes wide open and all sources of error removed; there is no other way of fighting it efficiently (45. 11).

Collingwood refers to what is called history; but in the proper sense, the historical is “not something that ‘is’ but something that ‘becomes’; something that happens and takes time to happen, happening more and more completely according as it takes more and more time to happen” (45. 22).

Collingwood says of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, “No agreement with any other body politic was possible; like all barbarisms it did not believe with any firmness of conviction that any body politic other than itself existed at all” (42. 65). This ought to mean that the Romans, being civilized, did recognize other bodies politic. They did, insofar as they made treaties and honored them. Collingwood does not spell this out. He could have done so by mentioning such examples as the Persians. Greek admiration for Persian civilization is seen in such works as Xenophon’s Cyropedia.

Previté-Orton, Shorter Cambridge Medieval History

C. W. Previté-Orton mentions the Persians in the Shorter Cambridge Medieval History of 1952 (page 225):

While in the West the foes of the Roman Empire and the conquerors of its provinces had been migrating barbaric tribes, in the East, until the latter reign of Heraclius, its enemy, Persia, had been a long-established civilized realm. But in the seventh century Persia was replaced by a comparatively barbaric collection of Arabian tribes, who like the Germans burst their ancient bounds and flooded their civilized neighbors in an irresistable migration … This was the Arab conquest and the rise of Islam …

Collingwood also mentions the German tribes (42. 17); but for him they were savages, and not barbarists:

42. 19. They were in no sense inspired by hatred of Rome or the civilization for which Rome stood. You may find one here and there like Ataulf,1 who cherished anti-Roman feelings in youth; but was taught by experience that the only status either possible or attractive to a ‘barbarian’ leader like himself was the status of a restitutor orbis Romani, a ‘restorer of the Roman world’.

1 J. B. Bury, Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians (1928), pp. 98–9.

What was it about Rome that the northern savages admired, or were at worst indifferent to? Though Collingwood never mentions the British Empire as such, some of what he praises about civilization can be seen in Maugham’s descriptions of the Federated Malay States, as in the story “The Back of Beyond.” I turn to this story also for its character George Moon, the Resident of “Timbang Belud,” who may be based on Maugham himself, and who also resembles Collingwood. In the story, the character Tom Saffary says,

Upon my word you’re a rum ’un, Moon. Sometimes you seem hard as nails and then you talk so that one thinks you’re almost human, and then, just as one thinks one’s misjudged you and you have a heart after all, you come out with something that just shocks one. I suppose that’s what they call a cynic.

Moon is about to retire. He has civilized his district materially. In the speech that he will give at the retirement banquet,

He would remind them that he had known [Timbang Belud] as a poverty-stricken village with a few Chinese shops and left it now a prosperous town with paved streets down which ran trams, with stone houses, a rich Chinese settlement and a club-house second in splendour only to that of Singapore.

Moon has civilized the district morally. Indeed, Saffary held a grudge for this:

Saffary was a planter and one of his Tamil overseers had lodged a complaint against him for assault. The Tamil had been grossly insolent to him and Saffary had given him a thrashing. George Moon realized that the provocation was great, but he had always set his face against the planters taking the law into their own hands, and when the case was tried he sentenced Saffary to a fine.

This is like the fining of the lord for having the wrong headlights that Collingwood mentions in Chapter XXXIX. George Moon might be seen as more civilized as Socrates, who ridicules Euthyphro for a similar judgement, against his own father, for murder. According to Euthyphro,

the man who was killed was a hired workman of mine, and when we were farming at Naxos, he was working there on our land. Now he got drunk, got angry with one of our house slaves, and butchered him. So my father bound him hand and foot, threw him into a ditch, and sent a man here to Athens to ask the religious adviser what he ought [4d] to do. In the meantime he paid no attention to the man as he lay there bound, and neglected him, thinking that he was a murderer and it did not matter if he were to die. And that is just what happened to him. For he died of hunger and cold and his bonds before the messenger came back from the adviser.

As Plato shows him to us, Euthyphro is deserving of ridicule. He is self-righteous, and he deploys the trick of asserting his knowledge, by way of stalling for time, so that he can think of answers to Socrates’s questions.

As Maugham shows it to us, the British Empire is deserving of ridicule, if not condemnation:

They call the young planter a creeper and you can tell him in the streets of Singapore by his double felt hat and his khaki coat turned up at the wrists. Callow youths who saunter about staring and are inveigled by wily Chinese into buying worthless truck from Birmingham which they send home as Eastern curios, sit in the lounges of cheap hotels drinking innumerable stengahs, and after an evening at the pictures get into rickshaws and finish the night in the Chinese quarter.

British tourists in Turkey today can drink innumerable beers (locally brewed) and buy Eastern curios made in China.

Subjects of the Empire may ask, “What have the British ever done for us?” They would seem to have given paved roads and the rule of law, but also prostitution, alcoholism, and the destruction of native industries.

Collingwood, New Leviathan

What then have the Muslims ever done for Europe, or might they have done?

42. 7. The intellectual labour undertaken by Islam, when once it had reconciled itself to accepting defeat, was considerable; but it is interesting rather as having provided our medieval forefathers with an introduction to Aristotle than on its merits.

Collingwood overlooks algebra and I don’t know what else. But these gifts came only after the Saracens had failed in their military conquest of Europe.

Herrin, Byzantium

Islam may have given Europe itself. According to Judith Herrin in her 2007 book Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (page 87),

Ever since the 1930s, when the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne pointed out the significance of the Arab expansion with the memorable phrase ‘Without Muhammed, Charlemagne is inconceivable’, Islam has been connected with the emergence of Europe. He argued that the Muslim disruption of ancient trade patterns, which had united all shores of the Mediterranean, forced northern Europe to develop its own economic base, independently of the south …

Collingwood may well have known Pirenne’s argument. He agrees with at least part of it. According to Wikipedia (as of October 1, 2018), Pirenne

pointed out the essential continuity of the economy of the Roman Mediterranean even after the barbarian invasions, and that the Roman way of doing things did not fundamentally change in the time immediately after the “fall” of Rome. Barbarian Goths came to Rome not to destroy it, but to take part in its benefits; they tried to preserve the Roman way of life.

This is just the kind of thing that Collingwood has been saying.

At a time when Hitler’s defeat is several years in the future, it is hard to start talking about how everything will turn out for the best, just as when the Saracens threatened Europe. The Saracens still had to be fought off. As Herrin goes on to observe, Pirenne fails to acknowledge how the Muslims would have overrun Europe, had the Byzantines not successfully resisted their attacks on Constantinople. John Julius Norwich puts it bluntly in A Shorter History of Byzantium of 1997 (page 101):

Had the Saracens captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe—and America—might be Muslim today.

Would there be something wrong with that?

Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium

Apparently the attempt to capture New Rome made the Saracens barbarists. As we said, they changed. Turks will be the barbarists in Chapter XLIV, but now Turkish schoolchildren are now being taught that Al-Farabi was Turkish, and the idea for the United Nations came first from him; Roosevelt only first used the idea, or the concept:

Birleşmiş Milletler fikrini ilk olarak ortaya atan Türk-İslam filozofu Farabi olmuştur. Birleşmiş Milletler kavramını ilk kez kullanan ise ABD Başkanı F. D. Roosevelt’tir.

I would compare this with Collingwood’s assertion that the classical physics initiated by Galileo was based on ideas developed a thousand years earlier by the Christian Fathers (31. 71).

Islam civilized the Arabian peninsula and many other places that it ultimately conquered. In particular it brought law and order, even if Islamic law failed to recognize societies in the Roman sense, as I considered in “Feyhaman Duran.” Islam then did not civilize the lands it took from the Romans—or call them the Byzantines (42. 22), since they were now ruled from New Rome, the city that had been Byzantium.

Collingwood himself refers not to law, but to the method of conquest, especially in Africa: “treachery, the means by which from the first the Moslems captured cities or fortresses, became a feature of Moslem warfare before the devastation which first became a feature of it in North Africa” (42. 33).

Gibbon, Decline and Fall

Menocal glosses over the method and even the fact of conquest:

The borders of the Islamic empire continued to spread, and by 711, armies of recently converted Berbers, led by Umayyads from Syria, moved into Europe. Within and around the Mediterranean basin, from the Taurus Mountains in the northeast (the border with Anatolia) to the Pyrenees in the northwest (the border with Gaul), the new empire filled almost exactly the bed left by the old Roman empire…

The new empire filled the bed left by the old empire? This recalls a recorded lecture that I heard on the radio in Washington in the 1990s, “You Are Still Being Lied To: Columbus and the Myth of Human Progress.” Howard Zinn quotes Samuel Eliot Morison as saying of the Columbian invasion of the Americas,

Never again may mortal men hope to recapture the amazement, the wonder, the delight of those October days in 1492, when the new world gracefully yielded her virginity to the conquering Castilians.

Pace Menocal, the Romans—the Byzantines—did not “leave” territories that the Saracens went on to occupy; the Saracens took them by force, even treachery. Granted, this treachery was, strictly speaking, the treachery of persons within the cities or fortresses under attack; and,

42. 34. There was a reason for this treachery: viz. the superior attraction of Mohammedanism as compared with Christianity for simple minds which, if not actually deceived by Mohammed’s misunderstanding (42. 25) of Christianity, were ready to think of Islam as a simple uncorrupted faith, in fact, a fool-proof version of whatever was best in Christendom itself, fittingly united with the fanatical valour they admired in the desert-bred Moslems.

There were other reasons to turn to the Saracens, as Gibbon points out when considering the years 665–89 in Africa:

The western conquests of the Saracens were suspended near twenty years, till their dissensions were composed by the establishment of the house of Ommiyah: and the caliph Moawiyah was invited by the cries of the Africans themselves. The successors of Heraclius had been informed of the tribute which they had been compelled to stipulate with the Arabs; but instead of being moved to pity and relieve their distress, they imposed, as an equivalent or a fine, a second tribute of similar amount.

I quoted Norwich to the effect that the West would be Muslim today, if not for the successful defense of Constantinople against Islam for eight centuries. Presumably that alternative fate is to be considered as worse than what we have. Collingwood is pretty clear on this point. Mohammed “thought, and taught, that trinitarianism implied believing not in one God but in three” (42. 24), and

42. 25. It is hardly conceivable that Mohammed should have so grossly misunderstood Christianity. But, genius though he was, he was also an illiterate man living in a country outside—just outside—the bounds of civilization; and in places and by people of that kind that is the kind of mistake that is constantly made.

Collingwood does not consider the possibility that the Prophet was getting the truth straight from the source, by a kind of miracle. In a general sense, he considered the possibility in Religion and Philosophy and concluded:

To a religious person it is surely true to say that nothing exists that is not miraculous.

Apparently the early Muslims would not have been so barbaric, had they understood Christianity better. “The hostility of Mohammed … appears to have been originally directed not against Christianity but against a kind of primitive idolatry which surrounded him in his Arabian home” (42. 24). This is why his influence on that home was civilizing.

In the conquest of North Africa, which the Prophet did not live to see, the treachery mentioned above was that of Christians. They were heretical Christians, Monophysites (42. 37). Being a younger religion, Islam had not yet developed the divisions that were a feature of Christianity (42. 39). Moreover,

42. 4. This was not the only way in which Islam showed its youthful or inexperienced character. During the conquest of Syria Mohammed, then still alive, granted to all who should surrender to Islam personal immunity, freedom of property and trade, and religious toleration; and early in the same campaign his successor Abu Bekr warned his followers to spare monks, women, and children, not to destroy fruit-trees or crops, and never to break their word.

We do not know why, in the conquest of North Africa, “the example of the Prophet and Abu Bekr was so signally flouted” (42. 41). In any case, the Muslims had not been able to take Constantinople in 673 (42. 3). As we saw in Menocal, the Muslims established a foothold in Spain in 711 (42. 43); but beyond the Pyrenees, they would be defeated by Charles Martel at Tours in 732 (42. 31). As if fearing this eventuality, they tried again, and again unsuccessfully, to take Constantinople in 716 (42. 48).

The dates here may be a bit off. Collingwood gives six months to the first seige of Constantinople, and thirteen weeks to the second; but both Herrin in her cited work, and Patrick Mérienne in Atlas mondiale du Moyen Age (Rennes, 2007), give the years 674–8 and 717–8 to these seiges.

Merienne, Atlas mondiale du Moyen Age

Quâ barbarists, the Saracens wanted to destroy Europe. However, in “sum[ming] up the main features of this episode in European history” (42. 6), Collingwood observes,

42. 61. It was the first experiment in barbarism and therefore in many ways the mildest, the least removed from the spirit of civilization itself.

This was because “Islam was more like a Christian heresy than an anti-Christian religion” (42. 62). Collingwood makes one of the remarks that call to mind Maugham’s George Moon:

42. 67. The failure of Islam to conquer Europe would have been, by a tougher God, unforgivable; but Allah is merciful, in other words if Moslems fail they can be content with minor successes such as the devastation of Africa, the psychological substitute for the uncompleted conquest of the world.

Collingwood has to speak this way, in conformity with his definition of barbarism. The Muslims themselves did not continue to meet the definition, as we have already said.

In “The Back of Beyond,” Tom Saffary discovers that his wife Violet had a love affair with a man who has just been reported dead at sea. Tom beats Violet unconscious, then looks at her “with penitent, anxious eyes.” This recalls comments on Twitter in response to the snivelling of Brett Kavanaugh at the Senate hearing of September 27:

I have seen men cry like Kavanaugh, the one who cried at my feet after smashing my face thru a glass coffee table, the one sobbing and screaming until I understood it was my fault for making him angry enough to attack me.

Deny, attack, become the victim … cry if you are able.

— Ellen Barkin (@EllenBarkin) September 27, 2018

Tom Saffary asks George Moon whether to divorce Violet or let her divorce him. Moon recommends neither, but just forgetting the whole thing:

Honour be damned. One has one’s happiness to think of. Is one’s honour really concerned because one’s wife hops into bed with another man? We’re not crusaders, you and I, or Spanish grandees.

Moon regrets having divorced his own wife for infidelity. When he ran into her years later, “a large fat dark woman whom he vaguely thought he had seen before,” he took her to lunch. “He thought her quite a pleasant, amusing woman,” one who would have, in his words, “settled down and made me an excellent wife.”

Violet will have a lot to forgive her husband for: not the beating, which “did her a power of good”; but “one needs a devil of a lot of tact to get people to forgive one’s generosity. Fortunately women are frivolous and they very quickly forget the benefits conferred upon them.”

For George Moon then, you can beat your unfaithful wife, because she herself believes she deserves it; but you still cannot beat your insubordinate employee, even if he is black. This represents some level of civilization. I would still ask a man: do you want a wife who has been raised to believe, and who does believe, that she can do things deserving of corporal punishment—or even punishment at all, administered by you as sole judge and jury?

George Moon accepts the label of cynic:

I haven’t deeply considered the matter, but if to look truth in the face and not resent it when it’s unpalatable, and take human nature as you find it, smiling when it’s absurd and grieved without exaggeration when it’s pitiful, is to be cynical, then I suppose I’m a cynic. Mostly human nature is both absurd and pitiful, but if life has taught you tolerance you find in it more to smile at than weep.

I take this as the voice of Maugham himself, and it is of some help in reading of the barbarism of today.

Edited, with Euthyphro reference and better map photos added, October 10, 2018

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