The other day, in one of my online meanders, my Googling boots stumbled upon an excerpt of interest by Italian historian Augusto de Maria Giuseppe Imperatore (who probably passed away in the late 1980s or early 1990s), titled Rapporti di Amalfi con i Musulmani ("Dealings of Amalfi with the Muslims"). My Italian is somewhat rusty, but I could swear he contradicts himself in the span of a page or two. He introduces his topic of the influential and powerful city-state of Amalfi -- whose doyens for a time in the high Middle Ages along with other more famous mercantile republics of Italy (e.g., Venice and Genoa) enjoyed immeasurable success in a significant monopoly of Mediterranean trade -- with a snipe at the "Pirenne thesis".
That thesis is named after the early 20th-century Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who wrote among other works his most well-known book, Mohammed and Charlemagne. In a nutshell, the crux of the thesis is that through their militant expansion at unprecedented speed, geographical extent, and fanatical viciousness, Muslims transformed the Mediterranean into a "Muslim lake" (the phrase of the great 20th century historian Fernand Braudel). This involved, of course, the augmentation of the land-based militarism of jihad with piracy: jihad on the high seas. And Islamic piracy, in turn, involved not merely plunder at sea against ships, but also assaults on coastal villages along the entire north shore of the Mediterranean from the Asia Minor littoral and archipelago in the east clear over to Spain in the west, and a couple of times up the Atlantic coast, once attacking England and even Iceland. Often these razzias by sea included landing parties to penetrate deeper to kill, steal and rape more.
Thus according to Pirenne's thesis, the Mohammedan invasions and conquest Westward metamorphosed the Mediterranean from a perennial watery bridge of cross-cultural trade and learning and syncretism (which the Euro-Afro-Asiatic ecumene had enjoyed continuously for a good thousand years through the pagan Roman Empire clear into the Christian Roman Empire) into a hostile wall that impaired if it did not cripple that formerly vibrant intercourse of cultures. With various fluctuations over time, this relentless hostility lasted for more than a thousand years, from the 8th century to the early 19th century.
I don't know if Pirenne goes further to imply that this Islamic catastrophe represents the missing key to explain what historians have been scratching their heads and hypothesizing over for centuries -- namely the reason why Rome fell and the "Dark Ages" began. Indeed, one could conjecture that, but for the appearance of the malignant metastasis of Mohammedanism on the world stage at that stage, the Roman Empire never really "fell" per se; it rather transmogrified, from one butterfly to another, so to speak -- from the classic imperial form into the Christian form of the Holy Roman Empire. For a good three centuries beginning approximately in the third century A.D., this in fact was happening, and the thriving Mediterranean culture continued to flourish, now under the aegis of a new monotheistic theocracy -- until, in the middle of the 7th century, Arabs stormed out of the desert in an expansionist ferocity that would make ancient Roman colonialism and before that Alexandrian imperialism pale by comparison.
Be that as it may, Giuseppe Imperato's seeming contradiction comes in after he dispenses with the Pirenne thesis a little too glibly. Of course, he has a point in the very fact that there existed the Italian maritime republics at all, and flourished so successfully, from about the 9th to the 12th century. While this may present contraindications to the thesis, it would not be outlandish to suppose that even under the frightful duress of Muslim piracy, it was not impossible for various Western societies to succeed in continuing, or in reviving, a measure of economic expansion based in great part on shipping; and that thus the latter is not necessarily a refutation of the thesis. Nevertheless, Imperato seems to imply that the relative success of the Amalfitans, in recovering the Mediterranean as once again "mare nostrum" ("our sea"), indicates that the Pirenne thesis had been "sustained" for a while with "some exaggeration".
He goes further, and claims that a significant part of the success of the Amalfitans consisted in forging alliances with various Muslim states of the Mediterranean. These Italians came to have, Imperato tells us, a "monopoly on Byzantine imports and exports, and their region became a cosmopolitian center of commerce, the most important, famous in nearly the whole world". And this success, Imperato implies, was due to "their intelligent policy of rapport with Muslims" -- with whom, he goes on to add, they "maintained... amicable relations, indeed made true and proper alliances, overcoming any considerations of morality or religion".
Then in the very next paragraph, without skipping a beat and without any warning of an about-face, Imperato goes on to describe a little problem with this cozy business relationship with Muslims:
From the moment these [Italian] states abandoned scruple to make alliances with the infidel [i.e., the Muslims], they imprudently opened their doors into the heart of Italy. Sunny regions of the southern border of Europe were invaded by the menacing flottilas of the barbarism of Islam, which became the scourge of their peaceable populations. Wherever the Saracen forces approached with their ribat, as the Arabic sources call them, they sowed a "great terror", sacking, destroying, burning, torturing, massacring...
(The ribat he mentions in a footnote was a nautical device apparently improvised by Muslim navies -- a bridgehead which the pilot of the ships would maneuver to provide ready access to the beaches for their crews of assassins and other reprobates and riff-raff.)
And at that point he quotes Paolo Diacono's History of the Langobards:
"Innumerable evils everywhere occurred, and the blood of Christian multitudes was shed."
So much for the untenability of Pirenne's thesis.
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After reading Imperato's excerpt, I spent a few minutes looking up Amalfi, and soon found a gushing travelogue ("The amazing Amalfi Coast") praising this little seaside scape to the skies, describing its local charm, its breathtaking scenery of rocky beaches and vertiginous cliffsides dotted with archaic domiciles, and all the little cafés and limoncello shops tucked away here and there.
Then, after effusing over the lovely charisma of one particularly recondite village usually ignored by tourists, Praiano, and without skipping a beat, as the writer begins to skim the frothy surface of the history of some of the landmarks to guide the prospective tourist, he cannot help but mention -- for Europe veritably teems with the historical scars of its millennial abuse at the hands of Muslims -- trouble in Paradise:
"Dominating the bay was a tall and slightly lopsided cylindrical tower called Torre a Mare -- the Sea Tower -- one of several built in the Middle Ages during Amalfi's darkest chapter. Savaged by Saracen pirates who sailed in spreading terror, kidnapping women and ransacking villages, the coast endured widespread turmoil."
But that's ancient history now. As long as we keep airbrushing Islam out of the news while whitewashing its evil out of existence, we needn't worry that our tourism will be inconvenienced by terrorism.