The Barbarians of the North

Venturing into the Darkness of Europe

During the Middle Ages, hardly any Arabs traveled to Europe – the region simply had nothing to offer. Those who did travel north, however, complained about the "raw" and "animal-like" behavior of the "Francs" – and about their lack of culture. By Mona Naggar

During the Middle Ages, hardly any Arabs traveled to Europe – the region simply had nothing to offer. Those who did travel north, however, complained about the "raw" and "animal-like" behavior of the "Francs" – and about their lack of culture. By Mona Naggar

"They lack a warm sense of humor; their bodies are large, their character is coarse, their customs rude, their minds dull and their tongues heavy. Their skin color is of such an extreme white that they appear blue. Their skin is thin and their flesh rough. Their eyes, too, are blue and similar to their skin color; their hair is smooth and reddish due to the damp fog. Their religious beliefs are unreliable, which can be traced to the type of coldness and lack of warmth. The further north they reside, the dumber, more vile and primitive they are."

Thus describes Arab historian and geographer Al-Masudi the inhabitants of Europe – more precisely, the Slavs, Francs and their neighbors. Al-Masudi lived during the 10th century. His comments reflect the geographic ideas of his time.

The seven zones of the world

Arab geographers divided the inhabited world into seven zones. This division had nothing to do with geographic reality, but it corresponded to the maps that were circulating in the Arab-Islamic world during the Middle Ages, and amongst the Greeks before that.

About 100 years after Al-Masudi wrote his comprehensive work on the history and geography of the known world, a judge from the Andalusian city of Toledo authored a book about the categories of peoples. For him, the most significant characteristic was intellectual achievements.

Said ibn Ahmad divided peoples into two groups: those that had cultivated science and those who had not. Those belonging to the former group included the Indians, Persians, Chaldaens, Greeks, Byzantines, Egyptians, Arabs and Jews.

In addition, the judge emphasized the achievements of the Chinese and the Turks. He devotes the main section of his study to these ethnic groups. Said ibn Ahamd classifies the rest of humanity as northern or southern Barbarians. He writes the following about the Barbarians of the north:

"The other peoples of this group – those who have not cultivated the sciences – are more like animals than human beings. In the regions furthest to the north, between the last of the seven climates and the frontiers of the inhabited world, the excessive distance from the sun in relation to the zenith line results in cold air and a cloudy sky. For that reason, their character is cool, their humor is primitive, their bellies are fat, their color is pale, their hair is long and straggly. Thus, they lack a sharpness of the mind and clarity of intelligence, and they are overwhelmed by ignorance and apathy, a lacking power of judgment, and stupidity."

The civilized world ends north of Andalusia

The Andalusian judge had almost no information about Europe and its inhabitants. The same can be said of Al-Masudi.

Islamic historiography and geography was indeed wide-ranging, but readers were only offered sparse and unreliable material about Europe.

They provide clues as to the geographic concepts of that age as well as to the level of knowledge current at the time. They also reveal the images that the medieval Muslims had of themselves and of others. For them, the civilized world ended north of Andalusia.

West Europe had nothing to offer

Brisk trade contacts which transcended the borders of religion existed with non-Islamic nations. Muslim, Christian and Jewish merchants from the Orient traveled through Byzantium, Italy, China, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

It is striking that Islamic travel writings from the Middle Ages do not mention Western Europe as a trading partner. There are several reasons for this. The goods that West Europe offered were not very attractive for the Orient. The only products sometimes mentioned in Islamic sources are weapons and slaves, and occasionally English wool.

Another reason why Muslims chose not to travel to Western Europe was the intolerance of its rulers and its population. Word had spread of the fate of Jews in Medieval Europe. And it was known from regions that had been reconquered – Andalusia, for example – that Muslims were forced to choose between conversion, exile or death. Islamic communities were never able to exist for long in Christian Europe.

A man's beauty is in his beard

Nonetheless, a few fearless souls from the Orient did venture into the darkness of Europe. Harun ibn Yahya is one of them. Little is known about his life.

He was held as a prisoner of war by the Byzantines in Constantinople. After being set free, he traveled to Rome. This visit probably took place in the year 886. In this city governed by a king called Bab, i.e. Pope, he is most taken aback by the Roman's habit of shaving their beards:

"I asked them why they shaved their beards and told them that a man's beauty is in his beard. What is your purpose in doing this? They answered that any man who does not shave his beard is not a true Christian. Because when Simon and the apostles came to us, they had neither shoes nor sticks, and were poor and weak, while we were kings, dressed in brocade and seated upon gold. They called us to the Christian religion, but we did not answer them. We arrested them and tortured them and shaved off their hair and beards. Once we had realized the truth of their words, we began to shave our beards to atone for the sin of shaving their beards."

Baghdad, August 1099. The Grand Kadi bu Saad Al-Harawi is standing in the divan of the Abbasidian caliph Al-Mustazhir Billah. The judge of Damascus loudly announces his charges. A few weeks earlier, the holy city of Jerusalem had fallen into the hands of the Crusaders. The Muslims referred to them generally as Francs.

The intruders had massacred the population, plundered houses and ravaged mosques. Thousands of refugees arrived in Damascus. Al-Harawi looked after them and asked the caliph in Baghdad for support.

The caliph expressed his deepest compassion – and that was all. At the beginning of the first Crusade, only a few Arabs were aware of the dimension of the threat from the West.

The Francs in the center of the Islamic world

The age of the Crusades lasted 200 years. Except for the military confrontation, this period represented the chance for a direct contact between the occidental and Islamic worlds previously unheard of.

Until that point, direct contact had usually come about via Spain or Sicily. Now, the Francs reached the center of the Islamic world. The Syrian knight Usama ibn Munqidh (1095-1188) witnessed this period first-hand.

He was a contemporary of Saladdin. He participated in battles against the Crusaders, but also lived through long peaceful phases. Usama used these periods to get to know the Francs better. The Syrian knight collected an abundance of experience and anecdotes in his autobiographical recollections.

Usama repeatedly stresses the "raw" and "animal-like" behavior of the Europeans. Above all, however, he points out their lack of culture. One example is the Franc's medical practices. In disbelief, he describes how one doctor had treated a knight with an abscess on his leg: he had the leg chopped off with an axe. Another example is their treatment of women:

"The Francs have no sense of honor, nor jealousy. It occurs that a Franc will be walking along the street with his wife, and they meet another man who takes his wife aside and converses with her while the husband waits on the side until his wife ends the conversation. If it takes too long, he leaves her with the other man and continues on his way."

Mona Naggar

© 2005

Translation from German: Mark Rossman

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