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The aptly named “Dark Ages” of European History is now reflected upon as being a pivotal moment in Western Civilization. The dark ages are defined as a moment when the great Roman civilization had fallen, and Europe slipped into a period of retrograde. Complex societies collapsed and all the achievements of the Greek and Roman periods were forgotten. Europe declined intellectually, artistically, philosophically as well as politically. This societal collapse led to inevitable invasions by stronger cultures who existed along the periphery of Europe; primarily the great Islamic empires of Africa and the Near East, as well as the Vikings to the north. These invasions however would also turn out to yield some positive repercussions for the European continent, helping in some instances to actually facilitate the end of the Dark Ages. This paper will examine the invasions of various Islamic forces across southern and eastern Europe as well as the Viking invasions of the north to demonstrate both the positive and negative repercussions of foreign influences on Europe during the Dark Ages.
The spread of Islam across southern and eastern Europe has played an integral part in shaping the current cultural climate of Europe. Islamic forces led offensives into two major areas of Europe during the ninth and tenth centuries; modern day Spain and Italy. Because of the chaos Europe was in after the power vacuum created in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire, Islamic princes started to encroach upon European territory, looking to expand their borders. No “Christian” fleet existed at this time, and the weakening Byzantine Empire was subdued to the point that in 827, Islamic forces took control of Sicily. One immediate effect of this event was that maritime trade was reduced radically. Dr. Knox, professor of History at Boise State University, describes the situation quite poignantly: “with Sicily in Muslim hands, and with Muslim control of the western Mediterranean largely in the hands of Muslim pirates and independent princes, trade simply became too risky for most. Contact did not end, but it was reduced to a trickle all through the 9th and 10th centuries.”
Here we begin to see the damage that these invasions had on the European people. They would become even more cut off from the outside world than before. The Vikings hailed from the modern day Scandinavian countries of northern Europe, and their tireless efforts to pursue land and wealth by sea and land would take them on journeys from the Newfoundland coast to almost every major area of the European continent. Although the Viking presence in the British Isles is well documented, perhaps their ferocity and influence can best be seen with their encounters with the Franks.
The Franks, who inhabit modern day France, would defend against almost constant Viking attacks by sea and land through most of the ninth century. An example of Viking influence in France still remains today. The Viking leader Rollo was made an offer by the Frankish King in 1896; if he converted to Christianity and protected the Franks from other invaders, he would give Rollo and his men a large parcel of land. Rollo accepted, and the area of France given to him still bears that history; Normandy, or the land of the Northmen. This example also shows how these invasions had religious implications as well.
Despite the breadth of Viking invasions, Islamic invasions were probably worse in terms of sheer numbers and casualties. However, as I stated before, these invasion were not always negative. The muslims from the east reintroduced Europe to more sophisticated forms of learning, from medical techniques to mathematics. Europeans are in fact indebted to the Islamic invaders for this re-education. Further,Islam and Christianity did not always exist in conflict.
In Spain, where the muslim Moors had invaded the Iberian peninsula, author Jean Devisse reminds us that for the past 1,000 years, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have existed in harmony in places like the city of Andalusia. Many vikings would settle around Europe as well, spreading with them Scandinavian culture. The spread of Islam would eventually be held at bay, and Europe would remain at large a bastion of Christianity. However, the interaction of foreign people with the indigenous Europeans, often through violent invasions, would have both positive and negative effects on the development of Europe, as well as its exit out of the “Dark Ages”.
1.E.L. Skip Knox. “The Tenth Century; Muslims in the Western Mediterranean”,18 December 2000. Available as published lecture online. http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/10thc/03.shtml. Accessed May 12, 2008
2.Jean Devisse. “The Legacy of Al-Andalus.” UNESCO Sources, June,1995 Issue 70, p15.
 E.L. Skip Knox. “The Tenth Century; Muslims in the Western Mediterranean”,
18 December 2000. Available as published lecture online. http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/10thc/03.shtml. Accessed May 12, 2008  Ibid. Accessed May 12, 2008.
 Jean Devisse. “The Legacy of Al-Andalus.” UNESCO Sources, June, 1995, Issue 70, p15.