The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean

The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean:
Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072
Ronnie Ellenblum
Cambridge University Press   270pp     £60

I suspect Ronnie Ellenblum is one of those people you love to invite to dinner and, by the time pudding comes round, you half wish you hadn’t. He is fluent, persuasive, iconoclastic and provocative. For Ellenblum, nothing is off limits. He has a case to make and he is going to follow it through to the finish – even when it might be time to move on to another topic of conversation. He is terrific, but at the same time he can be infuriating.

His new book, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean, is a slender volume and one that in some ways is a curious production for the august stable that is Cambridge University Press. Ellenblum’s book is a polemic, arguing forcefully that climate change in the tenth and 11th centuries has both been consistently overlooked by scholars, but also that environmental factors can help understand everything from the failure of centralised states to the accelerated spread of religion, from the rise of nomadic powers to the collapse of organised bureaucracies.

Unlike most historians, who focus on political upheaval and economic boom and bust, Ellenblum leads the charge from the environmental front. Put traditional explanations to one side, he argues again and again; the key is to move away from such viewpoints and to focus on severe winters, dry summers, food shortages and the consequences they bring. When produce is scare, prices rise. And when prices rise, governments fall.

There is something in this and Ellenblum’s harvesting of primary material is impressive. He zooms in on any comment of chroniclers, letter writers or merchants’ contracts that mention adverse weather conditions, drought or famine. It is to the skies that we should look for explanations for everything from the rise of the Fatimids in Egypt to the Seljuk conquest of the Abbasid Caliphate. As an approach, this is exciting and original – though Ellenblum rightly notes the work of Richard Bulliet, whose recent research likewise tries to draw back from traditional viewpoints to challenge long-held views from a climate-based viewpoint.

The book is beguiling. Like that dinner party guest, Ellenblum is nothing if not entertaining. The author prods, nags, challenges and unsettles. The pressure on the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century had little to do with political and military overstretch, in Ellenblum’s view, but resulted from shortages on the steppes that led tribal peoples, like the Pechenegs and the Seljuk Turks, to migrate in search of pastures that could feed their flocks. They met with demoralised, weakened populations in no state to resist them. And so, Baghdad fell and Constantinople came under threat.

This is all good stuff. The problem is that it is sometimes too neat. For one thing, literary sources are always taken at face value. If a chronicler says there was a shortage of food, there was a shortage of food – and therefore climatic problems. But sometimes historians wrote up bad governance in terms their audiences understood, rather than giving accurate commentaries.

Some episodes are over-written, or watered down to meet the wider ends. I was left scratching my head reading about the Norman conquest of southern Italy and indeed the schism of 1054, both correlated to environmental change in ways that were unconvincing and weakened the wider premise. The Byzantine currency, the author states, fell in value by 12 per cent in the early 1050s, a figure that will leave numismatists nonplussed: the amount of gold in the coins probably fell in this period; but this did not mean that its value collapsed. And in any event, fell against what? We are not dealing with complex foreign exchange programmes and, in fact, eastern and western sources are conspicuously silent about this issue when we would expect them to be howling in dismay if a currency collapse was in progress.

In much the same way Ellenblum is sometimes willing to take the literary sources at face value. There were a lot of vested interests and competing claims flying round the eastern Mediterranean in this period and while it can be tempting to take embittered (or eulogistic) writers at their word, much hangs on whose voice you listen to. Did Constantinople decline in the mid-11th century, as Ellenblum suggests? Perhaps; but if it did, a little more explanation would have been helpful.

And then, of course, there is the negative evidence. Ellenblum presents much material on droughts, food shortages, famines and so on in periods where there was no upheaval, no rioting, no mass migration. Why, then, did the same factors not produce similar results? Why, when the Nile floods failed during the early 11th century was there no unrest? Why did the ‘domino effect’, as he calls it, sometimes cascade, but often did not?

And yet, for all the questions and niggles with a book that reads like a long extended essay (not helped by the generous line spacing and repetition that CUP should have jumped on), I kept finding myself drawn to the loud and argumentative voice at the other end of the table. There are new ways to look at the 10th and 11th centuries and, as Ellenblum himself notes, there is only so far one can go with the material available. There is, incidentally, a mass of supporting data – for example, from ice-cores in Greenland, tree rings in Scandinavia and pollen counts in Asia Minor – that the author does not refer to, which is something of a shame. But the book is nevertheless a gauntlet thrust in the face of medieval historians, challenging them to engage with questions that are rarely considered, let alone asked. Ronnie Ellenblum should be commended for being the dinner party guest who makes you think (even if you don’t always agree with him).

Peter Frankopan is Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and author of The First Crusade: The Call from the East (Bodley Head, 2012).

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