But this makes speculation about medieval tipping points all the more fascinating. How different might our world be if it had been changed not decades but centuries ago?
The Empire of the World: Islam pushes past Poitiers
The Battle of Poitiers (732) saw the furthest advance of the forces of Islam into Western Europe. A Muslim army under the incredibly capable Abd Al-Rahman faced a Frankish force under the equally formidable Charles Martel. Evenly matched in both numbers and leadership, the two forces fought on and off for seven days before Abd Al-Rahman’s death led the Islamic forces to retreat.
Poitiers set the limits on Muslim expansion in Europe, and led to the rise of a great Frankish empire under Charles Martel’s grandson, known to history as Charlemagne. But what if Charles rather than Al-Rahman had died at Poitiers, the Frankish troops becoming the ones to retreat?
As Barry S Strauss explored in a chapter of Robert Cowley’s What If?, this could have led to a very different Europe. The Caliphate established in Spain, emboldened by this success, could have expanded through France and across Western Europe, unhindered by the divided native princes. Given the success of Muslim civilisation in Spain, the Europe that followed would have been a far more pleasant place - its architecture more open, its farms more productive, its scholars rediscovering Greek classics two centuries earlier.
An Islamic Europe could also have meant an Islamic America, as Europeans took their religion across the Atlantic. Christianity would have continued, like Judaism, as a minority choice within a culture tolerant of the other Abrahamic faiths.
Strauss ends by saying that this Islamic Europe might not have developed the democratic and mercantile ideas that led to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, with all the discoveries they brought. But equally, given the deeply undemocratic nature of medieval European states, it could be argued that these developments would have come sooner under Islam.
Either way, we see a very different Europe.
A North Sea empire: Cnut’s inheritance remains united
Cnut the Great of Denmark, often referred to in English as Canute, was one of the great successes of the 11th century. King of Denmark and England, he briefly controlled Norway and dominated other kings throughout Scandinavia and the British Isles.
On Cnut’s death in 1035 his son Harthacnut inherited Denmark. But Harthacnut, unlike Cnut, had spent most of the preceding years in Denmark, and the English did not accept his rule. Instead another son, Harold Harefoot, took control of England.
Though reunited for a while by Harthacnut, Cnut’s empire of the North Sea was never able to stabilise, and it soon collapsed. But what if it had remained together from the start? What if a single son had inherited both England and Denmark, leaving him with the resources to turn once more to the task of conquering Norway?
It’s possible to imagine all sorts of differences and similarities between the ensuing North Sea Empire and the kingdoms that instead took its place. Built around the sea lanes, it could have become a great naval and trading power. Dominated by the Vikings, England would never have developed the close ties with France that followed the Norman Conquest, and Scandinavia would have played a far larger part in shaping Europe’s culture and politics.
Two wars transformed: the Black Prince lives
Edward of Woodstock, later labelled the Black Prince, was the eldest son and heir of Edward III. A charismatic and successful military leader, the prince played a major role in the Hundred Years War between England and France, governing the English-held region of Aquitaine and leading the English to victory at another Battle of Poitiers (1356). His potential to be a great king was cut short when he died of dysentery in June 1376, a year before his father. The Black Prince’s ten-year-old son instead inherited the throne as Richard II.
It is easy to romanticise the Black Prince, given that he never became king and so did not mar his chivalric image with real political failures. But if we allow ourselves to go with the romanticised image, to imagine the success he could have been, then we see a very different fate for England and France. With Edward’s strong leadership and base in France he could have led the English to further success in the Hundred Years War, consolidating a cross-Channel kingdom rather than letting the French territories slip through his fingers. And without Richard II’s overthrow in 1399, the seeds would not be sewn for the Wars of the Roses that tore England apart in the later 15th century. The result could have been a stable and united Kingdom of England and France, dominating Europe and transforming its politics.
The potential of a dark age
It’s easy to forget the Middle Ages when inventing alternate histories. But as these three examples show, the period is full of fascinating potential.
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Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. His collection of history and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, is available through Amazon and Smashwords. He blogs about books, film, TV and writing at andrewknighton.com and can be found on Twitter as @gibbondemon.