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This comment, tells us that during the dark age, the living conditions in Muslim world were considerably better than that of medieval Europe.

Even it this was true for the people at the top, was it true for the "average" person?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 42 down vote accepted

This may be off topic as Wikipedia has a pretty complete article on the Islamic Golden Age.

The short answer is yes, while European nobles were sitting on wooden/stone chairs in cold stone buildings, the Arab nobles were laying on comfortable carpets, living a pretty good life quite similar to the old Roman nobles, enjoying many exotic goods and luxuries. There are records of visiting Europeans being quite impressed by the lavish living conditions of the Arab upper-classes.

Of course, the masses of the people usually didn't have it so good and being part of the lower-classes during that time, whether in Europe or in the Muslim world, probably wouldn't have been as enjoyable.

There were however various public services in the Muslim world, like 24/7 hospitals that at some points were forbidden from turning away patients who could not afford to pay for healthcare. Education was also highly valued and public schools were available, as well as public libraries (the two would have often been combined). Sewers and clean water systems were functioning pretty good, and Muslims washed regularly (something that got adopted only later in Europe) which provided better overall hygiene.

Freedom of expression was also relatively higher (although not in the modern Western sens), and interestingly, many things said and written by Muslims during that era would seem unimaginable and heretic to some Muslims today.

During this period the Arabs made considerable advances in science, education, medicine, philosophy etc, basing themselves on the great works of antiquity. In the mean time European scholars were stuck with a very inflexible Catholic church. Italian merchants eventually brought these advances and "resurrected" ancient texts back to Europe which triggered the Renaissance, which also coincides with the end of the Islamic Golden Age.

Sources:

Wikipedia

Metaexistence

Islamic History Online

EDIT

What I mean by:

while European nobles were sitting on wooden/stone chairs in cold stone buildings

is that there was a severe drop in the standard of living of European nobles following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. They lost access to many of the luxuries goods from the East and much of the engineering, architectural, philosophical and medical knowledge known to the Romans.

Overall, life would have been more enjoyable in the Muslim world during the European Middle Ages. Assuming of course that you were lucky enough to be born a free man, which applies throughout History.

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How sitting in a stone building makes your life worse? And were they really always just sitting? Also consider that mast of peasants in Europe were living in wooden houses while most of muslims were living in clay/stone houses. –  Anixx May 21 at 6:34
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@Anixx Yes perhaps my tone is not suited to SE:History, I apologize. What I was trying to illustrate is that the standard of living for the nobles was higher in the Arab world during that time. In my defense I do feel the down-vote was not justified :) As for the peasants, you're entirely right, conditions were likely bad for them everywhere at that time. I thought I said that in my post. –  Juicy May 21 at 6:39
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Don't forget about slavery in the muslim world. While European peasants weren't completely 100% free to do as they wished, they had somewhat more liberties than slaves. –  vsz May 22 at 7:11
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I don't think slaves formed a large segment of the population. Slave soldiers were part of the economically privileged en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamluk –  pugsville May 22 at 7:53
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For what it's worth, by some modern standards (United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery) serfdom was in any case a form of slavery, so European peasants below freemen lived under broadly slave-like conditions even if they weren't actually bought and sold. Establishing whether a typical European serf had better or worse freedoms and standard of living than a typical slave (or serf-analog where applicable) in the Muslim world might be a pretty huge project, not least because you'd have to start by defining "typical" across a thousand years and a continent :-) –  Steve Jessop May 22 at 10:43

It depends what period of Medieval History you're talking about (since the term can often be a catch-all referring to everything from late antiquity to the Renaissance, or can specifically refer to the period after the High Middle Ages - 14th/15th centuries), and what specific parts of Europe and the Middle East.

Note that Europe was severely depopulated at the time, intensive agriculture hadn't so much been "lost" as was the fact that lands were allowed to go out of cultivation and much of urban living had been whittled down to a few towns of 10k populaces each.

Luxury goods were certainly lost however, there was a catastrophic loss of skilled workers that went hand in hand with the decline of urban living and so on. The period most people think of when they're talking about the really "dark" part of the Middle Ages is essentially Central and Western Europe following the end of Justinian/Belisarius' abortive attempts to retake the Western portion of the Empire. The period after the actual fall (476) wasn't particularly bad, Theodoric was actually a fairly good ruler of Italy. But the 7th and 8th centuries saw chaotic mass internal migrations, Europe itself besieged on all sides by hostile existential threats (The Sassanids and then the Arab Caliphate) and so on.

A few notes on other things, tangentially related:

  • European states, with their mix of either common and/or roman law were probably a fairer place to live. There are a couple of Arab sources contemporary to the Crusader Kingdoms that speak about the concept of what they call "Frankish justice" - Namely Ibn Juabyr and Ibn Munqidh. They both speak highly of it in comparison to the laws of the various surrounding Arab states. Shariah has always been kind of inefficient as a legal code for reasons I won't go into here.
  • From about the Carolingian period (late 8th/9th centuries) onwards, Europe began a very slight recovery that accelerated in the High Middle Ages (11th to 14th). The real groundwork for the Renaissance was laid during this period. People like Gioto were, in some respects, the first "Renaissance painters".
  • It's untrue that it was Muslims who preserved Greek texts, the Latin literary corpus had always survived largely intact in the West, but the only class who really made any use of it were Monastic Orders. What prompted the outpouring of literary growth in the Renaissance was just the increases in agricultural surpluses that led to increased urban growth and the flood of Greek scholars Westwards, who reunited the Greek literary corpus with the Latin for the first time since the loss of Rome after Justinian.
  • A big part of the reason early middle ages science was so stagnant wasn't so much "Christian dogmatism" but an over-reliance on Aristotle.
  • Byzantium, the remnants of Rome in the Greek East, had perhaps the best developed cities and standards of living of any Empire outside of the Tang and Song Dynasties in China until the defeat of the Byzantine Greeks to the Turks at Manzikert.
  • Be wary of historical GDP estimates. India was wealthier than all of Europe combined until the early 19th century by these standards, purely because of the mass of grain it produced. Remember that most economic activity in those times were agricultural activities, and thus a place that produced a ton of grain was "rich". This didn't necessarily mean they were more technologically, culturally or socially advanced however.
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Monastic Orders had access to those ancient texts, but they don't seem to have worked/commented/expanded them much (with the exception of commenting on Aristotle). While the Arabs may not have been the unique guardians/preservers of those texts, they were certainly the only ones to be working with them extensively and made big progress, especially in math, by combining them with Indian mathematical knowledge. This played an important role for Renaissance science. +1 for the Byzantines having the best standards and the Arabs learned theirs from conquered Byzantine territories. –  Juicy May 21 at 16:23
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Didn't river-crossing problems originate with Alcuin of York? And the first analysis of tides I know of is in Bede - I'd be interested to know of any earlier. –  Francis Davey May 22 at 8:36
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@Juicy the "great achievements of islamic scholars" have long since fallen into question and are now attributed to them copying out since mostly lost Greek texts into Arabic, and combining Greek and Indian theories... Christian scholars did the same with Latin texts, except they tended to preserve the original language so the texts aren't now attributed to them. –  jwenting May 22 at 13:49
    
@jwenting same is accussed about Quran/Koren, yet accusers fail to see (possibly deliberate) that those great philosophers from Greeks, Indians, etc believed in weird things such as earth being flat or spherical like a football, etc. I think people should grow up and accept the fact that people from other cultures (and religions) had also worked in the development of modern science. –  Sufian May 25 at 1:45
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@Sufian the Greeks didn't believe the world was flat, that's a falsehood invented a thousand years later. Maybe illiterate Greek farmers did, but nobody who's ever sailed a ship on the open sea does, and the Greeks did a lot of that. –  jwenting May 25 at 10:17

Angus Maddison provides some historical GDP data on his website.

From this data, at around 1000AD the per-capita GDP of Europe is about 425 1990 international dollars (this figure is about 31,000 for 2008 USA). The two stand-outs are Spain and Italy at 450, likely due to trade and contact with the Arab world.

Compare this figure to the Middle-Eastern average of 621. It's not a big difference, but economic disparities of that time would have been much lower than today - peasants were more or less equally poor, but to an observer living in those times, the difference would have been easy to spot.

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Assuming your numbers are correct; 621/425=1.461, a 45% increase in pr capita GDP is something I would describe as a big difference. Edit: Or maybe not, using en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… it's comparable to the difference of USA and Japan. –  Taemyr May 23 at 8:48

An indirect indicator is city size. Cities can only grow large when they, and the lands and trade routes that support them, remain well-protected long enough (and 50 years will do - cities can grow and decline very quickly). High living standards are hard to attain without cities.

Until 1800, the only cities under Christian rule with population exceeding 200,000 were Rome (300-400), Constantinople (500-1500), Paris (from 1300), Naples (from 1550), London (from 1600), Amsterdam (from 1700), Moscow and St. Petersburg (from 1750), Vienna (1790).

Meanwhile, during the rise of Islam (700-1000), Córdoba, Cairo, and Baghdad had grown to 500,000 or more - and subsequently declined in size. London and Paris only reached 500,000 by 1700.

After Córdoba fell to the Christians (1200), its population (which had already dwindled due to instability under Muslim rule) steadily decreased to 20,000; after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, its population quickly increased from 200,000 to 500,000.

The general picture: larger cities (200,000) would grow in the Islamic world from 700 (but not so much after 1000), in Romance speaking countries from 1200, and in Germanic speaking countries only after 1550.

This nicely coincides with the term 'Renaissance', the "lifting of the Dark Ages", which, I think, stands for the cultural developments that followed from the economic rise in Europe (in Italy and Paris from 1200, the Netherlands and England from 1300). So while this is only indirect evidence, it suggests a positive answer to your question.

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At least in the English psyche, urban crowding does not equate to an improved standard of living. bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006vb2f –  Pete Kirkham May 24 at 0:12
    
Cities certainly don't offer a high standard of living for everybody. –  reinierpost May 24 at 23:48

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