Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Town of Sandwich

So...Sandwich. Most people just think about the food item that shares its name, but it has had more history than that, and not just as a Cinque Port. Its significance as a port in southeast England helped to weave it through many events that have been mentioned in this blog before.

The name Sondwic is mentioned first in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, covering events in England from the 800s to 1154. The Domesday Book, an account of all property in England so the new Norman rulers knew what they had, calls it Sandwice. The suffix -wic is Anglo-Sacon for a fortified place where trade takes place (a town). The name means a market town on sandy soil, appropriate for a coastal location.

When Rome invaded Britain in 43 CE, Sandwich was their landing point (technically, a town called Stonar across the river Stour from Sandwich, but Stonar disappeared in the 14th century).

King Cnut (c.990 - 1035) had history with Sandwich, initially leaving a pile of bodies strewn across the beach when he fled to Denmark after fighting with King Æthelred the Unready, but then later giving special rights to the church at Sandwich.

When Richard Lionheart was released from captivity after the Third Crusade and returned to England, Sandwich was his choice of landing port.

During the First Barons War (mentioned here) against King John, Prince Louis (later King Louis VIII) of France landed at sandwich to support the barons against John. The Battle of Sandwich was part of the First Barons War, and had the participation of Eustace, the Pirate Monk.

In the 14th century, a hospital (an almshouse for the poor) was established, named for St. Thomas Becket and still standing (see illustration).

In 1660, an earldom was created to bestow on Admiral Sir Edward Montagu. The 4th Earl of Sandwich was First Lord of the Admiralty and sponsored the voyages of Captain Jame Cook, who named the Sandwich islands for the Earl. The 4th Earl, John Montagu, is also credited with the naming of a food item when asking for meat between two pieces of bread so that he would not have to stop his activities. It bears mentioning, however, that a 1st century CE rabbi, Hillel the Elder, put the lamb and bitter herbs of the Seder between two pieces of matzoh, so this concept predates Montage by several centuries. (I doubt, however, that you'd get anything but blank stares of you ask for a "roast beef hillel" next time you want lunch.)

In a more serious vein: once again, I find a gap in my reporting: although King Cnut has had several references in this blog going back over a decade, he himself has not had his story told. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Cinque Ports, Part 2

The Cinque Ports were, initially, five port towns on the southeast coast of England. Over the centuries, the rights and privileges granted to them in exchange for having ships and men available for the king's purposes were extended to other towns, but three of the original five—Dover, New Romney, and Sandwich—were mentioned as having this royal obligation as far back as the Domesday Book.

That royal obligation was laid out in statistical terms: the five had an annual obligation to provide 57 ships for 15 days of service, if requested. The motivation for the obligation was never put on paper. A chief assumption is that they were necessary as part of the royal navy for military purposes. The evidence, however, suggests that those towns did not contribute proportionately more than any other towns to military efforts.

Because the privileges granted (chiefly of self-governance and the ability to salvage and keep the flotsam and jetsam of wrecked ships) started in the time of Edward the Confessor, one assumption is that he simply wanted to ensure the loyalty of a handful of ports that were essential to control traffic and trade to the continent.

Their importance gave them seats in Parliament. Representatives to Parliament were called Barons of the Cinque Ports. These days, the "Baron of the Cinque Ports" is purely honorary and used for those elected by the mayor to attend coronations. The barons had the right to hold the canopy over the monarch during the coronation, a practice which was last enjoyed in 1821 for George IV. For the coronation of Charles III, 14 barons represented the Cinque Ports (five original ports, two "ancient towns," seven "limbs") in the congregation.

In the centuries that followed their establishment, weather was a strong enemy causing their decline. Floods, especially in 1287 and 1362, changed coastlines radically, silting up harbors or washing towns away. Sandwich and New Romney are now each more than a mile from the coast. Hastings was washed away by the sea in the above-mentioned floods, and the remaining town was raided and burnt by the French during the Hundred Years Wars. Dover is still a major port, but the decline of the significance of the Cinque Ports was fairly total by the time of Elizabeth I. Major shipbuilding sites in Bristol and Liverpool stole some of their thunder as well.

Next time, I'm going to focus on one of the five towns: Sandwich. (And yes, I will mention that story.)

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Cinque Ports, Part 1

The Cinque Ports (Old French: "Five Harbors") were five towns on the southeast coast of England where the distance to the continent was shortest. There are and were, of course, more than five towns in this area, but these five were given a special charter from the king to maintain ships in case of need.

The term "Cinque Ports" for these five was in use by 1135, even though a royal charter designating them as special was not created until 1155, and they were not granted liberties in exchange for their obligations until 1260. They were important enough to be listed as part of the 1297 re-issuing of the Magna Carta. The five were required annually to make available a total of 57 ships for 15 days' duty as needed by the king.

What did they get in return for this support? They could handle their own criminal and civil cases. They had the authority to punish murderers, delinquents, thieves, etc. They could claim unclaimed property, stray animals, and the debris and cargo of ships wrecked on their shores. They also had representation in Parliament.

The original five were Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich. Although the name for the five did not get amended, the number of towns that were part of the arrangement with the king grew over time. Two towns were added in 1190, Winchelsea and Rye. Instead of changing the French name, after these two were included reference was made to the "Cinque Ports and two Ancient Towns."

That was not the end, however. More towns that were near the original five were brought into the confederation and referred to as "limbs" of the original five. Hastings, Dover, and Sandwich each had two limbs. Rye and New Romney each had one limb. Over time, more limbs were added. Eventually, 40 towns were attached to the Cinque Ports, many of whom no longer belong because they have disappeared or are no longer ports due to coastal changes.

So are the Cinque Ports still relevant? Does this designation still have any meaning? Let's talk about the later history tomorrow.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

South England Flood of February 1287

We've been looking lately at catastrophic floods of the Middle Ages, like those that took place on the feast days of St. Marcellus and St. Lucia. These floods not only caused great destruction and loss of life, in some cases they also made topographical/geographical changes that persisted into the future.

St. Lucia's Flood in December 1287, along with an event called the South England Flood of February 1287, radically changed the coastline of part of England.

The map shows dotted lines where the current coastline lies, and how previously there were towns linked to the sea that are now far inland. Unlike in the Netherlands where water forced its way inland and created new coastal towns that were formerly landlocked, the storm surge in February 1287 not only did this in some cases but also caused collapsing cliffs and silting that blocked formerly coastal towns from the sea. A cliff at Hastings collapsed, taking part of Hastings Castle with it and blocking the harbor at Hastings from future trade.

Another town, New Romney, used the River Rother as its trade link to the sea. The storm diverted the river, leaving New Romney a mile away from the water. The river's course ran to Rye, increasing its value as a trading port.

Further north along the coast was the town of Dunwich, an important seaport on the North Sea. A storm surge in 1286, followed by the South England Flood and St. Lucia's, so hammered the East Anglian coast that it declined economically as well as geographically. At its peak it was similar in size to London in the 1300s; the census of 2001 put its population at 84.

The flood of 1287 changed the makeup of the Cinque Ports, a designation that has been technically wrong for a very long time. Next time we'll discuss what the Cinque Ports are, and if there really are cinque.

Friday, May 17, 2024

St. Lucia's Flood

St. Lucia's Day, commemorating a 4th century martyr, is 13 December. On that date in 1287, one of the largest floods in recorded history took place in the North Sea. A similar flood in 1953 allows us to look back and ascribe the 1287 event to a particularly high tide and a particularly low pressure system. The North Sea rose enough to pour over dikes and seawalls, flooding the Netherlands and North Germany. Estimates put the death rate at 50,000 in Germany alone, 80,000 people in total.

The flood also made permanent changes to the countryside. The term "Zuider Zee" (Frisian "Southern Sea") begins to be used at this time for the body of water that was created by this flood. The Zuider Zee was expanded by the flood on St. Marcellus day in 1362. The area called the Zuider Zee was already a body of water: the freshwater Lake Flevo (also called Almere). The Flood connected it to the North Sea through a flooded forest and turned it into the saltwater Zuider.

Economic and political changes followed the geographical upheaval. The West Frisian city of Stavoren (officially the oldest city in Friesland, having been granted a charter in the 1060s) was a trade center on the bank of a river (the Vlie). The flood built up a sand bank that interfered with its shipping and started its decline. The Zuider also brought the coastline to other cities that promptly took advantage of it. The formerly landlocked city of Harlingen became a new seaport. The province of West Frisia became separated from the rest of Friesland by a strait that was nine miles wide at its narrowest; it was annexed by the County of Holland (a state of the Holy Roman Empire).

The same storm affected England, where the water rose several feet in Norfolk. It was a year of storms and flooding in England. Several months earlier England experienced the South England Flood of 1287. It likewise caused economic changes, as it crippled one of England's chief seaports, Dunwich. Tomorrow we'll see what happened then and there.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Saint Marcellus's Flood

A year ago, in May 2023, a survey in the Wadden Sea off North Frisia discovered the remains of the sunken church of Rungholt. The town of Rungholt had a population of about 3000 people. It was one of numerous places destroyed on the night of 15 January 1362, during an event called the Grote Mandrenke (Low Saxon: "Great Drowning of Men").

Also known as St. Marcellus's Flood (because the storm surge peaked on the 16th, which was the feast day of St. Marcellus), it was the result of a new moon with high tides and an extratropical cyclone.

A storm surge/tide swept from the North Sea from England and the Netherlands to Denmark and Germany. It battered and eroded the coasts, changing coastlines. Islands were broken up, new islands were created by breaking up the mainland near the coasts, and whole coastal towns were destroyed. An estimated 25,000 people lost their lives in the flooding.

This event is also called the "First St. Marcellus's Flood" because, on the same date in 1219, a storm surge along the coasts of West Friesland and Groningen (most northeastern province of the Netherlands) killed 36,000 people.

The Zuider Zee (Dutch: "Southern Sea"), a shallow bay of the North Sea in the northwest Netherlands, is believed to have been expanded at this event. It had been called that before this time, however, because of an even greater flood, also named for a saint. Tomorrow I'll tell you about St. Lucia's Flood and the creation of the Zuider Zee.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

al-Farghani's Accomplishments

Despite the potentially reputation-damaging error in calculation made by al-Farghani in the case of a canal, he is better known for other accomplishments.

Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Kathīr al-Farghānī (c.800 - 870) was known as Alfraganus in Western Europe (see illustration, from a 1493 astronomical work). He was described as Arab and as Persian; there is a suggestion that his name comes from being born in Farghana in Uzbekistan.

His best-known work was Kitāb fī Jawāmiʿ ʿIlm al-Nujūm (Elements of astronomy on the celestial motions), a summary of Ptolemey's astronomical Almagest with revised calculations. He concentrated less on the mathematics and more on explaining the concepts in ways that were easy to understand. This work reached the West in translations by John of Seville and Gerard of Cremona. Dante's knowledge of astronomy came from al-Farghani.

One of his first recorded acts is being involved in a team that calculated the diameter of the Earth. This work influenced Columbus in his voyage across the Atlantic. Columbus, however, misunderstood the translation of al-Farghani's use of "mile." Columbus assumed al-Farghani was using the 4856-foot Roman mile; actually, al-Farghani used the 7091-foot Arabic mile. Columbus thought the diameter of the Earth was smaller.

In Cairo, al-Farghani wrote a treatise on the astrolabe earlier than al-Ashraf Umar II and Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi. Also while in Cairo he supervised the New Nilometer. The Nilometer, as you might guess, was designed to measure the height and clarity of the water of the Nile River.

The annual flooding of the Nile was crucial to Egypt's agricultural cycle, but it was unpredictable. Too heavy a flood was destructive; too light could lead to famine. Knowing what was coming was important. Nilometers come in different designs, but the simplest was a vertical column submerged in the river with markings to denote height of the water. Later, more elaborate versions involved shafts with steps that led down. Noting the height and comparing it to previous years helped predict whether the crops would be successful.

Speaking of flooding...next I want to tell you about a flood that killed thousands in more than one country. See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Al-Farghani's Mistake

While expanding the urban settlements along the Tigris, the 9th century Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil needed a canal to bring water to a new city, al-Jaʻfariyya (after the caliph's birth name). He gave two courtiers the job of finding an engineer to design and build the canal. Two brothers, Muhammad and Ahmad ibn Musa, went for the expertise of al-Farghani (c.800 - 870).

al-Farghani was one of the most famous astronomers in the Muslim world in the 9th century. He had written a summary of Ptolemy's Almagest called Elements of astronomy on the celestial motions with more accurate data. Columbus used al-Farghani's calculations on his voyages across the Atlantic. Under a previous Abbasid caliph, al-Ma'mun, al-Farghani and a team had used the curvature between two points to calculate the diameter of the Earth.

He had also worked as an engineer, and for al-Mutawakkil had successfully created the New Nilometer in Old Cairo (more on that later). So designing a canal was not outside of his abilities. There was something wrong with the construction, however. A miscalculation made the entrance to the canal too deep. Water entering it would have to be abnormally high to be able to enter the rest and flow to its destination.

al-Mutawakkil was angered, and sent someone to figure out how culpable the two brothers were for the error. The investigator was not keen to see Muhammad and Ahmad punished, so he kept delaying his report. In fact, he delayed it long enough that it became a non-issue after the assassination of al-Mutawakkil, saving the lives of the brothers.

al-Farghani was not known for making mistakes, and tomorrow we'll look at some of his accomplishments, as well as explain the New Nilometer, which is exactly what you think it might be based on the name. See you then.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Great Mosque of Samarra

During the reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil (822 - 861), he commissioned several building projects. Up to 20 palaces are listed as his work, their cost totaling between 258 and 294 million dirhams.

One of his projects was a huge mosque in Samarra along the Tigris River. His desire for ostentatious displays of wealth and devotion made it the largest mosque in the world at the time, and it was completed in only three years.

The minaret (shown here) is 171 feet high and 108 feet wide, the top reached by a spiral ramp. It is all that remains of the original structure. The main building was constructed from baked brick octagon piers with four columns in the corners of imported marble. It had 17 aisles, and the walls were covered with dark blue tiles.

A total of 16 doors allowed the faithful inside, where light was provided by 28 windows, 24 of were oriented by the qibla, the direction to face when praying. A fountain in the center was believed to be carved from a single stone and delivered by elephants. That had been commissioned by al-Mutawakkil's predecessor, his brother al-Wathiq. The baked brick ceiling was 35 feet high, supported by 464 pillars.

In 1278, the mosque (but not the minaret or outer wall) was destroyed when Iraq was invaded by Hulagu Khan's Mongols. A restoration process started in 1956.

The construction of the Great Mosque was part of a plan to make Samarra the center of an expansive urban area, so there were other projects in the area. Part of this expanded area was named al-Mutawakkiliyya for himself. Another new city he founded needed water, and he commanded two courtiers, the brothers Muhammad and Ahmad ibn Musa, to make it happen. They ignored local engineers and turned instead to al-Farghani, an astronomer. He was very smart, and a good mathematician with a good reputation, but he made a tiny mistake with great consequences. That's a story for tomorrow.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Ending Religious Tolerance

The 10th Abbasid caliph was not intended to rise to that position. Ja'far ibn Muhammad ibn Harun was born in 822 to an Abbasid prince and a slave concubine. His father, al-Mu'tasim, was a court official to Ja'far's uncle, his father's brother caliph al-Ma'mun. Both al-Ma'mun and al-Mu'tasim were sons of Harun al-Rashid, who reigned at the start of Islam's Golden Age.

When al-Ma'mun died in 833, he nominated his brother rather than his son to rule. When al-Mu'tasim died, his eldest son (Ja'far's brother al-Wathiq) became caliph. al-Wathiq had a fairly non-dramatic reign except for ongoing battles with the Byzantine Empire. al-Wathiq ended that conflict for several years after agreeing to a prisoner exchange in 845. His death from natural causes in his mid-30s caught the nation by surprise. His son was fairly young, and so for the second time in that dynasty the succession went "sideways" to a brother rather than a son. Ja'far found himself elevated to the caliphate and taking the regnal name al-Mutawwakil ala Allah, "He who relies on God." He was 26 years old. (The illustration is of hid face on a silver dirham.)

His well-educated brother had been a lover of poetry and the arts, enjoying poets, scholars, and musicians. In contrast, al-Mutawwakil cared more for power and grandiosity. His reign was known for ending the religious tolerance of his predecessors. Whereas dhimmi ("protected ones"; a designation given to those of other faiths) had many privileges, he took steps to revoked or disrespect them. In 850 he decreed that all Jews and Christians had to wear garments that distinguished them from the faithful: honey-colored (yellow) hoods and belts. Moreover, their places of worship were destroyed and they were no longer allowed to hold public office.

An ancient sacred cypress of the Zoroastrians was ordered cut down to be used as timber for a new palace. It was 1400 years old, and legend said it had been brought by Zoroaster from heaven.

He even attacked fellow Muslims. There was on ongoing debate over whether the Koran was created or not. That is (to put it simply): was it produced by a man, or was it divine knowledge that was then "un-created" by a man, because it was eternal? There was a sect that rejected the idea that the Koran was the literal word of and co-=eternal with God, and therefore did not exist until Muhammad wrote it. al-Mutawwakil stomped on this heavily, taking hostile steps to anyone promoting the doctrine that the Koran was created by a man.

al-Mutawwakil had named his eldest son, al-Muntasir, as his successor, but over time was showing favor to his second son, al-Mu'tazz. The two sons had support from different political factions, and the elder was unhappy with his father's shifting attention, especially when the younger was given the privilege of leading prayers at the end of Ramadan. Other humiliations followed, and a faction approached the elder son with a plan to assassinate his father. al-Muntasir was not opposed. The plan was carried out in December 861, and al-Muntasir became caliph. al-Mutawwakil had died before lumber from the Zoroastrian cedar arrived to be used.

Unfortunately, this began a period known as the Anarchy at Samarra, lasting until 870 and almost destroying the Abbasid Caliphate.

Let's turn away from politics and find something good about al-Mutawwakil's reign. How about the Great Mosque of Samarra? I'll bet there are some interesting stories there. I'll check it out and get back to you tomorrow.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

The Umma Document

Despite Muhammad's treatment of the Jewish tribe the Banu Qurayza, he was not opposed to tolerance of the Jewish religion. He felt the Qurayza had betrayed him during the Battle of the Trench, and so needed severe punishment.

The Constitution of Medina—more accurately called the Umma Document, since it was not organized as a real constitution—was a series of documents produced during Muhammad's time in Medina that formed the basis of a multi-religion state. Its earliest record is from a few generations after Muhammad's death, but Western and Islamic scholars consider it genuine.

Its supposed origin was this: while Muhammad was still in Mecca, a delegation from Medina approached him. Medina was home to a few large tribes and dozens of smaller tribes. Hostility between the Jewish and pagan Quraysh tribes had been going on for a few generations, and Medina needed a trusted outside arbitrator to come and end the "eye for an eye" style of dealing with disputes. The 12 strongest tribes of Medina offered to protect Muhammad if he came to Medina to help them resolve the ongoing feuds.

Here are some of the points of the document:

(1) This is a prescript of Muhammad, the Prophet and Messenger of God (to operate) between the faithful and the followers of Islam from among the Quraysh and the people of Medina and those who may be under them, may join them and take part in wars in their company.

(12) (a) And the believers shall not leave any one, hard-pressed with debts, without affording him some relief, in order that the dealings between the believers be in accordance with the principles of goodness and justice.

(13) And the hands of pious believers shall be raised against every such person as rises in rebellion or attempts to acquire anything by force or is guilty of any sin or excess or attempts to spread mischief among the believers ; their hands shall be raised all together against such a person, even if he be a son to any one of them.

(14) A Believer will not kill a Believer [in retaliation] for a non-Believer and will not aid a non-Believer against a Believer.

(15) The protection (dhimmah) of Allah is one, the least of them [i.e., the Believers] is entitled to grant protection that is binding for all of them. The Believers are each other’s allies to the exclusion of other people.

In that last point, the word dhimmah literally means "protected person" and was applied to Jews and Christians as well as Muslims—the "People of the Book." I have mentioned it before in its plural form (dhimmi) mostly here and here.

Sharia law allowed Jewish communities to have their own courts in place of some Islamic laws (unless there were a capital offense that violated #s 13 and 14). About 200 years after Muhammad and the Umma Document, one caliph decided tolerance of non-Muslims wasn't to his taste, and he made changes. I'll discuss him tomorrow.

Friday, May 10, 2024

The Banu Qurayza

Once the Confederacy gave up the Battle of the Trench because of discord and mistrust in the alliance, Muhammad turned his attention to the betrayal of the Banu Qurayza.

The Banu Qurayza were a Jewish tribe that settled in an oasis south of Medina. They had offered tools to help Muhammad dig the trench, but wanted no part of the conflict between Muslims and the Quraysh of Mecca. Still, attempts to enlist their support by the Confederacy reached Muhammad's ears, and he felt he could no longer trust them.

They were a potentially powerful enemy, possessing weapons and warriors, and having them so close to him was considered no longer tenable. Muhammad claimed a vision of the angel Gabriel told him they needed to be destroyed. He surrounded them and began a siege. (The illustration is of the siege from a 19th century telling.)

Negotiations began. The Qurayza offered to depart their land, requesting one camel-load of possessions per person. This was rejected, so they offered to depart leaving everything behind. This, too, was unacceptable to Muhammad. Some Muslims—hoping for leniency for the Jews—asked Muhammad for the opportunity to name a judge to handle the situation and decide what was best. Muhammad appointed a loyal Muslim who had been wounded in the Battle and was dying. Sa'd ibn Muadh pronounced that all the Qurayza men should be executed, their possessions distributed among Muslims, and all the women and children given to Muslims as slaves.

Muhammad agreed to this, declaring it to be what God wanted. The Qurayza males who had reached puberty (estimated between 600 and 900) were beheaded. The rest of the population became slaves, some being sent to central Saudi Arabia. (Some of the slaves were bought by Jews and freed.) Some contemporary records state that some men were spared when vouched for by Muslims. Muhammad also chose one of the women, Rayhana, as a companion. (There are conflicting stories about whether she agreed to become his wife or remain a slave and concubine.) Muhammad also personally took 20% of the loot.

Some scholars stress that the Banu Qurayza were not killed for being Jewish, but were an example of collective punishment for treachery. For centuries afterward Muslims and Jews lived on amicable—thought not politically equal—terms. In fact, a multi-religion state was described in the Constitution of Medina, created during Muhammad's time there. Let's take a closer look at religious tolerance in Medina tomorrow.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

The Conquest of Mecca—During the Trench, Part 2

During the Battle of the Trench between the Quraysh of Mecca with their Confederacy and Muhammad and the Muslims who had headquartered in Medina, Muhammad was looking for ways to dissolve the enemy's alliance. Fortunately for him, a high-ranking member from Mecca who had converted to Islam approached him, and was given the task of finding ways to sow discord among the Confederacy.

His name was Nuaym ibn Masud of the powerful Ghatafan tribe that had joined the Confederacy because they had been offered a large bribe of half the harvest of the Banu Nadir, a tribe of Jews that had been expelled from Medina by Muhammad. Muhammad had directly tried to barter a third of the date harvest of Medina to get the Ghatafan to leave the Confederacy, but that plan failed.

Masud (pictured above from this article) went to the Qurayza, a Jewish tribe south of Medina who had remained neutral. The Confederacy had approached them and pointed out the overwhelming numbers of the Confederacy and that the Muslims would surely lose. Masud told the Qurayza (speaking as a member of the Confederacy) that if the siege failed the Confederacy would abandon the Qurayza, leaving them at Muhammad's mercy. He suggested that the Qurayza guarantee the Confederacy's support by demanding hostages from them.

Masud then went back to the Confederacy and told its leader, Abu Sufyan, that the Qurayza had defected to Muhammad and should not be trusted if they ask for hostages as a guarantee; that the hostages were really prisoners to turn over to Muhammad as a sign of faith, to become slaves.

The Confederacy then sent a messenger to the Qurayza to discuss a united assault on Medina. The Qurayza took the opportunity to demand hostages as insurance of cooperation and support. This of course fed into the Confederacy's Masud-stoked fears that hostages would be turned over to Muhammad. Abu Sufyan took this news to the leader of the Banu Nadir, who was absolutely shocked that a tribe of Jews would be allied with Muhammad, who had treated the Jews so poorly in Medina. Fears of treachery and distrust between these and the various tribes of the Confederacy made success seem less and less likely.

Also, the Confederacy suffered from the situation on the ground. They were used to battle, not a long siege. The Trench prevented them from attacking and resolving things quickly, and they were getting hungry and thirsty. The weather was also cold and wet (this was October).

By the end of 20 days, the confederacy gave up and went their separate ways. That is when Muhammad turned his attention to the Banu Qurayza, who had at one point aided him and at another chose to support the Confederacy. He decided they had to be dealt with severely, but that's a story for tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

The Conquest of Mecca—During the Trench, Part 1

While the Battle of the Trench was happening, the outnumbered Muhammad in Medina looked to break up the attacking Confederacy by sending messengers to negotiate with some of the different groups that were allied with the Quraysh of Mecca.

One group he approached was the Ghatafan, a Bedouin tribe that had been enlisted by an offer of half the harvest of the Jewish Banu Nadir, who had been expelled from Medina by Muhammad and were interested in revenge. While the siege of the Battle of the Trench was happening, Muhammad sent word to the Ghatafan that he would give them one-third of Medina's date harvest if they withdrew. Originally they counter-offered by demanding half the harvest, but then agreed to negotiate over the third. Muhammad took this plan to the city leaders of Medina, who were shocked at the idea of giving up a third of the date harvest as a bribe for safety. Although the negotiations went nowhere, the news that the Ghatafan had entertained the idea got out and weakened the resolve of the Confederacy.

A group that was not a part of the Confederacy also played a part. The Banu Qurayza were a Jewish tribe centered in an oasis south of Medina that wanted no part of the battle, but did lend tools to Muhammad to help dig the trench to protect from the approaching Quraysh. Despite this defensive help, the Qurayza did not contribute any men to the defense of Medina, wishing to remain neutral.

The Confederacy thought they might use the Banu Qurayza against Muhammad and the Muslims. A member of the Jewish Banu Nadir was sent to the Qurayza to discuss an alliance. The emissary tried to persuade the Qurayza that Mecca's army would overcome the Muslims, so it was safe to join the Confederacy. The Qurayza agreed to work with the Confederacy. Muhammad sent men to find out if the rumors were true, and to remind the Qurayza of the fate of the Nadir.

Rumors that the Qurayza were now opposed to Medina and could attack the city from the south spread among the Muslims. The Qurayza were a wealthy tribe that had weapons and soldiers. The trench had prevented the Confederacy from marching into Medina, but the siege (although only 20 days long) also blocked any trade. Food was growing scarce, and for the first time since Muhammad had founded Islam, daily public prayers were not being called regularly.

Then Muhammad had a gift handed to him. A high-ranking member of the Confederacy, a Ghatafan named Nuaym ibn Masud who had secretly converted to Islam, came to him to offer help. Muhammad asked him to sow discord among the Confederacy so that it would fall apart. Masud knew just what to do, as I'll tell you next time.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Conquest of Mecca—The Battle of The Trench

After the Battle of Badr and the Battle of Uhud, the next encounter between the Quraysh of Mecca and the Muslims who followed Muhammad was the Battle of the Trench. This was in January of 627.

Muhammad's Muslims continued to raid and plunder Quraysh caravans, especially at Badr, and so it was decided by the Quraysh to advance on Medina and occupy it. The Quraysh needed military reinforcements, and so negotiated with the Bedouins to join them. A tribe of Jewish Arabs, the Banu Nadir, who had been expelled from Medina by Muhammad, offered to the Bedouins half of their crops if the Bedouins would participate. Other tribes also joined the effort: the Ghatafan, Ased, Salem, Murra, Fuzarah, and Shuja. This alliance was called the Confederacy.

A group of 7000-10,000 men were assembled to march on Medina, led by Abu Sufyan. Muhammad learned of their plans, and at the suggestion of Salman the Persian, Muhammad ordered a deep trench to be dug. Some of the tools used were loaned from the Banu Qurayza, another Jewish tribe. The Banu Qurayza, occupying an oasis near Medina, unlike the Nadir, tried to remain neutral. The material from the trench was thrown up on the Medina side, creating a high embankment from which the Muslims could shoot arrows or throw stones down on anyone trying to cross the trench.

The illustration shows the three contingents of Quraysh and their allies (the red arrows) approaching the trench. Uncertain of how to proceed across the barrier meant the "battle" became more of a siege, an unfamiliar tactic in Arabian warfare. Attempts to fight over a span of 20 days led to a half-dozen casualties among the Muslims and three of the Quraysh. The Quraysh gave up and went home.

That is too simplified, however. Muhammad tried to break up the Confederacy by negotiating with some of the different tribes, even offering bribes. I'll go into detail tomorrow about the Ghatafan, and what happened to the Banu Qurayza when they changed their stance.

Monday, May 6, 2024

The Conquest of Mecca—The Battle of Uhud

After the Battle of Badr and the deaths of some of the Quraysh leaders, the leader of the large caravan involved, Abu Sufyan, became leader of the Quraysh. He determined to avenge the deaths at Badr, and therefore led an army of about 3000 (three times the size of the Meccan force at Badr) to attack Muhammad and his Muslim followers at Medina.

When word of the gathering army reached Medina, Muhammad and his senior leaders were confident in the fortifications of the city. His younger and more energetic members, however, wanted to march and fight the approaching Quraysh in the open. The glory of open battle won the debate.

The Muslim army from Medina numbered only 1000 when they went to Mount Uhud north of Medina (pictured), and was reduced further when 300 men returned to Medina, uncertain about the decision to fight in the open. Muhammad sent 50 archers to the slopes of Uhud to protect the flank of the majority, who were positioned in a valley. The battle took place on 19 March 625.

The initial success of the Muslims prompted the archers to leave their position to take part more directly against the Quraysh. This was against the orders of Muhammad, who had told them to stay on the slope (now called the Mount of the Archers). The Quraysh realized that they were no longer as vulnerable to arrows from above, and were able to send a group to outflank the archers.

Several Muslims were killed at the Battle of Uhud, and Muhammad was injured. The Muslims retreated up the slopes, and the Quraysh took this as a victory and returned to Mecca.

Six months later, the Quraysh decided again to take the offensive and occupy Medina, initiating The Battle of the Trench, a battle that turned out to not be a battle. I'll explain next time.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

The Conquest of Mecca—The Battle of Badr

Mecca was occupied largely by the Arab Quraysh tribe—a grouping of many clans. Muhammad was born into one of these clans, the Hashim. Muhammad's spread of Islam in Mecca did not stir up any trouble among the Quraysh until he started attacking their polytheistic beliefs.

Relations with Muhammad's group deteriorated, and so Muhammad took his followers to Medina, an event called the Hijra ("a severing of ties of kinship or association"), Latinized to Hegira. In the Julian calendar, this event took place on 16 July 622.

While in Medina, Muhammad began raids on Quraysh trade caravans in order to enrich his people. News of a particularly large caravan from Gaza to Mecca—supposedly 1000 camels carrying 50,000 dinars' worth of goods—prompted him to send his men to attack it at the town of Badr. The leader of the caravan, Abu Sufyan, heard rumors of the intended attack, so he sent messengers to Mecca for help. Mecca sent 1000 Quraysh. Their leader sent scouts ahead to reconnoiter. He diverted the caravan to a more difficult route that would take them out of danger.

Word was sent back to the approaching Quraysh force, at which several hundred decided to go home. One group that left was related to Muhammad's mother. Muhammad learned of the nearby presence of the Quraysh and ordered his people to fill all the available water wells with sand except one that the Muslims controlled. A clash between the Quraysh and Muslims followed. The Quraysh assumed that the Muslims would simply be scared off by a show of force, but the Muslims were well-watered and filled with visions of heavenly reward for fighting, while the Meccans were dealing with thirst and aware that they could be fighting against their own kin and former friends. Also, the Meccans' intent was to capture the enemy for punishment; the Muslims were ready to kill.

The Battle of Badr started with individual combat between three warriors of each side, but quickly devolved into a melee. It did not last much past noon. The Muslims gained loot as well as camels, weapons, armor, and captives for ransom. The illustration is of the aftermath of the Battle of Badr and the casting of the defeated Quraysh bodies into a dry well, from a 14th century retelling.

This was motivation for the Quraysh to send an attack against the Muslims. How that went will be tomorrow's topic.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Halima Sadiyah

Her full name was Halima bint Abi Dhu'ayb, and she was born in the late 6th century, a member of the Banu Sa'd. The Banu Sa'd was a royal Arabian tribe of nomads. The tribe's travels took them regularly to Mecca, where mothers would offer their newborns to women of the Banu Sa'd to take away and wet nurse them. This was done to ensure the children would be exposed to only Arabic and avoid some of the diseases that could travel through a city.

One season, as the Banu Sa'd reached Mecca, one women with an eight-day-old baby was having difficulty finding a wet nurse. This was Aminah bint Wahb, whose husband Abdullah had died young, leaving Aminah pregnant. The Banu Sa'd women were reluctant to take on a charge when the father's death meant they might not get paid.

Halima felt sorry for the mother, and also did not want to be the only woman who did not have a child to nurse, so she took on the child Muhammad. (She did have a child of her own, but wet nursing was an occupation that brought in money.) Muhammad was with her and the Banu Sa'd tribe until the age of five, when she returned Muhammad to his mother and grandfather.

Later in life, Halima went to the now grown and married Muhammad to complain about the hardships she was going through. Muhammad mentioned her concerns to his wife, Khadija, who gave Halima some sheep and camels.

Halima and her husband converted to the new religion promoted by her fostered child in the aftermath of the conquest of Mecca. The takeover of Mecca by Muhammad and Muhammad's followers will be the next topic.

Friday, May 3, 2024

Milk Kinship

The Koran is the only text of the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism) that mentions anything related to mothers and the feeding of children. It is not explicit, but mentions the relationship with:

We have enjoined man to be kind to his parents. His mother has carried him in travail, and bore him in travail, and his gestation and weaning take thirty months. [46: 15]

The mother's role clearly extended past birth to breastfeeding until the child was on to solid foods. Muslim philosophers went further: "No milk is more blessed than mother's milk for the infant." and "There is no better milk for an infant than mother's milk." are some of the statements found that expanded on the Koran's verse.

There is also:

And if you wish to have your children nursed by a substitute, there is no blame upon you as long as you give payment according to what is acceptable. [2:233]

Because of the practice of employing a wet nurse—a woman other than the baby's biological mother to breastfeed the baby—another discussion arose: if kinship is established by the action of breastfeeding, what does that mean for the future of the child?

In Western Europe, "milk siblings"—children linked by different mothers but by the same wet nurse—could be raised together, the wet nurse's child receiving some of the same benefits as the employer's child. Alexander Neckham, born on the same day as the future King Richard I of England, was raised alongside him in his early years, since Neckham's mother, Hodierna, was employed to live in the palace and nurse both babies. (It was believed that only a woman who had just given birth could lactate, so to find a wet nurse you would seek a woman who had just had her own child.)

In Islamic law, however, "milk kinship" (rida'a) presented an issue that was apparently not a concern in Europe. Because of the bond created between mother and child, children nursed by the same woman experience "milk kinship" which is a bond strong enough that marriage between them would be considered incestuous. Families must be known to each other to prevent inappropriate marriages.

This is an issue in modern times, because:

Prohibited to you [for marriage] are…your milk mothers who nursed you and your sisters through nursing…[Nisa 4:23]

There are HMBs (Human Milk Banks) for infants in hospitals. These are usually from donor mothers, and the milk is mixed. There is no way to know whence comes the milk fed to a baby that needs it. Therefore, when the baby is old enough to consider marriage, it is impossible to know whether he/she has any "milk kinship" with a potential mate.

Of course, the Koran comes from the sayings and experiences of Muhammad. What we have been talking about is no different. Muhammad had a wet nurse, and tomorrow we'll see a brief biography of Halima bint Abi Dhu'ayb.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Slavery and Wet Nursing

Yesterday I talked about philosopher Ramon Lull and his thoughts on the role of human milk in the proper raising of children. He was born in 1232 in Majorca City (now called Palma), which had been recaptured from Muslims in 1229. In his lifetime, Majorca City had a population of up to 30% Muslim slaves from the Christian reconquista.

There is plenty of evidence that women slaves were preferred to men because of their role in household tasks, and especially as wet nurses. Especially in the Iberian Peninsula as opposed to elsewhere in the Mediterranean, wet nurses were often slaves.

Because of Ramon Llull's ideas—and of course the tendency of human populations to despise those who are different—these Muslim slaves were often forced to become baptizata, "the baptized" (converts from Islam), so that they would be proper wet nurses and caregivers for the children.

This relationship could be beneficial to the wet nurse, besides the opportunity to be treated well while they had primary "control" over the newborn. In 1266, a Barcelonan patrician named Romeu Durfort left his baptizata wet nurse a legacy of 40 sous and charged his heir with maintaining her for life. In 1280, a burgess freed her baptizata, Esclarmonda, and all Esclarmonda's children in gratitude for Esclarmonda's wet nursing.

This is not to say that life was wonderful for the Muslim-born mother:

In this society elite Christian mothers were to bear legitimate children and enslaved Muslim women who bore children were urged to convert, watch their masters send their infants to be nursed by someone else, and then serve as wet nurses to the heirs of their masters and mistresses. [link, p.169]

Llull's work on raising children also shows a distrust of "immoral servant women" and warns that mothers should not leave their daughters at home with the servants when the mothers go out. Llull assumes hostility between the wife and her household servants.

For the Muslim-born population, whether they were servants are free, breastfeeding the child of another created a situation referred to as "milk siblings" or "milk kinship." We will take a closer look at the Koran's views on wet nursing tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Raising Moral Children

Ramon Llull was a 13th century Catalan mystic and theologian whose controversial writings made him many enemies. One of his more interesting metaphors that perhaps was not so controversial was about raising moral children.

His Doctrina pueril ("Instruction for children") was a guide to moral living addressed to his son Domènec (then between eight and 12 years old). It was important for him to write it out not only as an idea to leave to posterity, but also because he had left his wife and family several years earlier (to become a Franciscan) and therefore was not raising Domènec personally.

Among his pieces of advice for raising children properly, he includes 

...not to expose their children to romances, songs or musical instruments that encourage them to be lustful. To preserve their children’s budding intellects and overall bodily health fathers should ensure that spicy food never be served, as it could overheat their humours and damage their developing brains, and nor should rich food, which would lead them into ill health, gluttony and lust later in life. [link]

Llull does not discuss breastfeeding or wet nurses, but he does emphasize the "health benefits and moral properties" of human milk in the raising of children. Solid food should not be introduced to the child's diet too early, lest the child become "mean and stingy." Llull associates the feeding of children with breast milk with charity, generosity, good upbringing, and the development of moral character. His idea that breast milk contributed to the development of morality was picked up by later philosophers, especially in the Iberian peninsula. The illustration comes from a later published copy of Llull's Doctrina and represents the tree of morality, the choices one makes as one grows that could lead to either joy or punishment.

This was not a strictly religious view in that there is no reference in the Bible to breastfeeding, nor in early Jewish writings. In fact, only the Koran among the Abrahamic religions mentioned the topic. Verse 46:15 mentions a bond between the baby and the source of breast milk that last until the child is about two years old. This was an interesting wrinkle on the subject of wet nurses, since in parts of the Iberian Peninsula, wet nurses were commonly Muslim slaves. Tomorrow, let's talk about wet nursing, slavery, and a little about "milk siblings."

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Care and Feeding of Princes

Since "infant formula" was not invented until the 20th century, breastfeeding was the standard way to get nourishment into a baby. If for some reason a mother could not breastfeed (death in childbirth, illness, disinterest), a wet nurse was found: a lactating woman willing to breastfeed the newborn. There might be another reason a mother could not nurse, especially if she were a high-ranking royal: the desire not to infect the breastmilk.

If you look at family trees of kings and queens, you will see many, many members in each generation. This did not necessarily spring from a deep and abiding sexual attraction between husband and wife. The greatest need of a king/queen was to produce an heir.

The need was for several heirs, in fact. Not only was there a concern about infant mortality, or a grown son dying in battle or by accident before he had a chance to inherit the throne. There was also a political desire to marry children to nobles of your own or other countries in order to create allies through family ties.

How did this need preclude breastfeeding? According to an article from the National Library of Medicine:

There was even a belief that the milk would be contaminated by sexual intercourse, which contraindicated marital relations during the period of lactation, a situation that the queens could not afford. [link]

Since a queen was "ideally" made pregnant as soon as she was able after the birth of a child, her milk was not suitable for the newborn, and so a wet nurse was employed for that vital purpose. Choosing a wet nurse was the province of the queen herself. The wet nurse was not likely to be a woman off the street, but a member of a royal family who was lactating. The wages for a royal wet nurse were very high compared to other professions available to females in the Middle Ages.

There's a lot more medieval discussion about breast milk than one might think. The philosopher and theologian Ramon Llull had advice for raising children that focused on human milk. I'll share that next time.

Monday, April 29, 2024

The Career of the Wet Nurse

A "wet nurse" is a woman hired to breastfeed a baby when the baby's own mother is unable or unwilling to do so. The mother may have died in childbirth, or the mother may be a wealthy woman who does not want to be bothered with the act of breastfeeding. Disease could also prevent a mother from lactating sufficiently.

The illustration is from the 15th century Danse macabre des femmes ("Dance of death for women"). This shows death threatening a wet nurse that the baby she holds will die. She replies that she would like to go dancing but cannot because of the swelling she feels that must be dealt with by feeding the child and that "sudden death would be a pity."

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all agreed that breastfeeding was important and demanding work. If a Jewish mother did not want to breastfeed, it was her husband's obligation to find an appropriate substitute. Medieval Islamic law considered nursing and raising the youngest children as a job worthy of a salary if a mother had to do the work after the death of the child's father. Contracts for wet nurses could last from one to nine months.

The practice began long before the Middle Ages. In Rome a wet nurse was a nutrix, "nurturer," and wet nurse was a profession. Rome had a landmark called the Columna Lactaria ("Milk Column") where (the Roman grammarian Festus wrote) people could bring babies to be nursed. It was either a place where wet nurses could be hired, or a public charity where lactating women shared their milk, or perhaps both.

Breast milk was understood to be vital to the proper development and health of a baby, and so medieval parents would choose their wet nurse carefully, researching the health and moral standing of the candidate.  The wet nurse could be the major influence on the child for its first couple years at least—and might be employed as a nanny later, as with the mother of Alexander Neckham, Hodierna, who was wet nurse to Richard I.

After the Black Death of the mid-14th century, as prices for goods and services rose because of the scarcity of laborers, wet nurses were increasingly slaves put into the role whether they wished it or not.

The breast feeding of royal children, however, was a different case. Let's talk about the care and feeding of princes tomorrow.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Alexander Neckham and Virgil's Pet Fly

Alexander Neckham (1157 - 1217) was an abbot in Cirencester Abbey who left us several writings, including De naturis rerum ("On the nature of things") with the first reference in the West to the magnetic compass.

He wrote many other works, mostly theological. His Speculum speculationum ("Mirror of speculations") while not being very original, pulled together a range of topics borrowing from Peter Lombard's Sentences, Augustine, Platonic ideas from William of Conches, Avicenna, Aristotle and others. One of his chief aims in the Speculum was to combat heresy, specifically Catharism's dualism (that good and evil were equal powers). He wrote Fables taken from Æsop and Avianus, and a commentary on Virgil that might have started a legend.

In his commentary, he writes about a poem attributed to Virgil, Culex ("The Gnat"). There is a medieval legend that Virgil (70 - 19BCE; often spelled Vergil in the Middle Ages) had magical powers. What Neckham wrote was Vergilius fecit Culicem ("Virgil made a gnat"). What Neckham is likely to have meant was that Virgil wrote the poem "Gnat," but it was misunderstood to mean that Virgil made a gnat (or fly), and this was taken to mean Virgil had magical powers and could create things.

Shortly after Virgil's death, his home town of Naples started the story that he had founded the city, and/or that he was its governor. Naples also had a story that workmen constructing a temple were plagued by swarms of flies. Virgil's gnat/fly destroyed all the other flies, allowing the men to finish their work in peace.

Virgil's fly gave rise to another legend in the Middle Ages, that he mourned its death and built a lavish tomb for it. The illustration is from Ripley’s Wonder Book of Strange Facts (1957). The Latin inscription reads “Fly, may this urn prove light for you, and may your bones rest easily.” Historians have tried to explain this persistent Virgilian legend as a legal dodge. The government was confiscating estates of the wealthy to be able to give land to returning war heroes (true). The estate could be saved if it held a burial plot (true). Virgil's family had a large estate (true). No contemporary writer, however, mentions any such event in Virgil's life.

A lot of of stories can be spun from the desire to believe amazing things, along with a misunderstood line.

I'd like to return to a mention from yesterday: Neckham's mother was wet nurse to the future King Richard I. What was the life/career of a wet nurse like? We'll look into that tomorrow, and ask the question: is there an appropriate illustration for this topic in a G-rated blog in the United States?

Saturday, April 27, 2024

The Magnetic Compass

Alexander Neckham was a theologian and writer from St. Albans whose birthday gave him a surprising status. He was born on 8 September 1157, reportedly the same day as King Henry II's son Richard. This made Alexander's mother, Hodierna, an ideal wet nurse for the baby prince. Richard and Alexander would both be nursed by Hodierna. Hodierna was housed (and Alexander therefore raised) in the king's household and treated well.* Hodierna would even become Richard's nanny and his main source of maternal affection.

Alexander received an education similar to the young Richard, and went on to become abbot of Cirencester Abbey. He also wrote books on theology and other subjects. One of these books was his De naturis rerum ("On the nature of things"). Here's a passage:

The sailors, moreover, as they sail over the sea, when in cloudy weather they can no longer profit by the light of the sun, or when the world is wrapped up in the darkness of the shades of night, and they are ignorant to what point of the compass their ship's course is directed, they touch the magnet with a needle, which (the needle) is whirled round in a circle until, when its motion ceases, its point looks direct to the north. (1863 translation)

This is the earliest (written between 1187 and 1202) reference in Europe to the use of the magnetic compass. Beckham had recently returned from France and was specifically referring to seeing the use of the compass in the English Channel.

The Chinese were using the magnetic compass over a hundred years prior to this. It is tempting to make the leap to Chinese inventions and Marco Polo's writings, but Polo (1254-1324) lived well after Neckham wrote. It is still a strong possibility that Italian traders brought back the invention of the magnetic compass.

For the Chinese, it was a magnetized needle floating in a bowl of water and called the "South Pointing Fish." Between 1295 and 1302, Giovanni "Flavio" Gioja (if he existed: there is speculation that a typo gave credit to the wrong person) balanced the magnetized needle on a post over a compass rose and enclosed the whole thing in a box, eliminating the spillable-in-rough-seas bowl of water type.

The Muslim world, often ahead of Western Europe in scientific matters, does not make reference to the magnetic bowl-of-water compass until 1242. Muslims saw value in the device not just for marine navigation but also to determine how to face Mecca for prayer when far away from that city.

The magnetic compass allowed sailors to increase the season of safe navigation beyond the times of clear skies. More trading trips could be made during months that were typically clouded and more risky.

Alexander Neckham did more than observe a compass, however, and we'll look into him more tomorrow, including how he might have inadvertently given rise to the legend of Virgil's magic fly!

*Richard later gave Hodierna a generous pension.

Friday, April 26, 2024

The Astronomer Sultan

The Rasulids were a Sunni Muslim dynasty that ruled what is now Yemen and the Red Sea Coast of the Arabia peninsula from the early 13th century to 1454. Their third sultan, Al-Ashraf Umar II, was only sultan for less than two years, following a 46-year rule by his father, but he used his time as sultan-in-waiting to become highly educated. He understood medicine, mathematics, agriculture, and astronomy.

As an astronomer, he wrote a treatise about astrolabes (a device known to many in the east and the west) and sundials. In it, he describes the making of a qibla compass, designed to determine qibla properly wherever you are—that is, the direction toward Mecca for when you pray—a vitally important point in Islam. Al-Ashraf did not claim in the treatise that he invented it, but it is the earliest mention of a compass for determining qibla found in a medieval Islamic text, so his name is historically linked with its creation.

The qibla compass, of course, is a magnetic compass that points north. That is only the first step, however: once you find north, marks around the dial indicate major cities in which you might find yourself. The position of the city's name on the dial—if that's where you are when it is time to pray—show the compass direction from north that you must face.

Al-Ashraf also wrote one of the earliest known Islamic works on agriculture, a seven-chapter treatise that covers times for planting, cereal crops, seed crops, flowering plants, aromatic plants, vegetables, and even pest control. He lived in what is considered the Islamic Golden Age, and died in 1296.

The qibla compass is used extensively today; now, what about the magnetic compass itself? When was that discovered, and what did the Middle Ages do with it? Let's find out next time.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

The qibla

I mentioned yesterday that Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur had an interest in building and re-building mosques. One was the Kutubiyya Mosque, the largest in Marrakesh. Started in 1147, it was rebuilt in 1158, with al-Mansur finishing the reconstruction in 1195 with the enormous 253-foot-tall minaret (pictured).

The reason for rebuilding of this mosque and others by the Almohads was that the originals, built by their rivals, the Almoravids, were considered heretical. The Almoravids were heretics in the eyes of the Almohads who built their mosques with the wrong qibla.

The qibla is the direction of prayer, the direction toward Mecca one faces when praying. More than that, it is the direction an animal is faced when slaughtered for sacrifice, the direction to avoid when spitting or relieving oneself, and the direction the deceased are aligned during burial. 

The Almoravid mosques were designed with the qibla facing too far east. From Marrakesh and the surrounding Almohad Empire in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, Mecca was more to the south. Therefore, in order to worship properly in the mosque, some mosques needed to be completely rebuilt.

What was the state of Muslim science that would allow them to determine the proper qibla from different cities? Wouldn't it be nice to have a compass that would point toward Mecca? It would, and something like that was developed by a sultan who was also an astronomer. I'll tell you about him next time.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur

Yaqub al-Mansur ruled the Almohad Caliphate in North Africa and part of the Iberian Peninsula from 1184 until his death on 23 January 1199. During that time he managed to hold off attempts by the Christian rulers of Iberia to reclaim lands controlled by Muslims.

It was his father, Abu Yaqub Yusuf (reigned 1163 - 1184) who originally spread the caliphate to Iberia in 1170. Not content to hold Seville and surrounding territory, he marched an army to Portugal. He was countered by Afonso I of Portugal and Ferdinand II of León. Wounded by a crossbow, he died on 29 July.

His son vowed revenge, taking several castles and handing out defeats to Christians before returning to Africa. When Alfonso VIII of Castile mounted a reconquista, al-Mansur returned and defeated the Christians again, this time taking hundreds as slaves and selling them in Africa.

Besides being a successful military commander, he was also a patron of the arts and architecture. He added a massive gate to the Kasbah, a major citadel in Morocco (seen above), and finished a mosque in Marrakesh. He also began what would have been the largest mosque in the world, but construction was discontinued after 1199, leaving only a massive minaret. One of his other accomplishments was the first hospital in Morocco.

The philosopher Averroes was a favorite of al-Mansur's and had a place at his court, even though some of his ideas got him in trouble for being too radical and anti-Muslim. al-Mansur was well-read and well-versed in Islam, and even wrote a book on the prophet Muhammad. His father had appointed a chief judge who made sure the law adhered to strict interpretation of the Koran. al-Mansur took this a step further and had that judge destroy any books of law that did not conform.

The mosque whose construction he finished was the Kutubiyya Mosque. Kutubiyya and several other mosques were redone by the Almohads. Not because they were not beautiful enough, or large enough, but because they were built "wrong." I'll explain the qibla tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Almohads in Iberia

The Almohads were a North African Berber group who founded an empire in the 12th century. By 1159 they had extended their power over the Maghreb (northwest Africa). By 1172, the Muslim parts of the Iberian Peninsula (south and east) were under their rule, taking over from the Almoravid dynasty.

Two of the rulers of the Almohads were Abu Yaqub Yusuf, who ruled from 1163 to 1184, and his son, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur ("the Victorius"), who ruled from 1184 until 1199). Under their strict Muslim rule, many Christians and Jews migrated to the Christian nations of Aragon, Castile, and Portugal.

In 1195, when al-Mansur was in Africa, Alfonso VIII of Castile decided to mount a reconquista and reclaim the Muslim-controlled lands in Iberia. He united the kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, León, Portugal, and Navarre. When al-Mansur heard of their advance into his territory, he quickly returned from Africa. His major defeat of the Christian army at the Battle of Alarcos was when he took on the epithet "al-Mansur."

In 1212, Pope Innocent III initiated a Crusade against the Muslims in Iberia. Alfonso and his Castilians, Peter II of Aragon, Sancho VII of Navarre (who earlier had helped defend the continental interests of his brother-in-law, Richard Lionheart), and Franks under the vicious Archbishop Arnaud Amalric, united at the pope's request. Their final battle against the forces of the leader Muhammad al-Nasir broke the hold of the Almohad Caliphate in Iberia.

The Almohads were still strong in North Africa, but eventually they were supplanted by the growing Berber Marinid Sultanate.

Although fierce when it came to protecting his territory and religion, al-Mansur softened over time, and although the Koran was the only allowed source of law, he allowed philosophers to theorize without punishment. Averroes' radical statements made him despised by some, but al-Mansur kept him safe at court. al-Mansur was a complex individual who supported the arts and architecture and, well, let's take a closer look at him tomorrow.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Alfonso's Family Tree

Alfonso IX of León cared enough about his country that he summoned what can be called the first Parliament in Western Europe to hear from all strata of society, but he clearly didn't care enough about the pope's opinion to change his behavior when it came to relationships with women. Although the pope declared his second marriage to Berengaria of Castile as illegitimate (because they were cousins), after declaring his first marriage to Theresa of Portugal as illegitimate (because they were cousins), Alfonso and Berengaria stayed together for years afterward.

His devotion to his second wife, however, was not a sign of dedicated monogamy. He had several children by several mistresses over his lifetime. We know these because, like many kings, he acknowledged them and made sure they had decent careers and marriages themselves.

Between his marriages he had a relationship with Inés Íñiguez de Mendoza. Their daughter, Urraca Alfonso, married the Lord of Biscay. They had many children.

He also had a relationship with Estefanía Pérez de Faiam, the daughter of one of his nobles (who was witness to several royal charters). Alfonso gifted her with many estates. They had a son who died young.

One Spanish historian claims that the archdeacon Fernando Alfonso de León of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was Alfonso's son by a woman named Maura, from Salamanca.

A Portugese woman, Aldonza Martínez de Silva, bore three of Alfonso's children between 1214 and 1218. Rodrigo became lord of Aliger. Aldonza married a count of the kingdom of León. Teresa Alfonso de León married a noble of León, Nuño González "the Good."

A relationship that lasted longer than any of his marriages was with Teresa Gil de Soverosa, daughter of a Portugese noble. They had four children:

  • Sancha, who married the Lord of Los Cameros (and later became a nun at a convent which she founded).
  • Maria, who was married but later became mistress to Alfonso X of Castile (her cousin).
  • Martin, who with his wife founded the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Salamanca.
  • Urraca, who married twice. She was born the year her father died.
Alfonso died on 24 September 1230. His son Ferdinand (by Berengaria) was already King of Castile, and inherited León as well. Castile and León, finally united after the hostilities mentioned in the links above, now dominated the Iberian Peninsula.

At one point in the hostilities, Alfonso of León attacked Alfonso of Castile with the help of Muslims, the Almohads. Who were they, and why would they ally with a Christian king? Why would a Christian king think to recruit them? I'll explain that next time.