Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dear Khan, Dear Pope

Ögedei Khan, who never got the letter
Relations between the East and West have always been strained, generally because of radically different world views, and because neither saw any benefit in submitting to what the other offered.

One example is the letter sent from Pope Innocent IV (you can read about him setting down guidelines for torture) to Ögedei Khan. Word had reached Innocent that the Mongols were attacking Christian territories, and Innocent wanted to broach this subject. Dated on 13 March 1245, it goes a little like this:
Seeing that not only men but even irrational animals, nay, the very elements which go to make up the world machine, are united by a certain innate law after the manner of the celestial spirits, [...] it is not without cause that we are driven to express in strong terms our amazement that you, as we have heard, have invaded many countries belonging both to Christians and to others and are laying them waste in a horrible desolation, [...].
We, therefore, following the example of the King of Peace, and desiring that all men should live united in concord in the fear of God, do admonish, beg and earnestly beseech all of you that for the future you desist entirely from assaults of this kind and especially from the persecution of Christians, and that after so many and such grievous offences you conciliate by a fitting penance the wrath of Divine Majesty, which without doubt you have seriously aroused by such provocation;
Innocent makes clear in the letter that he expects the "King of the Tartars" to obey him in this. Before the letter could receive a reply, Ögedei Khan died and was succeeded by Güyük Khan (whose reign began 24 August 1246). Here is part of his message back to the pope:
A Letter from Kuyuk Khan to Pope Innocent IV
By the power of the Eternal Heaven, we are the all-embracing Khan of all the Great Nations.  It is our command:
This is a decree, sent to the great Pope that he may know and pay heed.
After holding counsel with the monarchs under your suzerainty, you have sent us an offer of subordination which we have accepted from the hands of your envoy.
If you should act up to your word, then you, the great Pope, should come in person with the monarchs to pay us homage and we should thereupon instruct you concerning the commands of the Yasak.
Furthermore, you have said it would be well for us to become Christians. You write to me in person about this matter, and have addressed to me a request. This, your request, we cannot understand.
There is more, but the essence is: "You want to talk? Then come here yourself and subordinate yourself to me, so I can explain things to you, like the Yasak (tribute) that you can give to me."

Neither of these rulers was about to "give in" to the demands of someone thousands of miles away, when each felt he had the god-given right to be doing what he was doing. Nor, given the distances involved, was it likely that either would ever be able to influence or affect the other.

Here's a question: given the distances involved, how does one deliver a letter across thousands of miles to someone whose address you probably don't even know? Tomorrow we will talk about the postman, a Franciscan named Giovanni da Pian del Carpine.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Founding of Baghdad

The red pin is Kufa, the purple pin
is Baghdad, about 170 km north.
The Abbasids had taken over from the Umayyads, and in order to make a clear break with their predecessors, they had to make some bold changes. One was to move the capital city. The Umayyad Caliphate had as its capital Kufa, on the banks of the Euphrates. Caliph Al-Mansur (714 - 775) built an imperial palace on the banks of the Tigris, well north of Kufa, on the site of several Aramaic Christian villages. One of the villages was named Baghdad, and even though the palace and city Al-Mansur built was called Madinat as-Salam ["City of Peace"] and that name was used on coins and official documents, locally the name Baghdad continued to be used.

Although the date of its founding is accepted as 30 July 762, building Baghdad took 100,000 workers from 764 to 768. The location of the city on the Tigris was beneficial: the abundance of water throughout the city encouraged growth that allowed for all residents to have easily accessible water. By the 9th century, Baghdad had grown to be the largest city in the Middle East, with a population between 300,000 and 500,000.

The entire city complex was originally built as a circle about 19 kilometers in diameter and was nicknamed al-Mudawara ["Round city"]. The wall was built to last: it was about 44 meters thick at the base, and about 30 meters high. Al-Mansur brought together artists as well as engineers to build his capital, and the circle included parks and promenades, gardens, and a mosque at the center. The city walls had four gates called Basra, Khorasan, Kufa and Syria, named for the places that the highways from those gates led to.

Baghdad became a center of knowledge. The first university in the world is considered to be the Bayt al-Hikma ["House of Wisdom"], founded during the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 - 809). Scholars here made it a goal to translate all Greek works available to them, which made much of Classical Era learning available to the West through Arabic translations.

The strength of the Abbasid Caliphate started to deteriorate due to religious and regional strife. A grandson of Ghengis Khan (but not Kublai, well-known to Marco Polo fans) managed to sack Baghdad in 1258, destroying much of what made it great in learning and art and religion. The city was further devastated in 1401 by Tamerlane.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Abbasid Caliphate

The Abbasid Caliphate has only been mentioned so far as a target of the Assassins, but deserves more attention. Descended from Muhammad's uncle Abbas, the caliphate took power from the Umayyad caliphate and ruled from 750 until its conquest by Mongols in 1258.

That means that the Abbasid Caliphate was "in charge" during many of the Islamic interaction with Europe mentioned in this blog:

Besides math and philosophy, the Abbasid Caliphate was at the forefront of technology, adopting the use of Chinese paper-making techniques and gunpowder. Arabs developed the sextant, windmills for industrial use, and kerosene from petroleum.

The Abbasid's first capital was Kufa, on the banks of the Euphrates, but they shortly chose a different city, whose only shortcoming was that it did not exist.

On 30 July, 762, that would change; but that's a story for tomorrow.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Well-placed German Pope

Gebhard, the Count of Calw, was born about 1018 into an illustrious family. Holy Roman Emperor Henry III (1017 - 1056) recognized him as a kinsman. Despite some hesitation, he was named bishop of Eichstätt at a mere 24 years of age; he proved to be a good bishop and decent statesman.

He was present at the Easter synod of Pope Leo IX in 1949, in which Leo soundly condemned simony and the "wasteful" marriage of priests. Gebhard was respected by, and present for the meetings of, both the pope and the emperor. In fact, he was possibly the most respected advisor to Henry III. When Henry was sending part of the army to aid Pope Leo IX in his trouble with Normans, it was recalled on Gebhard's advice (Gebhard, when pope himself, regretted this decision).

When Leo died in April 1054, a Roman legation came to Henry, requesting that Gebhard be made pope. Gebhard initially resisted, but finally agreed on the condition that the emperor restore to the papacy the properties that had been taken from it by the emperor. Henry agreed—since Gebhard was a pope he could trust—and Gebhard became Pope Victor II on 13 April 1055.

Pope Victor ruled only two years, but his close connection with the emperor made him an enormously powerful pope. In June of 1055 he reaffirmed Leo's condemnations of simony and clerical marriage, and deposed several bishops who had previously resisted correction. Victor threatened to excommunicate King Ferdinand of Spain if he did not recognize Henry as Holy Roman Emperor; Ferdinand relented. Henry repaid him by giving to the pope the duchies of Spoleto and Camerino.

Victor was with Henry when he died, on 5 October 1056, and accepted from Henry the regency for Henry's young son, the six-year-old Henry IV (who might have saved himself some trouble had he grown up and stayed on the good side of the papacy). Victor had the opportunity to rule the Holy Roman Empire as regent for the child emperor!

Alas, he wasn't able to guide the young heir to power or himself to greater power. He died himself on 28 July 1057. While attendants carried his body back to Eichstätt for burial (although pope, he had never given up the bishopric of Eichstätt), zealous Italians snatched the remains and had them buried Ravenna.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Taking Back Constantinople

Alexios Comnenos Strategopoulos
Recently, DailyMedieval covered the 4th Crusade and its misguided conquest of Constantinople. (This post has links to all the parts.) Constantinople did not remain under rule by the Western Europeans, however.

The man credited with returning Constantinople to Byzantine rule was Alexios Comnenos Strategopoulos, who was clearly related to the Comnenos family from which the Byzantine Empire drew several rulers. We don't know when he was born, but records refer to him as an old man in 1258. The earliest mention we have of him is when, in 1252, he was a leader in the army. The blog post linked above mentions that some Byzantine nobles fled the capital to establish their own kingdoms. Alexios lived in one of these, the Empire of Nicaea. His job was to conquer the Despotate of Epirus in northwestern Greece and bring it under Nicaean rule.

Alexios' strategic skills were not stellar, despite his surname, and the campaign failed. Alexios was deprived of his office and imprisoned by Nicaean Emperor Theodore II Laskaris. When Laskaris died in 1258, Alexios was released, and his fortunes started to turn. He went with the army to Macedonia to stop Epirus from taking it, and later was part of the battle that stopped an Achaean-Epiran-Sicilian alliance.

After some other successes and failures, he was sent by Emperor of Nicaea Michael VIII Paleologos with a band of only 800 men to spy on the defenses of the Latins (Venetians and Western Europeans). Michael VIII wanted to take back Constantinople, in the hands of Western Europeans. Fortune smiled upon Alexios: he learned from local farmers that the Venetian fleet and the garrison were gone, conducting a raid against Nicaea. Alexios took a chance that the force would not return, and he led his men—with the help of the locals—via a secret passage into Constantinople, where they took the few guards by surprise and opened the city gate to the Nicaean army of Michael. The next day, 25 July 1261, dawned with Constantinople returning to Greek control.

Learning of the invasion, the Latins living in the city—all of them, including the Latin emperor, Baldwin of Flanders—fled to the harbor to escape. The returning Venetian fleet gave them support during their escape from the oncoming Nicaeans. Michael VIII Paleologos entered the city on 15 August officially and was crowned in Hagia Sophia. Constantinople was finally back under control of the East, and the Byzantine Empire was restored.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Clan Conflicts

Scotland was not always a unified country. Like most countries, it was a collection of tribes with their own loyalties and mutual enmity. Early Scotland had several Pictish kingdoms in the north, the Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dál Riata covering the peninsulas in the west, and Alba to the southeast. Further south, in what was later called Northumberland, was the kingdom of Anglo-Saxons called Bernicia.

There was a lot of fighting, with borders shifting and territories captured and re-captured. Despite what the movies make of Scotland versus England, Scotland versus Scotland was more historically significant, as the country shaped itself through bloodshed. One of the most significant battles on the way to the future of Scotland was the Battle of Harlaw, fought over a large part of northern Scotland, the Earldom of Ross.

The dispute started with Euphemia Leslie, the Countess of Ross. She inherited Ross in 1402 upon the death of her father, Alexander Leslie, but was not in a position to keep it. She was persuaded to relinquish the Earldom to John Stewart, the Earl of Buchan and second son of Euphemia's grandfather (and therefore her uncle).

Euphemia's Aunt Mariota, her father's sister, had become the heir-presumptive when Euphemia first inherited. Seeing the Eardom go to someone else was upsetting, to say the least, and her husband Donald, Lord of the Isles, invaded Ross to take it for his own.

Donald captured Dingwall Castle and then marched on Aberdeen with 10,000 men, running into over a thousand men gathered to counter him, near Harlaw. In a battle that took place on 24 July 1411, Donald lost one-tenth of his forces and killed 500 of the enemy before giving up on Aberdeen.

The Battle of Harlaw was considered one of the most brutal in Scottish history, so much so that it was called "Red Harlaw."

Harlaw "settled" nothing, however. Within a year Ross had been re-taken by the forces of Euphemia's grandfather; then, in 1424 it was given to Mariota.

A ballad about the battle can be heard here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Assize of Clarendon

King Henry II of England had problems. The period known as The Anarchy was over, but the mercenaries employed during it were causing trouble in England now that no one was paying them. "Crusades Fever" was rampant, and aristocrats were leaving their lands for years at a time to liberate the Holy Land; when they returned, they might find someone else farming their estates without permission—and no office of land management that kept records as to who was the rightful owner. And, of course, the Church was doing as it pleased regarding the law, exercising sole authority over its clergy rather than allow them to be bound by civil laws.

Henry needed to put some order onto this chaos. We have already seen (later in his reign) the Assize of Arms. The major instrument of establishing new policies was the Assize of Clarendon in 1166. It was an attempt to establish the rule of law based on evidence and analysis rather than Trial by Ordeal, and to rest final authority with the Crown and its representatives.

It made certain that sheriffs kept records of any criminals in their territories, and that sheriffs would notify other sheriffs of criminals that fled in their direction, to be captured and held. A cleric who was found guilty in an ecclesiastical court was stripped of his office and turned over to the civil court. Compurgation was no longer sufficient as a defense in a felony. Sheriffs had to respond to requests by the "itinerant justices" (the "justices in eyre") sent around by the king.

One important innovation that modern law historians make note of is the first part of Clarendon:
1. In the first place the aforesaid king Henry, by thee counsel of all his barons, for the preservation of peace and the observing of justice, has decreed that an inquest shall be made throughout the separate counties, and throughout the separate hundreds, through twelve of the more lawful men of the hundred... [link]
This is seen as the first step to "Trial by Jury" with  jury of twelve of your peers chosen to analyze a case and help pass judgment.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


An "eyre" (Middle English, from Old French eire from Latin iter, "journey") was "a circuit court held in medieval England by a judge (a justice in eyre) who rode from county to county for that purpose." (New Oxford American Dictionary). The justices in eyre, sent from Westminster to all counties (all but two that is; see below), would hear and rule on crown pleas (criminal offenses), and civil pleas (lawsuits).

Eyres were declared in the Assize of Clarendon in 1166, put in place by the rule-loving Henry II (1133 - 1189)—who wanted to get away from solutions that involved Trial by Combat or Trial by Ordeal—but we have no records of the eyres from that decade. By the end of the century, justices in eyre were required to keep careful records so that sheriffs knew from whom and how much in fines they were supposed to collect. The resulting "eyre rolls" are rolls of parchments stitched together, filled with Latin abbreviations and legal terminology.

Durham and Chester were exempt from the justices in eyre. The king had no jurisdiction there, because they were palatinates, ruled by a local palatine [Latin: "of the palace"], a figure who had jurisdiction that normally belongs to a king. Durham and Chester were under the control of their bishops, and eyres could only be conducted there if a bishop were dead and his successor not yet appointed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Marsilius Ficino

I have always been impressed by the work of Marsilius Ficino (1433 - 1499), but was not sure how to tackle him in a short blog post. Whether we can do justice to him in so brief a span is immaterial: he deserves to be known.

He was born in Florence, son of the physician of Cosmo de Medici, and wound up serving three generations of Medici himself. Cosmo de Medici had Ficino translate Plato into Latin, with an eye to re-creating Plato's Academy in Florence. This may be what made Ficino such a strong proponent of Platonism (now called neo-Platonism). Ficino believed so strongly that Plato (as well as Socrates) and Christianity could be reconciled that he even argued for the reading of Plato in church.

His first major written work was the Theologia platonica ["Platonic theology"], in which he tried to show how Plato's "The One" was clearly the Christian "God," and that everything believed in by the ancients fit into modern Christian knowledge.

In fitting together everything that was "known" about the Universe, Ficino likened magical rituals to Sacraments, and compared pagans' invocation of numerous deities with Christian' prayers for intercession by saints.

He was especially attracted to astrological magic and astrological talismans. His De vita libri tres or De triplici vita ["Three books on life"] tackles various topics. The first book, De vita sana ["On a healthy life"], is specifically for scholars who wish to maintain a healthy life. The second book, De vita long ["On a long life"], is aimed at health for the elderly.

The third book is the most interesting. De vita coelitus comparanda ["On obtaining life from the heavens"] deals with astrological magic. For Ficino, the planets had special powers connected to the Greek gods for whom they were named. It is this work in which he discusses the immortality of the soul and her relationship to all other things, particularly the Soul's nature as a focal point for Body and Mind, bringing them together in Man.

Here also is where he outlines the connection of all things, when he says:
I have said elsewhere that down from every single star (so to speak Platonically) there hangs its own series of things down to the lowest...Under the celestial Serpent or the entire constellation of the Serpent-bearer, they place Saturn and sometimes Jupiter, afterwards daemons who often take on serpent's form, in addition men of this kind, serpents (the animals), the snake-weed, the stone draconite which originates in the head of a dragon, and the stone commonly called serpentine...By a similar system they think a chain of beings descends by levels from any star of the firmament through any planet under its dominion. If, therefore, as I said, you combine at the right time all the Solar things through any level of that order, i.e., men of Solar nature or something belonging to such a man, likewise animals, plants, metals, gems and whatever pertains to these, you will drink in unconditionally the power of the Sun and to some extent the natural powers of the Solar daemons. [Ficino, Three Books on Life, Bk. III, Chap. 14]
Ficino assumes correspondences between all things, especially those of a similar (for example, "snake-like") nature. He also ties in mathematics, claiming like Plato that numbers and shapes have correspondences to other things in Nature.

His works were published and read up until the 18th century, when modern philosophy began to establish its current form.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Two Sabbaths

Sebinkarahisar, possible burial site of Ewastatewos [link]
The word "sabbath" has a long history. Our word is from the Old English form of the Latin sabbatum,  which came to Latin from Greek, which got it from the Hebrew šabbāṯ from the verb šāḇaṯ, "to rest." We can glean from the writings of the early Christian fathers that a regular day of rest was being observed on Sunday. Jews were celebrating Shabbat on their original day, Saturday.

There was one man who thought we should be observing both days.

Ewostatewos* [ኤዎስጣቴዎስ] was an important religious figure in Ethiopia. He was born in 1273 and called Ma`iqabe Igzi; at the age of seven he was sent to live in a monastery whose abbot was his uncle, Daniel. When he became a monk at 15, he took the name Ewostatewos. Eventually, he left the monastery to found his own, which became very popular, in what is now Eritrea. His views were attractive to his followers, but different from the mainstream, and when a Coptic bishop (Ethiopia was originally under the Coptic Church) visited his monastery about 1337, Ewostatewos left it with many of his followers, going to Cairo to meet with the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Patriarch Benjamin of Alexandria, and explained his views.

Among other ideas, Ewostatewos believed that the evidence of the Bible and early christian writings meant there were two sabbaths to be observed. Saturday was the Lesser Sabbath of the Old Testament, and Sunday (because Christ resurrected on a Sunday) was the Greater Sabbath of the New Testament.

His followers continued to expound his views after Ewostatewos died in 1352 in Armenia. His burial place is unknown, but suspected to be “next to the tomb of the holy marty Behman, in a church of Armenia (likely to be the so-called Bozuk Kilise, the “Ruined Church”, of Sebinkarahisar.” [link] He was considered a saint, and a finger bone of his was taken to Ethiopia.

*Sometimes Westernized to Eustathius.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The First Kremlin

Serpukhov Kremlin (picture by Nikolay Burdykina)
We think of "The Kremlin" as the major government building of Russia, as well as the government that runs it (the same we we talk about "The White House"). The word is from the Russian кремль [kreml] and simply means "citadel," and was not the first in Russia.

Vladimir the Bold built the first building called "the kremlin." Vladimir was prince of Serpukhov, a district established in 1349 to protect Moscow from invasion from the south. Vladimir was given the rule of Serpukhov by his cousin, Dmitry Donskoy, the Prince of Moscow. (To be frank, both cousins were only a few years old, and so the arrangements were made by regents.)

In 1374, grown up and able to act on his own, Vladimir built the first structure to be called "kremlin" out of oak; it has been rebuilt since with stone (see picture), though now it is considered merely a ruin.

Vladimir was a great military commander, successfully defending Russia against her foes, mostly Mongols. He died in 1410, leaving seven sons behind. His great-grandson was Ivan the Great. Ivan the Great had no liking for the princes of Serpukhov, despite his distant familial connection to them, and exiled them to Lithuania.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

St. Bonaventure

St. Bonaventure has been mentioned before, writing a biography of Francis of Assisi and disagreeing with Averroes' definition of the soul. He probably deserves his own entry.

He was born in either 1217 or 1221 as Giovanni di Fidanza in Bagnoregio (about 90 kilometers northwest of Rome). In his early 20s he became a Franciscan friar and studied at the University of Paris, quickly developing a reputation as a scholar. He was even made a lecturer on the Four Books of Sentences of Peter Lombard. He took his Masters degree in 1257 in the "same class" as Thomas Aquinas.

Bonaventure wanted to meld all forms of human thought in order to truly comprehend God:
He thought of Christ as the “one true master” who offers humans knowledge that begins in faith, is developed through rational understanding, and is perfected by mystical union with God. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Bonaventure was later declared a "Doctor of the Church" for his erudition and writings, but unlike his classmate Thomas Aquinas  he was called away from the academic life. In 1273 he was made a Cardinal by Pope Gregory X and given the task of reconciling Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox-Byzantine religions. This was to culminate in the Second Council of Lyons, where he died on 15 July 1274.

It is not possible in a brief blog post to do justice to the extent of his learning or the breadth of his career: he was made Minister General of the Franciscans in 1257 to try to overcome the growing disagreement over to what extent the order should embrace poverty. We will likely see more of him in the future.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Bastille

A 1552 map depicting the Bastille
Yesterday was Bastille Day, the anniversary of French peasants storming the Bastille to release prisoners as part of the French Revolution. The Bastille existed long before it became a symbol for overthrowing aristocratic oppression, however.

The name is from a Provençal bastir, meaning "to build"; its full name is the Bastille Saint-Antoine because it was placed at the Port of Saint Antoine on the east side of Paris. It was begun in 1357 in order to have a defense against invading Englishmen during the Hundred Years War, the 116-year conflict from 1337 to 1453 caused by English kings asserting their "right" to chunks of France. Two towers were built.

The first phase of the Hundred Years War ended in 1360, however, with the Treaty of Brétigny between Edward III of England and Philip VI of France, so construction largely stopped. When Charles V of France decided to start the war up again in 1370, construction resumed, producing 3 more pairs of towers for defense. It was completed by his son, Charles VI, years later. The result was a rectangle 223 feet by 121 feet, with 78-foot towers and walls creating a walkway around the entire perimeter. Six of the towers had dungeons at their base. Charles V moved his royal apartments closer to the Bastille, since it was one of the safest places to be in Paris in case of an attack.

It was turned into a prison in 1417.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Abbey at Chelles

A 17th century depiction of Chelles Abbey
The 7th century saw a great trend in France and Britain of women entering religious houses. One of these became a great center for learning and for reproducing manuscripts—and a retirement home for aristocratic ladies.

Chelles Abbey, founded c.658, was previously a royal villa belonging to the Merovingian line. Its association with religion may have started about 511 when a chapel to St. George was installed by Clotilde, wife of King Clovis I (466 - c.511). That chapel eventually crumbled, but over a century later Balthild, wife of King Clovis II (637 - 657), founded the abbey in place of the chapel. Her financial support enabled the new abbey to build the Church of the Holy Cross. Balthild (c.626 - 680) retired to the abbey and died there, but not before it had gained a reputation for learning that also attracted men, leading to a second monastery for them.

Balthild was not the only royalty who entered the abbey. Its first abbess was the aristocratic Berthild of Chelles. Hereswith, a princess of Northumbria (whose son Ealdwulf was a king of East Anglia in the later 7th century), wished to pursue a religious life and went to Chelles as the only option at the time. Charlemagne's sister Gisela was abbess from 800-810. Ladies of the aristocracy and royalty considered Chelles an appropriate recipient of their charity and of themselves when they wished their worldly life to be over.

In the 800s the nuns became known also for their scriptorium. There are several different names signed to many of the manuscripts, but the form of lettering is the same, showing that there was careful attention to a "house style."  This particular style of lettering allows scholars to trace many medieval manuscripts to the copyists and writers of Chelles. The advanced education of the nuns is evident by the academic nature of what they were copying, which included highly philosophical works by important early Christian authors.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Olga of Kiev, the Evil Saint

We touched on the Christianization of Kievan Rus when talking about the Varangian Guard. This Christianization did not happen all at once. Something was happening by 867, when Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, said that the Rus were taking to Christianity with enthusiasm. Still, other historical sources are clear that paganism was still strong in the following century. Still, when ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized some time in the 980s, bringing his family and all of Kiev with him, it is fair to say that the place was "officially" Christian.

That does not mean, however, that everyone immediately became a gentle, "turn the other cheek" follower of the Golden Rule.

Igor I of Kiev ruled Kievan Rus from 912 until his death in 945 during the Drevlian Uprising. The Drevlians were a Slavic group with a wide territory, and they wanted Igor's wife Olga to marry their leader, Prince Mal, so that he would become king of the Rus. Olga intended to became regent for her son, Sviatoslav the Brave, and wanted nothing to do with Prince Mal. When an embassy of 20 men were sent from Mal to persuade her, she made an elaborate plan.

She had a large trench dug in her hall, and had her people carry the 20 men in the boat they came with into the hall as a show of honor to the Drevlians. She then had the boat dropped into the trench and had them buried alive.

She then sent a message to Mal that she would marry him, but he had to show her honor and persuade her people that this was the right decision by sending his best and most impressive nobles as her escort to Mal. When this new and aristocratic assemblage reached Olga's court, she offered them a fancy building to bathe and clean themselves up after their journey. Once they were inside, she secured the building and set fire to it.

She then asked that the Drevlians prepare a funeral feast so that she might mourn her husband, and she would come to them; when they were drunk, her army slew 5000 Drevlians, then returned to Kiev to expect an attack.

The Drevlians were done: they offered terms of surrender. Olga told them she would accept three pigeons and three sparrows from each household, an easy tribute. The people were glad to get off so lightly, and delivered the birds. Olga instructed her men to attach with thread to each bird a small piece of sulphur wrapped in cloth. At night, the birds were released, whereupon they flew back to their nests in the houses from which they came. The houses were set on fire, and the fire spread so quickly that there was no chance to save anything.

Her feast day is today, 11 July.

That's right: she's a saint. As one of the first of the Kievans to be baptized, and for spreading Christianity so diligently (one wonders what tools of persuasion she used), she was named a saint. She failed, however, to convert her son; Vladimir I, who made the Kievan Rus' conversion "official," was her grandson.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Curbing the Pope

19th century bust of Arnold.
For those in the Middle Ages who thought the pope should be solely a spiritual leader and not wield temporal authority, Arnold of Brescia was their most ardent spokesperson. A short-lived 12th century Christian sect even named themselves "Arnoldists" after him; they lost credibility—condemned in 1184 at the Synod of Verona along with Cathars and Waldensians—when they also dared to preach against baptism and communion.

Arnold was born about 1190, in Lombardy in northern Italy. He joined the Augustinians, whose frugal ways clashed with the activities of the increasingly powerful popes. He supposedly studied at the University of Paris under Peter Abelard. Arnold and Abelard both were outspoken about the temporal power of the papacy, but they lost the debate at the Synod of Sens in 1141. Abelard gave in, but Arnold kept up his vocal condemnation of the popes. He was condemned by Pope Innocent II (mentioned here and here), and fled to Zurich.

After Innocent's death, Arnold reconciled with Pope Eugene III, but when he returned to Italy and found that Rome had changed its political structure and refused to allow Eugene to return, Arnold sided with Rome and quickly rose to a position of authority (rather counter to what he objected to about the papacy). He preached that priests who owned property gave up their qualifications to administer the sacraments.

Eugene in exile excommunicated Arnold, but even when Eugene managed to return to Rome, Arnold continued to wired political power in opposition to papal policies.

The next pope, Adrian IV, was not as mild-mannered and easily pushed around as Eugene: he took control of Rome in 1155 with the help of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and forced Arnold into exile, where he was picked up by Barbarossa's forces and forced into a trial. He refused to renounce any of his positions—even when faced with execution—and he was hanged for rebellion (not heresy, curiously) in June 1155. His body was burned and the ashes thrown into the Tiber River to prevent his tomb from becoming a focal point for sympathizers who would consider him a holy martyr.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Homeless Pope

Hugh of Jabala tells Pope Eugene about Prester John
Many of you know about the decades when the papacy was headquartered in Avignon (finally returned to Rome by Gregory XI). But not all popes outside of the Avignon situation enjoyed the benefits of Roman living.

Bernardo of Pisa was a Cistercian monk and a close friend of Bernard of Clairvaux. He became Pope Eugene III in 1145, mostly because no one else wanted the job. Ironically, his election probably had a lot to do with being a friend of Bernard of Clairvaux, who at the time was one of the strongest voices for Christianity and was a strong proponent of the pope's authority to wield temporal power; I call it ironic, because Bernard objected to his friend being made pope because he was too mild-mannered and would not be assertive enough as pope.

Eugene had a transient papacy. He left the City to be consecrated in the Abbey of Farfa, in the northern part of Lazio (the region at the center of which lies Rome). While he was gone, Arnold of Brescia (an opponent of the pope's temporal power) convinced the City to change its political structure and shut its gates to the pope.

Italy at the time (and right up through the 18th century) was not a unified country so much as a peninsula with different regions and city-states that eyed each other as competitors or even enemies. Eugene turned to Tivoli (near Rome) and other cities and to Roger II of Sicily to join him in opposing Rome.

He was able to return to Rome, but shortly after angered the citizens by not agreeing to fight Tivoli, and he was exiled again. He traveled to other cities, and then to France where he held synods in the late 1140s. Returning to Italy in 1149, he fled to Tusculum shortly after and stayed there until 1150, after meeting King Louis VII of France and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who were returning from Crusade. With Roger of Sicily's help he was able to return to Rome, but pressure made him retire soon after.

While sojourning through parts of Italy and souther Europe, he managed to see and approve of the works of Hildegard of Bingen. The legend of Prester John started with a report made to Pope Eugene from Bishop Hugh of Jabala.

As much as he tried to do, however, most of it was done while "on the road," and he had little time to enjoy his title of "Bishop of Rome."

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Born to the Purple

Eastern façade of the Boukoleon Palace, facing the Sea.
"Born to the purple." You may have heard the phrase before; it denotes someone royally born, who will one day rule. In the Middle Ages, of course, there was no guarantee that a royal child would survive to reach the throne. That was okay: the phrase "born to the purple" was not used cavalierly: it was only for special cases—very special cases.

The post on the Varangian Guard mentioned Emperor Basil II, sometimes called Porphyrogenitus.* In Greek it would look like Πορφυρογέννητος, and it literally means "born to the purple." It specifically denoted a legitimate child—either son or daughter—who was born to a sitting Emperor. Anna Comnena (1083 - 1153)—mentioned here and here—described the conditions necessary for this special status.

Not only did your father need to be currently a ruler of the Byzantine Empire, but you needed to be born in a special room in the palace. The Porphyry ("Purple") was a chamber—more of a free-standing pavilion—on a terrace of the Imperial Palace in Constantinople. It was a perfect cube whose roof held a pyramid. If you were not born in the Porphyry, you could not use the title Porphyrogenitus. From Anna's description in The Alexiad, the chamber had "stone oxen and lions" and faced the Sea of Marmora, so it is likely to have been the Boukoleon Palace. She tells us it was decorated in purple with white spots.

Being a Porphyrogenitus like Basil II or (in Anna's case) a Porphrogenita did not mean you were going to be a better ruler; in fact, it was no guarantee that you would every rule at all. It did give you a certain touch of class, useful for diplomatic relations, such as marrying a Porphyrogenita off to a foreign head of state.

*He was also called "Basil the Young" so as to not confuse him with Basil I, and "Basil Bulgaroctonus" (Greek: "Basil, Slayer of the Bulgars"), but that's not important right now.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Vikings in Constantinople

An 11th-century depiction of Varangian Guards.
In recent posts on the 4th Crusade and the Siege of Constantinople, I mentioned the Varangian Guard beating back the Crusaders temporarily. The Varangian Guard were, essentially, Vikings who made their way to the Mediterranean and became mercenaries. Their name comes from the Old Norse Væringjar, from the word var which meant "pledge"; thus, they were "pledged men"; the Greeks turned this name into Βάραγγοι or Varangoi.

It was Emperor Basil II (958 - 1025), sometimes called "Basil the Young" or "Porphyrogenitus," who first hired them in 988, after their Kievan Rus homeland was Christianized. Basil received 6000 Varangians from Vladimir I of Kiev, which he preferred over local men whose loyalties might attach them to other aristocrats and would-be emperors if circumstances favored such a switch.

Viking runes in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
Service in the Byzantine Empire was so attractive that men from all the Scandinavian countries considered it a good career move. Sweden even made a law that declared no Varangian serving in Byzantium could inherit without returning back home.

Varangians became very popular as mercenaries in Kievan Rus and even in England—but only for a short time, from 1018-1066: they did not help to turn the tide when William of Normandy came to claim the throne.

In Byzantium, they operated at least through the middle of the 14th century. Still, they left their mark on Constantinople in more ways than one. Some runic inscriptions have survived, placed their by Varangians. One was even carved in the Hagia Sophia.

Friday, July 4, 2014


This is the 500th post on the Daily Medieval blog. In its honor, let us look at the year 500 CE and how it overlaps some of the previous 499  posts.

500 was a leap year. January 1st was a Saturday. July 4th was a Tuesday.

It was the birth year of Gildas, a monk, who wrote the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ["On the Ruin & Conquest of Britain"], a chief source of history for early Britain, although much is called into question. A life of St. Gildas written later by a friend of Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Gildas out to be a contemporary of King Arthur, and yet Gildas never mentions him. He does mention the Battle of Mount Badon, for which 500 is a possible date.

It is the year that Clovis I pursues King Gundobad of the Burgundians after a military engagement, forcing him to pay annual tribute.

It is the approximate date of the formation of the Kingdom of the Franks, that reached a high point a few centuries later with the family of Charles Martel.

It is the approximate birthdate of Aregund, whose jewelry provided an impressive grave excavation.

It is the birthdate of the Byzantine historian Procopius, from whom we learn how the West got the secret of silk from Nestorian monks.

500 was, of course, only the year according to the Julian calendar.
For the Romans, it was 1253 Abs urbis condita ["from the city's founding"].
Jews considered it the year 4260-61.
The Byzantines numbered years from the founding of the world, 5509 years before Christ, so to them it was 6008-09 (the year started on 1 September).

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Catapults, Mangonels, Trebuchets

The post on the siege of Zara mentioned using a mangonel being used to attack the walls with stones. As you can imagine, a mangonel was a form of catapult. Catapults of various kinds were used during war from at least the 4th century BCE right up to World War I (where they were used to throw grenades into trenches at a distance).

According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (who wrote in the 1st century BCE), the Greeks were using a device he called a catapult (from Greek καταπέλτης [katapeltēs] meaning "to throw across/against") to fire arrows to greater distances. This makes it similar to a giant crossbow. Most devices that fall into the catapult category throw things other than arrows.

The mangonel specifically used a large bucket at the end of an arm in order to throw stones. The arm, anchored at its other end,  is pulled back to create tension. This is different from a trebuchet, which uses a counterweight at the other end to create the throwing force.

Whereas the word "catapult" has a clear meaning and "trebuchet" is from Old French trebucher, "to overthrow," there is no clear origin for the word "mangonel." It may be called that because of mangon, a hard stone found in southern France. It may be from Greek mágganon, "engine of war." The mangonel was sometimes called an onager, the name for a wild ass, because when fired it "kicked and bucked" like a wild ass.

Besides stones, the enemy could be attacked by throwing burning logs, manure, rotting flora or fauna, quicklime (good for treating soil, bad for humans), and the bodies of defeated enemies.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The (Disastrous) 4th Crusade, Part 4

[see Part 1 here and Part 2 here, the intermezzo, and Part 3 here]

With former Emperor Isaac II Angelos dead at the end of January 1204, his deposed son Emperor Alexios IV Angelos turned to the Crusaders, asking for help. But they had been through this before, and Alexios had not honored on all his promises.

Imperial chamberlain Alexios Doukas proclaimed himself Emperor Alexios V—the citizens accepted him—and strangled Alexios IV. He then tried to get the Crusaders to leave his empire. In March of 1204, the Venetians and Crusaders decided there was no way to achieve a happy outcome without simply attacking Constantinople and taking what they wanted. Siege and military actions lasted from the end of March until 12 April, when several dozen Crusaders managed to breach the walls and allow some of their comrades in. A fire they started burned down a large section of the city. That night, Alexios V fled.

Three days of pillaging commenced, destroying or damaging or stealing countless works of art. Thousands of citizens were killed. The great Library of Constantinople was destroyed. The Hagia Sophia was desecrated. A contemporary Byzantine chronicler says:
Nor can the violation of the Great Church be listened to with equanimity. For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendor.
When the sacred vases and utensils of unsurpassable art and grace and rare material, and the fine silver, wrought with gold, which encircled the screen of the tribunal and the ambo, of admirable workmanship, and the door and many other ornaments, were to be borne away as booty, mules and saddled horses were led to the very sanctuary of the temple. Some of these which were unable to keep their footing on the splendid and slippery pavement, were stabbed when they fell, so that the sacred pavement was polluted with blood and filth. [link]
Many of the priceless works of art wound up in Venice. For Venice and for Doge Enrico Dandolo, this was sweet revenge for an incident between Constantinople and Venice 30 years earlier, when Venetians in the city had all their property confiscated.

The Byzantine Empire was divided between Venice and the Crusading force, who elected Baldwin of Flanders to be their emperor. The upper classes and royalty of Constantinople fled the city; some of hem set up their own small kingdoms, in Epirus and Nicaea and Trebizond.

The thought that the Empire and therefore the Eastern Orthodox Church was now in the hands of the West so pleased Pope Innocent III that he lifted the excommunication placed on the Crusaders for having attacked and killed Christians. It would be 800 years before a Pope (John Paul II) would apologize for the tragedy, and for a Patriarch of Constantinople (Bartholomew I) to accept the apology.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The (Disastrous) 4th Crusade, Part 3

[see Part 1 here and Part 2 here, and the preface to today's here]

So the Crusade left in spring of 1203 to sail to Constanbtinople, to demand that the usurper, Emperor Alexios III Angelos, relinquish the throne to his predecessor, Isaac II Angelos. With the Crusaders was the son of the blinded and imprisoned Isaac, Alexios IV Angelos, who had offered the sun and moon for their help to eliminate Alexios III.

Of course Constantinople saw them coming and was prepared, its army lining the shore where the crusader ships landed. The Crusader cavalry surprised the Byzantine army, which ran away a short distance before turning back and fighting at the Tower of Galata. This was a strategic point for Constantinople. A huge harbor called The Golden Horn was the chief access to sea-level Constantinople; the entrance to the Golden Horn was blocked by a chain stretched between two towers. Once the Crusading army conquered the Tower of Galata (which they did), the chain was lowered and the fleet had ready access to the city.

Still, the walls were strong and the city gates shut. The Crusaders showed Alexios IV to the citizens on the walls, saying "Here's your king!" For Constantinople, however, Alexios III had ruled since 1195 and not done such a bad job that they couldn't forgive his his unorthodox rise to the throne. They saw no need for Alexios III, or to release Isaac II from prison.

The Crusaders laid siege to the city on 17 July, attacking the walls from land and sea. Although defended ably by the Varangian Guard, the advances made by the Crusaders prompted Alexios III to flee to Thrace; the city released Isaac II and re-proclaimed him Emperor. The Crusaders forced Isaac to name his son emperor, and Alexios IV was put on the throne.

It was time for Alexios IV to make good on his promise to help the Crusade. According to one chronicler:
After he had been crowned the barons demanded their pay. He said he would very willingly pay what he could and at that time he paid 100,000 marks. Of this sum the Venetians -received one-half; for they were to receive one-half of the conquests. Of the 50,000 which remained, 36,000, which the Franks still owed for the vessels, were paid to the Venetians. And all those who had advanced money to pay for the passage were paid out of the 14,000 marks which the pilgrims had left. [Robert de Clari, Chroniques]
Then, like at Zara, the Crusaders settled in for several months to await the preparations for the rest of Alexios' promised aid. During this time, tensions between East and West, between Greeks and Latins, ran high. The locals blamed Alexios for bringing these Crusaders into their midst. Then, in January of 1204, Isaac II died. Perhaps it was only respect for the Emperor of a decade ago that held the city in check; whatever the case, the citizens no longer looked favorably on Alexios IV. Alexios was deposed during riots, so naturally he turned to the Crusaders for help again, with complicated results.

[to be continued]