Friday, September 29, 2023

The Pope and Dracula

Pope Pius II (18 October 1405 - 14 August 1464) was very busy, looking for political alliances and ways to expand his authority.

It wasn't all politics: in 1461 he canonized Saint Catherine of Siena. Much of the rest of his energy was put into more worldly actions, however, even if they had religious goals.

One of his first actions in 1458 was to make an alliance with Ferdinand II of Aragon who was pressing a claim to Naples (Naples was being contested between the House of Aragon and the House of Anjou.) In 1461, however, he persuaded King Louis XI of France to abolish something called the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, established in 1438 that required a Church Council every ten years that had power to overrule the papacy in France. Louis thought that, in turn, Pius would support him in the Naples question, but Pius stood by his alliance with Ferdinand and Louis reinstated the Pragmatic Sanction again.

He tried to mediate between the two sides of the Thirteen Years' War between Poland and the Teutonic Knights. Failing to bring them to agreement, he declared both groups anathema.

When Duke Sigismund arrested Nicholas of Cusa (when he was bishop of Brixen) for attempting reforms and reclaiming lost diocesan revenue, Pius excommunicated Sigismund.

He was very concerned about the Turks, who had come as far west as they ever had in 1453 with the taking of Constantinople. He convened a congress in Mantua in 1459 to arrange a new Crusade against the Turks. The attempt failed; Christendom did not rise to the occasion. He did, however, inspire a prince of Wallachia, a province in Romania, to mount a war against Sultan Mehmed II of Turkey. That prince was named Vlad Tsepes, also known as Vlad III, or Vlad the Impaler, but whose other nickname came down to modern times as a famous literary figure: Dracula.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about how Dracula tried to save Christendom from infidels.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Loving Pope Pius II

Pius II was the only pope to write an autobiography while he reigned. Lest you think he probably sanitized his life so that it seemed more appropriate for a pope, in this case he included events that were quite the opposite. He was an author of more than an autobiography: he also wrote Historia de duobus amantibus ("A Tale of Two Lovers"; see the illustration), and others.

Born Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini to a soldier, he was one of 18 children (many of whom did not live long). He worked at the family farm until the age of 18, when he left to study at Siena, where he settled as a teacher. In 1431 he left teaching to be secretary to a bishop who was on his way to the Council of Basel, but changed jobs when that bishop ran out of money. He then went to Scotland on a secret mission, where he had a dalliance and fathered a child, who died young. He described Scotland as "wild, bare and never visited by the sun in winter."

Back in Basel, he was offered a diaconate, but disliked the obligation of abstinence. He was sent to Strasbourg, where he fathered another child (who died at 14 months). Later, at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, he was named court poet for his cleverness and facility with language. While there, it is believed that he observed events that were turned into the "Tale of Two Lovers."

Enea did not care much for morals or strictness, but he realized that the way to power lay in the Church. His diplomatic skills working for Pope Eugene IV impressed those around him, so Eugene's successor Nicholas V made him Bishop of Trieste, and later Bishop of Siena. Now he wanted to advance, and desired to become a cardinal. He thought his chance came in 1455, but then Pope Calixtus III wanted to promote his own nephews first, and so Enea did not become a cardinal until 1456.

That meant, however, that he was part of the papal conclave on 10 August 1458, right after Calixtus died. Enea did his best to work his diplomatic skills among the cardinals and, although there were many with more experience and better ethical reputations, he managed to gather the votes so that a second ballot elected him unanimously.

According to his own writing, he did not rise above the desires of the flesh, but he did not neglect papal duties, and was keen on spreading Christianity, calling for a crusade against the Turks, who had taken Constantinople in 1453 and were now a strong presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Politics makes strange bedfellows, and successful Crusades sometimes required allying oneself with potentates you would not normally work with. Pius reached out to a voivode ("chief military leader") of a region in Romania called Wallachia, whose position north of the Turks would make him a helpful ally in surrounding them. Tomorrow, I'll talk about the link between Pius and a few other people mentioned in this blog, and then about his alliance with someone who had never before been mentioned: Dracula.

See you then.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Decline of the Republic of Siena

After a number of different governing bodies (a pun will become clear once you read this), Siena turned to Gian Galeazzo Visconti to lead them against the threat of Florentine expansion. He was thrust out of power five years later, however, and they went back to a council, in this case the Ten Priors. In an even more surprising move, they allied with Florence against Naples' King Ladislaus.

Also, although the Noveschi families had been exiled, a prominent Sienese named Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini became Pope Pius II, and his influence allowed the nobles to return. The head of the Noveschi was Pandolfo Petrucci, who spent his time gathering political power until finally he was able to set himself up as a tyrant.

As with Gian Galeazzo Visconti, sometimes a strong individual is needed to get a government back on track. (Machiavelli's advice on this came about a decade after Petrucci's coup.) He did lead Siena back to greatness, promoting arts and sciences. Unfortunately, the Petrucci family was power-hungry. Pandolfo was succeeded by his son Borghese, but four years later Borghese was ousted by his cousin Raffaello. Raffaello was a cardinal, and his duties forced him to hand the control his nephew Francesco, who managed a year before Pandolfo's youngest son Fabio ousted him. Fabio was not well-liked, and in 1525 Siena exiled him.

With the Petrucci family gone, Siena saw even more internal strife. Once again the Noveschi were ousted. They were supported by Pope Clement VII, who sent an army to Siena, but it was defeated. Taking advantage of the chaos, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V installed a Spanish garrison about 1529, but Siena got rid of them in 1552 with help from France. Charles sent an army with Florentine help to lay siege to Siena, who endured for 18 months before giving up, surrendering to Spain. Since King Philip II of Spain owed large sums to the Medicis, he gave Siena to Florence. Self-rule was denied them for a long time.

One of the creations of the Republic was the Monte di Pietà or "mount of piety," founded in 1472, where poor people could get loans with manageable interest. It got its funds from charitable donors, and loans would be assured by the borrower handing over possessions as collateral. Yes, it functioned more like a pawnbroker, or an organized charity, but it helped numerous people and inspired similar arrangements all over Europe. This Siena institution never stopped functioning. Today it is called the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, and qualifies as the oldest continuously functioning bank in the world.

Pope Pius II has been mentioned before, once even involving politics, but I'd like to look at him more closely, especially because he has a link to an even more interesting character that you all have heard of, but has not yet been mentioned here. More tomorrow (and, of course, the next day).

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Republic of Siena

According to legend, Siena was founded by Senio and Ascanio, who were sons of Remus (who founded Rome with his brother Romulus). More verifiably, Romans established a military outpost in 30CE.

After the fall of Rome and prior to the Republic of Siena, for many years the city and area was run by the bishops. During a territorial dispute with Arezzo, the bishop asked for help from the nobility, who demanded a greater say in administering the city in exchange. This led eventually to ending the control by the bishops and the founding in 1125 by a consular government.

Siena prospered under the Republic, becoming a center of money-lending and the wool trade. It expanded its influence over Southern Tuscany. In 1286 the government evolved to the Nove, "The Nine," chosen from the Noveschi political party of wealthy merchants. Under the Nove Siena rose to new heights of power, producing the Cathedral of Siena and improving the city walls.

Under the Noveschi, Siena's political and economic power grew in southern Tuscany until it became a rival to Florence. Of particular issue was the fact Siena was predominantly Ghibelline versus the Florentine Guelphs. This post explains the difference; Dante mentions their conflict in his Commedia. With help from Manfred of Sicily, Siena defeated Florence in the 1260 Battle of Montaperti. Some 15,000 Florentines were killed in the battle, and Siena entered a Golden Age until...

...the Black Death. Siena was devastated, In 1355, just as they might have been recovering from the plague, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg entered Siena and the population decided to throw out the Nove and the power of the Noveschi, replacing it with the Dodici, "The Twelve." They were presently replaced by the Quindici, "The Fifteen" in 1385, then the Dieci (Ten, in 1386), then the Undici, (Eleven, 1388-1398), followed by the "Twelve Priors" from 1398-99. Ultimately, all these experiments in governing by councils ended when the fear of Florentine expansion motivated the city to turn to a single strong ruler, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about the return of the Nove, the decline of the Republic, and (my favorite), the "mount of piety," which still exists.

Monday, September 25, 2023

The Start of the Italian Renaissance

Because there are no "hard and fast" dates for cultural eras (although I nominate 1453CE for one), the Italian Renaissance painting is carefully divided up into four phases: the Proto-Renaissance (1300–1425), the Early Renaissance (1425–1495), the High Renaissance (1495–1520), and Mannerism (1520–1600, which we in this blog can safely ignore). Cimabue (c.1240 - 1302) is often called the first great artist of the Proto-Renaissance period in Italian art. Why "photo"? If it's new and part of the rebirth, why can't we just say he is the first of the Italian (prefix-free) Renaissance?

Part of the problem is that the Renaissance does not begin everywhere all at once. These phases represent trends in art and are tied to specific artists who tried something "new" and whose work influenced the style of others. The Proto-Renaissance in Italian art was dominated by two figures: Cimabue and Duccio of Siena (his Madonna and Child, now in the London National Gallery, is shown above). Along with two contemporaries, Guido of Siena and Coppo di Marcovaldo, they seem to have been influenced by the unknown the so-called Master of St Bernardino. They specialized in stylized religious paintings in which the angle of the head and position of the hands, for instance, were determined by traditional icon paintings in the Byzantine style.

Proto-Renaissance painting was dominated by religious art. During this Proto period the Black Death inspired a change in theme to the need to approach death in a state of penitence; images of death and the torments of Hell began to dominate church art. More than one painting is named "Triumph of Death" from this era.

Much of this was happening in Siena, ruled by a republic since 1125. I'd like to talk about its history next time.

Sunday, September 24, 2023


Cimabue (c.1240 - 1302) was an Italian painter and a designer of mosaics. In case you have not yet heard of this man, his name is pronounced (forgive the amateur phonics) chim-uh-boo-ee. His real name was Cenni di Pepo. The nickname is thought to mean "bull-headed" (see the third paragraph for a possible explanation).

Born in Florence, he probably studied originally under Byzantine-style artists, but he "rose above it." His painting style is credited with defying the usual flat medieval style and developing more realistic proportions with lifelike shading. Giorgio Vasari centuries later told the tale that it was Cimabue who came across a young Giotto sketching sheep and, so amazed at his realistic drawing, invited him (with Giotto's father's permission) to come to Cimabue's studio.

Vasari, supposedly quoting a contemporary of Cimabue, says "Cimabue of Florence was a painter who lived during the author's own time, a nobler man than anyone knew but he was as a result so haughty and proud that if someone pointed out to him any mistake or defect in his work, or if he had noted any himself... he would immediately destroy the work, no matter how precious it might be."

In a case of the student exceeding the master, Dante mentions (not places, although Cimabue was dead by the time Dante was writing the Commedia) Cimabue in the Purgatorio as an example of fleeting fame while discussing those who suffer from excessive pride: “Cimabue thought himself the master of painters; Giotto took from him the glory and relegated him to oblivion.”

To be fair, however, Cimabue was not relegated to oblivion. We are aware of several works by Cimabue (more than those of which we can be certain were made by Giotto). For instance, the illustration above is a small detail (Judas betraying Christ) from a fresco in the Church of San Francesco (St. Francis) in Assisi, commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV (the first Franciscan who became pope).

Cimabue is also credited with the round stained glass window of the choir of Siena Cathedral, as well as a painted Madonna and Child (now in the Louvre), and the fresco Christ Enthroned between the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist in Pisa Cathedral.

One interpretation of Cimabue's impact on art is to call him the first great artist of the Italian Porto-Renaissance. I suppose Proto-Renaissance could use some explanation, which I'll provide tomorrow.

Saturday, September 23, 2023


Giotto (c.1267 - 8 January 1337) is one of the best-known painters and architects of the Italian Renaissance, and yet we know very little for certain about his life or work. An 1850 plaque exists in a tower house in a village north of Florence declaring it was his birthplace, but recent documentary evidence shows that he was born in a farmhouse in Florence. His father was a blacksmith named Bondone.

As a boy he was discovered by the famous artist, Cimabue, who saw him sitting on a rock drawing such lifelike pictures of sheep that Cimabue offered to take him on as an apprentice. "Lifelike" was the hallmark of his art. His contemporary Giovanni Villani called him "the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature."

Many of the stories about Giotto's life and work come from much later, in the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari (1511 - 1574). Vasari mentions that Giotto painted a fly on a face in a painting of Cimabue's so lifelike that Cimabue kept trying to brush it off. Another anecdote by Vasari tells that Pope Benedict XI sent a messenger to Giotto, asking for a sample of his artwork to determine if he was good enough to commission. Giotto sent a red circle by hand that was so precise it looked as if it had been drawn with a compass. The messenger reported to the pope that Giotto had not moved his arm when he drew it.

Vasari attributed many works to Giotto, but there are only a few with provenance that tie them directly to him. One is the decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, completed around 1305. Its frescoes of the life of the Virgin and the life of Christ is regarded as one of the supreme masterpieces of the Early Renaissance. He was also chosen by the commune of Florence in 1334 to design the new campanile (bell tower) of the Florence Cathedral.

While we are on the subject of Italian Renaissance artists, we should not neglect Cimabue. We'll look at him tomorrow.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Medieval Mosaics

Mosaic art—arranging pieces of stone, glass (called tesserae), or other material to make shapes and pictures—has existed since the 3rd millennium BCE, when pebbles were used to make floors with designs. They became widespread in ancient Greece and Rome, not just as public art but for domestic use: every household would be enhanced by mosaics on the floors (not usually on the walls, where fresco was used for decoration).

The earliest mosaics, found in a temple in Mesopotamia, were roughly cube-shaped bits of stone, along with pieces of shell and ivory. Around 1500 BCE we start to see evidence of glazed tiles being used. Rome and Greece elevated mosaic use to a high art (although most named mosaic artists in the Roman Empire have Greek names).

The Middle Ages chose brightly colored glass and gold leaf to make mosaics. When Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire, it became the site of several magnificent buildings with equally impressive mosaics. When the Lombards were problematic, Pope Adrian I turned to Charlemagne for aid. For Charlemagne's reward, he was allowed to take away from Ravenna anything he wanted. What he wanted was Roman art and architecture, so a number of Roman columns, statues, and mosaics traveled north to become a part of his complex at Aachen.

Taking and re-using older architecture and artwork was actually a recognized practice, and the elements were called spolia, from the Latin for "spoils." An example of spolia in Aachen is the porphyry columns in the Palatine Chapel which likely came from Ravenna. Charlemagne must have liked what he saw in Ravenna, because his Palatine Chapel's design is very similar to the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. The Palatine's ceiling and walls are covered in mosaic that is clearly Byzantine in style (see the illustration).

As the 13th century approached, mosaicists were also painters. One of the best known now (in the Modern Age) was Giotto, whom we'll talk about next time.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Ravenna, the Capital Cities

Ravenna in northern Italy has been occupied since at least the 5th century BCE, when a tribe called the Umbri lived in dwellings built on poles over the swampy area. Pliny the Elder said they were considered by some to be the oldest people in Italy, and that their name came from the Greek word for thunderstorm, because they survived the great deluge spoken of in Greek mythology.

They came under Roman control in 89 BCE under Octavian, who built a harbor there on the Adriatic shore. In 408CE, the Emperor Honorius moved his court there from Rome, making it his capital. When Odoacer overthrew Romulus Augustus and the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Odoacer made Ravenna his capital. Then Theodoric attacked Ravenna in 489 and made it the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom. This lasted until 540, when Belisarius captured Ravenna for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who made it the capital of Byzantine Italy.

Difficulty managing that part of Italy (and attempting to conquer more) from Constantinople caused the Byzantine emperors to rely more on the authority and aid of the pope, who was becoming a powerful landowner due to gifts, but when the Lombards descended into Italy the pope turned to a more local solution: Charlemagne. As a result of Charlemagne's aid, Ravenna became part of the Papal States. It remained part of the Papal States for centuries, until it was incorporated into a unified Italy in the mid-19th century.

During this constant "changing of hands" Ravenna did not lose some of its amazing early architecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Sites List has eight sites in Ravenna, all built between 430 and 549 CE, as well as several other historical sites.

Dante Alighieri retired to Ravenna after being rejected by his home town of Florence for his past actions. There is an annual music festival with operas performed at a theater named for him. Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Herman Hesse, and T.S.Eliot all visited Ravenna and wrote poems about it, and Tolkien fans will be interested to know it may have been the "inspiration behind Minas Tirith."

Ravenna did not earn itself an epithet like "The Eternal City" or the "City of Light," but it is sometimes called the "capital of mosaics." I'll be happy to explain that tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Paolo and Francesca

In the 2nd circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno, Dante and Virgil see two lovers, Paolo and Francesca, condemned for lust (see the illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti). Just as they allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions, they are buffeted by heavy winds. Francesca tells her story, while a silent Paolo weeps in the background.

She was seized with a powerful passion while reading the story of Galehaut (mentioned in yesterday's post). the theme of such a strong love "overpowered" the two. Unfortunately, she was married to Paolo's brother, who killed the two for their affair.

The two were historical figures: Francesca da Polenta, married to Giovanni Malatesta, and Giovanni's brother Paolo Malatesta (who was also married). The marriage was not one of love. Francesca's father was at odds with Giovanni's father, who was lord of Rimini. The marriage was designed to make peace between two noble and powerful families. Some time in the early 1280s, Giovanni found the two in Francesca's bedroom, and killed them.

In Dante's telling, Francesca blames the overwhelming power of Love for her actions and misfortune, accepting no blame on the part of the two lovers. Despite this, she becomes for Dante an example of the love poetry he himself wrote about earlier in his career. She tells her story without interruption, and becomes a symbol of a strong woman condemned by circumstance outside her control, because of the power of the story of Galehaut. Dante draws a parallel between the great love tale from literature and the real love tale before him.

So now we come to the point of what we started yesterday: why did Boccaccio subtitle his Decameron with Prencipe Galehaut? Boccaccio uses Galehaut—especially through the lens of his hero Dante's use of Galehaut as inspiration for Francesca's and Paolo's actions—as a symbol of his regard and compassion for women who have never been allowed the freedom of men to do as they wished. It is his acknowledgement that women should be given agency: as the women in the Decameron not only share equal social standing with the men in their ten-day community, but also in the stories told of women who manage by their wits or gain the outcomes they want.

If they were historical figures, was their affair so well-known that Dante would know the details? As it happens, remember that I told you here that he spent his final years in Ravenna? His host was Guido Novello, also known as Guido Il da Polenta, lord of Ravenna from 1316 to 1321, and the nephew of Francesca da Polenta!

Ravenna must be a little interesting, since Dante chose it for his retirement. Let's learn the delights of Ravenna next time.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The Titles of the Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio played around with titles, and not only for his own works. Dante Alighieri's magnum opus was called by the author Commedia, "Comedy," but in later years it began being referred to as the "Divine Comedy" by Boccaccio, and the name stuck. Boccaccio had a good reason for tacking that adjective onto Dante's work, and not just because of the obvious reason.

When Boccaccio wrote his Decameron (c.1353), he apparently thought of it as a parallel or complement to Dante's work, because Boccaccio sometimes called his tale of ten young people telling ten stories per day for ten days  l'Umana commedia ("the Human comedy").

Besides that, Boccaccio also had a subtitle for the Decameron that is often overlooked, and the explanation for it has a couple of layers. His subtitle (seen above in an early Italian edition) was Prencipe Galeotto, or "Prince Galehaut." Who was that, and why was it important to Boccaccio? What message did it convey to his audience?

Galehaut was well-known to the medieval literary crowd as a prince from the Arthurian legends, specifically from the French Lancelot cycle. Galehaut was a half-giant who brings a massive army to challenge King Arthur's rule over Logres. Galehaut's forces are superior, but he is so enamored of the prowess of a Black Knight fighting for Arthur's side that he stops the battle solely for the opportunity to meet this knight and spend time with him. TheBlack Knight turns out to be a young Lancelot, and thus begins a deep friendship between the two, interpreted by some as a strong chivalric bond and by some as a homosexual bond.

Enter Guinevere. Galehaut realizes Lancelot's love for Guinevere, and steps back from Lancelot to avoid being "in the way." Later, when Guinevere is accused oof infidelity to Arthur and flees, Lancelot and she find refuge in Galehaut's castle. Galehaut dies at the age of 39 from his unrequited longing for the man he gave up. He is laid in a magnificent tomb that he had built to commemorate their friendship. Lancelot at his death is also laid in that tomb, side by side with Galehaut.*

Galehaut becomes a symbol of greatness, abandoning one's own desires for the sake of another's. How does this apply to the Decameron

For that, we need to turn to Dante again, and visit the second circle of Hell where we meet two lovers, Paolo and Francesca. Come back tomorrow, and we will start to put it all together.

*Malory changes this story, using the name Galahad.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Boccaccio's Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio's best known work to modern readers is his Decameron, a Greek word that means "Ten Days." In it, seven young men and three young women go into the hills above Florence to spend ten days in a villa to escape the Black Death, currently ravaging the cities and countryside.

One theory of the Black Death was that it resulted from bad air rising from swamps and cesspools, and going up into the fresh air outside the city was one way to escape it. Of course, whether the disease were being transmitted by fleas jumping from mammal to mammal or being spread by contact with those who were ill, getting away from crowded populations into fresh air would be an obvious smart choice.

The ten young people decide to pass the time by each telling a tale each day, resulting over the ten days in a collection of 100 tales. Each of the ten takes a turn being the king or the queen for a day, and gets to choose the day's theme. The themes include comedy, tragedy, romance, etc., but go beyond those simple topics.

One day is for stories of virtue, one is romances that end happily, while one is for romances that end in tragedy. There are tales of luck, tales about women who play tricks on men, and tales where the main character is in trouble but saves himself or herself by quick thinking at the climax.

The whole is not just a sequence of tales. Boccaccio gives us a description of other ways that the ten occupy their time, including songs that they sing to entertain each other. These songs, the daily activities, and the tales themselves with some of their recurring concepts of mocking the clergy, nouveau riche vs. old noble families, and the similarity between men and women's lust and ambition, paint a picture of 14th century Italian life in prose that is a useful introduction to the feelings of the time and place.

Boccaccio likely made up none of the tales, but that does not mean there is no original material. The medieval approach was to take a known tale and develop it in new ways. Most of the tales in the Decameron can be found in other forms in earlier sources...and later, since his tales were read and used by others, such as Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.

Despite the name Decameron, Boccaccio also referred to the work by two other names, which are interesting anecdotes in their own way. I'll share those tomorrow.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375) was eight years old when Dante died, but he revered the man and wrote a biography about him. He even gave a series of lectures in Florence on Dante's works—a first for a non-Classical Era writer. He was more than just a fan of another, however, becoming a treasured poet in hid own right.

Like Dante, Bocaccio wrote in Tuscan vernacular rather than Latin, and he wrote in prose, telling stories that captured the imagination and inspired others, including Geoffrey Chaucer.

Boccaccio grew up in Florence. His father worked for the banking/trading company of the Bardi; Giovanni worked there for a brief time, deciding that it was not a profession to his liking. His father came head of a branch in Naples, taking the family there, and Giovanni persuaded his father to let him study law at what is now the University of Naples (where Thomas Aquinas had been 100 years earlier). Six years of studying canon law taught him that he liked that profession no more than he liked banking.

Two good things came from his time in Naples. One was his love for Fiametta. That was not her name; simply what he called her in his writings. If she existed, she was really Maria d'Aquino, illegitimate daughter of King Robert the Wise of Naples, whom he saw and with whom he fell in love. He wrote a novel about her, and mentions her in many other writings.

The other good thing from his time in Naples was that he began writing. He produced works such as Il Filostrato, about star-crossed lovers during the Trojan War (which became a source for Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida), and Teseida, nominally about Theseus but dominated by the rivalry of two young knights over a woman (and the source of Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales).

He also wrote the first Italian prose novel, Il Filocolo, the story (well-known in Europe) of Florio and Biancifiore, two lovers from different stations in life. Fiametta appears as the "queen" of a "noble brigade" who pose questions to each other about love.

Perhaps his best-known work is the Decameron ("Ten Days"), in which a group of young men and women flee who flee Florence during the Black Death to the hills outside, where they spend ten days telling stories. More on that tomorrow.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Dante's Comedy

During his lifetime, Dante Alighieri was embroiled in Florentine politics, but along the way he found time—well, he was in exile and had leisure time he would not have had if he had remained a politician in Florence— to write a masterpiece of medieval poetry. He called it the Commedia, and it has three parts:  Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

The work is made of 100 canti, a one-canto introduction and three sections each with 33 cantos, representing (I assume) the 33 years of the life of Christ. It is written in a three-line scheme called terra rima, and runs ABA BCB CDC DED, with lines of 11 syllables each. Therefore, each three-line section in each canto is also 33 syllables.

Numbers remain important in the "geography" of the afterlife. Each of the three parts of the afterlife nine levels, plus one "climactic" level. Nine rings in Hell and then Lucifer at the very bottom, nine levels climbing Mount Purgatory with the Harden of Eden at the summit, nine areas of Heaven plus God at the top.

Written in Tuscan Italian, its popularity helped establish that dialect as standard Italian. The poem also offers us a view of the world and afterlife that is representative of its time. The story is framed as a pilgrimage by the narrator, Dante, who is given a tour of the three realms of the afterlife.

There are three tour guides in this pilgrimage. Taking him through Inferno, Hell, and part of Purgatorio, Purgatory, is Virgil. Not only was Virgil a respected Roman Piet whose works were admired by Dante, but also he was considered to be a "Christian prophet" of sorts because one of his writings was interpreted by St. Augustine and others as a predictor of Jesus Christ. He was considered a "virtuous pagan" by the Christian Middle Ages. From the Inferno we get the notion of the several layers of Hell going deeper as the sins get worse.

While in Purgatory, Virgil hands the narrator off the Beatrice, Dante's childhood friend and first and greatest love whom, as an adult, he had not seen in years. She represents divine revelation, and shows him the souls whose failings are not so great that they cannot eventually gain Heaven.

When he reaches Heaven, Paradiso, his guide is none other than St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who represents contemplative mysticism and devotion to the Virgin Mary.

He includes many real historical figures in the Commedia, especially those whom he considered his enemies while they were alive. In Purgatory he sees Mechthild of Magdeburg, Peter Damian, Manfred of SicilyFrederick II, Pope Boniface VIII, Michael Scot, Peire d'Alvernhe, and many others.

Dante merely called his great work Commedia, but an admirer and biographer (and a poet in his own right), Giovanni Boccaccio, added the adjective "Divine," which stuck. Boccaccio, along with Dante and Petrarch, forms the peak of medieval Italian literature, and we'll take a better look at him tomorrow.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Dante in Exile

Pope Boniface VIII had a grievance with Dante Alighieri. Dante at that time was a politician, having been in the very important position of prior of Florence (although for only two months). He was also of the new White Guelph faction that wanted Rome and the papacy to have less influence over the rest of Italy. (Guelphs were originally supportive of papal authority, but the recent Battle of Campaldino resulted in Florence having much more influence over a larger territory, and many Florentines felt they no longer needed the pope's support behind them.)

While Dante was in Rome, Black Guelphs took over Florence, replacing the government with their own people. In March 1302, Dante was accused of corruption and financial wrongdoing while prior. Moreover, although the pope had "kept" him in Rome, the Black Guelphs considered his absence from Florence for so long an admission of guilt and an attempt to flee justice. He was fined and exiled for two years.

He did not pay the fine: not only did he not have access to his assets back in Florence, but also he considered it spurious and he refused to honor it. He was therefore condemned to permanent exile, and threatened with being burned at the stake if he returned to Florence (unless he paid the fine). Dante participated in attempts by White Guelphs to re-take control of Florence, but they all failed. Ultimately, he abandoned ever returning and went to Verona for a time (illustrated above in 1879 by Antonio Cotti). He also spent time in Scarzana, and probably Lucca. Of his wife and family, only one son, Jacopo, accompanied him into exile.

As the guest of others, he had time to write. He wrote an open letter to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, urging him to restore the glory of the Roman Empire (and free Florence from the Black Guelphs). He also wrote De Monarchia, proposing a universal monarchy under Henry. Henry did defeat the Black Guelphs in Florence in 1312, but that did not mean Dante would return. There is a suggestion that the White Guelphs were not happy with Dante; urging a foreigner to attack their beloved Florence was inappropriate, to say the least, even if the result was desirable.

In 1315, the person controlling Florence offered general amnesty to exiles, but it required public penance and a fine; Dante objected to both options, earning himself a death sentence. He spent his remaining years in Ravenna, and died there of malaria on 14 September 1321. His grave contains a line by a fellow poet: parvi Florentia mater amoris ("Florence, mother of little love").

His bones remained a point of contention. Florence came to regret their treatment of the poet, and requested that he be interred there in a tomb they built for him, but Ravenna went so far as to hide his remains, and the tomb in Florence remains empty after seven centuries. In 1329, a Cardinal declared Dante's Monarchia heretical, and wanted to dig up his remains and burn them at the stake.

In 2008, Florence officially rescinded the death sentence.

Having come this far with Dante, I suppose it would seem remiss to ignore the work for which he is best known. Comedy for tomorrow it is, then.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Guelphs & Ghibellines & Dante

The Guelphs and the Ghibellines were two Italian political factions in the Middle Ages, offering more and less support for the papacy, respectively. They even went to war over the topic, as depicted in this 1292 fresco.

Dante Alighieri was born into a Guelph family, and at the age of about 24 he fought in the Battle of Campaldino between Florence and her allies against Arezzo. The catalyst for the war is unknown: an account many years later from a Florentine claimed there were "outrages" committed by Arezzo. Retaliation by the Guelphs over these "outrages" caused Arezzo to gather a military force to oppose them.

There was a rumor that the bishop of the see of Arezzo was going to turn the commune over which he had authority (a place called Bibbiena Civitella) and connected villages to Florence for the price of 5000 gold florins annually. Arezzo forced this bishop onto a horse and led him to the battlefield from which, not surprisingly, he did not return.

The wealth of Florence enabled them to have a force that was superior in numbers (about 12,000, of which 10,000 were infantry), armor, and weaponry. The Ghibelline force was smaller but better trained, consisting of feudal lords and their military retinues, rather than paid volunteers as in Florence and her allies.

The Florentines were also hampered by their leader. The various communities from which the troops were drawn could not decide who should lead them, so they agreed on a mercenary, Aimeric IV, Viscount of Narbonne. He had distinguished himself as a fighter, but did not have much experience as a leader. He came to Italy in the service of Charles I of Anjou, but suffered from a serious impediment: he did not speak Tuscan Italian, making the relaying of his orders delayed as they had to be translated, as did the news for him from others of what was happening in different parts of the field.

Ultimately, the Guelphs won with superior numbers, and Florence was able to exert much more influence over more of the Italian peninsula on behalf of the papacy. Without a strong mutual enemy in Ghibellines anymore, however, the Guelphs fractured. The Black Guelphs continued their support for the power and authority of the popes, whereas the White Guelphs wanted more freedom from Rome.

The Battle of Campaldino was fought in June of 1289. Dante, a member of the White Guelphs, went on to hold some political offices, including prior of Florence. In 1301 he was part of a delegation to Rome to determine the intentions of Pope Boniface VIII toward the French ambassador Charles of Valois, the brother of King Philip IV. (Philip and Boniface had clashed over the topic of taxation.)

When the pope dismissed the rest of the delegation, he told Dante he had to stay. This did not turn out well, as I'll explain tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet and politician, born in Florence to a wealthy landowner. His mother died when he was less than ten years old, and his father died during his teens.

The date of his birth is not recorded, but hints in his writings suggest 1265. At the beginning of the Divine Comedy, the 1st part called Inferno, he says he was "midway on the journey of our life." If we assume the three-score years and ten of the Bible was considered typical, then he started when he was 35 years old. Since the Comedy (that's what he called it; Boccaccio tacked on the adjective later, and it stuck) was written in 1300, that would put his birth year at 1265. He also refers to himself as being born "revolved with the eternal twins," which suggests he was born under the astrological sign of Gemini. That puts his birthday between c.21 May and 20 June.

He was educated at religious schools, where he was introduced to much Italian poetry, and the writings of Cicero, Ovid, and Vergil.

When he was nine years old, he met Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a banker, and fell in love at first sight. Despite whatever feelings he had for her, he was engaged at 12 to marry Gemma di Manetto Donati, of the powerful Donati family; they were wed probably in their early 20s, and had (we think) four children, of whom one, Jacopo, became a poet as well. Dante never wrote anything about his wife. Boccaccio, whose life overlapped Dante's, says his marriage brought him only trouble and pain.

A typical young Florentine Guelph, he fought for his province against Arezzo Ghibellines in the 1289 Battle of Campaldino. When the grandson of Charles I of Anjou, Charles Martel of Anjou, visited Florence in 1294, Dante was one of his escorts. Because a 1295 law required anyone aspiring to public office to be in one of the corporation of professions, he enrolled in the Apothecaries Guild. (Interestingly, books were sold from apothecary shops, so it seemed an appropriate choice for a poet and lover of poetry.) He held various small offices over the years.

The Guelphs (as opposed to the Ghibellines) were a group that supported the papacy. After the conflict mentioned above, however, the Guelphs split into two factions: White Guelphs (Dante's party) and Black Guelphs. The White Guelphs wanted more freedom from Rome, which became a problem for Dante, as I'll explain next time.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Constance of Sicily

Manfred of Sicily (1232 - 1266), the last King of Sicily from the Hohenstaufen dynasty, had one child with Beatrice of Savoy, their daughter Constance (c.1249 - 1302). (He had several children by a s second wife.)

Constance's governess was Bella d'Amici, an Italian noblewoman. When Constance was 13, she was married to the son of King James I of Aragon, Peter. Bella d'Amici went with her and was her chief lady-in-waiting. When Manfred was killed by Charles of Anjou in the Battle of Benevento, Constance inherited the title Queen of Sicily.

King James died on 27 July 1276, with Peter succeeding him. The coronation of Peter and Constance took place on 17 November of that year, in Saragossa.

Peter and Constance had several children. From 1282-1302 their children fought the War of the Sicilian Vespers, trying to reclaim the throne of Sicily as the heirs of Constance. At that point, the "Kingdom of Sicily" extended far beyond the island, encompassing the southern part of Italy below the Papal States.

Such a large area with its resources and alliances meant that not only Aragon, but Naples, France, and the papacy were involved, all having a stake of some kind. The final result was a division of the Kingdom of Sicily into the Kingdom of Trinacria: the island of Sicily itself, governed by the Aragonese heirs of Queen Constance, and the Kingdom of Naples: the southern half of Italy.

Constance died on 9 April 1302, not quite living to see her heirs rule Sicily, the war having concluded on 31 August of that year. She lived on, however, in the great Italian epic, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Her father, Manfred, had been excommunicated multiple times because of opposition to the papacy. Can't III of the Purgatorio shows us those who died excommunicate, including Manfred. Manfred tells Dante that he confessed all his horrible sins before he died; this repentance saved him from Hell, but he was still denied Heaven for a time. He tells Dante that there is a chance to achieve Heaven sooner if those on Earth pray for him, and he asks Dante to tell his daughter that her prayers can help.

...which is as good a segue as any to introduce our next topic, Dante Alighieri, who did not write a work called the Divine Comedy. See you tomorrow.

Monday, September 11, 2023

The People on the High Hill

The Hohenstaufens were a dynasty of German kings, many of whom also held the titles Holy Roman Emperor, Duke of Swabia, and (briefly) King of Sicily. From 1138 until 1254, their political power helped maintain stability in a large part of Europe.

The name by which they are usually known—the dynasty is also called Staufen or Staufer or the Swabian dynasty, due to their beginnings in the Duchy of Swabia—comes from German hohen "high"and Staufen, the name of the conical hill in Swabia on which their home castle was built in the 11th century (now in ruins that you can visit; there is a coffee shop near the peak). The family motto was the Latin "Sanguis, Pluma, Saxum"; Sanguis, "blood," referred to family/heritage; Pluma, "quill," meant learning; Saxum invoked the castle and signified strength and protection.

The first person we can ascribe to this family was Frederick, who was made Duke of Swabia in 1079 by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Frederick built the castle on Staufen. The family tree of the Hohenstaufens is complex, with the male members holding one or more titles. You can find a thorough listing and family tree here. Frederick II was one member mentioned in this blog, as were Conradin and Henry VI.

One of the "recurring themes" of the Hohenstaufen dynasty was The Investiture Controversy, the question of who had ultimate authority, pope or emperor? Holy Roman Emperors were crowned by the pope, but did that mean the pope had authority over the emperor? It would be easy to say that the pope had authority over spiritual matters and the emperor over worldly ones, but when the pope is a landowner and the Holy Roman Emperor rules over the country in which the pope resides, does that mean the emperor (or other local secular lord) can make bold decisions that affect the pope?

The end of the dynasty was relatively swift and brutal. Conradin, mentioned above, was only two years old. His regency had to defend Sicily against an invasion by Charles of Anjou, brother of King Louis IX of France, who had been promised the title King of Sicily by the popes who wanted to diminish the Hohenstaufens' influence. (The papacy had promised it to King Henry III of England, but he gave it up.) King of Sicily at the time was Conradin's uncle Manfred, who was killed in battle. Conradin himself was executed by Charles after a later attempt to retake Sicily, and the last of the direct Hohenstaufen dynasty was ended. (Manfred had a son, Henry, who died in captivity.) Charles of Anjou became Charles I of Sicily, and the papacy got what they wanted...they thought.

Of all the rulers that came from the Hohenstaufen dynasty, there is a queen who not only had a place in history, but was immortalized in literature. I'll tell you about her next time.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Henry the Pious

Henry II the Pious was born in Poland to Henry the Bearded and Hedwig of Andechs. Henry the Bearded had worked hard to unite several different areas, becoming Duke of Poland as well as Duke of Silesia. Through marriage to Hedwig, he was connected to Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, and France. One curiosity about Henry: he was born with six toes on his left foot.

Henry II was one of three brothers and potential heirs. His older brother, Bolesław, died in 1206, and their father decided to leave all his inheritance to young Henry. There was another son, however, the younger Konrad the Curly. Konrad and young Henry quarreled over the choice, which was ultimately resolved when Konrad fell from his horse and died while hunting (no proof of foul play, although contemporary chroniclers would have considered themselves remiss if they hadn't hinted at it). Konrad was buried at an abbey in Trebnitz where a sister, Gertrude, was abbess.

Henry II became Duke of Poland and Duke of Silesia, but holding together the various territories and their local rulers that his father had united was difficult. For instance, an Upper Silesian Duty of Opole-Racibórz was ruled in succession by two minors for whom Henry acted as regent, Mieszko II the Fat and Bolesław V the Chaste, but once they achieved their majority and he had to resign the regency, he had less influence there.

There was an ongoing dispute with the Church that he had inherited from his father. The Archbishop of Gniezno opposed the Bearded's possession of the Duchy of Opole that had been attacked and conquered by the Bearded's uncle. Henry was traditionally allied with the House of Hohenstaufen, but they were in conflict with Pope Gregory IX. Henry decided it was more advantageous to align himself with the pope and abandon the Hohenstaufen connection. This meant the archbishop's hostility to Henry was called off by the pope.

All his efforts to rule were brought to nought by the invasion of the Mongols, ordered by Batu Khan. A Mongol army of 10,000 met Henry's forces at Legnica on 9 April 1241. Henry felt he could not afford to wait for reinforcements, so marched with an army that was no match for the fierce Mongol cavalry. His body was so hacked up that certain identification was required by taking off the boots and noting the number of toes. An illustration of his decapitated head on a pole can be seen in this post.

Members of the Hohenstaufen dynasty have been mentioned in this blog before, but its origin and importance in European history deserves a little more attention, which it will get tomorrow.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Invading Central Europe

In the same decades that Batu Khan (c. 1207–1255) and another grandson of Genghis Khan, Kadan, were establishing the Golden Horde and consolidating much of Eastern Europe, the desire of the Mongolian Empire to extend its influence over the known world found itself a beachhead from which to launch its efforts.

Spies were sent into Poland, Hungary, and Austria for reconnaissance. Having planned their approach, three separate armies invaded Central Europe, into Hungary, Transylvania, and Poland. The column into Poland defeated Henry II the Pious (the illustration shows the Mongol army with Henry's head on a spear).

The second and third columns crossed the Carpathians and followed the Danube, combining with the Poland column and defeating the Hungarian army on 11 April 1241. They killed half the Hungarian population, then proceeded to German territory. Most of the city of Meissen was burned to the ground. Further advances in Germany were paused when the Great Khan died in 1241 and the chief descendants of Genghis returned to Mongolia to elect his replacement.

The Encyclopædia Britannica describes the conflict thusly:

Employed against the Mongol invaders of Europe, knightly warfare failed even more disastrously for the Poles at the Battle of Legnica and the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi in 1241. Feudal Europe was saved from sharing the fate of China and the Grand Duchy of Moscow not by its tactical prowess but by the unexpected death of the Mongols' supreme ruler, Ögedei, and the subsequent eastward retreat of his armies. [EB, (2003) p.663]

Central Europe was not completely helpless. Observations of Mongol tactics meant that Hungary, for instance, improved its heavy cavalry and increased fortifications of settlements against siege weapons. Many smaller hostilities between Central and Western Europe entities were put on hold in the face of the common threat.

Bela IV of Hungary sent messages to the Pope asking for a Crusade against the Mongols. Pope Gregory IX would rather have attention on the Holy Land, although he did eventually agree that the Mongol threat was important. A small Crusade was gathered in mid-1241, but Gregory died in August, and the forces were instead aimed at the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

Mongol attempts to conquer Central Europe continued right up until 1340 with an attack on Brandenburg and Prussia. Fortunately, internal strife in the Golden Horde made Mongol attacks less effective. Lithuania fought back, achieving victory in places including the Principality of Kiev. The Duchy of Moscow also reclaimed many Rus lands. In 1345, Hungary initiated a counter-invasion that captured what would become Moldavia.

I want to go back and talk about the one named casualty in this post: poor Henry II, called "The Pious." We'll look into his reign tomorrow.

Friday, September 8, 2023

The Golden Horde

The name "Golden Horde" for the northwestern section of the Mongolian Empire is the English translation of a borrowed phrase from Russian, Zolotáya Ordá (literally "Golden Horde). Ordá also means "camp" or "headquarters." The Modern English "horde" referring to a large and threatening group comes from the reputation of the Mongolian armies advancing against their enemies. Legend says that the tents of the Mongols were golden-hued, hence the adjective.

Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, was the founder. A Franciscan named William Rubruck, who traveled all over the Middle and Far East, said he was: 

kind enough to his own people, but he is greatly feared by them. He is, however, most cruel in fight; he is very shrewd and extremely crafty in warfare, for he has been waging war for a long time.

Batu was given the charge to conquer lands to the west by Genghis' son Ögedei 1186 - 1241); Batu's efforts gained what became his headquarters, the Horde.

The Horde was the outskirts of the Empire, and as such very little exists of any written Mongol history or literature from it. The conquered locals were largely Cubans, and important decrees were probably translated from Mongol to Cuban to be distributed to the inhabitants. In the mid-13002 Arabic-Mongol and Persian-Mongol dictionaries began appearing, suggesting their necessity in translating Mongol documents.

Because "Horde" meant "headquarters" or "palace" or "camp," there were other Hordes. Russian chronicles referred to the eastern part of Batu's area as the "White Horde," and the western part became known as the "Blue Horde." Over the years, rule of the Horde changed hands many times up until 1419, when it became split up between different forces.

Still, it was the closest part of the Mongol Empire to Europe, and since the goal of the Khans was to control the entire world, Europe was a target. The Mongolian Invasion of Central Europe will be the next topic.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Mongolian Civil War

The death of Möngke Khan in 1259 led to the Toluid Civil War, a fight between two of the remaining sons of Toluid over who would succeed Möngke. The youngest, Ariq Böke, eventually lost out to Kublai, who then became the Great Khan. The remaining son, Hulagu, returned to his campaign in 1262 to extend the empire westward.

A few years earlier he had led the Sack of Baghdad; the Islamic Empire was no longer strong enough to retaliate against the size of Hulagu's army. The almost total destruction of Baghdad, however, was to have an unforeseen consequence.

The consequence came from the Golden Horde, a group of settled Mongols who ruled over Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and the Caucasus, established by Batu Khan. Batu Khan was another of Genghis Khan's 43 grandchildren. Batu had died in 1255, and his brother Berke was now in charge of a large territory with a large population. Berke was no lesser figure: not only had he succeeded Batu (there was one ruler between them briefly), but he had been sent by Batu to ensure Möngke's succession as Great Khan, managing the ruling council and ensuring that everything to enthrone Möngke happened properly.

In and of itself this would not seem to be a problem, but Berke had converted to Islam in 1252. The destruction of Baghdad and the knowledge and treasures of the House of Wisdom enraged him, and he vowed revenge, saying "He (Hulagu) has sacked all the cities of the Muslims, and has brought about the death of the Caliph. With the help of God I will call him to account for so much innocent blood." He allied himself with the Mamluks, who were to be Hulagu's next target.

Berke began a series of raids on Hulagu's territories. Hulagu retaliated into the Golden Horde's territory. This was the first serious war between major Mongol areas. Berke showed some reluctance and lamented "Mongols are killed by Mongol swords. If we were united, then we would have conquered all of the world." He could not give in, however: he felt the threat to the Golden Horde was sufficient that he had to declare Islamic jihad against a Mongol leader who was his cousin.

On another front, Hulagu's forces lost an important battle against the Mamluks after the alliance with Frankish forces fell out. He lost control of Palestine and Syria.

Hulagu died 8 February 1264. He was succeeded by his son, Abaqa Khan, who spent the next almost 20 years dealing with civil war with relations because of his father's treatment of Baghdad. Kublai managed to hold the Empire together, mostly, but in the 1290s the competing khanates meant there was no longer total unity, with every part of the empire accepting the authority of the Great Khan.

So what exactly was the Golden Horde, and did it ever change color? It did, and I'll explain more tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Hulagu Khan

Hulagu Khan was a grandson of Genghis Khan (Genghis had 43 grandchildren—known ones, that is, because he slept with a lot of women in his lifetime, and his descendants are too numerous to estimate). He was born about 1217CE to Tolui and Sorghaghtani Beki; the only item known about his childhood is an anecdote that he met his grandfather Genghis once when Hulagu was seven years old.

When Sorghaghtani died, his father married Dokuz Khatun, an Assyrian Christian and granddaughter of Ghengis Khan's blood-brother Toghrul. When Tolui died, Dokuz was given to Hulagu to marry. Her Christian background would be important later.

When Hulagu's brother Möngke became the Great Khan in 1251, Hulagu was given the charge of making sure southwest Asia was either firmly in Mongol control or destroyed. He was told to be kind to those who submitted and ruthless to those who did not. As it turned out, he was just the person for the job.

The massive army he marched out with had been assembled slowly over two years, conscripting 10-20% of the empire's fighting men. He had series of successful engagements: Transoxiana,* the Lurs of southern Iran, the Ismailis (Assassins) of Alamut, and the destruction of Baghdad. Because the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad refused to submit, the vengeance of Hulagu's army was overwhelming; however, Dokuz (who accompanied her husband on his campaigns) pleaded successfully to spare the Christian population.

Hulagu then conquered the Ayubbid dynasty in Muslim Syria, killing their last king. The remaining center of Islamic power was in the Mamluk capital of Cairo. Hulagu sent word to Cairo to submit or be destroyed like Baghdad. Rather than proceed to Cairo, however, Hulagu needed to consider the army. Syria did not have the resources to feed his enormous army, so he withdrew to Azerbaijan, leaving a force of 10,000.

He personally left for Mongolia: his brother, Möngke, had died, and there was a dispute over who should take over the empire. The fight was between the youngest brother, Ariq Böke (10 years younger than Hulagu), and a brother two years older than Hulagu named Kublai.

With the succession settled and Kublai in charge, Hulagu returned to his so-far-successful westward campaign. Here's where it gets tricky: tomorrow I hope to explain how, in this next stage, the destruction of the Islamic capital of Baghdad set in motion Hulagu's defeat, and a big problem for the Mongolian Empire.

*Lower Central Asia, what is now eastern Uzbekistan, western Tajikistan, southern Kazakhstan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and parts of Turkmenistan.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Destruction of Baghdad, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

Hulagu Khan did not execute the Abbasid leader, Caliph al-Musta'sim, immediately; he wanted him punished for his foolish defiance. He was captured and made to witness the slaughter of his citizens, the destruction of his city, and the plunder of his treasury.

Even then, a simple execution was denied him. al-Musta'sim was pulled up in a rug and laid on the ground for the Mongols to ride their horses over him repeatedly until his death was certain. This was considered an act of "caution" on the part of the Mongols, since they believed spilling royal blood on the ground would be offensive to the earth. (A colorful 15th century legend, pictured here, is that al-Musta'sim was imprisoned with his treasures and allowed to starve to death.)

Wassail, Persian historian who was born seven years after this event, but no doubt had access to eyewitness accounts, wrote:

They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror...beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels were cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged...through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a the population died at the hands of the invaders.

Not every inhabitant of Baghdad was slaughtered, and some had an advocate among the Mongols. Hulagu had an Assyrian Christian wife, Dokuz Khatun, who begged him to spare as many Christians in the city as possible. He honored her request, and offered the royal palace to a Nestorian Christian Patriarch Mar Makikha, to be made into a cathedral.

Baghdad itself, however, took awhile to recover. Hulagu left 3000 soldiers behind to rebuild the city, but irrigation canals that had been damaged were not repaired. Agrarianism suffered, and it was many years before Baghdad once again became a great city under the Ilkhanate.

The destruction of the House of Wisdom and its contents has been disputed in recent years: there is a belief that some members of the Mongol army had more respect for learning and would have preserved the volumes for installation in other libraries. Hulagu had brought with him to Baghdad a scholar, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, who had been in the fortress of Alamut (and some believe was the Mahdi's servant who betrayed him). There are stories at the time that al-Tusi would have saved much of the library.

Such an outcome might have looked good for Hulagu's future career. In fact, while on his campaign westward, his brother Möngke Khan died at the age of 50, and Hulagu, eight years younger, might have looked like a suitable successor.

But that was not to be, and I'll tell you more tomorrow.

Monday, September 4, 2023

The Destruction of Baghdad, Part 1

The Sack of Baghdad has been described as the single bloodiest event in the history of war.

At the time, Baghdad was perhaps the greatest city in the world, in terms of population size, wealth, trade, and importance as a center for learning, thanks to the House of Wisdom. Its destruction was equivalent to the destruction of a London or New York City in modern times.

Hulagu Khan's army had begun a siege on 29 January, 1258. It would have been unnecessary, if the Caliph al-Musta'sim had agreed to pay tribute to the Mongols. For whatever reason, he chose to defy the invaders. al-Musta'sim could have called for reinforcements, but did not. He had, unfortunately, alienated the Mamluks, one of the few groups that would, a little after this event, actually stop the progress of the Mongols (which it happens I wrote about exactly nine years ago today).

Hulagu's siege engines and catapults subjected Baghdad's walls and inhabitants to an endless barrage that did not pause at nightfall. In a week's time they controlled a section of the wall, at which point Musta'sim tried to negotiate. His attempt was rejected. Several important men of the city tried to approach Hulagu themselves with offers of truce; they were all murdered. On 10 February, the city surrendered, hoping to avoid complete destruction.

Their hopes proved futile. The Mongols entered the city on the 13th and began the slaughter. Citizens trying to flee the city were cut down; women and children were not spared. Although descriptions of the destruction were no doubt exaggerated over time—especially to underscore the barbarous nature of the Mongols—it was horrific. The books from the House of Wisdom were thrown into the Tigris, as well as those of three dozen other public libraries. The philosophers and scientists who maintained the House were murdered, and the Tigris was said to run red with their blood. Every building and mosque was destroyed.

A few years later, in 1262, the Mongols boasted to Louis IX of France that they killed 2,000,000 that day. That number was probably twice the total population of Baghdad, but it is very likely that several tens of thousands were killed in the course of a few days. Hulagu had to move his camp upwind of the city because of the stench of corpses over the next several days.

I'll tell you more of the story, the fate of al-Musta'sim, and the aftermath, next time.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

The Siege of Baghdad

The House of Wisdom was a marvelous repository of knowledge from all over the world. It also functioned as an informal university long before those institutions sprang up in Western Europe. It was founded and flourish in what is called the Islamic Golden Age. All that ended in 1258, however, with the sack of Baghdad by Mongols. The sack was preceded by a 13-day siege, and that's where we should start.

The Mongol forces were expanding and marching westward, destroying any resistance. The Siege of Baghdad was brought by Hulagu Khan, another grandson of Genghis Khan and brother of Möngke. Baghdad might have been spared: Möngke told his brother to forego overthrowing the Abbasid Caliphate if they were willing to pay tribute. 

The current caliph, al-Musta'sim, was not so inclined. The Abbasid Caliphate was not as strong as it had been previously: despite the jewel that was Baghdad; the Abbasids no longer possessed what was once a far-reaching empire. al-Musta'sim had not prepared militarily but believed Baghdad was strong enough to survive an attack. (He is still criticized for not acquiescing to Hulagu's demands and saving his city and people.)

Hulagu had just marched through what is now Iran, facing and overcoming such widespread opposition that Iran's agrarian potential was devastated for a generation. The mountain stronghold Alamut had recently fallen to him, and he had vanquished the breakaway Nizari-Ismaili sect called the Order of Assassins. His successes were credited with planning as well as numbers. This military push had been a couple years in the making, conscripting 10% of the Mongol population. It also included Christian warriors from Armenia, Frankish Crusaders from Antioch, and (perhaps most important for the current campaign) 1000 Chinese artillery specialists.

The siege began 29 January 1258. Hulagu had sent two columns of soldiers, one on each side of the Tigris, surrounding Baghdad. They brought up their siege engines (pictured above in a 14th century painting). al-Musta'sim sent a hastily gathered and poorly prepared force of 20,000 to leave the city and attack, but they were no match for the Mongol forces, who quickly breached dikes on the Tigris, flooding the area behind the Abbasid forces, trapping them.

And then things got worse. Join me tomorrow for what was probably the single bloodiest loss of life in the entire history of human warfare.