Post-classical history

Introduction: Europe and the Mediterranean

In the eleventh century of the Christian Era, the region between the Atlantic, the Sahara Desert, the Persian Gulf, the rivers of western Russia and the Arctic Circle lived in the shadow of two great empires, Rome and the Baghdad caliphate, and accommodated two world religions, Christianity and Islam. The legacy of the classical Roman empire still determined cultural assumptions even outside the attenuated rump of the eastern Roman empire that survived as a comparatively modest but still powerful Greek-speaking empire situated between the Danube and the Taurus mountains, based on Constantinople, known to modern historians as Byzantium. In western Europe north of the Pyrenees, where Roman imperial rule had vanished five centuries before, the image of Rome, in law, art, architecture, learning and the Latin language, persisted, even in places between the Rhine and Elbe where the legions had never established their grip. The rulers of Germany claimed to be the heirs of the western Roman emperors, direct successors to the Caesars. To the east of Byzantium, the Near East, Egypt, the southern Mediterranean coastlands and most of the Iberian peninsula preserved the inheritance of the great Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, which had established an empire centred on the caliph (Commander of the Faithful, political heir of the Prophet) of Baghdad from the mid-eighth century.

Cultural divisions were reinforced and defined by religion; Christianity in Byzantium and western Europe from northern Iberia to the Elbe, Ireland to the Hungarian plain; Islam to the east and south, in western Asia, north Africa and the southern Mediterranean. Neither religious block was united. In the later tenth century, the traditional authority of the caliph of Baghdad had been usurped in Egypt by a caliph adhering to the minority Shi’ite Islamic tradition that had separated from the majority, orthodox Sunni tradition in the late seventh century over the spiritual legitimacy of the successors of the Prophet. In Spain, the Muslim community owed allegiance to an indigenous caliphate, based at Cordoba, until its disintegration and fragmentation in the early eleventh century. In Christian territories, although a sharper separation of powers existed between religious and secular authority than in Islamic states, two main distinctive forms of Christianity had developed since the later Roman empire; the Greek Orthodox tradition based on the Byzantine empire and a Latin tradition theoretically centred on the papacy in Rome but largely driven by the twin forces of local, aristocracy-led churches and a network of monasteries. In both Christianity and Islam, apparently monolithic belief systems concealed within them infinite local variety and tensions born of social, linguistic, ethnic, cultural and geographic diversity and distance. There were few non-Christians in lands ruled by Christians, although Jewish communities were spreading from the tenth century north of the Alps, especially to France and the Rhineland. By contrast, every Muslim region contained non-Muslim inhabitants, often in large numbers, mainly those Islamic law called the People of the Book, Jews and Christians, the latter from a range of local sects and confessional traditions deriving from late Roman theological interpretations different from either Latin or Greek orthodoxies.

In central areas of this Afro-Eurasian region, those of Christian and Muslim observance and rule, the religious and political structures rested on settled agrarian economies and populations. Byzantium and the Islamic states shared a flourishing commercial system that supported gold currencies and towns, while in Christian western Europe, by 1000 urbanization – or, in the perspective of the Roman empire, reurbanization – had only recently begun to accelerate along the major trade routes north of the Alps: the North Sea and north-west Mediterranean coasts, the Rhine, Rhône, Seine, Loire, Thames. In Italy towns and cities had survived more robustly since the collapse of the late Roman economy and civilization, even if on a far smaller scale than further east. The economic imbalance was reflected in the size of cities in the eleventh century. In the eastern Mediterranean, the great metropolis cities boasted populations of hundreds of thousands – Baghdad perhaps half a million; Old Cairo slightly less; Constantinople perhaps 600,000 at most. In Muslim Spain, 100,000 people may have lived in Cordoba, although some estimates make it much more. By contrast, the largest western Christian cities – Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Cologne – hovered around 30–40,000. Paris and London in 1100, sustained by a largely rural hinterland, probably counted about 20,000 each, the equivalent of rather third-rate cities in the Near East or less. Elsewhere in northern Europe, cities were even smaller, while some important towns could muster only a very few thousand inhabitants. One of the striking features of the following two centuries lay in the massive growth in western urban populations, but even by 1300 cities such as Paris, pushing towards 100,000, still barely competed with the great entrepôts of the eastern Mediterranean.

Even with heightened economic and commercial activity in western Europe, the imbalance of trade remained evident, the west having to rely on an often limited silver coinage as the wealth flowed eastward and southward, gold, much of it from west Africa, never reaching or staying in large enough quantities to sustain currencies beyond the Pyrenees, Alps or Danube. International trade revolved around luxury items, notably spices and finished textiles such as silk from the east and slaves, fur, timber and some metals from the west and north. Local exchange, primarily of foodstuffs but also certain basic living materials, such as wool and woollen cloth, provided the main engine of regional commerce in the rural economies. The mosaic of local economies varied widely across the region: cereals, wheat in the more southerly areas, rye and oats further north; wine in the south, beer in the north; sugar cane in Syria; olives around the Mediterranean; fishing everywhere along the enormously long shores of Afro-Eurasia. The growth of towns in Europe between the Alps and the Atlantic indicated an acceleration in such commercialization, a process that acted as a liberating dimension for large sections of the peasant communities who were mainly tied to the land by law, hierarchy, custom, coercion and economic necessity. In market places, transactions may have been taxed and regulated but they tended to operate outside bonds of tenure. Slavery, once ubiquitous in Roman and post-Roman Afro-Eurasia, persisted in the Arab world, but was gradually dying out in Christian lands, whether through moral distaste driven by the church or economic prudence.

Rather different demographic and economic patterns survived outside the heartlands of settled communities, around the geographic margins of the region – the Atlantic seaboard, the fringes of the Sahara, the plains, forests, steppes and tundra north of the Black Sea and Carpathian mountains, north and east of the Elbe towards the Arctic Circle – as well as in the areas within the settled regions on the edge of cultivatable land – deserts, mountains, marshes and islands. Many places on the periphery of the region harboured nomadic tribes, shifting Turkish alliances in the Eurasia steppes; Bedouin in the deserts of the Near East; seasonal herdsmen such as the Lapps near and beyond the Arctic Circle. These groups depended on varying degrees of intimacy with their settled neighbours; most of the Bedouin and many of the Turkish nomads had accepted Islam; waves of Turkish invasions from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries into the Balkans and Near East, followed by the Mongols from the Far East in the thirteenth century, highlighted this relationship. Similar mechanisms of exchange between the central lands and the geographic fringes applied to the non-nomadic peoples of northern Europe, Basques, Irish and the Scandinavians commonly known as the Vikings. In northern and north-eastern Europe, paganism flourished and resisted the cultural penetration of Christianity unenforced by commerce or conquest. Christianity (or Islam) was not necessary for the creation of stable cultural and political institutions. The eastern Baltic only began to be converted in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Lithuania remained staunchly pagan until the late fourteenth century and then converted on its own terms for political reasons.

The oldest institution in western Europe in the eleventh century, selfconsciously tracing an uninterrupted history back a thousand years, was the papacy. Originally one of five patriarchs of the early church (Jerusalem, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria being the others), the bishop of Rome claimed primacy as the successor to SS Peter and Paul, the guardian of these founding saints’ bones (supposedly buried beneath St Peter’s basilica) and the diocesan of the seat of empire, from the Emperor Constantine (306–37) and the fourth century, a Christian empire. After the Arab invasions of the seventh century, only Rome and Constantinople remained in Christian hands; Jerusalem had fallen to the Muslims in 638. The absence of a western Roman emperor after 476 drew the pope and the eastern, Byzantine, emperor closer together, if in an uneasy relationship. The absence of effective imperial power in Italy had propelled the papacy into a position of temporal authority over the city of Rome and, in theory at least, parts of the central peninsula. Papal spiritual authority was enhanced by its sponsorship of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century and of the Frisians and continental Saxons in the eighth.

In the early eighth century, the Byzantine emperors’ flirtation with Iconoclasm (rejecting the religious efficacy of images, icons, etc.) and their inability to protect Rome and the pope from the Lombard rulers of northern Italy persuaded Popes Gregory III (731–41), Zacharias (741–52) and Stephen II (752–7) to enter into alliances with the Franks, the rulers of a large kingdom that stretched from modern south-west France to the Rhineland and the Low Countries. As part of this new orientation of policy, the papal court (or Curia) concocted the so-called Donation of Constantine, one of the most powerful forgeries in world history only properly exposed in the fifteenth century. This claimed that, on becoming a Christian, the Emperor Constantine surrendered his imperial authority to Pope Sylvester I (314–35), who returned it while retaining pre-eminence over the other patriarchates, theoretical temporal jurisdiction over the western empire and direct rule of Rome, its surrounding region and Italy in general. This forgery formed one basis for the later papal insistence on its claims to a state in central Italy and its wider assertion of primacy over imperial authority in western Europe.

The papal–Frankish alliance proved mutually advantageous. The papacy gained effective protection in Italy; the Franks legitimacy for their mid- to late-eighth-century conquests in Lombardy, Gascony, Bavaria and Saxony between the Rhine and Elbe. The culmination of the alliance came on Christmas Day 800 when Pope Leo III (795–816) crowned the king of the Franks, Charles the Great or Charlemagne (768–814), as the new Roman emperor in the west, inaugurating what came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire, which survived, with various interruptions and changes of fortune, nature and substance, until abolished in 1806 on the insistence of Napoleon. While the Frankish, or Carolingian (i.e. family of Charles), empire lasted, until the 880s, the papacy remained rather overshadowed. Thereafter the throne of St Peter tended to be the preserve of a dim succession of Roman nobles, some youthful, dissolute, even irreligious. Yet the reputation of their office remained high, especially in northern Europe, where papal authority still appeared as a final arbiter of ecclesiastical and spiritual issues; the newly converted King Miesco I of Poland sought papal protection in 991. In 962, the king of Germany, Otto I, who had recently conquered northern Italy, revived the western empire by being crowned in Rome by Pope John XII (955–64), a notoriously debauched twenty-five-year-old nobleman and libertine who apparently met his death, still only about twenty-seven, after a stroke suffered during intercourse with a married woman.

By the early eleventh century the papacy alternated between grand protégés of the German emperors, such as the scholar Gerbert (Pope Sylvester II, 999–1003), and a succession of local appointees of distinctly uneven calibre usually taking the names Benedict or John. Increasingly elements within the Roman church and elsewhere in Christendom sought to reform both the papacy and the wider secular church in the west by re-emphasizing the separation and dominance of the spiritual over the secular in church appointments, management, finance and behaviour. Under the patronage of Emperor Henry III (1039–56), the reformers seized control of the papacy. A succession of German, Italian and French popes in the half-century after 1048 transformed both the papacy and western Christendom. Deliberately and innovatively international in outlook and personnel, central in the policies of the reforming papal Curia came the understanding that the church of Rome was synonymous with the universal church; that the pope held temporal as well as spiritual jurisdiction on earth as the heir to St Peter, to whom, according to the so-called Petrine texts in Matthew’s Gospel, Christ entrusted the keys of heaven and the power to bind and loose on earth and in heaven (Matthew 16:19). The more general reformist agenda included the improving of the morals and education of the clergy and the eradication of simony (paying for church office) and clerical marriage (a move both moral and economic, to protect church land from being inherited by non-clerical clergy children). An attempt was made to make secular priests more like monks, wholly distinctive from their lay neighbours and relatives, and loyally obedient to Rome.

This programme met fierce local opposition as it threatened the vested interests of lay and clerical patrons of private churches and monasteries; the habits of the mass of the secular priesthood; and the power of secular rulers to control the richest landed corporations in their regions. The most acute and bitter dispute developed with the king of Germany, Henry IV, whose accession as a minor had forced the reforming popes to seek independence from the German throne in order to protect themselves from Italian enemies. At issue were imperial rights in choosing a new pope; papal rights in approving the choice of emperor; and, more directly, the authority over appointments and control of the church in imperial lands in Germany and north Italy. The dispute was encapsulated in the ceremony of investing, i.e. giving newly consecrated bishops the ring and staff, symbols of their spiritual dignity. Traditionally in Germany, and elsewhere, kings performed this ceremony. Uniquely for a layman – and inconveniently for church reformers – kings were also consecrated, ‘the Lord’s Anointed’. The right to invest with the ring and staff became iconic, hence the name given to the dispute and the wars it generated, the Investiture Contest, although in reality the disagreements were both more mundane – control of church wealth and patronage – and sublime – the spiritual health of those who administered the Sacraments and ‘the right order in Christendom’.

This was much more than a theological spat. The power of the German kings relied heavily on control of the church, especially in Saxony. A revolt there in 1076 gave the most belligerent of the reforming popes, Gregory VII, an opportunity to put pressure on Henry IV to make concessions by publicly challenging his right to rule, claiming the pope possessed a plenitude of power that included the right to depose unsuitable monarchs, including emperors. The intransigent Henry IV was excommunicated in 1076 and again in 1080. Rival kings were put up by the papalist and anti-imperialist party in Germany. The ensuing war spilt over into Italy. In 1084 Henry IV invaded, captured Rome, installed his own anti-pope and forced Gregory VII to find refuge with the Norman conquerors of southern Italy. Over the subsequent decade, Henry’s anti-pope held sway in Rome, supported by repeated imperial forays south of the Alps. The background to the First Crusade lay in this conflict, as Urban II sought to use the mobilization of the expedition as a cover to reclaim the pope’s position in Italy and demonstrate his practical leadership of Christendom, independent of secular monarchs. The slogan of the papal reformers was ‘libertas ecclesiae’, ‘church freedom/liberty/rights’. This provided the central appeal of Urban II’s summons of 1095, when he called on the faithful to go to ‘liberate’ the churches of the east and Jerusalem. The crusade is impossible to understand outside of this context of more general church and papal reform. It was ironic that, at the very time they were asserting universalist claims, the reforming popes could never be entirely secure in Rome itself. Local nobles, deprived of control of the lucrative office of the papacy, German and pro-imperialist invaders and other Italian political rivals forced successive popes into temporary or near-permanent exile over the century following Gregory VII’s exile. It was only after he had launched the First Crusade in 1095–6 that Urban II was himself able to establish his residence in the Eternal City.

The Investiture Contest, only resolved by compromise in 1122, exposed some of the weaknesses in the material and ideological positions of both papacy and empire, as well as highlighting the limitations of centralized political authority more generally. The papacy was, with the English government of the time, one of the leaders in western Europe pioneering the development of written techniques of government – communicating with local agents, subordinates and representatives abroad by standardized letters; systematic, retrievable record keeping; the creation of a bureaucratic tradition. Yet, as was later famously remarked, the pope lacked legions, having to rely on secular protectors to secure papal independence and integrity. By contrast, the German emperor was politically the most powerful ruler in western Europe, wielding vast theoretical and potential power over territories that stretched from southern Denmark to central Italy. Yet these lands, based on the eastern portion of the old Carolingian empire (known from the ninth century as East Francia), were held together by networks of dynastic alliance, personal relations, tradition, ideology, convenience and brute force, not institutional routine. This made the building of political consensus, the basis to all effective authority, a full-time and precarious exercise for German rulers in the eleventh century. Since 962, the king of Germany could hope to be crowned by the pope as Roman emperor. Despite the Investiture Contest and continued tension thereafter, most kings succeeded in persuading popes to perform this highly symbolic and important ceremony. However, some did not. King Conrad III of Germany, commander of the Second Crusade (1145–9), was one of the few medieval German kings after Otto I not to be crowned emperor, although he nonetheless exercised many of the imperial prerogatives and gave himself some of the formal titles of an emperor. The lack of imperial title reduced a German king’s claims to jurisdiction in North Italy, one of the wealthiest regions of western Europe, which formed a significant and lasting element in imperial pretensions. However, Conrad’s power, like that of his predecessors, depended on his position in Germany.

Politically, Germany in the eleventh and twelfth centuries comprised a number of disparate regions each dominated by its own duke and closely integrated nobilities: Bavaria, Swabia, Franconia, Saxony, Lorraine. Eastward expansion, although temporarily halted in the north by a great Slav rebellion in 983 against German rule east of the Elbe, had created marcher lordships such as in Austria, Styria and Meissen, giving local entrepreneurial margraves considerable autonomy. The power of the king depended on his own personal dynastic lands – Otto I had been duke of Saxony – coupled with a range of imperial lands, cities and rights, and alliance with the church, the only truly imperial institution (hence the threat presented by the Investiture dispute). Although tending to descend within one family – the Saxons 911–1024; Salians 1024–1125; Hohenstaufen 1138–1254 – the German kingship was elective, a right the electors, composed of the leading dukes and ecclesiastical magnates such as the archbishops of Cologne and Mainz, stubbornly maintained. While the elective element in other kingdoms, such as England, France or the Christian states of northern Iberia, withered, repeated dynastic interruptions, through either lack of direct heirs (1002, 1024, 1125, 1138, 1152) or the succession of minors (1056, 1197), entrenched an active elective principle in Germany. Nonetheless, the German kings were – and were recognized by their neighbours as being – not just sentimentally the secular heads of western Christendom by virtue of the imperial title, but practically the leading secular rulers in western Christendom.

Not the least symptom and cause of this predominance lay in the role of German rulers in the expansion of Christianity to the Slavic kingdoms of eastern Europe. It says much for the damage inflicted on German monarchic power that, whereas in the tenth and eleventh centuries the initiative in reeling the new kingdoms and principalities of Poland, Bohemia and Hungary into the orbit of western Christendom had come from the German kings, from the mid-twelfth century it was left to local east German dukes and lords, aided by the ideology of holy war and their recruiting of crusaders and immigrants, who pushed the frontiers of Latin Christendom into Prussia and the north-eastern Baltic. Although many of the earliest Christian missionaries to the western Slavs, especially in Bohemia and Moravia, and to the Magyars in Hungary in the decades around 900 were Greek Orthodox, the creation of the new western empire by Otto I, not least through his defeats of Magyar invaders, opened the region to western Latin evangelists as local rulers sought to associate themselves with the new German power. The adoption of Christianity provided a cohesive force in the establishment of settled political identities and institutions, the church providing education, literacy, civil servants, a potentially pliant and dependent new landowning ecclesiastical aristocracy of bishops and abbots, a supportive ideology of transcendent kingship and convenient national saints, such as King Wenceslas in Bohemia (d. c.929) and Stephen in Hungary (king 1000–1038). Poland had adopted Latin Christianity in 966 as part of the attempts of Miesco I to expand into Pomerania as a client of Otto I, a strategy giving him, he reckoned, a better chance of making good his conquests and his desire to dominate the western Slavs. A sign of Polish determination to enter the Latin world came when, in 991, Miesco placed the kingdom under formal papal protection. Hungary’s position was far more liminal, sharing a long frontier with Byzantium as well as Germany. However, here too rulers consistently sought to place themselves within a German/Latin Christian orbit politically and hence culturally rather than become a client of the Greek empire. The Hungarian desire to maintain this western bias informed their consistently sympathetic and later active engagement with the crusades that passed through their lands in 1096, 1146 and 1189. In some senses the crusades confirmed the drift of Hungarian policy since the tenth century.

The only competitor for influence in the vast tracts of Slavic/Magyar lands between the Elbe, Baltic, Danube and the Black Sea remained the Greek empire of east Rome, Byzantium, with its capital of Constantinople on the Bosporus, between Europe and Asia. Both Moravia and Hungary had initially seemed likely to fall into the Greek orbit in the early tenth century before the rise of Ottonian Germany proved more attractive. Even in the eleventh century, Constantine IX (1042–55) sent the Hungarian ruler a crown, although Hungary steadfastly attempted to protect its autonomy though close ties with the German empire (St Stephen had married the sister of Emperor Henry II (1002–24)). More securely, Greek influence and the desire of the local ruler to consolidate his status by a Byzantine alliance led to the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev (988/9) whose confederation of the Rus incorporated the main trading centres on the Dneiper with the original northern capital of the Rus at Novgorod. However, even the Russians gradually emancipated themselves from Greek dominance. Alliances were sought in the west; Henry I of France (1031–60) married a Russian princess, with their son, Philip I, introducing a Greek first name that became popular in the French royal family down to the nineteenth century. In the 1040s the Russians even attacked Byzantium, and there were generally unavailing attempts to loosen the grip of the Constantinopolitan patriarchate over the Russian church. The ability to manipulate peoples around its frontiers played a crucial role in Byzantine foreign policy and survival. East of the Russians, the nomadic and Turkish tribes such as the Khazars, Pechenegs and Cumans of the southern Eurasian steppes north of the Black Sea presented a greater and more intractable threat, as did the Turkish tribes that penetrated the Near East in the mid-eleventh century.

By the early eleventh century, the Byzantine empire stretched from the Danube and Adriatic, with some outposts still retained on the mainland of Italy (at Bari, for instance), to the Taurus and Anti-Taurus mountains of eastern Anatolia and a few strongholds in northern Syria, such as Antioch. Seemingly dominant, culturally, commercially and politically, in fact the empire had only recently reasserted its position in northern Syria and the northern Balkans, where the previously independent Bulgarian state had been painfully annexed by Emperor Basil II, ‘the Bulgar Slayer’ (976–1025), and Serbian separatist tendencies neutralized. This hegemony did not last long. In the mid-1050s, Turkish tribes led by the Seljuk family had invaded the Near East, becoming the effective rulers in Baghdad. In 1071, the Seljuks invaded Anatolia, defeating and capturing the Byzantine emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes, at the battle of Manzikert. With their frontier defences breached, the Byzantines soon lost the interior of Anatolia, the Seljuks even establishing their Anatolian capital at Nicaea, within striking distance of Constantinople itself. Behind the Seljuk conquest of Anatolia other Turkish tribes took advantage of the political chaos to exploit the towns and settled agrarian economy of the region. The chief of these groups were the Danishmends, who established a so-called ghazi (i.e. holy warrior) state to the north-east of the peninsula. At much the same time, other nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes penetrated Byzantium’s Balkan frontiers. Twenty years earlier, the Greeks had to accept the settlement of the Pechenegs south of the Danube in north-eastern Bulgaria, while another steppe people, the Cumans, established themselves just to the north of the Balkan frontier. Across the Adriatic, the final Byzantine holdings were snuffed out by the new power in the region, Norman adventurers led by Robert Guiscard. Bari, the last stronghold, fell in 1071. Guiscard followed up his victory by invading the Balkans. Only with the accession of the military usurper Alexius I Comnenus was the Norman threat repulsed at Durazzo (now Durres on the Adriatic coast of Albania) in 1085 and the Pechenegs finally defeated, at Mount Levounion (at the mouth of the Maritsa in southern Thrace near the modern Turco–Greek border) in 1091. Apart from the Italian possessions, only the losses to the Seljuks in Anatolia and northern Syria remained to be restored. That is where, in the eyes and strategy of Alexius I, the appeal to the west he made in 1095 and the First Crusade came in.

The shifting fortunes of Byzantium in the eleventh century were mirrored by the disorder in the Islamic Near East following the Seljuk invasions of the 1050s. After seizing control of the Baghdad caliphate in 1055, their leader receiving the apt title of ‘sultan’ (sultan is Arabic for power), the Seljuk Turks pressed westwards. After defeating the Greeks in 1071, they annexed most of Syria and Palestine by 1079. However, despite the appearance of unity, the Seljuks presided over a loose, often fractious confederation of regional powers, such as the more or less independent sultanate of Rum, i.e. Anatolia, and city states, such as Mosul, Aleppo, Antioch (taken in 1084/5), Damascus and Jerusalem. These old Arab cities, while often owing allegiance to one or other of a series of competing Seljuk lords, were often controlled by Turkish military commanders (atabegs) whose authority rested as much in their personal mercenary bands, often of slave troops (mamluks), as on higher Seljuk approval. Everywhere, ethnic and religious diversity complemented the alienation of ruled – whether town-dwellers, rural cultivators or Bedouin or steppe nomads – from ruler. In parts of Syria, immigrant Turkish Sunnis ruled indigenous Shia populations or exerted control over local Arab nobles. In Cilicia and northern Syria, significant religiously and ethnically distinct Armenian communities were squeezed between the competing powers of Byzantium, Arabs and Turks. Across this area and in the Jazira (modern northern Iraq) the political uncertainties offered opportunities for Kurdish as well as other Turkish incomers. Similar dislocation characterized the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt, which contested with the Seljuks ascendancy over southern Palestine. In Egypt, the Shia rulers dominated the majority Sunni inhabitants through powerful chief ministers, called viziers, who were often neither Egyptian nor Arab, but Turks or Armenians. The Near East presented no harmonious spectacle of civilized peace. The Turkish invasions from the 1050s destabilized the region, introducing an alien ruling elite backed by military coercion, causing as much if not more mayhem and disruption than the crusaders were able to achieve.

Elsewhere in the Muslim Mediterranean, the political pendulum was swinging towards Christian powers. After the implosion through internecine feuding of the Cordoba caliphate in 1031, Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, was ruled or fought over by competing so-called taifa or ‘party’ kings. Their weakness and disunity allowed Christian rulers north of the Ebro to take advantage of the lucrative offers of pay and alliance to extend their power southwards, a process driven by profit, not religion, but later given the accolade of the ‘Reconquest’ or reconquista, in largely propagandist reference to the Arab conquest of the eighth century. By the end of the eleventh century, distinctive political identities had been assumed by five Christian statelets: Catalonia; Aragon; Navarre; León; and Castile. These were joined in the 1140s by the creation of Portugal following conquests between the Duero and Tagus rivers along the Atlantic seaboard. Despite a Muslim counter-attack led by a puritanical north African Muslim fundamentalist sect, the Almoravids (c.1086–1139), these Christian principalities managed to exploit the enfeebled political system of their indigenous Muslim neighbours to forge lasting ascendancy in the northern half of the peninsula, which provided the basis for the sweeping conquests of the thirteenth century.

Across the western Mediterranean, between 1060 and 1091, the island of Sicily, a former Byzantine territory in Muslim hands since the later ninth century, was conquered by armies commanded by lords of Norman French extraction whose presence in the region exemplified the fluidity of high politics where skill in battle plus a private army could propel ambitious warriors, in western Europe as much as in the Near East, to unpredicted eminence. The collapse of an independent post-Carolingian kingdom of Italy in the tenth century had opened the north of the peninsula to German invasion and the assertion of civic independence by the commercial and manufacturing cities and entrepôts of the Po valley (Milan, Venice), Liguria (Genoa) and Tuscany (Florence, Pisa). In the south, Byzantine rule in Apulia and Calabria rubbed uneasily against squabbling local dynasts in Capua, Salerno and Benevento, providing plenty of opportunities for hired professional fighters. The most militarily and politically successful of these came from Normandy, a duchy in northern France with a surplus of arms-bearers and an insufficiency of land, patronage and preferment. Normans, attracted perhaps by a familiar pilgrimage route but certainly by the prospects of profit and improved status, began making their presence felt in south Italian politics from the 1020s. By 1030, one contingent had acquired a permanent hold on Aversa between Naples and Capua. Within thirty years, Norman warlords dominated the area. After a disastrous attempt by Pope Leo IX to put papal theories of temporal jurisdiction into practice by trying to oust them ended in a crushing papal defeat at Civitate in 1053, the Norman lords acquired titles and respectability as the reforming papacy sought protectors. In 1059 Pope Nicholas II (1059–61) recognized Richard of Aversa as prince of Capua and Robert Guiscard as prospective ruler of Byzantine Calabria and Apulia and Muslim Sicily. To reinforce the honour, when Robert Guiscard’s brother, Roger, began the conquest of Sicily in 1060, the enterprise was awarded a papal banner.

The fortunes of Robert Guiscard’s dynasty presaged those of many later crusaders, the family business of war now accorded religious legitimacy and gaining enormous success. Guiscard had conquered Calabria by 1060 and Apulia in 1071 with the surrender of the last Byzantine garrison in Bari. Despite Guiscard’s failure to carve out a principality for his eldest son Bohemund in the western Balkans in the 1080s, to die in 1085 as ruler of southern Italy and arbiter of the destiny of the Vicar of St Peter was no mean feat for a younger son of a minor Norman aristocrat, Tancred of Hauteville. The conquest of Sicily by Guiscard’s brother Roger (d. 1101) provided a new focus for profit and a centre of Norman-Italian political endeavour. Once finally subdued after a bitter three decades’ fighting, Sicily proved far wealthier than the family’s mainland holdings. Under Roger’s son, Roger II, the two parts of the Hauteville inheritance were brought together to the anxiety of popes and western and eastern emperors. In 1130, in return for support, the anti-pope Anacletus II crowned Roger II king of Sicily, Calabria and Apulia, and acknowledged his overlordship over Capua, Naples and Benevento, titles that Roger retained by forcing the legitimate pope, Innocent II, whom he had just defeated and captured, to recognize them in 1139. The combined lands of the kingdom of Sicily created one of the wealthiest, culturally and politically most dynamic, ambitious and disruptive powers of the twelfth-century Mediterranean. By comparison, the Norman-Italian enclave founded by his cousins Bohemund and Tancred in Antioch in 1098 scarcely matched Roger’s lavish regime, which, at its height, sought to emulate, rival, even usurp Byzantium itself. Such entrepreneurial opportunism supplied one vital context for the early crusades. It may have been no coincidence that Alexius I timed his invitation to the west to send military aid shortly after the end of the Sicilian conquest, when, at least in the mind of the canny Greek emperor, there would be available a rich stock of soldiery, some disappointed perhaps at the Sicilian land settlement and eager for new chances to make their fortunes and save their souls.

In many ways the rise of the Hautevilles constituted an experience typical of eleventh-century France. The disintegration of the Carolingian empire in the late ninth century not only permanently divided the constituent political entities into East Francia (essentially Germany from Lorraine to the Elbe), Italy and West Francia (between the Rhine and the southern Pyrenean marches). The chaos of civil war and invasions by Vikings from the north and Arab pirates in the south also caused effective civil power within West Francia to become devolved on to the local royal agents, the counts, who wielded vice-regal military, fiscal and judicial authority. By the end of the tenth century the kingdom of France remained a legal and ideological construct, but its kings exerted little genuine power outside their own family lands. The main political foci were the great counties ruled as autonomous principalities by comital families who rapidly acquired their own grand, if often fictional, pedigrees to match their practical status. The most important counties, some later elevating themselves into duchies, were Flanders, Champagne, Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Blois-Chartres, Anjou, Paris (i.e. the Ile de France), Poitou-Aquitaine, which acquired the duchy of Gascony, Toulouse and Barcelona, which was to be attracted away from the French orbit by the opportunities and successes of its Iberian neighbours. Beside these, numerous lesser counties sprang up, some owing allegiance to the greater lords, some autonomous.

To this political patchwork were added wide geographic, economic, linguistic and ethnic contrasts. Brittany was still a Celtic region; the Basques had given their name to Gascony. Elsewhere the chief linguistic divide was between those in the north who spokelangue d’oil (so described after the word used for ‘yes’, oil) and the speakers of langue d’oc in the south, the dividing line running east–west well to the north of the modern Midi. These linguistic contrasts mirrored different histories, customs and laws. The far south retained a tradition of written law and limited urbanization to match its Mediterranean climate. Elsewhere, there was no uniformity of rules of landholding, judicial systems, weights, measures or currency. A kingdom often in name alone, nonetheless in 987 the great magnates of northern France, perhaps on the promptings of pro-German interests, decided to change the royal dynasty from the remnants of the attenuated Carolingians to the family of the counts of Paris, in the figure of Hugh Capet (987–96), his descendants being known as the Capetians. The exclusion of the Carolingian claimant suited the Germans, whose kings now came from a non-Carolingian, relatively parvenu dynasty from Saxony. Once installed, the Capetians set about securing their hold on the monarchy by reducing the elective element in French kingship not least by consistent, determined and remarkably successful efforts to ensure that each Capetian king left a son to succeed him. (Louis VII had to wait until his third wife and his mid-forties before he had a son.) The unique Capetian genetic triumph, which saw son succeed father in an unbroken line from 987 to 1316, transformed the nature of the French monarchy, but only over time.

The Capetians were aided in their ambitions by three factors. Their family lands, centred on the Ile de France, were among the richest in western Europe and straddled the main trade routes: the Seine, Marne, Loire river systems, which linked eastwards to the Rhine, Meuse and Low Countries, west to the Atlantic, north to the English Channel and south to the Saône-Rhône corridor and the Mediterranean. The church lent the Capetians ideological support and material assistance. The king was patron to wealthy monasteries and controlled appointments to important bishoprics and archbishoprics outside his own lands. The final advantage possessed by the Capetians lay in the role of kingship itself. Although few of the great princes in France bothered to pay the king homage and fealty (some counts of Anjou were happy to), the office of king legitimized those of the counts. A king, however feeble, was needed, as the events of 987 recognized. When, as rarely occurred, a foreign invasion was threatened, as in 1124, the counts rallied round. The potential for the king, as legal overlord, to interfere in the affairs of any county in the realm was undeniable but only enforceable in political circumstances that did not regularly occur until the late twelfth century.

On the other hand, the political cohesion of France was undermined by another three facts of political life. For the vast majority of Frenchmen, their spheres of economic, public and private life operated entirely beyond the reach or necessity of royal influence or power, a matter of geography, communications and the absence of national institutions. This was reflected and exacerbated in the years around 1000 in an ever more local search for protection and arbitration. Even the authority of counts was challenged and ignored as provincial gangsters and racketeers commandeered lands, markets, churches, monasteries and fighting men to impose a rough order on localities often centred on the construction of castles. Although this devolution of power has been regarded by some as a sign of a collapse of social order and its replacement by anarchy, the networks linking these petty lordships with the regional counts, bishops and local monasteries suggest a structure, however undisciplined in places. The period of supposed anarchy was accompanied, perhaps not coincidentally, by the establishment of new strength by a number of active comital dynasties, such as in Normandy, Anjou, Flanders, Blois and Champagne. Yet in valleys distant from Paris, dominated by a castle and a local boss with a posse of armed thugs (later known as knights), royal power and national sentiment were for stories and romances of a glamorous Carolingian past not daily life.

The third impediment to French royal authority lay in the loose legal concept of sovereignty, which tended to be explained and conceived in personal not institutional terms. Thus a landowner, knight, lord or count could take as his overlord anyone from whom he held land, leading to a cat’s cradle of overlapping lordships. In time, centripetal legal and political forces could turn this fluid system to the king’s benefit, but not until the thirteenth century. This personal system of lordship also ignored the boundaries of kingdoms. The count of Flanders held lands from Artois to the river Scheldt; for those which lay in the kingdom of France, the count was a subject of the king of France; for those in the empire, the emperor was his overlord. Two masters; one count; one count, two sets of subjects with wholly different technical allegiances, the king of France or Germany; a political and legal minefield. Viewed from Capetian Paris, the most dramatic and potentially dangerous of these personal international lordships concerned that of the kings of England. In 1066, the duke of Normandy, William the Bastard, invaded England and succeeded in establishing himself as king of the English. As a consequence, from 1066, with a few brief interruptions (1087–96; 1100–1106; 1138–54), the duke or regent of Normandy was also king of England. As a result of dynastic inheritance and a military and political victory in a long English civil war, in 1154 the situation was further complicated when Henry, count of Anjou, also duke of Normandy by inheritance from his mother and duke by marriage of Aquitaine, became king of England. Henry II, the first of the Angevin (i.e. Anjou was his partrimony) kings of England, was overlord to far more of France than his supposed French sovereign Louis VII: Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine, Brittany, Poitou, the duchy of Aquitaine, the Limousin, Gascony and parts of the Auvergne, with unachieved claims to parts of Languedoc. These French lands were passed on more or less intact to Henry’s son Richard I, a fact that made his relations with his crusading partner Philip II of France during the Third Crusade (1190–91) awkward, to say the least. Only after Philip II’s conquest from John of all the Angevin lands north of the Loire in 1202–4 could the Capetians begin to assert practical sovereignty over their whole kingdom.

Neither the Angevins nor their Norman predecessors as kings of England were in any meaningful sense English. It is wholly wrong to imagine that the lands they held in France were English lands. They were the personal dynastic inheritance of the rulers. In that sense, they typified a Europe that contained no nation states in the manner understood in modern Europe, although cultivating a sense of shared national identity was a feature of the kingdoms that emerged across Europe after the tenth century. The histories of France, Germany, Italy and Spain – and indeed of all the regions discussed including the Near East in this period – underline that the later political organization of Europe or western Asia was not inevitable; frontiers, traditions and nationalities were mutable, even accidental, certainly not innate.

This applied even to the most centralized state of western Europe, the kingdom of the English. Formed through the tenth-century conquest by the kings of Wessex of their northern neighbours, England developed a distinctive system of government in which public justice, coinage, markets, taxation and defence rested with the royal authority, as did control of the church. The king’s authority was mediated through local officials, a relatively efficient and sophisticated bureaucracy and a dense pattern of aristocratic and noble patronage. In Christian Europe, only in Byzantium had the techniques and institutions of government reached a more complicated and comprehensive form. Yet England’s northern and western frontiers remained uncertain, and the kingdom itself was repeatedly invaded and, in the eleventh century, twice conquered, by the Danes (1013–16) and the Normans (1066–70). The very efficiency of the English government’s capacity to tap the kingdom’s wealth made England an inviting target; the centralization of institutions and power facilitated successful conquest. France could not be conquered by a battle. With only a little exaggeration, England could, a sign of relative strength not, paradoxically, weakness. The European significance of the Norman Conquest can be found in the reorientation of English and hence British Isles politics towards north-west Europe rather than Scandinavia. English money transfused the economy of northern France. Continental habits of religious observance, styles of art and architecture and institutions of scholarship were now open to England and the English. In some instances the confrontation was painful, the imposition of foreign ways on a reluctant and far from culturally inferior conquest. In others, contact was as benign as the millennia of peaceful trade across the English Channel. Along with English wool to feed the cloth factories of Flanders and English scholars attending the new continental universities, notably Paris, the ease of assimilation into the continental European community was recognized by the enthusiastic participation by those who regarded themselves as English, as well as the descendants of their conquerors, in the crusades.

For all its elaborate institutions of government, the English state was created and maintained by armed force. After 1066, England was invaded in 1088, 1101, 1139, 1153, 1216–17; civil wars involving the English king or regent were fought 1087–8, 1100–1106, 1123–4, 1139–53, 1173–4, 1191, 1215–17. Yet warfare provided one building block of statehood. This was equally true of the Scandinavian kingdoms that emerged in the late tenth century from the fragmented politics of the Viking age. Denmark had received Christianity under Harold Bluetooth (950–86) and consolidated its territorial and national identity through conquest, both in the Baltic and across the North Sea. Slightly later, in the early eleventh century, Norway followed a similar pattern of royal conversion, rivalry with Scandinavian neighbours and foreign conquest. In 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England had to defeat a king of Norway before he faced the duke of Normandy. From the twelfth century, crusading provided the Scandinavians with the usefulmixture of legitimate war and an ideology of supremacy and colonialism to extend their interests eastwards, the Danes into Estonia and the Swedes into Finland.

At every stage and in every corner of the Afro-Eurasian region under discussion, the ubiquity of organized violence, of public and private warfare, has been inescapable. War provided the glue to cement together political institutions and assert governmental authority over areas. It supplied the pivot of civil and international disputes. It also provided occupation for nobles, aristocrats and the wider urban and rural population; by service for the upwardly ambitious, the physically suited or the otherwise unemployed; or by non-combatant engagement in the extensive social, economic and commercial networks that were required to sustain armies of whatever size. Across the whole region one of the most characteristic figures was that of the warrior plying his trade; the mamluk or Kurdish mercenaries who maintained regimes in the Near East; the Flemish and other mercenaries who supported kings and their rivals in northern Europe; the Varangian guards, northern European émigrés in the service of the Byzantine emperor. Some effectively professional fighting men did very well. The former Varangian Harold Hardrada (d. 1066) ascended to the throne of Norway; the Norman freebooter Robert Guiscard (d. 1085) became ruler of southern Italy; his great-nephew Tancred (d. 1112) rose from landless gentility to be prince of Antioch; the exiled Rodrigo Diaz, the Cid, of Castile (d. 1099), sold his sword and his soldiers to the highest bidders on all sides of the Christian–Muslim conflict before taking Valencia to rule for himself; after failed careers as a cleric and then Anglo-Norman noble, Baldwin of Boulogne (d. 1118) used his military and generalship skills to install himself as ruler of Edessa in the Jazira beyond the Euphrates before assuming the crown of Jerusalem; the Kurdish mercenary captain Yusuf Ibn Ayyub (d. 1193) became Sultan of the Near East: he is better known as Saladin.

The increasing prominence given such men can be charted in their cultural profile. By the twelfth century across western Europe, lords and even kings were for the first time depicting themselves on their personal seals as mounted warriors, knights, no longer an image of mere soldiery but of social status. The image of the armed knight, in wax, painting, sculpture, stained glass, poetry and funerary effigies, became the standard iconic representation of the ruling military aristocracy. In Byzantium, not only were the martial qualities of Alexius I emphasized by eulogists and artists, but much attention and admiration was directed at the fighting characteristics of the hired mercenaries on which the empire depended, Turks, Slavs and western Europeans. In the Near East, political propaganda caught up with political reality. A political system that relied on hiring paid private armies unsurprisingly revived the theory of holy war, jihad, to which any ambitious leader had to aspire. A succession of ambitious parvenu rulers, culminating but not ending with Saladin, laid claim to the accolade of mujahid, holy warrior.

One obvious practical reason underpinned such respect for the fighting man. The well-trained mounted fighter, even in small numbers, could dominate any battlefield and provide a decisive outcome usually in a modest period of time relative to the static slugging matches of massed, opposing, poorly armed infantry. In the Near East, these cavalrymen would be lightly armoured, using small horses, with the shorter bow as their main offensive weapon. The rapid attack, feint and ambush were their methods. In the west, archers tended to be infantry and, although useful in sieges and to control the tempo of a field battle, until the development of the great longbow were not the arbiters of victory or defeat. The western armed knight was the tank of the period; manoeuvrable; impervious to most of the fire power available to the opposing infantry. Arrows from short bows usually stuck irritatingly but harmlessly into the chain-mail coats worn over leather hauberks or tunics, so that during a long struggle knights were seen to resemble giant hedgehogs. Many famous knightly casualties to arrows came when the missile found an exposed, unprotected part of the anatomy, such as the eye or, most often, the neck when heat forced the mailed warrior to loosen his mailed neck-guard. With plate armour, arrows, even from the later longbows, tended to glance off carefully moulded front surfaces. While direct hits from spears and lances were a threat, the best chain-mail and plate armour were remarkably effective at deflecting sword-thrusts. The main use of swords, spears and maces against mounted knights was to unseat them; without the height and horse advantage, the armoured warrior became vulnerable.

Through genetics, training and diet, knights tended to be physically bigger than infantry. Mounted on increasingly well-bred, specially trained and larger horses, protected by armour and wielding heavy lances, maces and swords, a few knights could hold their own against scores of infantry. The repeated accounts of seemingly miraculous victories or escapes by hopelessly outnumbered bands of knights, while likely to be exaggerated, preserved a truth. Knightly losses in battle were modest except through the massacres that often ensued at the end of fighting. In the massed charge, lances fixed (or ‘couched’) or with swords and maces, western knights presented a most potent weapon. This depended for its effectiveness on the use of shielding ranks of infantry to commit the enemy so far as to prevent his withdrawal, escape or, as when faced with Near Eastern armies, feints and strong field discipline, to prevent a precipitate or piecemeal attack. The numbers involved in battles varied enormously. In the eleventh or twelfth century, an army of 10,000 was very large and difficult to handle over long periods, for obvious logistical reasons. Much larger forces were recorded, not least during the crusades, but these relied on the availability of plentiful forage or, in the invasion of England in 1066 or on crusade from the later twelfth century, the deep pockets and administrations of rulers to transport tens of thousands of troops by sea. Many battles and military forays were much smaller enterprises, consisting of a few hundred, even a few score. Some battles could feature a dozen or so knights. The nature of medieval warfare precluded the huge forces of the classical age, the mass national levies of the late eighteenth century, or the industrialized conscription of modern times.

The cost of western and eastern warriors, men and horses was high. In Europe and western Asia, money payment for fighting on campaigns was common, as were longer-term rewards, such as land, titles and the consequent social privileges and status. This even applied to the mamluks, who technically were slaves; they ended by ruling Egypt for 250 years. Warfare did not comprise pitched battles alone. In fact, most generals tended to avoid such risky and expensive encounters, preferring skirmishes and ravaging to achieve usually limited political or economic objectives. The butchery in most internal warfare, where combatants came from the same cultural and regional milieu or even knew each other well, tended to be limited, unlike conflicts that involved strangers, such as foreign invaders like the Vikings or crusaders. In the absence of effective systems of social and legal arbitration, still less international law, war was endemic and only marginally mitigated in its effects by shared warrior values, later called chivalry in the west but equally recognized in essence in the Muslim world. The main victims of war were non-combatants caught in war and forage zones and the unskilled infantry who rarely enjoyed a fair share of victory (i.e. booty) while suffering incommensurately in fighting. Skilled, trained warriors were worth their reward because they could ensure the best chance of success in most forms of warfare: battle; foraging; defended or forced marches; skirmishing. As war so often was politics and vice versa, with rulers across the whole Afro-Eurasian region expecting and expected to campaign every year, their value was evident.

However, in some circumstances, the mounted warrior was ineffective. Besieging cities or castles with stone walls neutralized him completely. Yet sieges played a central part in the successful prosecution of war, to annexe territory or force an opponent to come to terms. Here numbers, not equestrian panache, counted for all. Medieval warfare depended on muscle power, of men and women, horses, beasts of burden and drawers of carts. Muscle power was the medieval equivalent of modern electricity and petrol. Equally, if the besiegers either had to starve or storm a castle or a walled city into submission, the number of attackers was crucial. In addition to men, sieges required timber to build giant throwing machines and engines in and beneath which attackers could scale or undermine the city’s walls. The technology of siege warfare appears to have been more highly developed in the eastern Mediterranean, especially perhaps in Byzantium where forests and cities were both in abundance. Although fleeting references exist to large wooden siege machines in western Europe before the First Crusade, only during that expedition were westerners extensively exposed to such engines, the use of which they very quickly mastered, probably with Greek help. Timber and carpentry also provided the vital accompaniment to shipping. Western European advances in shipbuilding and navigation supplied the sinews of Europe, where communications ran along coasts and up rivers. The different physical world of the Near East, where political power and much of the internal trade were landlocked and timber was in shortening supply, gave the western attackers after 1095 their one clear military advantage.

Yet even where their military training was of least use, the elite mounted warrior played a vital role. As social leaders, they provided the money, the command structures, occasionally military knowledge. Medieval armies were collected by coercion, loyalty, the incentive of cash and idealism. The knightly classes habitually provided the first three; with the crusades they supplied the fourth as well.

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