The Mahdi Blues

At the end of time, so St. Paul had taught, Antichrist was destined to appear in Jerusalem, seated upon the mount where Solomon in ancient times had built his temple, “proclaiming himself to be God.”1Yet it was the sublime character of Scripture that its meaning, even when to the unlearned it appeared precise, could be interpreted by the wise on many levels. Much had happened since the apostle had delivered his prophecy. The Temple of the Jews had long since been overthrown and destroyed utterly – even as churches had spread across the world. How, then, was the “temple” in which Antichrist would take his seat best to be understood? “Does it mean the ruins of the Temple built by King Solomon, or might it actually mean a Christian place of worship?”2 It was this question, put by St. Augustine many centuries before the Millennium, that had haunted Wulfstan in the wake of the St. Brice’s Day massacre, and led him to see, in the rubble of a desecrated church, a possible proof of Antichrist’s imminence. Certainly, whether it was to be on the Temple Mount or within the shell of a Christian shrine, ruins seemed the only fitting backdrop to the throne of the Son of Perdition.

Over time, Wulfstan’s anxieties had begun to fade. The sufferings of the English had not proved fatal; and Canute, far from pillaging churches, as his ancestors had done, grew famous instead for refurbishing them. Travelling to Rome, he had ostentatiously deposited whole cloakloads of silver on the altars of abbeys; “and indeed whatever altar he passed, be it ever so small, he would give it gifts, and bestow sweet kisses upon it.”3Nor was the mania for sponsoring churches by any means confined to kings. In France and Italy especially, wherever a pilgrim such as Canute travelled, he was likely to pass carts weighed down with timber and columns plundered from ancient ruins, and to discover, in village after village, walls of white stone rising up above the shacks. A new church, almost as much as a castle brooding on its hill, was an emphatic marker of the grasping new order of things: for a wealthy castellan, by funding a place of worship, and privatising what had previously been held in common, was effectively branding the worshippers that it served as his property.

Yet the peasants too, robbed of their freedoms and coerced into villages as they invariably had been, had their own stake in seeing a church established in their midst. No demand was more vigorously pressed by enthusiasts for the Peace of God than that the upstart lords and their swaggering, bullying knights accept the inviolability of consecrated ground. To cross into the cimiterium, the area surrounding a church where the dead were buried and the living gathered in peace, whether to hold a market, or to hear a law suit, or to celebrate a wedding, was thunderously forbidden to any man bearing arms. Invisible the ramparts of a churchyard might be – and yet every knight who swore an oath of peace was obliged to accept that they rose no less impregnably than those of a donjon. Seen as such, the village church was not the complement of the castle, but rather its mirror image: twin citadels both, one serving to guard the powerful, and the other to shelter the weak; one the lair of warlords and the other a stronghold of God. No wonder, then, that there were many who found in the unprecedented surge of building activity a mark, not of oppression, but of renewal, of promise, of hope. “For it was as if the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the burden of the past, andcladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.”4 Such was the judgement of Rudolf Glaber, seated in that mightiest of all bastions of holiness, the abbey of Cluny. As a man who had no doubt that demons stalked the earth – and indeed had seen one, blubbery-lipped and hunchbacked, menacing him in his bed – his exultancy came as no surprise. For to behold Christendom clad in a mantle of churches was to know it transformed into one immense cimiterium – to know it fortified against Antichrist.

Yet always, no matter how widely the mantle was cast, there remained the leaden possibility that it might not prove enough: that the dark lord might still manifest himself, lit by flaring shadows, and enthroned in awful splendour, amid the wreckage of a Christian shrine. “You see all these, do you not?” Christ Himself had asked His disciples, pointing to the buildings of the Temple. “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”5 And so it had happened; and so, no doubt, before the Day of Judgement, it was fated that the ruin of the Temple would be mirrored by no less monstrous desecrations. In 991, for instance – a perilously close thing – fire had threatened the shrine of St. Peter in Rome; and all the Romans and assembled pilgrims “as one man had given out a terrible scream and turned to rush to confess the Prince of the Apostles, for a long while crying that if he did not watchfully protect his church at this time then many men would fall away from the faith.”6 Sure enough, the flames had at once miraculously retreated and vanished; but the whole scare had nevertheless served as a salutary reminder to the faithful everywhere of the potential vulnerability of even their holiest shrines. Indeed, to an alarming degree, the holier the shrine, the more vulnerable it tended to be. Fire was not the only threat to Christendom’s capital. In 1004, for instance, a fleet of pirates had sailed up the River Arno, sacking Pisa, and temporarily cutting off Rome from the north. The Saracens, unlike the Vikings, still held fast to their defiance of the Christian faith – and to their habit of tracing the frontiers of Christendom with blood.

Nor was St. Peter the only apostle they were able to menace. In the north-west corner of Spain, set amid the mountain-ringed realm of Galicia, there stood the tomb of a second: St. James. Here was a fabulous claim, it might have been thought: for Santiago, as the Christians of Spain called him, had been executed, on the certain authority of Scripture itself, in the Holy Land. Yet the story that his disciples had sailed with his corpse to the rocky Galician coast, that they had buried him forty miles inland, and that his final resting place had lain forgotten for some 800 years, until at last it had been discovered by an enterprising bishop, appeared proved beyond all shadow of a doubt by the spectacular miracles performed upon his relics.7 The kings of León certainly presumed so: delighted to find themselves with a genuine apostle on their hands, they had duly begun to promote his cult for all they were worth, hailing him as their celestial patron, and raising a splendid basilica over his tomb. Already, by the middle of the tenth century, its fame had spread far beyond the limits of Spain, so that pilgrims from the furthest reaches of Francia, including even counts and bishops, were to be found making the gruelling journey to the distant shrine, “to beg mercy and help from God and Santiago.”8Increasingly, of all those holy places in Christendom where the earth was held to be touched by heaven, only Rome was illumined by a greater renown.

And then, catastrophe. On 10 August 997, amid the fearsome cacophony of trumpets and pipes that invariably heralded an assault by Saracens, a great army had descended upon the shrine. For a week, the invaders pillaged and burned everything that they could. The cathedral itself they razed to the ground. Its bells, brought crashing down, were loaded on to the shoulders of Christian captives. When the Saracens, content with their work of destruction, withdrew at last, their human pack-animals were compelled to accompany them, sweating and stumbling, all the way to Córdoba. Christian chroniclers, in horror at the humiliation visited upon Santiago, would subsequently claim that the invaders had been struck down by diarrhoea, a godly punishment indeed, and had perished amid the effluvia of their own bowels – but this was mere wishful thinking. Entering Córdoba, the warriors of the Caliphate did so unperturbed by stomach upsets.

Proofs of their triumph were indisputable and manifold. Unloaded into the Great Mosque, the bells from the despoiled cathedral were suspended from the ceiling, to serve the Muslim faithful as lamps, lighting their way to prayers. Of the prisoners of war, some were kept in their chains, and set to labouring on a great extension to the mosque. Others, led to the esplanade that ran beside the River Guadalquivir, were publicly decapitated, and their severed heads paraded through the market place, before being hung from the main gates of the citadel.9

Grisly trophies such as these had long adorned Córdoba. No duty was more incumbent upon a commander of the faithful than that of waging jihad, and Abd al-Rahman, by laying claim to the title of Caliph, had pledged himself and his successors to at least the occasional expedition against the infidel. The heads of slaughtered Christians, dispatched from the front line, could serve not only as proof to an admiring people of their master’s victories but as stirring evidence of his piety. “Give firmness to the Believers,” God had instructed His Prophet. “I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks.”10 Just as Mohammed himself, in the wake of his first great victory on the battlefield, had been presented by a servant with the severed head of his deadliest enemy, so had the caliphs harvested the heads of Christians – and by doing so proclaimed to the world their fitness to serve as the heirs of the Prophet.

Yet the commander who had led the raid on Santiago was not a caliph. For all that an Umayyad still ruled as the nominal lord of al-Andalus, true power had slipped the dynasty’s grasp. Hisham II, son of the shrewd and cultivated al-Hakam, had shown himself pitifully unworthy of his famous lineage. Succeeding to the throne in 976, at the tender age of fourteen, he had passed the entire span of his reign within the gilded cage of Córdoba’s citadel, the anonymous and indolent victim of his own general uselessness. Effective mastery of the Caliphate had been seized instead by his regent, a celebrated warrior and religious scholar by the name of Ibn Abi Amir, a man as stern and masterful as Hisham was dissipated, and who had adopted, in 981, the richly merited title of “al-Mansur” – “the Victorious One.” Indeed, not since the time of the first coming of the Muslims to Spain had the Christians faced such a dangerous foe. Whereas in the time of Abd al-Rahman they had found it no great challenge to rebuff most of the assaults launched against them, and had even, on one noted occasion, succeeded in capturing the Caliph’s personal Qur’an, it seemed, by the time of the Millennium, that there was no resisting the Saracen firestorm. Santiago was far from the only target of al-Mansur’s fury. Barcelona too had been burned, and the lands of Christian lordships everywhere laid to waste. Even the kingdom of León, the most flourishing and formidable of them all, had been set to totter. As year followed year, and victory for the Saracens followed victory, so many Christians had come to dread whether their faith had a future in Spain at all.

Al-Mansur himself was certainly committed to its overthrow. Jihad was in his blood. Granted, his campaigns were not wholly lacking in expediency: for as an effective usurper, the pressure on him to legitimise his regime was greater even than it had been on the caliphs. Nevertheless, although he undoubtedly was a ruthless and calculating political operator, al-Mansur was also something much more: a man who devoutly believed himself the sword and shield of God. The infidels to the north were not the only objects of his righteous scorn. Indeed, even though he claimed descent from an Arab who had participated in the original conquest of Spain, he appears to have viewed the entire character of al-Andalus with a disdain that bordered on contempt. No less than the worthless Caliph immured in his palace, his compatriots struck him as dissipated and lacking in due piety. A man who felt himself called to scour the infidel from Spain could hardly remain oblivious to the canker of moral laxity among his co-religionists. Even in what should have been the great bastions of right thinking in al-Andalus, in the schools where the Qur’an was taught, and in the famous libraries that were the glory of Córdoba, the austere verities of Islam appeared, to him, under constant and insidious threat. So itwas that al-Mansur had scholars suspected of heresy publicly crucified; and so it was too that he did not hesitate to winnow even the celebrated library of al-Hakam of offending volumes, and consign the chaff to a bonfire. By 1002, when he died in the midst of his fifty-second campaign of jihad, it appeared that his life’s mission to impose God’s order upon the world had reaped a truly spectacular harvest – in the House of Islam itself no less than in the bloodied House of War.

And so it had – but not in the way that al-Mansur himself had intended. Appearances could be deceptive. In truth, it was not the kingdom of León, nor any of the other Christian lordships left mangled by the long decades of jihad, that faced implosion. Rather, it was the Caliphate itself, which had seemed, under the leadership of al-Mansur, raised to such intimidating heights of glory as to put even the furthest reaches of infidel Spain in its shadow, that was teetering on the edge of ruin. Few, in the immediate wake of the great warlord’s death, would have suspected as much; but there were some, even back in the glory days of the Umayyads, who had sensed a rottenness in al-Andalus, and feared where it might end. One of them, ironically enough, had been al-Mansur himself. As a youthful and talented player in the often deadly game of harem politics, he had been granted plentiful opportunities to study at close hand the functioning of al-Hakam’s regime – and to mark just how dependent it had become for its muscle on foreigners. As in the days of Abbot John’s visit to Córdoba, most of these were slaves, transported to al-Andalus from the far-off lands of the Slavs – but some were mercenaries, Muslim Berbers from Morocco. Al-Mansur had come to know the quality of these men well: for early in his career he had served among them in North Africa. Stern in the practice of their religion, and “famed for their exploits, qualities and valour in the face of the Christians,”11 the Berbers had seemed to the young officer everything that his compatriots were not: warriors ideally suited to keeping an ambitious jihadi in power. And so it had proved. Al-Mansur’s reign had witnessed a prodigious influx of Berber war bands into al-Andalus. By the time of his death, they were to be found billeted across the Caliphate, loathed and feared in equal measure by the natives. Naturally enough, as the tax rate spiralled ever upwards, so the resentment of the Andalusis at being obliged to fund the promotion of immigrants – of savages! – over their own heads had grown increasingly sulphurous. In Córdoba especially, the great maze of streets had begun to seethe with ethnic hatreds. The capital had been transformed into a kindling box.

This was an alarming inheritance, certainly, for any ruler to come into. For six years, however, al-Mansur’s eldest son, a jihad-seasoned alcoholic by the name of Abd al-Malik, succeeded, despite his most un-Islamic enthusiasm for the bottle, in maintaining his dynasty’s grip on both Córdoba and al-Andalus. Rather than flaunt his power, he did as his father had done, and paid dutiful lip service to Hisham II; rather than parade his dependence on the Berbers, he sought to veil it. When he too died, however, and was succeeded by his brother, the son of a Christian concubine known to the Córdobans by the derisive nickname of “Sanchuelo,” both policies were flung out of the window. Subtlety was not the new regent’s forte. First, he leaned on the wretched Hisham to appoint him the formal heir to the throne of the Caliphate; then, just for good measure, he ordered everyone at court to start wearing a Berber style of turban. As Sanchuelo set off northwards on the obligatory campaign of jihad, he left behind him a capital that was smouldering. At the news that he had crossed the frontier, it exploded into flames.

The spark that lit the conflagration had been struck by an Umayyad fugitive, Muhammed bin Hisham. Sneaking back into Córdoba, he had succeeded in rallying the disinherited members of his clan to his cause – and now, with Sanchuelo far distant in the lands of the infidel, he deposed the feeble Hisham II and took his place upon the throne. News of the coup was greeted ecstatically by the Córdobans, who set about celebrating it with a delirious orgy of theft and violence. The slums emptied as the palaces built by al-Mansur and his two sons were systematically trashed. “Such was the sacking,” one historian recorded, “that even the doors and beams disappeared.”12

The new Caliph, far from attempting to restrain the rioters, encouraged them all he could. This was the measure of his authority: it depended on a lynch mob. As did his justice. Staking out Sanchuelo’s harem, the new Commander of the Faithful cherry-picked the most beautiful women, raped some of the others and shared out the remainder among his henchmen. Learning that Sanchuelo himself had been abandoned by his army and assassinated, he ordered the corpse brought back to Córdoba and stuck up on a gibbet. Seeking to raze the principal buttress of the toppled regime, and ingratiate himself with the anti-immigrant Córdobans, he placed a bounty on the head of every Berber.

“And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter.”13 The Córdobans, who had long felt that the “tumult and oppression” of the hated Berbers more than qualified them to be slaughtered, now set to obeying the Prophet’s injunction with a sanguinary literalness. As black smoke rose above the immense city, so mobs began to gather once again, pillaging Berber barracks and homes, and hunting down their inhabitants. The men were slaughtered; the women raped, then tethered together to be sold as whores. Those found to be pregnant had their babies sliced out of their bellies.

Yet the Berbers were not so easily excised from the guts of al-Andalus. By 1010, the vengeful comrades of those who had been massacred the year before were camped around the walls of Córdoba, and for three years they remained there, slowly starving the city to death. The Córdobans, flaunting their refusal to surrender, went so far as to sanction cannibalism rather than submit to the hated foreigners. Most, however, were civilians – and such gestures were the effective limit of their defiance. The ruin of Córdoba, when it came at last, was total. The Berbers, taking possession of the city in the spring of 1013, mercilessly beslathered the “Ornament of the World” with gore. All its gilded splendours, all its fabulous pretensions, were trampled underfoot. Among the corpses left piled in the smoking streets, almost certainly, was that of Hisham II, the heir of the Umayyads, his pale and perfumed body sharing in his capital’s desecration, his caliphal blood serving to feed the ruined city’s flies.

And yet his death went unremarked. Set against the titanic scale of the ethnic hatreds that had torn the Caliphate to pieces, the doings of its rulers had come to seem a matter almost of insignificance. The Córdobans, during the course of the terrible siege, had thought nothing of executing Mohammed for the horrors he had brought down upon them, and restoring Hisham to his throne; and after Hisham’s disappearance, there were other factions who adopted candidates of their own. Yet few paid these spectral caliphs any attention. The unity of al-Andalus was gone for ever, and across the lands that had once been ruled from Córdoba local warlords were already looking to their own. The Muslims would call these upstarts “Taifa” kings: “faction” kings. The ambition of al-Mansur, that a revived and triumphant Islam would complete the business begun three centuries previously and subdue the whole of Spain, was dead. The goal of the Taifa kings was less aggrandisement than survival. Nothing remained of the Caliphate save a corpse to be scavenged over.

And nothing of its capital save a shell. For those who had known Córdoba in the full radiance of her glory, the agony of what she had become was unbearable. “Prosperity has been changed into a sterile desert, society into frightful loneliness, beauty into rubble-strewn plains. Where peace once reigned, great chasms now yawn: the haunt of wolves, of ghosts, of demons.”14 So wrote Ibn Hazm, a high-born intellectual and Umayyad loyalist, whose fruitless nostalgia for the decaying Caliphate had led him to endure years of imprisonment and exile. Specifically, he was describing the anguish of a lover parted from the object of his passions: an anguish that he himself had known well. In 1013, amid the horrors of Córdoba’s fall, Ibn Hazm had been forced to flee the city and leave behind him the first great love of his life: a young and exquisitely lovely slave girl, modest, refined and with a voice “that could pluck at heart-strings.”15 Six years on, however, when he met her again, he found her so lined and withered as to be unrecognisable. Feeling that wherever he looked there was nothing but decay, Ibn Hazm had traced in the preternaturally wrinkled face of a slave woman the lineaments of a more universal decay. The rooms of the country estate in which he had grown up, and Córdoba herself, and the once-flourishing lands of al-Andalus – all were ruined too. “Those halls inscribed with beauteous scripts, those adorned boudoirs that used to shine like the sun, possessed of a loveliness that had the power to banish all misery from the soul; now they are overwhelmed by desolation, standing like the open jaws of savage beasts. And by doing so, they proclaim the doom that awaits the world.”16

A sentiment worthy almost of Cluny. Certainly, Christians were not alone in dreading that the end days might be at hand. During the reign of al-Hakam, indeed, a Muslim philosopher who had thought to deny the coming of the Day of Judgement had been put to death for heresy. Just as the Great Mosque of Córdoba incorporated within its architecture the columns and brickwork and mosaics of superseded empires, so had the infinitely grander edifice of Islam not disdained to cannibalise the revelations of the Christians. Jesus, Muslims were taught, had been a mighty prophet of God, and at the end of time, he would descend from the skies, just as St. John had written, and would fight and conquer the hordes of the “Dajjal” – Antichrist. Not alone, how ever: for at his side would appear an even greater warrior, “a descendant of Fatima,”17 the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, whose fateful task it would be “to fill the earth with justice and equity, just as now it is filled with oppression and tyranny.”18 This greatest of all caliphs would be termed “al-Mahdi”: “the Rightly Guided One.” And his rule would serve to put an end to suffering and injustice for ever.

But when? A familiar question. Muslims, tipped off by the Prophet, believed that the moment would come upon the turning of a century. The passage of a hundred years was what haunted their imaginings, not a thousand. Four centuries had gone by since Mohammed, fleeing his native city, had set about establishing the first Muslim state – and the precise anniversary of this epochal event was, according to the Christian calendar, 1009. Small wonder, then, in the troubled decades falling either side of this date, that Muslims too should have anticipated the ending of the world. It was no coincidence, for example, that Muhammed bin Hisham, the Umayyad pretender who had laid claim to the caliphal dignity in the very year 1009, should have presumed to adopt the title of Mahdi. A pathetic and vain expedient – and yet powerfully suggestive of a mood of anxiety that had come to grip not merely al-Andalus, but the whole of the House of Islam.

For Córdoba, after all, was not the only capital of a caliphate – to the east, in Cairo, there ruled a family that had never ceased to imagine itself the gatekeeper of the end days. The Fatimids – the descendants of Fatima – had always sought to draw deep from the wellsprings of the mysterious. The founder of the dynasty, back in 909, had actually believed that he was the Mahdi himself, and although time – and his death – had proved him mistaken, his successors had shrugged aside any resultant sense of let-down. Instead, with a vaunting and unabashed conceit, they had continued to insist that they were supremely touched by the supernatural. The Caliph who swayed Egypt at the dawning of the fifth Muslim century was no exception. Indeed, to an unprecedented degree, al-Hakim bin-Amr Allah claimed directly to be an incarnation of God. His subjects, far from laughing this pretension to scorn, were almost universally awestruck by it. Tall, broad-shouldered and with a stare that was reported to glitter like fiery gold, al-Hakim had only to look at his subjects as he toured the streets of Cairo to send them grovelling in the dust. When he shouted, it was claimed, men had been known to drop dead of terror on the spot. Sober in his tastes, puritanical in his instincts and unstintingly imperious in all his moods, al-Hakim was not a man readily crossed. When he claimed to have penetrated the veiled secrets of God, there were few who openly disputed it; and when he sought to shoulder the responsibilities of the Mahdi, there were even fewer who cared to obstruct him.

So it was that while the Caliphate of the Umayyads, far distant in the West, collapsed into terminal anarchy, the reign of al-Hakim was marked by titanic efforts to reorder the world and prepare it for the end days. True, some of the Caliph’s strategies, even to the most committed of his followers, could not help but appear a trifle eccentric. The selling of watercress, for instance, was solemnly banned; so too the playing of chess. Other policies, however, were more readily explicable. What objection, for instance, could a pious Muslim raise against al-Hakim’s command that all the dogs in Cairo be put to the sword and their corpses dumped out in the desert, when everyone knew the creatures to be unclean? Or indeed against his campaign to check the potentially even filthier appetites of women? A conviction that these merited regular chastisement had often been a caliphal trait: of Abd al-Rahman, for instance, it was said that he had never visited his harem without a sword and an executioner’s leather mat. Even when set against such precedents, however, al-Hakim’s terrors of where female promiscuity might lead the faithful were extreme. So too his plans to counter them. First he ordered women everywhere to be veiled when out in public; then he banned them from leaving their homes; finally he forbade them even so much as to peer out of windows or doors. Cobblers were instructed to stop making them shoes. Those whose voices disturbed the Caliph as he walked through the streets might expect to be walled up and left to starve.

These were robust measures, certainly – and yet justified, al-Hakim would no doubt have insisted, by the troubled character of the times. If it were true, as the Caliph himself appears devoutly to have believed, that a mighty convulsion in the affairs of the world was looming, then clearly there could be no excuse for delaying the purification of the House of Islam. Dogs and women, however, were the least of the Caliph’s problems. Other menaces festered infinitely more worrisome. Egypt, even in comparison with al-Andalus, still teemed with Christians and Jews. The Fatimids, not content with extorting taxes from them, as the Prophet had prescribed, had also, over the years, profited handsomely from the tribute of their expertise. Dhimmis, as a result, had come to throng the caliphal ministries – and the caliphal bedrooms. Even al-Hakim’s own mother was a Christian. What could this appear, to the pious Muslims of Egypt, but a scandal and a blasphemy? Indeed, only a year before al-Hakim’s accession, in 995, a bloody marker of their resentments had been served to the future Caliph when a mob had gone on the rampage and massacred over a hundred Christians in a single pogrom. A marker that al-Hakim, as time would prove, had noted well.

He may have been a son of a Christian, but even as a young boy of eleven, inheriting the throne while out on campaign against the infidels of Constantinople, he had believed himself implacably fated to prove the doom of his mother’s faith. As his reign progressed, dhimmis who had once basked in the radiance of caliphal favour found themselves increasingly subjected to humiliations and harassments. Christians and Jews alike were forbidden to appear in public unless wearing distinctive turbans of black. As a further refinement, Christians were obliged to hang crosses around their necks, and Jews heavy blocks of wood. They were also banned from employing Muslims – a measure which immediately served to plunge most dhimmi businesses into bankruptcy. There were some, however, who lost more than their income. In 1009, the dawning of the fifth Islamic century, numerous non-Muslim officials in the imperial bureaucracy were scourged to death and their corpses fed to Cairo’s few remaining dogs. Others, under threat of torture, were obliged to convert to Islam. Yet even these outrages, in the view of the Caliph’s horrified Christians, were not the most shocking of their master’s crimes. Worse then murder or oppression, after all, was sacrilege – and al-Hakim just happened to have within his power the very holiest of their shrines.

Jerusalem, where Jesus had died and been buried, remained, under the Fatimids, a predominantly dhimmi town. True, back in the first century of the Islamic Empire, when the Umayyads had ruled as the masters of a unified Caliphate, a mosque and a mighty dome had both been built on the site of the obliterated Jewish Temple: imperious symbols of Muslim dominance. Nevertheless, as a native of the city who frequented them grumbled, “Everywhere the Jews and Christians have the upper hand, and the mosques are void of either congregation or assembly of learned men.”19 One unhappy consequence of this, so Muslims liked to believe, was the appalling standard of hygiene in the public baths: “Nowhere will you find any filthier.”20 Another, even more distressing, was the sheer ostentation in Jerusalem of dhimmi rituals. The Jews, for instance, deprived of their ancient sanctuary on the Temple Mount, had relocated their place of public prayer to the Mount of Olives, directly across the valley from the city’s most famous mosque; but even the Jews were less offensively in Muslim faces than were the Christians. Almost seven centuries had passed since the Emperor Constantine, arriving in Jerusalem, had ordered the building of a great basilica over the site of Christ’s tomb; and still it stood there, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place of such awesome and refulgent sacredness that there was nowhere in all Christendom, not even in Rome, that could possibly rival it. To Christians “from across the entire face of the world,”21 in the West as well as the East, it was, quite simply, beyond compare: “the heart of the earth.”22

But to al-Hakim, it was a standing provocation. Plans for its destruction were first drawn up at the end of 100723 – one year after a star of exceptional brightness, blazing suddenly in the constellation of Scorpio, had served to reassure the Caliph that he was indeed touched by the divine. Nevertheless, even with his workmen primed, al-Hakim had no intention of hurrying. Naturally, as befitted a would-be guardian of the end days, he knew that timing was everything. Not until 1009 itself – the Muslim year 400 – were the demolition teams finally set to work. “The Church of the Dungheap,” *as Muslims derisively termed Constantine’s great basilica, was first stripped of all its treasures and furnishings, and then, right the way down to the bedrock, dismantled brick by brick. The very tomb of Christ was hacked about and “assaulted by a prodigious fire.”24 All the church’s magnificence was methodically demolished and left as dust.

In mosques everywhere, it is said, lengthy prayers of joy were raised, and the praises of the Caliph were of an unparalleled extravagance.25

Meanwhile, as reports of what had been done spread beyond the frontiers of the Caliphate, and into the heartlands of Christendom, so the rumours that swept the appalled Christians of the West grew ever more confused and terrifying. Some claimed, rather farfetchedly, that the entire outrage had been plotted by the Jews of Orléans, who had sent letters to al-Hakim, encouraging him in his act of desecration. Others named the Caliph the King of Babylon, who in ancient times had destroyed King Solomon’s Temple. Others noted how the heavens had broadcast their revulsion at the sacrilege, frowning upon the world, and inflicting upon mankind “severe dry spells, very much rain, many plagues, severe famines and numerous failures of the sun and moon”26 – and drew their own conclusions.

And as they looked to the skies they hugged their souls and wondered what, in an age marked by such prodigies, sinful humanity should do.

Jesus Wept

By 1010, reports of the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre had reached as far as Aquitaine. As southern France was racked by widespread violence and upheaval, the shock wave broke across the duchy with an especial force. In one town in particular, the news served to induce an almost personal sense of horror: for Limoges, an ancient and flourishing settlement in the heart of France, was the proud possessor of a holy sepulchre all of its own. St. Martial, while hardly on a par with apostles such as Peter and James, was nevertheless much cherished by the locals: for, back in the third Christian century, he had first brought the Gospel to Aquitaine. His tomb, deep in the crypt of a monastery that bore his name, was widely reverenced as the reservoir of an awful power. Back in 994, on the occasion of a trail-blazing peace council, the mere process of transporting the saint’s earthly remains to a nearby hill had been sufficient to prompt an earthquake. As an immense crowd moaned and shuddered at the sight of the relics, a terrible pestilence of “invisible fire” had been lifted from Limoges, and the duke and all his lords had together sworn “a pact of peace and justice.”27 Over the succeeding years, miracles had continued to be performed upon St. Martial’s tomb. Pilgrims had flocked to it in prodigious numbers. As the new millennium dawned, and the weather turned increasingly freakish, afflicting the region with heatwaves, and violent rainstorms, and strange wonders written in the sky, so the inhabitants of Limoges had begun to imagine themselves a chosen people, appointed by God to serve as witnesses to the fracturing of the times. Indeed – in an excitable display of immodesty – the town had dared to conceive of itself almost as a new Jerusalem. And then had come the baleful tidings from the Holy Land.

Nightmarish news, to be sure – and there must have been many in Limoges, during the course of that strange and menacing summer, who suffered sleepless nights as a consequence. We know for certain, however, of only one: a monk by the name of Adémar, a twenty-year-old of good family who had recently journeyed from his own monastery to study at St. Martial. Proud and sensitive, the young scholar appears to have been a natural loner, one who combined a restless intellect with emotional depths so turbulent that he sought, by and large, to conceal their existence. We do not know the extent of his nightmares in 1010; but Adémar did record how one night, unable to sleep and looking out at the sky, he was granted a vision infinitely more disturbing than any dream. Indeed, so shattering was the spectacle of what he found confronting him that night, rising over Limoges and framed against a blaze of brilliant stars, that he would end up keeping it to himself for almost twenty years. High against the southern sky, planted as if in the heavens, he saw a giant crucifix – and nailed to it was Christ Himself. “And the figure of the Lord, hanging on the cross, was weeping forth a great river of tears.” Adémar, struck dumb with fear, could do nothing as he gazed at this harrowing apparition but fall to weeping himself. “In all, he saw this cross and the image of the Crucified One, the colour of fire and deep blood, for half a full night hour, until the sky closed itself. And what he saw he sealed in his heart.”28

As well he might have done. The implications of the Saviour’s tears, shed in rivers over Limoges, could hardly but have appeared overwhelming to the shaken monk. Almost a thousand years had passed since Christ wept over Jerusalem; and now, with His own tomb desecrated, He had appeared in the heavens to weep again. What, then, could this portend, if not the fatal moment of which St. Paul had warned, when Antichrist would emerge upon his throne and lay claim to the rule of the world? Indeed, who was to say that he had not already done so? Was it not by trampling down the Temple in Jerusalem, and putting the faithful to the sword, and proclaiming his own divinity, that Antichrist was destined to announce himself? Had not the Prince of the Saracens fulfilled every last term of the prophecy?

No wonder, then, with strange eclipses shimmering above Limoges, and her streets broiling in murderous heat, and her rivers drying up as though scorched by celestial fire, that a sense of terror began to sweep through the town. It needed no vision of a weeping Christ to panic the citizens – nor to set them looking for scapegoats. The same gusts of rumour that had brought the news from the Holy Land had also served to broadcast to them the shocking charges against the Jews of Orléans. The Christians of Limoges – fearful, it appears, that the reign of Antichrist was come indeed, and that his cohorts might be lurking in their very midst – had begun to fix their suspicions upon the Jews of their own town. The local bishop, sensitive to the mood of rising paranoia, duly summoned a council. Adémar, writing some fifteen years later, described what happened next. For a month, the wretched Jews of Limoges were bullied and hectored in what was laughably termed a “debate.”29 At the end of the proceedings, they were ordered to convert to the Christian faith. Only three or four could bring themselves to do so. The remainder, so Adémar recorded, were then driven from the town.

This, as a breakdown in community relations, was certainly ground-breaking – indeed, a bolt from the blue. Bishops in the West were not in the habit of harassing Jews, still less of deporting them. Better by far to affect a lofty blend of contempt and indifference: such had been the judgement of St. Augustine, an authority not readily brooked. For the Jews, the great doctor of the Church had ruled, despite undoubtedly having the blood of Christ on their hands, had not known, when they dispatched Him to crucifixion, that they were killing the Son of God; an extenuation that Christian kings and bishops had been more than content to accept. As in the lands of the Saracens, so in Christendom: tolerance was firmly rooted in self-interest. Jews would be offered protection, and even special privileges, so that their talents might then all the more readily be exploited. And sure enough, whether as court officials, or as physicians, or as linchpins of the slave trade, they had long provided their sponsors with an excellent return. No wonder, then, over the years, that the Jewish communities of Francia had grown increasingly prosperous – and increasingly well integrated too.30 Not only did they live cheek by jowl with their gentile neighbours, but they tended to wear the same clothes, speak the same language and even give their children the same names. There was nothing, in short, in centuries of peaceful co-existence with the Franks, that could have prepared them for the sudden ethnic cleansing of Limoges.

And it is possible – indeed probable – that the persecutions of 1010 were even more brutal than Adémar could bring himself readily to acknowledge.31 Later in his career, when he came to emend his account of the treatment of the Jews of Limoges, he let slip a telling indiscretion. “And some,” he wrote, “preferred slitting their own throats to avoid baptism.”32 This, it appears, had been the true climax of the “debate” staged in the town by the bishop. Nor, necessarily, had the atrocities been confined to Limoges. Rudolf Glaber, recording the paroxysms of that feverish year in the more heated terms that came naturally to him, described the whole of Christendom as gripped by a blood lust. “For once it had become quite clear that it was the wickedness of the Jews which had brought about the Temple’s destruction,” he explained, “they became the objects of universal hatred: they were driven from the cities, some were put to the sword, others were drowned in rivers, and many found other deaths; some even took their own lives in diverse ways.” A grotesque exaggeration, it might be thought – and not least because Glaber concluded with a palpable falsehood, a smug assertion that “after this very proper vengeance had been taken, very few Jews were to be found left in the Roman world.”

In truth, whatever the precise details of the persecution that was launched against the Jews in 1010, it could hardly have been on the scale of the pogroms that were simultaneously tearing al-Andalus apart – for “the fury of the Christian people,” as even Glaber admitted, in a tone of some disappointment, “did not take long to cool.”33 The sudden eruption of Jew-killing, as unprecedented as it had been savage, subsided quickly. As well it might have done – for it carried a penalty, according to a papal mandate that had been issued only two years previously, of excommunication. With the mobs laying down their weapons, so the dust began to settle. Communities everywhere set to picking up the pieces. Across France, the Christian authorities resumed gracing the Jews with their customary disdainful tolerance. On both sides, it appears, there was a determination to regard the violence as an aberration – or indeed as something that had never happened in the first place.

This attitude was dictated for the persecuted by simple common sense – and for the persecutors by something like embarrassment. All well and good, no doubt, to turn on the enemies of Christ during the reign of Antichrist, that time of terrible and cosmic danger when, as Adso had pointed out, “the Jews will flock to him, in the belief that they are receiving God – but rather they will be receiving the Evil One.” As it proved, however, the desecration of the Holy Sepulchre had not served to usher in the end days – just as al-Hakim had not turned out to be Antichrist. Indeed, far from persisting in his persecution of the Christians, strange rumours began to spread in the West that he had become a Christian himself. By 1021 he was dead, lost in the Egyptian desert, and in such mysterious circumstances that there were some, both Muslim and Christian, who claimed he had been taken up to heaven by an angel. *Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, work had soon begun on rebuilding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, so that within two decades of its destruction services were once again being celebrated before its altar, and pilgrims, entering the shrine, could gawp at all its beauties, at “its coloured marbles, its ornamentation and sculptures, its Byzantine brocade with pictures spun in gold.”34 No wonder, then, back in the lands of the West, that the hysteria that had followed its original destruction was a source of some mortification, and one that most people preferred to forget.

Yet this was not always easily done. There were those for whom the terrors of 1010 had been so overwhelming as to shake them to their very core. How, for instance, as Limoges returned to normal, and the years gradually slipped by, and even the banished Jews began to limp their way back to the town, was Adémar to make sense of his vision of the weeping Christ? Tellingly, when he finally came to write down what he had seen, he still could not bring himself to confess the precise context of his revelation. Instead, with a finicky display of deceit that only a true scholar could possibly have attempted, he set out to muddy it. History, in Adémar’s chronicle, was painstakingly rewritten. The destruction of the Holy Sepulchre was dated, not to 1009, but to the succeeding summer. The likelihood that it had been the alarming news from Jerusalem which inspired the persecution of the Jews – not to mention Adémar’s own vision – was discreetly buried. In all his account of the harrowing events of 1010 not a hint remained that they had been prompted, as a later and more scrupulous historian would put it, “by a rumour spread in many places across the globe, one that frightened and saddened many hearts, that the end of the world was at hand.”35

Yet still, in Adémar’s own soul, at any rate, the question must have abided: why had his saviour appeared to him, nailed to a cross, and weeping? There was nothing in his monastery that would have prepared him for such a spectacle. Just as the ancient Romans, shrinking from imagining their god as a victim of torture, had preferred to think of Him instead as a celestial emperor, ablaze with the glory of His triumph over death, so too had their successors, in the Latin West no less than in Constantinople, persisted in representing Christ as a Basileus, serene and remote, enthroned in heaven. His cross, when it was portrayed at all, was conceived of less as an instrument of execution than as a victory standard, dyed by His blood an aptly imperial purple. That Jesus, who had once trod the earth as a human being, had experienced suffering no less excruciating than that endured by the most wretched of peasants, that He had hungered, and thirsted, and even wept: all these were details that scarcely registered with most Christians. Well might Adémar, then, have found himself perturbed by his vision.

And all the more so because he would have suspected that what he had been shown that fateful night was something that might prove perilous to acknowledge. There were many, since the Millennium, who had laid claim to strange revelations. Most of these, in the view of anxious clerics such as Adémar himself, derived not from any parting of the veil of heaven, but rather from shadows and phantasms risen up from the fumes of hell. In the fateful year 1000, for instance, a French peasant by the name of Leutard had dreamed that a great swarm of bees entered his body through his anus, and spoke to him, “ordering him to do things impossible for human kind”;36 simultaneously, Vilgard, a grammarian at Ravenna, imagined himself in the company of assorted ancient pagans;37and in 1022, most alarmingly of all, it was reported that twelve clerics in Orléans, one of whom had been high in the favour of King Robert himself, were in the habit of being visited regularly by the Devil, “who would appear to them sometimes in the guise of an Ethiopian, and sometimes in the form of an angel of light.”38

Bewilderingly diverse in their origins and their social backgrounds the men who experienced these visions may have been – and yet all had been inspired by a similar shocking notion: “They did not believe that there was such a thing as the Church,”39 it was said of the clerics of Orléans. So it was likewise reported of Leutard, who had set himself to vandalising shrines, and of Vilgard, who had claimed that poets were the only source of wisdom. All of them, inspired by their supernatural interlocutors, had come to scorn the rituals and the doctrines of the Church, its ancient hierarchy, its sumptuous adornments, its aids to prayer, its tithes: everything, in short, of its massy order which had been constructed with such labour over the long millennium since the life of Christ.

Where had they sprung from, these heretics?40 Just as bishops had never thought to harry the Jews until the dawning of the new millennium, so similarly had it never before crossed their minds to root around for heresy.41 Only during the end days, after all, so Christ had admonished, were the weeds to be sorted out from the wheat, “and burned with fire.” Yet now the Millennium was here – and suddenly, it appeared to jumpy churchmen, there were weeds sprouting up everywhere. Adémar, for instance, nervously marking the times from the watchtower of his monastery, described the fields and forests of Aquitaine as teeming with heretics; and the more he sought to keep track of them, the more obsessed by them he became. Like the “wickedness and pride” that he dreaded were coming to infect the souls of the faithful everywhere, “the endless warfare, and the famine, and the pestilence, the terrors seen in the heavens, and all the other signs.” they were self-evidently a fateful portent: “messengers of Antichrist.”42 And yet in truth, to a man such as Adémar, the heresy being preached on his very doorstep must have appeared a uniquely devilish menace. Unlike the Jews, who were at least open in their hostility to the Christian faith, it was the perverse and subtle cunning of heretics that they scorned the Church for not being Christian enough. Their ideal was an existence of rough-hewn simplicity, such as the original disciples had known. In their beginning was to be their end: for the heretics, by attempting to found the primitive Church anew in Aquitaine, aimed at nothing less than the hastening of the return of Christ. “They affect to lead their lives as the apostles did,”43 it was reported of communities in the Périgord, a bare fifty miles south of Limoges. An accusation fit to chill the soul of Adémar, certainly – for how could it not have served to awaken a dark and unnerving suspicion in him? The rolling back of the Millennium to its starting point, the annihilation of time: was this not precisely what his own revelation had accomplished, by showing him Christ nailed and bloody upon the Cross?

These were treacherous waters indeed. No wonder that Adémar hesitated for years to confess his vision. No wonder either that he should have noted with a particular alarm how the heretics, even as they preached their pestilential doctrines in the woods and villages beyond the walls of his monastery, sought to set themselves apart from the common run of sinful humanity – “precisely as though they were monks.”44 One eccentricity in particular stood out: their vegetarianism. Indeed, a repugnance for eating meat appeared a characteristic of heretics wherever they were found. In Saxony, for instance, suspicions would immediately be aroused if a peasant showed himself reluctant to kill a chicken – for squeamishness had come to be regarded as a certain symptom of heresy. So too, in France, had “a pale complexion”:45 the inevitable consequence of only ever nibbling on turnips. In Milan, the archbishop himself stepped in to try to persuade a group of heretics, a countess among them, that it was no sin to be a carnivore – but in vain. Back came the defiant reply: “We do not eat meat.”46

Here, in this bold statement, was something more than merely the articulation of a dietary fad. For if it were true, as all the signs suggested, that the end time was fast approaching, and the New Jerusalem about to descend, then how better could humanity prepare itself, so the heretics appear to have concluded, than by aspiring to a literally fleshless state? To fast – and if not to fast, then to subsist on vegetables – was the closest that a mortal could hope to come to the incorporeal condition of an angel. Well might this serve to make a bishop nervous – for what role did it leave to him? Yet if there was any order of the Church likely to feel threatened by the sudden mushrooming of heretics, and by their ambitions to live like angels, then it was – just as Adémar had noted – the monks. And specifically, the monks of Cluny. For they too conceived of themselves as beings set apart from the polluted world of flesh and dirt and sin; and they too, as befitted soldiers of God, did not eat meat. Any monk who presumed to break this prohibition, so Abbot Odo had warned, would find himself choking on the offending morsel to death. Even the use of lard, on those regrettable occasions when oil ran short, required a special dispensation. Not for warrior monks the more robust appetites of a bishop such as Henry of Lund, the keeper of Canute’s treasure in Denmark, who “revelled and stuffed his belly so full that at last he suffocated and burst”;47 nor of a king such as Sancho of León, who ended up so stupefyingly fat that he could barely walk, let alone climb on to a horse, and had to be put on a crash diet by a Jewish physician summoned all the way from Córdoba specifically to slim him down.

Notorious prodigies of gluttony such as these served merely to showcase what was anyway self-evident enough: that gourmandising, in a world racked by hunger, was above all a marker of rank. The monks of Cluny, who certainly had no wish to see the world turned upside down, appreciated this perfectly well; nor did they ever think to begrudge an eminent visitor the meat that they denied themselves. Indeed, on occasion, when the monastery found its larder under-stocked, the odd miracle might help them to make up the shortfall: as on the evening when a bishop and his entire retinue dropped by unexpectedly, and a huge boar was discovered shortly afterwards sitting on the porch, drooling over the stonework and “offering itself up willingly to be slaughtered.”48 That even the pork served at Cluny’s tables might be touched by the supernatural was certainly dazzling evidence of the monastery’s holiness – and that the monks themselves still stuck to the fish course even more so.

Which was just as well – for the Church, if it were to meet the challenge of heresy, desperately needed its own exemplars of otherworldliness and purity. The challenge of those who in their longing for Christ’s return imagined that the gates of the celestial could be forced open, and the Second Coming hastened, had to be met and sternly rebuffed. Not all of them could be brought to the satisfying end of Leutard, who in his despair at finding himself abandoned by his followers had committed suicide by jumping down a well. Nor could they all be burned: the fate of the Orléans dozen. To be sure, the fact that the convicted clerics had spontaneously dissolved into ash at the merest touch of the fires had clearly signalled divine approval of their sentence; nor was their execution, the first ever for heresy in the West, by any means to be the last. Yet the Church itself, in the main, shrank from the prospect of harrying heretics to their death – so that when, for instance, in Milan, the city fathers condemned the vegetarian countess and her associates to the flames, the sentence was vigorously opposed by the very archbishop who had interrogated them in the first place. “Error coupled with cruelty,”49 said one bishop of the policy of executing heretics. In part, this reflected practical considerations: the Church simply lacked the apparatus of state control that the Umayyads or al-Mansur had been able to draw upon in their own, far bloodier, campaigns against heresy. Yet it also reflected something profounder: a determination to confront the heretics on their chosen ground, directly on the battlefield of the supernatural, before the gates of the City of God. That the Christian people, sensing the world to be entering the end time, and buffeted as they were by portents and wonders and upheavals, should yearn to journey on the path of righteousness, in the expectation that it would lead them to behold the coming of Christ Himself – this, perhaps, was only to be expected. What mattered, however, was not to cede control of the journey to the heretics: to remind the faithful that it had only ever been through the Church that sinful humanity had been brought to approach the City of God.

So it was that the heretics and the monks, even as the millennium of Christ’s Resurrection drew ever closer, went head to head. Against the rugged simplicities of those who sought, beneath trees or out on dusty roads, to lead their lives as the apostles had done, without splendour or ritual, there was arrayed a very different model of sanctity.

Foremost in the line of battle, as was only to be expected, was that princely captain, Abbot Odilo of Cluny. The piety of the brethren under his authority, the literally superhuman continence of their habits and the angelic beauty of their singing combined to suggest that paradise might indeed be created on earth. As the years passed, so Cluny’s fame and influence continued to spread. Ever more monasteries came to submit themselves to Odilo’s rule. All were rigorously purified by a programme of reform. Once cleansed of every taint of corruption, they stood qualified to serve the Christian people as outposts of heaven. Or so, at any rate, the enthusiasts for reform proclaimed.

These, by the 1020s, extended far and wide. The model of Cluny was coming to have a truly international appeal. The prayers and anthems which were raised there, no matter how scorned they might be by heretics, were increasingly regarded by most Christians as the surest defence that existed against the Devil. Nor, adding sensationally to their appeal, did their potency cease with death. Anxious sinners, fretting about their prospects of salvation, could rest assured that there was nothing more certain to cut short their sufferings amid the flames of the afterlife, and to secure their entry into paradise, than to be remembered amid the cloisters of Cluny. Not that this necessarily came cheap. A mention in the chantings of the monks was a passport to heaven so precious that the greatest in the land would pay prodigiously for it. Yet Odilo, even as Cluny benefited handsomely from the endowments of the wealthy, did not forget the souls of the poor. So it was that he made sure to introduce a new festival to the monastery’s calendar, to be celebrated every 2 November, a commemoration of the dead that could serve to profit all the Christian faithful. On All Souls’ Day, the prayers of the monks were raised in the cause of the departed everywhere: obsequies of such awesome power that they were believed to help swing open the gates of heaven.

And sure enough, the knowledge of this, and the conviction that the monks of Cluny and its associated houses were indeed worthy to guard the celestial, did much to blunt heresy’s sting. Yet still, beyond the walls of the monasteries, the great mass of the Christian people remained nervous and uneasy – and still they yearned for more. The peace councils, at which the parading of relics was a particular attraction, had served to instil in them a taste for mystery and spectacle; nor, for all that they admired the secluded sanctity of the monks, were they content to have everything holy locked away. Ground down as most people were by the harshness and sheer monotony of their existence, the chance to set out on a journey to a famous shrine, to look upon the remains of a saint, and perhaps to witness a miracle, had become a precious one indeed.

So it was, in the first decades of the new millennium, that the roads came increasingly to swell with pilgrims – and many of these, exceptionally, were peasants. This, in a world where most people never thought to raise their gaze beyond the brow of the nearest hill, was yet another prodigy – and not the least unsettling. Women, in particular, finding themselves and their families suddenly abandoned, were liable to accuse their husbands of setting off on pilgrimage out of “vain curiosity rather than any devotion to religion.” Yet they needed to watch their tongues. The saints did not take kindly to shrews. A woman in Normandy, for instance, who had presumed to nag her husband to stay at home and put food on his family’s table, rather than visit a local shrine, found “her blasphemous mouth, the organ through which she had shamelessly uttered outrageous language against God and her husband, elongated rigidly in a distorted and deformed way, so that it became fixed to both her ears.”50 A fitting punishment, no doubt; and yet, the truth be told, there were plenty of monks who would not have disagreed with her criticisms. The increasingly vulgar character of the pilgrims at their shrines had not gone unmarked. Particularly resented was the tendency of peasants to camp out in churches and stay up all night telling rude jokes. Some monks, driven to distraction by their “abominable shouting and unruly singing,”51 would go so far as to lock them out.

Yet invariably, whenever this occurred, the saints themselves would show their disapproval by miraculously unfastening the doors. This was a lesson that most monasteries, not surprisingly, were quick to absorb. Uncouth the peasants might be, but a shrine that could harness their undoubted fervour, and their yearning for wonders, was a shrine with a future. Increasingly, then, far from discouraging the masses, monasteries sought to attract them in ever vaster numbers. Whereas once it had been forbidden to disturb the bones of the saints, now, in the wake of the peace councils, monks began to send their relics out on tour, to the accompaniment of clanging cymbals, soaring anthems and flickering torches. Sometimes, if the holdings of a neighbouring house made it worthwhile, they might arrange a swap. Sometimes, if they felt their own to be inadequate, they might attempt an upgrade. The most audacious example of this took place in Aquitaine, when the monks of the hitherto obscure monastery of St.-Jean-d’Angély suddenly announced a truly sensational discovery: the head of John the Baptist. Quite how it had ended up there, buried within a mysterious pyramid of stone, was never fully explained. The enthusiasm of the pilgrims who soon descended upon the monastery, crowding the narrow stairways in their excitement, pushing and shoving their way down into the shrine, ensured that it did not have to be. Even King Robert himself, on a rare trip south, and in dread of the Day of Judgement, came to reverence it. Not surprisingly, then, monks in other monasteries too, keen for a share of the action, began to rifle around in their own crypts. Yet more spectacular finds were duly made. Such discoveries, coming as they did only years before the millennial anniversary of Christ’s Passion, powerfully intensified the mood of febrile expectation. “For it was as though the relics had been waiting for a brilliant resurrection and were now at last, by God’s permission, revealed to the gaze of the faithful. Certainly, they brought much comfort to many people.”52

But not, however, to all. Sometimes, above the excited hubbub of the pilgrims, dark mutterings about idol worship might be overheard. Heretics, scornful of what they saw as the Church’s mummery, flatly refused to respect “the honour of God’s saints.”53 As a result, monks who wished to boost the profile of their relic holdings had to tread carefully. They could not afford to push their luck too shamelessly. Crowds who felt that they were being taken for a ride might very well turn ugly. Nothing better illustrated this than a particularly over ambitious attempt at self-promotion by the monastery in Limoges. The monks there, rather than grubbing up some new relics, had opted instead to promote the saint whose bones they already owned. St. Martial, it was grandly announced in the autumn of 1028, rather than the obscure missionary that everyone had previously assumed him to be, had in fact been one of the original apostles: the nephew of St. Peter, no less. Though this claim was wildly implausible, it had nevertheless secured a heavyweight supporter: Aquitaine’s leading historian, Adémar himself. For eight months, displaying yet again his inimitable talent for blending erudition with wilful distortion, the famous scholar cobbled together an impressive number of works designed to prove that St. Martial had indeed been an apostle. Finally, on 3 August 1029, the fateful day arrived when the whole campaign was officially to be blessed, at a special service in the cathedral of Limoges.

Adémar, basking in the glow of his achievement, had even invited his parents to come and witness his hour of glory. Unfortunately, however, he had reckoned without the scepticism of an unexpected visitor: a rival scholar, an Italian from Lombardy by the name of Benedict. Ferociously, even as the service was about to begin, the Lombard denounced the whole farrago as an outrage – and Adémar himself as a fraudster. The people of Limoges, far from backing the campaign to proclaim their patron saint an apostle, promptly swung against it. When a panicky Adémar, hurrying out from the service to confront Benedict in public, attempted to press his case, they howled him down. Later that evening, in the monastery itself, the two scholars clashed again – and once again it was Adémar who was routed. The following morning, humiliated beyond all hope of recovery, he duly ceded the field to his conqueror and slunk away from Limoges, burning with shame, his reputation in ruins.54

But still, despite it all, he could not bear to confess his defeat. Instead, over the next three years, Adémar persisted in arguing his ruined case. Hoax was piled upon hoax; forgery upon forgery. Everything he wrote, in the gathering frenzy of his bitterness, had only the single aim: to prove that St. Martial had indeed been a companion of Christ. Adémar, the same monk who in his youth had stood transfixed before a vision of his crucified Lord, now sought, with a phenomenal but twisted display of learning, to imagine himself back into the world in which the human Jesus had lived. A form of madness, no doubt; and yet, if so, it was one that he shared with multitudes beyond the bounds of his monastery, as the 1030s finally dawned. The one-thousandth anniversary of Christ’s Passion was now a mere three years away – and upon its approach “many wonders were made manifest.”55 And the greatest of them all, a wonder that appeared to “portend nothing other than the advent of the accursed Antichrist, who, according to divine testimony, is expected to appear at the end of the world,”56 was the resolve of people in unparalleled numbers to set out on a great pilgrimage, not to their local shrine, not to Santiago, not even to Rome, but to the very city which the blessed feet of their Saviour had trodden, and where He had been nailed to a cross, and risen from the dead: Jerusalem.

The swell of this great wave had been building for some decades. Although originally there had been few travellers from the West prepared to make the long and arduous journey to the Holy Land, the years around the Millennium had seen a startling upsurge of pilgrims setting out for Jerusalem. Most, such as that venerable expert on the end days, Adso of Montier-en-Der, were eminent and wealthy: travellers well able to afford a berth on a ship. Indeed, even celebrated princes had been known to make the trip. Fulk Nerra, for instance, taking time off from terrorising his neighbours, had ended up travelling to Jerusalem no fewer than four times. His second journey, made in 1009, had been his most heroic of all: for no sooner had he arrived outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre than he had found himself caught up in the horrors of its desecration. Braving the dangers with his customary swagger, he had even succeeded in breaking off a fragment of Christ’s tomb, and bearing it back in triumphant piety to Anjou. This formidable achievement had confirmed his reputation as a near-legendary figure. Yet even Fulk was put in the shade by the sheer scale of the human tide inspired by the millennium of the Passion of Christ, a great flood of men and women who were not necessarily noblemen, or abbots, or bishops, but people of infinitely humbler stock: “an innumerable multitude, gathered from across the whole world, greater than any man before could have hoped to see.”57

And among them was Adémar. Defeated, embittered, and no doubt conscience-stricken as he was, there was nothing to keep him in Aquitaine. Leaving his own monastery late in 1032, he travelled first to Limoges, where he deposited his forgeries in the library of St. Martial: a dossier so detailed and convincing that within a few decades it would serve to convince everyone of his case, and win for him a posthumous victory over all his critics. That done, Adémar then went back on to the open road, joining the throngs of other penitents who were similarly heading east. Most of these did not, as had for so long been the custom, take a ship for the Holy Land; for since the Millennium, and the conversion of the Hungarians, it had become possible to make the entire journey overland. True, Hungary itself was still not without its dangers: one monk from Regensburg, travelling across its plains in the early 1030s, was startled to see a dragon swooping menacingly overhead, “its plumed head the height of a mountain, its body covered with scales like shields of iron.”58 Nor were such monsters the limit of the perils that a pilgrim might be obliged to face: for beyond Hungary there awaited cheating Greeks, and officious Saracens, and thieving Bedouins. Yet it was in the very rigours of a pilgrimage that its truest value lay – and Adémar, arriving at length before the gates of the Holy City in the fateful year 1033, could only trust that he had proved himself worthy to witness whatever wonders might soon unfold.

The heavens, however, remained resolutely empty. Antichrist did not appear. The end of the world stood postponed, and all those pilgrims who had assembled in such huge numbers on the Mount of Olives found themselves waiting in vain for their Saviour’s return.

Soon enough, as 1033 became 1034, most of them set off back for home. But not all. There were some, whether through a surfeit of “indescribable joy,”59 as the pious proclaimed, or perhaps through despair, who would never leave Jerusalem – except for heaven. And Adémar was one of them. He died in 1034. “Come, eternal King,” he had implored, in a prayer that was probably the last thing he ever wrote, “come and watch over your kingdom, our sacrifice, our priesthood. Come, Lord ruler; come snatch away the nations from error. Come Lord, Saviour of the world.”60

But the Lord had not come. And still the fallen world ran its course.

Things Can Only Get Better

There were those who felt relief. Even by the standards of the previous decades, the years preceding the millennium of Christ’s Passion had been terrible ones: fit, certainly, to give a foretaste of what Antichrist’s coming might actually have meant for the world. Rains had fallen without cease, famine had been universal, rumours of cannibalism too. In the Burgundian town of Tournus, it was said, ready-cooked human flesh had been sold openly in the marketplace. At Cluny, the granaries had stood empty; and Odilo, so as to raise funds for the starving, had been reduced to selling some of the monastery’s most famous treasures, including even the jewel-encrusted orb donated to it by the Emperor Henry II. Only wolves and castellans, both of them preying on the ruined poor, had profited from the horrors of the times. Yet miraculously, with the coming of 1033, everything seemed to improve. Rudolf Glaber, as assiduous as ever in tracing the touch of God’s finger upon the world, marked from his monastery how the violent rainstorms had abruptly ceased. Instead, “the happy face of the sky shone and blew with gentle breezes, and with serenity proclaimed the magnanimity of the Creator. The whole surface of the earth began to flourish. The harvests promised to be splendid. Want itself was ended.”61

Or so Glaber enthused. In truth, his sudden mood of optimism was no less unbalanced, perhaps, than had been his earlier obsession with terrifying portents of doom. The skies might well have cleared – but on earth there was still violence and lawlessness and oppression. To those who had imagined that the convulsions of the age might spell the imminence of the end days, and who had laboured mightily in the expectation of their coming, the failure of the New Jerusalem to descend could hardly be regarded as a cause for unconfined rejoicing. Profound and desperate emotions had been stirred. The penitents journeying to the Holy Land, the crowds flocking to the peace councils, the heretics retiring to the woods: all had dared to hope that they might see Christ descend in His glory, and set the world to rights. Now that hope was gone. Among the poor, no doubt, whose yearning for a reign of saints the Church had sought to orchestrate as well as to temper, the sense of disappointment was especially devastating. Even Glaber could not help noting how, for all the sunny weather, the menace of knightly violence had, if anything, only darkened. “Like dogs returning to their vomit or pigs to wallowing in their mire,”62 the castellans had not forsaken their taste for robbery, no matter the pious oaths they might have sworn. The Millennium had passed, and the earthly order, by which the strong were set above the weak, had not dissolved. Still, on its rocky outcrop, the castle continued to lower.

Yet if it was the poor who had most cause to feel despair, then they were not alone. Bishops and monks too had yearned to believe in the possibilities of an authentic peace of God: a peace, not of iron, but of love. Now, even if they could not readily admit to it, many found themselves oppressed by a sense of loss. The passage of the years, which previously had struck them as pregnant with mystery and meaning, appeared abruptly leached of both. Time had lost its edge. To a degree unprecedented in the history of the West, the Christian people felt themselves poised on the brink of a new beginning: a sensation that many found disturbing rather than any cause for exhilaration. The past, which had always been valued by them as the surest guide to their future, had suddenly come to appear, in the wake of time’s failure to end, a place remote and alien. In truth, the gulf which separated the new millennium from the wreckage of the old had not opened up overnight. Years, decades, centuries of transformation had served to create a landscape in the West that Charlemagne, let alone Constantine, would have found unrecognisable. Yet the consciousness of this, the consciousness of change, was indeed something new. “Such is the dispensation of the Almighty – that many things which once existed be cast aside by those who come in their wake.”63

So reflected Arnold of Regensburg: the same monk who, a few years earlier, had seen the great dragon swooping above the plains of Hungary. Evidently a man with a taste for the sensational, Arnold openly disdained the past as a wilderness, one fit to be tamed and cleared, just as the dark forests, with their idol-haunted, corpse-hung groves, had been hacked down by Christian axes to make way for churches and spreading fields. His was a startling perspective, certainly – and yet less exceptional than it might have been only a few decades before. “The new should change the old – and the old, if it has no contribution to make to the order of things, should be utterly jettisoned.”64 There were many, during the feverish and expectant years of the millennium of Christ’s life, who had come to share in this opinion. Nor had the spirit of reform died in 1033. If anything, indeed, the opposite: for the failure of Christ to establish His kingdom on earth had left many reformers all the more determined to do it for Him.

And this, at its most radical, was a dream of liberty. The example of Cluny, which owed a duty of obedience to no lord save St. Peter, continued to serve reformers as the most luminous one of all. There was nothing that more dazzlingly proclaimed the supernatural purity of the monastery than its freedom from the bullying of officious outsiders. And yet, in reality, Cluny was not wholly exempt from mortal supervision. Although St. Peter was a mighty patron, his protection could only ever be as effective as that provided by his earthly vicar, the Pope. A not altogether comforting reflection, it might have been thought – for Rome was many miles from Cluny, and the papacy invariably racked by scandal. Nevertheless, over the decades, a succession of popes had proved themselves unexpectedly muscular guardians of Odilo and his monastery. Letters dispatched from the Lateran, warning the local bishops and princes to keep their hands off Cluny and to respect its independence, had proved surprisingly effective. Rather to its own surprise, the papacy had found itself able to snap its fingers and watch the great men of Burgundy jump. Tentatively at first, and then with an increasing peremptoriness, it had sought to take advantage of this hitherto unsuspected power. As a result, the papal defence of Cluny had begun to seem to many an increasingly suggestive one. If the Bishop of Rome could poke his nose into the affairs of Burgundy, then why not those of everywhere else? To be sure, a pope such as Benedict IX, who had bribed his way to the papal throne in 1032 at the scandalously youthful age of eighteen, was generally far too busy indulging his insatiable sexual appetites to explore the full implications of this question; but there were those prepared to do it for him. The papacy might be sunk in depravity, yet there were many in the ranks of the reformers prepared to view it, nevertheless, as the best hope for a tainted and tottering world. Only a pope, the heir of St. Peter, could possibly hope to secure for the entire Church what had already been secured for Cluny. Only a pope could properly serve as the champion of its liberty.

Which in turn made the restoration of the papacy to a fitting state of grace a matter of the utmost – indeed cosmic – urgency. No longer could it be permitted to serve as the plaything of vicious Roman dynasts. Yet as the rumours that swirled around Pope Benedict grew steadily more scandalous, fetid with tales of sorcery, bestiality and murder, so the notion that the papacy might ever reform itself appeared grotesquely far fetched. How fortunate it was, then, for the spiritual health of the Christian people, that the Holy Father was not their only potential leader. “It is in the king and emperor that we possess the supreme defender on earth of our liberty,”65 the princes of Germany and Italy had solemnly declared, in praise of Conrad II. The conceit of Otto III, who had believed it his God-given duty to redeem the world, still flourished mightily at the court of his successors. Vicar of St. Peter a pope might be, but an emperor, at his coronation, would be hailed as something even more spectacular: the representative of Christ Himself. What monarch could possibly doubt, then, having listened to such an awesome salute, that he had an absolute duty to intrude upon the dimensions of the spiritual and offer his leadership to the Church? Impregnated as he had been by the fearful power of the chrism, he was no longer merely a king but “a sharer in the priestly ministry.”66

Certainly, within the limits of the Reich itself, no emperor had ever hesitated to treat even the grandest bishops as his subordinates. All were subject to him; all had depended for their original election upon his say-so. As both symbol and demonstration of this, it was the emperor himself who would preside over a bishop’s investiture, handing the nominated candidate a staff shaped like a shepherd’s crook, and obliging him to swear a ferocious oath of loyalty. If such a ritual struck many as not wholly dissimilar to the submission of a vassal to his lord, then perhaps this was only fitting. In the Reich, far more than in any other Christian realm, bishops had a formal duty to uphold the royal order. Indeed, there were many of them who ruled in the place of dukes or counts over immense swaths of imperial territory. They served the emperor as his counsellors; they provided men for his armies; they administered his estates. Take away the bishops, and the empire would barely have a government at all.

Yet if the emperor had no compunction about putting the Church to work for him, then the Church, in turn, naturally expected the emperor to serve it as its protector. Such a duty, in the early years of the new millennium, had come to appear an ever more pressing one. As in France, so in Germany: a concern to secure bridgeheads of the supernatural upon a sin-infected earth had become a veritable obsession of anxious Christians. Perhaps this was hardly surprising: for Cluny lay no great distance beyond theReich’s western border. Yet if Odilo was as much the favourite of emperors as he was of popes and kings, then he was far from being the only one. In the monasteries of the Low Countries and the Rhineland especially, the roots of reform reached back many decades, and owed little to the example of Cluny. Above all, over the course of the decades on either side of the Millennium, they had served to foster a novel and unsettling obsession: one with which Adémar, at any rate, might have empathised. What in Aquitaine, however, was confined to visions and feverish dreams could be found displayed for all to see in the naves of prominent churches in the Rhineland.

As early as 970, a crucifix had been erected in the cathedral of Cologne that portrayed something truly shocking: an image of the Saviour Himself, His eyes closed, His head lolling in death, His feet and hands nailed to the instrument of his execution. Half a century on, and the notion of “fastening to Christ’s Cross the picture of a dying man”67 remained a horrifying one to many Christians – and yet already the custom had spread as far as England. God Himself was being rendered human. Indeed, a model of imitation: for fascination with the grisly details of Christ’s sufferings invariably shaded, among the leaders of the imperial reform movement, into a yearning to emulate them. One celebrated abbot from the Low Countries, Poppo of Stablo, was especially admired for beating himself on the chest with a jagged stone whenever he had a spare moment, and for never smiling. Monks who found themselves subjected to Poppo’s disciplines perhaps not surprisingly tended to loathe him – but a succession of emperors stood in awe of his austerities. So it was, for instance, that when he announced himself appalled by a craze among the daredevils of the court for covering themselves in honey and then allowing a ravenous bear to lick them clean, Henry II promptly and contritely banned it. So it was too that Conrad II, despite being so given to worldly pleasures that he was widely rumoured to have sold his soul to the Devil, treated the fearsomely humourless abbot with the most wide-eyed respect, and entrusted many of his favourite monasteries to Poppo’s flinty zeal. Such a relationship appeared to optimists a shining model for the future of Christendom: Caesar and saintly churchman united in the heroic task of reform.

In 1039, with the death of Conrad, this task was inherited by his son, a young man uniquely well qualified to shoulder it. Henry III, in contrast with his father, was a king of rare piety and conscientiousness. Like Poppo, and for an identical reason, it was his earnest ambition never to laugh. In 1043, when he married Agnes, the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, jesters were solemnly banned from the nuptials. It was true that Poppo himself, suspicious of the reputation of the Aquitainians for frivolity and luxurious fashions, had greeted the coming of a Frenchwoman to the imperial court with alarmed disapproval – but he need not have worried. Agnes, a descendant of the founder of Cluny, was in truth a bride ideally suited to her husband: together, whenever they were able, the royal couple sought to attend Mass at least five times every day.

Yet Henry, though sensitive and melancholic, yielded to none of his predecessors in the imperious character of his rule. His displays of humility, heartfelt though they were, did nothing to diminish his firm conviction that the sway of the Christian people had been granted him directly by God. In 1043, when Henry graciously announced from the pulpit of Constance cathedral that he forgave all his enemies, he did so as the head of a peace conference: one that had been summoned, not by his bishops, but by himself. A year later, when he appeared before his soldiers as a public penitent, it was as a victor on a corpse-strewn battlefield, amid the broken banners of rebels shattered on his sword. As a worthy offering to St. Peter, he could think of no more suitable gift than “a golden spear”68 – a trophy wrested from a rival warlord. Such a king, eager for the legitimisation that only an anointing in Rome could bring, was hardly the man to feel overly inhibited in his dealings with even the most troublesome of pontiffs. Which was just as well: for by the autumn of 1046, when Henry finally felt secure enough in his authority over the Reich to lead an expedition southwards into Italy, he found not one pope waiting for him there, but three.

This truly monstrous state of affairs provided a fitting climax to the scandal-stained career of Benedict IX. Two years previously, with even the normally unshockable Romans starting to weary of his crimes, the Crescentians, heirs of the would-be pope-maker who had been beheaded by Otto III, had launched a sudden attempt to seize back the papacy for themselves. Taking the Holy Father by surprise, they had succeeded in driving him temporarily from Rome, and installing as his replacement their own local bishop, an anonymous patsy quite unworthy of his new title Sylvester III. Two years on, and Benedict was back, installed on his old throne, and defiantly eyeballing the Crescentians: wretched testimony to the abiding relish among Roman dynasts for cat-fights in the Lateran. Yet already the mastery of the papacy was starting to evade them: for no longer was it merely the local nobility who aspired to secure the election of a pope. Prominent reformers, appalled by the descent of Rome yet further into the mire, had wearied of merely wringing their hands. Accordingly, in the spring of 1045, they had thrown their weight behind the election of a third pope, the son of a converted Jew, as rich as he was pious, who had taken the name Gregory VI, and stirringly proclaimed himself the patron of reform. Here, for the young and idealistic, had been a moment of hope that they would never forget.

Typical of those inspired by Gregory’s election was a former pupil of his, a brilliant and pugnacious monk by the name of Hildebrand, whose humble origins as the son of a Tuscan carpenter had served only to emphasise all the more decisively his status as a high-flyer.69 Educated first in a monastery opposite the Palatine that had always served as Odilo’s favourite rest-stop in Rome, and then in the Lateran itself, he had come to burn with a passionate conviction that the ordering of the fallen world was the papacy’s alone to achieve. In Gregory VI, Hildebrand believed, the Church had at last found a worthy champion. He duly offered the new Pope his tigerish devotion. Gregory, in turn, appointed Hildebrand his chaplain. The bond between the two men would never fail. And yet by 1046, barely a year into his papacy, Gregory’s credibility was already coming under fire, even from those who had originally supported him, as the full, mortifying details of his election began to dribble out.

For Gregory, it emerged, had dirtier hands than had ever been supposed. Benedict IX was his godson; and the wealthy Gregory, in an attempt to persuade his incorrigibly avaricious rival to stand down, had slipped him a hefty bribe. That this might have been regarded as a problem appeared never to have crossed Gregory’s mind: for it was precisely the kind of manoeuvre that the Roman elite had always taken for granted. Times, however, had changed. Among prominent reformers, all of whom were pledged to the purification of the Church, the notion that a priestly office, let alone the papacy, might be bought and sold for profit was utterly horrifying. Indeed, so they pointed out, it was one that had haunted the ministry of the very apostles themselves: for St. Peter, in the earliest years of his preaching, had been approached by a wizard named Simon, and offered gold in exchange for his ability to work miracles. “I see that you are in the gall of bitterness,” the Prince of Apostles had replied dismissively, “and in the bond of iniquity”;70 and ever since the sin of trading in supernatural powers and offices had been known as “simony.” True, Gregory’s perplexity at finding himself branded guilty of such an offence was, perhaps, understandable – “for so widespread had the custom become that hardly anyone even knew it to be a sin.”71 Those who held the shining example of Cluny before them, however, and who argued for a clergy liberated from the reins of the rich and powerful, had no doubt that it was indeed a sin – and a pestiferous one at that. And among their number – fatefully for Gregory – was Henry III.

Who was, after all, a would-be emperor – and impatient to be anointed. Sublimely confident in his own right to order the Church, Henry duly prepared himself to cut the Gordian knot. Shortly before Christmas, he summoned the three rival popes to Sutri, a small town just north of Rome. Gregory – the only one to appear – was formally deposed by a hastily convened synod; so too Sylvester. Three days later, in Rome itself, Benedict was also given the push. Henry, taking a leaf out of Otto III’s book, then nominated one of his own countrymen to serve as pope, who, obediently moving into the Lateran, took the name Clement II. A few days later, on Christmas Day itself, the German king was formally anointed as the heir to Charlemagne.

Few among the ranks of the reformers thought to raise a protest against his high-handedness. Indeed, joining in the salutes to him as God’s representative on earth was none other than the by now fabulously venerable Odilo: potent testimony to the widespread enthusiasm for the labour of surgery that Henry had performed upon the papacy. True, there were some who still clung to their former loyalties: Hildebrand, for instance, stubborn in all things, flatly refused to abandon Gregory, even when the wretched abdicatee was exiled to the Rhineland. Yet he could not dispute the calibre of the men appointed by the new emperor to the Lateran; nor the earnestness of his attempts to wrest control of it once and all from criminality. When Clement II, less than a year into his papacy, died of lead poisoning, and the incorrigible Benedict, borne upon a great surge of bribery and intimidation, swept back into the Lateran for an unprecedented third time, Henry showed not the slightest hesitation in having him kicked off his throne yet again. A second German pope was dispatched to Rome; and then, when he also promptly expired, a third.

By now it was the winter of 1048 – and Gregory VI as well was dead. Hildebrand, ever passionate in his loyalties, was free at last to give them to someone else. All he needed was a worthy recipient. That December, in a mark of the favour with which he had already come to be regarded in imperial circles, the young priest was summoned to a council held in the ancient city of Worms. There, with the blaze of the king’s presence illumining the winter nights, and spilling reflections across the black and icy waters of the Rhine, he met Henry’s nominee for St. Peter’s throne. “A new light was seen to rise upon the world.”72 Certainly, it did not take Hildebrand long to know himself in the presence of a leader truly worthy of his devotion.

And so, of course, he pledged it.

Sailing from Byzantium

Hildebrand’s enthusiasm was hardly surprising. Bruno of Toul was the very model of a prince of the Church: tall, good-looking and a distant cousin of the emperor himself. Proficient in all the skills required of an imperial bishop, he had served variously as a judge, a general and a diplomat. Yet Bruno’s talents were not merely those required of an earthly lordship. At his birth, it was said, “the whole of his little body had been found marked with tiny crosses”73 in a certain portent of a saintly future. And so it had proved. Much given as he was to spectacular displays of charity, and even to washing the feet of the poor, Bruno appeared to his admirers that most splendid of paradoxes, the ideal Christian leader: “for he combined the wisdom of a serpent with the innocence of a dove.”74 Hildebrand certainly thought so. All the hopes for the reform of the Church that he had previously pinned on Gregory he now transferred to Bruno. That same December, he signed up to accompany his new hero on the road back to Rome.

A journey that in itself gave a potent foretaste of the pontificate that was to come. Braving the snows and floods of winter, Bruno made his way southwards unaccompanied by any of Henry’s soldiers, and dressed only in the robes of a humble pilgrim. Angels, it was said, spoke to him on the way, and when at last he entered Rome he did so barefoot. Even then, it was only once the locals had publicly implored him to become their bishop that he deigned to take his place on the throne of St. Peter, and adopted the name Leo IX. These gestures were shrewdly calculated to win him the support of his ever-fractious Roman flock; but aimed as well at the entirety of the Christian people. Leo may have been an imperial nominee, yet it was crucial to both his and Henry’s purposes that they demonstrate as publicly as possible that no money had passed between them. Such was the scale of the task that they faced, in labouring to secure for the Church a new beginning, purged once and for all of the pollution of worldliness, that neither man could afford to be branded a simonist. Tellingly, in a vision granted him shortly before becoming Pope, Leo had been shown a hideous old woman dressed in filthy rags, who had importuned him and tugged at his robes; “and when the man of the Lord was driven by her unmannerly conduct to mark her face with the sign of the cross, the hag fell to the ground like a dead woman but rose up again, her appearance now one of wonderful beauty.”75 That power, to draw a sign of the Cross upon the body of the Church, and to watch it restored to its former loveliness, was one that Leo had no wish to compromise. Too much depended on him. Too much was at stake.

Energy and determination, ambition and emollience: such were the qualities that Leo’s long career as an imperial bishop had served to hone. Now he had the chance to test them on the grandest stage of all. Only weeks into his papacy, and already he was holding a council in Rome: by its terms, the laws against simony were thunderously re affirmed, and several simonist bishops deposed, while the Bishop of Sutri, who had falsely protested his innocence, was struck down by a stroke. Satisfying developments all – and yet only a beginning. Leo, possessed by a literally cosmic sense of mission, was hardly the man to rest content within the limits of Rome. No sooner had the council in the Lateran been concluded than he was off again, retracing his steps. By June he was back in his native Rhineland, and by early October he had crossed into the kingdom of France – the first pope to visit it in 171 years. As in Rome, so along the route of his northern travels, his calls for the clergy to reform itself tended to be greeted by the local bishops with a mixture of perplexity and outrage. Most of them, far from agreeing with Leo that simony was indeed a mortal threat to the health of Christendom, persisted in regarding it as a perfectly sensible and unexceptional practice, and one that had served to keep the Church on its feet for centuries. Not surprisingly, when Leo summoned the bishops of France to a council in Reims, a majority kept well away. All were promptly excommunicated. But even those few who did attend were given cause to regret it.

For as the bishops entered the church where the council was to be held, and bowed before the altar, they found themselves confronted by an awful and intimidating sight. There, brooding over the entire scene, was a casket containing the bones of Reims’ patron saint. Summoned to stand and swear on the relics that they had not paid for their positions, most of the bishops opted to remain in their seats and squirm in mortified silence. When one archbishop did rise and try to defend a colleague, he found himself struck miraculously dumb by the power of the outraged saint. His client fled in disgrace that same night; and, from that moment on, a succession of simonist bishops were obliged to stammer out their confessions and grovel for mercy. Indeed only one man emerged from the proceedings with his reputation truly burnisshed. Odilo, after more than half a century as the head of Christendom’s most celebrated monastery, had finally died at the beginning of the year; and all eyes were duly fixed upon his successor. How fortunate it was, then, that not so much as a hint of impropriety had attached itself to the election of Hugh of Semur. Making his public confession before the Pope, the new abbot of Cluny forthrightly denied any wrongdoing. “The flesh was willing,” he explained, “but mind and reason revolted.”76 A statement that was, in its perfect fusion of worldliness and simplicity, almost worthy of Leo himself.

Yet if Abbot Hugh’s backing for the cause of reform was welcome, it hardly came as a great surprise. What did astound the papal party, astound and delight it, was the seething, raucous mass of supporters who had flocked to Reims from miles around, immense crowds of the faithful who kept themselves and the Holy Father awake all night by singing and shouting his name, and then, in the morning, by jeering the unfortunate simonists as they slunk through the streets to confession. The millennium of the Passion had passed, and the New Jerusalem had not arrived; but still, among the poor and the trampled, there remained an undimmed yearning for a peace of God. Christ might have been delayed, but there before them was the Pope, the Vicar of St. Peter himself, no longer a vague abstraction but a man of flesh and blood – and demanding changes of the priesthood that the oppressed were only too desperate to see. A Church no longer in hock to grasping earthly lords – what would this provide the wretched if not a true sanctuary? No wonder, then, that Leo’s tour of the lands of the North, “unprecedented in our time,” should have served to generate “such jubilation and applause.”77 It went without saying that Leo himself, the cousin of Caesar, had not the slightest intention of placing himself at the head of a band of peasants. Although events at Reims certainly were exhilarating, they also served as a warning to the Pope and his advisers that excitement might easily get out of hand. More than once the crowds had indulged themselves with a riot. Psalms and screams had intermingled in the streets. Nevertheless, the discovery that they had the full force of popular opinion behind them was one that the reformers would never forget. It lent them reassurance, and confidence, and even greater ambition.

Certainly, as Leo trailed his triumphant way back to Italy, it was evident to his exultant supporters that a pope might indeed serve to make the weather far beyond the limits of Rome. Some, however, drew conclusions that were even more soaring. “The royal priesthood of the holy Roman see constitutes an empire both heavenly and earthly.”78 This vaunting claim was made by a man renowned, not for excitability but rather for his emotionless, indeed chilly, powers of reasoning. Humbert of Moyenmoutier was a monk from the same region of Lorraine in which Leo had served as a bishop, and the two men had long been confidants. Summoned to accompany the Pope to the Lateran, the haughty and brilliant Humbert had soon emerged as his effective number two. Boldly, he set about pushing Leo’s claims to leadership of the Church to ever more potent extremes. Stitching together musty precedents with a lawyerly dexterity, the Donation of Constantine not least, Humbert found himself able to demonstrate with great conviction a most momentous conclusion: that the papacy had an ancient entitlement to the rule of the entire Christian world. Yet even that was not the limit of where his logic led him. “For such is the reverence among Christians for the holder of the apostolic office of Rome,” Humbert coolly insisted, “that they prefer to receive the holy commandments and the traditions of their faith from the mouth of the head of the Church rather than from the holy Scriptures or the writings of the Fathers.”79 Here was justification, in effect, not merely for papal weight-throwing, but for permanent revolution.

Quite what this might mean in practical terms was a different matter. There was a hint, however, to be glimpsed in Humbert’s promotion, in 1050, to a new post: that of cardinal bishop. While this title was venerable, dating back almost to the time of Constantine, the cardinalate itself had always played an essentially ceremonial role in the life of the Roman Church: serving the Pope as little more than a gilded dumping ground for superannuated aristocrats. Now, however, under the radical new management style introduced to the Lateran by Leo, all that began to change. Indeed, remarkably, within the space of only a few hectic years, he would succeed in transforming the college of cardinals into a veritable powerhouse of administrative talent manned, not by decrepit locals, but by prominent reformers drawn from far beyond the limits of Rome. Leo, as practical as he was visionary, had never been so naïve as to imagine that his ambitions for the Christian people could be achieved merely at the prompting of his own exhortations. Accordingly, then, he looked to his ministers to provide him with what he himself, as an imperial bishop, had once provided Henry III: government. Humbert and his colleagues duly set to work, sweeping away cobwebs from the creaking administrative machinery of the Lateran, dusting down ancient books of law that might serve the papal purpose and posting legates with imperious missives across the length and breadth of Christendom. The duties that might be paid, in short, less to a bishop than to a Caesar.

Except, of course, that there were limits to what even a servant as wily and efficient as Humbert could achieve. Startling although the sudden starburst of papal prestige appeared to dazzled Christians, it remained, to a large degree, a thing of smoke and mirrors. Above all, Leo lacked what, in a fallen world, even the humblest castellan depended upon for survival: an iron fist. This, as it had done for centuries, still threatened the papacy with danger. Rome remained a city on the front line of the Latin world. In Sicily, of which Humbert had rather optimistically been made the archbishop, Islam was putting down roots more deeply than ever, with Christians a fast-shrinking minority penned into the island’s north-east corner, and Palermo, its staggeringly wealthy capital, become almost completely Muslim. In Apulia, along the Adriatic coast, Constantinople maintained her grip upon the region’s major ports, and nurtured her inveterate ambition to secure the whole of southern Italy for the Basileus. Yet these two foes, the Saracens and the Byzantines, formidable powers though they might be, offered at least the reassurance of familiarity. Far more alarming was a menace that appeared to have sprung up from nowhere, and almost overnight. In 1050, following up his northern tour, the ever itchy-footed Leo headed southwards. What he found there stunned and appalled him. It appeared that nothing had changed since the days of Otto II. Everywhere there stretched blackened fields, ruined vineyards and half-burned churches. In villages ashen and abandoned, or along empty, silence-haunted roads, it was not unusual to find twisted corpses, veiled beneath white dust and fed upon by flies. And often, on the brow of a distant hill, there might be glimpsed a sinister presence: the silhouettes of horsemen. These were not Saracens, however – nor Byzantines. Instead, shockingly, they were Latin Christians, the compatriots of five bishops who just the previous year had been delegates at the Pope’s own synod of Reims, immigrants to Italy only recently descended from the margins of the North: warriors, men of iron, sprung from “that most restless of nations – the Normans.”80

The Italy of Leo IX and his successors

And that they were savage, even by the standards of murderous brutality that had for so long prevailed in the South, was an article of faith among all who had ever had the misfortune to confront them – whether native, or Byzantine, or Arab. Indeed, an aptitude for inspiring terror was what had originally been the Normans’ primary selling point. In the war-torn badlands of Apulia, hired swords had always been at a premium; and anyone with a horse and armour was in a seller’s market. In 1018, a band of Norman travellers had been recruited to take part in a revolt against the Byzantines; four years later, they were garrisoning a Byzantine fort against an invasion by Henry II. This provided a stirring precedent for any cash-strapped knight with a taste for adventure and violence. All that was needed to make it in southern Italy, it appeared, was a ready sword and a facility for treachery. Soon enough, like the scent of spilled blood borne to wolves, news of the pickings to be had in southern Italy had begun to sweep Normandy. Adventurers from the duchy, and from neighbouring counties too, had hurried to join the gold rush. The trickle of freebooters had rapidly swelled into a flood. Not, however, that their leaders had been content to stay mercenaries for long. “For the Normans are avid for rapine,” as one Italian put it bluntly, “and possess an insatiable enthusiasm for seizing what belongs to others.”81 Above all, just like any castellan back in France, they wanted land.

A consideration that the natives had been fatally slow to take into account. Already by 1030, in a spectacularly short-sighted gesture, the ruler of Naples had granted a Norman freebooter his own fortress some ten miles north of the city, and awarded him the rank of count. In 1042, on the opposite side of the peninsula, a second Norman warlord, William of Hauteville, had been elected by his followers the Count of Apulia. Such a title was without the faintest shred of legal authority, of course; but William, who had not won his nickname of “Ironarm” for nothing, had made every effort to give it some heft. The same tactics of terrorism and intimidation that had left entire regions of France studded with makeshift castles had been deployed to no less devastating effect against the hapless communities of Apulia. Nothing had served to throw the predators off course. Even the death of William himself in 1046 had led only to his replacement as count by Drogo, his brother. Indeed, the Hautevilles, like the Normans themselves, appeared veritably hydra-headed.

One year later, a third sibling, Robert, had arrived in Italy – and immediately set about giving a masterclass in how to raise an enduring lordship from nothing. Mistrusted by Drogo – and not without justification – for his alarming combination of talent and ambition, he had been briskly dispatched to Scribla, an out-of-the-way fortress in Calabria, the toe of Italy, where it had been intended by his brother that he should sit and rot. Robert, however, despite finding himself surrounded by swamps, the droning of mosquitoes and little else, was hardly the man to moulder. Resolutely, he had set about bettering his fortunes. Despite his initial lack of either men or gold, a genius for brigandage had soon served to win him both. One particular trademark was to set fire to crops, and then demand payment for putting out the flames; another was to ambush the local bigwigs by dragging them down from their horses.

Yet Robert did not depend solely upon gangsterism to get his way. Brutal he might be – but he was also renowned for his generosity. Even at his very poorest, he made sure to scatter largesse. Foot-soldiers who signed up to follow him could do so confident – such were Robert’s talents as a horse thief – that they would soon be mounted knights. His reputation was an enviable one: a lord who made it a point of honour always to do well by his followers. A lord, furthermore, who was evidently going places. By 1050, a mere three years after his first arrival in Calabria, Robert “had gorged himself on land.”82 Not only had he left the swamps of Scribla far behind him, but he had won himself a well-connected wife, the loyalty of over two hundred knights and a new nickname: “Guiscard,” “the cunning one.”

Men such as Robert could not afford to pause for a moment in the pursuit of their ambitions. Conscious of themselves as a tiny minority in a hostile and resentful land, and nervously aware of just how precarious their situation was, the Norman captains and their knights knew that they had little recourse but to persist with their strategy of terror. Certainly, they were in no mood to listen to demands that they “cease their cruelties and abandon their oppression of their poor”83 – not even when the demands came from a pope. A few weeks into his tour of southern Italy, then, and already Leo had concluded that the Normans were a challenge even more pressing than simony.

Which meant that it was his duty, as the shepherd of the Christian people, to confront and muzzle them. But how? That April, a sudden diversion from the Pope’s customary business of holding synods and lecturing bishops served to offer a clue. Leaving the lowlands of Apulia behind him, Leo took a road that wound upwards over crags and through deep beech forests to the summit of a mist-haunted mountain named Gargano. Here, back in 493, the archangel Michael had materialised suddenly before a startled cowherd, and announced that a nearby cave was to serve him as a shrine; more than half a millennium on, a great radiance of candles and golden fittings illumined the chapels that had been furnished within the cavernous and dripping depths. “Flourishing in joy and bliss,”84 the sanctuary was as numinous with a sense of mystery as any in Christendom: for what Gargano offered pilgrims was nothing less than an intersection with the glory and terror that was to come at the end of time. “General of the hosts of heaven,”85St. Michael had been titled: fittingly enough, for he it was, before the Day of Judgement, who was destined to slay Antichrist on the Mount of Olives, and to overthrow the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil.”86 No wonder, then, that the fame of his shrine had come to spread far beyond the limits of Apulia – and to strike a particular resonance with those mighty warriors of God, the kings of Saxony. Both Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great had ordered the image of St. Michael inscribed upon their battle standards; Otto II and Theophanu had travelled as pilgrims to Gargano itself; and Otto III, as penance for the atrocities that marked his time in Rome, had toiled barefoot up the mountain to the shrine. Even in the wake of Henry II’s death, with the Reich ruled by a dynasty that was no longer Saxon, reverence for the warrior archangel had remained as passionate as ever in imperial circles. Leo certainly shared in it. After all, as Bruno of Toul, he had not shrunk from emulating St. Michael, and leading soldiers into battle – although naturally, as befitted a priest, he had refrained from drawing a sword himself.

And to be sure, Leo was far too alert to all the various shades of opinion in Christendom not to appreciate that there were many who regarded the martial spirit of his own native Church with the profoundest suspicion. Nevertheless, as he prayed within the candle-washed depths of Mount Gargano, and gazed up at icons of St. Michael fitted out in the radiant weaponry of heaven, he was surely asking himself a number of fateful questions. What, for instance, if exhortation and diplomacy could not serve to rein in the ravening of the Normans? And what if Henry III, the anointed Caesar, preoccupied as he was with the breaking of the princes of the Reich to his will, refused to embark upon a second Italian adventure? What, in such circumstances, would Leo’s responsibility be? The answer appeared as unavoidable as it was inconceivable. Surely the Pope himself would then have to raise an army, ride to war and crush the enemies of the Christian people, amid all the shock and carnage of battle. For what alternative would there be?

An excruciating dilemma. Small wonder that Leo should have found himself squirming painfully on its horns – and ever more so as the crisis deepened. In the summer of 1051, Drogo de Hauteville was assassinated in his private chapel, prompting his outraged compatriots to tighten the screws yet further on the wretched natives. Simultaneously, smooth-talking ambassadors from Constantinople had suddenly become a fixture in the Lateran: for the Basileus, waking up to the appalling prospect that the very existence of a Byzantine Italy might be at stake, had decided, for want of any better alternative, to seek out an alliance with Rome. In the summer of 1053, with no assistance received from the Reich beyond a contingent of seven hundred Swabian swordsmen, Leo had finally had enough. A momentous step was taken. For the first time, a pope formally blessed a standard of battle. Princes from across southern Italy were summoned to follow it against the Norman devils. Absolution from the stain of bloodshed – “an impunity for their crimes”87 – was promised to all who answered the call. Here was no mere raising of local levies, such as popes had often done before, but rather a startling and fateful innovation: the launching of nothing less than a papally sanctioned holy war.

And it was the pontiff himself who led his army. Even though Leo, during the course of the synod at Reims, had solemnly reaffirmed the age-old prohibition against a priest bearing arms, his presence out on campaign was certainly sufficient to swell the numbers at his command. Loathing of the Normans did the rest. As the grey outline of Mount Gargano began to loom on the eastern horizon, and a rendezvous with his new Byzantine allies drew ever nearer, Leo could feel well content. Even when the enemy, frantically mustering their scattered forces, and riding hell for leather northwards, unexpectedly interposed themselves between the papal forces and those of Constantinople, he was not unduly alarmed. The Normans, despite their success in keeping their opponents apart, were exhausted, hungry and comprehensively outnumbered. Against all the teeming hordes kicking up dust behind the Pope, they could set barely three thousand. Unsurprisingly, they sought a truce. Equally unsurprisingly, the Pope refused to grant one. Having laboured so hard to get the Normans where he wanted them, he was now resolved to crush them once and for all. Except that the Normans did not wait to be crushed. Instead, without warning, and even as their ambassadors were keeping Leo distracted still with negotiations, their horsemen threw themselves upon the papal ranks, with all the ferocity of starving wolves assailing a flock of sheep. The Italians turned tail and fled. Only the Swabians, hulking, long-haired giants armed with massive, two-handed swords, stood firm amid the rout. Not until the end of the day were they finally overwhelmed. Pre-eminent among the captains who finally succeeded in trampling them down, “slicing off their heads from their shoulders, and splitting open their guts,”88was Robert Guiscard.

Pope Leo IX, standing on the battlements of the nearby town of Civitate, watched it all. As the moans of the wounded and dying were borne to him on the evening breezes, so the consequences of the ruin that had overtaken his policy were already closing in on him. The citizens of Civitate, approaching him in mortified defiance, announced that they were no longer prepared to offer him shelter. The Vicar of St. Peter was duly delivered up into the hands of the Normans. Both sides appeared equally embarrassed by the circumstances of their meeting.

The victors, falling to their knees, wept and begged Leo for forgiveness. Then, with a fulsome show of respect, they escorted the unhappy pontiff inland to Benevento, a city that lay directly on the northernmost border of their sphere of influence. Indeed, formally, it owed allegiance to the papacy itself: a fig leaf which barely served to conceal the grim reality of Leo’s captive status. Nine months he was kept a prisoner there. Only once he had finally accepted the right of the Normans to their conquests, it seems, was he released. As he left for Rome, he cut a pathetically broken figure, unable even to climb into his saddle. To many, the spectacle of the celebrated wayfarer lying in his litter was a salutary one. Even some of Leo’s closest allies had been appalled by his recourse to the sword. The Pope had sought to sanctify a policy of warfare – and the policy had been found terribly wanting. Surely, then, his critics asserted, it was God Himself who had pronounced the judgement.

Yet Leo, though sick and weary, had not abandoned his conviction that the attempt to cleanse southern Italy of the Normans had been a righteous one. No less desperately than Christian souls required purging of their sins, and the Church of simony, the sword-gashed world needed healing. So it was, in yet another startling innovation, that Leo pronounced the Swabians who had fallen at Civitate to have been martyrs; and so it was too, even in Benevento, that he had persisted in secret negotiations aimed at renewing an anti-Norman alliance. With Henry III, the Emperor of the West, distracted by unrest in Bavaria, there had been only one other Caesar to call upon. Accordingly, in the late winter of 1054, Leo had ordered an embassy to embark for Constantinople. The fullest measure of how seriously its mission was taken lay in the identity of its leader: none other than Cardinal Humbert.

By early April, even as the Lateran began to buzz with rumours that the Holy Father was near death, his ambassadors were nearing their destination. From afar, blazing like dots of fire, they began to make out a gleaming of golden roofs, until at length, as their ship passed into the narrow strait of the Bosporus, there rose stretched out before them on the northern shore a panorama of incomparable beauty and magnificence. Cardinal Humbert, that loyal servant of the Bishop of Rome, could now gaze out for the first time at an authentic capital of a Roman empire. Constantinople remained what she had been for seven hundred years: the Queen of Cities and the bulwark of Christendom. On her ancient and massive walls, twelve miles long in all, men still stood guard just as their ancestors had done, when they had served to withstand the fearsome lust for conquest of the Saracens. In her forum, proclamations issued by a Caesar were still read out to a Roman people. Along her streets, and through the massive space of her hippodrome, her armies had only a few years previously marched in a splendid triumphal procession: “a reminder to the Romans that ardour breathes new life into the dead.”89 Above all, dominating the cityscape, and putting even the promontory-clinging sprawl of the imperial palace in the shade, there rose the stupendous cupola of the largest cathedral in the world, the Church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia: a monument that had been hailed in triumph by its builder as surpassing the very Temple of Solomon.

All of which, no doubt, in a Christian bishop, should have inspired a sense of wonder and reverence – and yet Cardinal Humbert, if he felt any such emotions, did not care to betray them. An ambassador he might be – but he certainly had no wish to appear a supplicant. Treading the streets of the New Rome, he found himself all the more bristlingly conscious of the dignity of the Old. As well he might have done: for the pretensions of Constantinople were calculated to infuriate the tight-lipped scholar who had demonstrated to his own perfect satisfaction that his master ruled as the head of the universal Church. Not even through gritted teeth could Humbert bring himself to agree with his hosts that their Patriarch might rank as the peer of the Pope. Naturally, had he only been able to confine himself to the business of diplomacy, this would hardly have mattered. Both sides, after all, were desperate to secure a military alliance against their common foe; and the Basileus, Constantine IX, was a man celebrated for his affability and taste for the low brow. Listening to people with entertaining speech defects was his surest source of diversion – not debating theology.

Altogether sterner in his tastes, however, was the Patriarch himself, Michael Cerularius, a man of whom it was tactfully observed by one associate that “he had a taste for speaking his mind.”90 Prickly, irascible and intransigent, he was in every way a fitting opponent of the cardinal. Already, even before Humbert’s arrival in Constantinople, the two men had been firing off abusive letters to each other. When they were brought face to face, their insults grew progressively more vicious. Soon enough, to Constantine’s frustration and embarrassment, he found all his attempts to negotiate a coalition with Rome against the Normans drowned out by their din. The rival prelates, not content with arguing over the rights and wrongs of the claims of the Pope to pre-eminence, made a point of dredging up every point of disagreement that had ever existed between their churches: a strategy which gave them both plenty to row about.

It did not take long for relations between the two men to pass the point of no return. As Humbert began labelling his opponents pimps and disciples of Mohammed, Cerularius withdrew to his palace in an ostentatious sulk. By summer, with the Patriarch still maintaining his icy silence, the streets filling with angry mobs and any hope of forging a common policy against the Normans in ruins, what little remained of Humbert’s patience spectacularly snapped. On 16 July, dressed in the full splendid regalia of a prince of the Roman Church, he marched into the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, accompanied by his fellow legates. Ignoring the massed ranks of the clergy who were gathered there to celebrate Mass, the cardinal strode with an awful solemnity beneath the flickering of a thousand candles, past a multitude of coloured columns, and up to the gilded altar. There, paying no attention to the rising hubbub of indignation from behind him, he slapped down a bull of excommunication against the Patriarch, before turning briskly on his heels. Two days later, as the streets of Constantinople seethed with fury, he departed for Rome. Cerularius himself, meanwhile, never a man to duck a fight, made sure to anathematise Humbert in turn. He consigned the fateful bull to a public bonfire. Any remaining partisans of an alliance with the papacy were arrested.

That the negotiations might have gone better was self-evident enough. Nevertheless, many remained unclear as to how serious the bust-up had actually been. Had it been a spat or a permanent schism? No one was sure at first. Rows between the twin capitals of Christendom were certainly nothing new. Relations had been rocky for centuries, and popes and patriarchs had indulged in mutual excommunications before. In fact, as Cerularius and his cheerleaders gleefully pointed out, the bull of excommunication delivered against them had been legally invalid: for Leo IX, who had originally sent the embassy, had died back in the spring, leaving his legates without formal authority to anathematise anyone. Indeed, even some of those who had accompanied Humbert into Hagia Sophia on that momentous July day of 1054 still clung to the hope that the breach between the two churches might yet be healed. Three years later, when one of them was elected Pope, and took the name Stephen IX, he immediately dispatched a mission of his own to Constantinople in a desperate attempt to repair the damage – but it was aborted by his almost immediate death. No further missions were sent. Already, in the space of a few years, the mood in Rome had decisively shifted. What was at stake, many reformers had begun to accept, was nothing less than a fundamental point of principle. Cardinal Humbert had sounded out a trumpet blast on a truly decisive field of battle. The message that it sent to the rest of Christendom could hardly have been more ringing: no one, not even the Patriarch of the New Rome, could be permitted to defy the authority of the Pope.

Schism with the Eastern Church was not the only cost that had to be borne by the papacy. Any prospect of a renewed coalition with the Byzantines in southern Italy now stood in ruins. The Normans appeared ineradicable: “as deadly to their softer neighbours as the bitter wind to young flowers.”91 Rome herself had begun to look exposed. Then unexpectedly, in the autumn of 1056, that greatest and most formidable patron of reform, the Caesar of the West, Henry III, fell sick. His death on 5 October, coming virtually out of the blue and at a relatively youthful age, only added to the general mood of twitchiness in the Lateran. The new king was Henry’s son and namesake: a boy of only five years. The new regent was the queen: the pious and unworldly Agnes. So a child and a woman were charged with serving the papacy, at a fateful moment in its fortunes, as its earthly protectors.

And yet in danger lay opportunity. Henry III had certainly served to reform the see of Rome; but he had also placed it in his shadow. There were those within papal circles – men such as Humbert and Hildebrand – who had begun to resent this: for the order of which they dreamed was one in which it was the Pope who put the emperor in the shade. Now, with the Caesar of Constantinople condemned as a heretic, and the western Caesar merely a child, a tantalising prospect had opened up. Clearly, if the world were to be brought to its proper order, then the reins of authority would need to be entrusted to someone. And who better, who more fitting, than the heir of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome?

A question on which a very great deal would hang indeed.

* “Kanisat al-Qumana” – a pun on the Arabic for Church of the Resurrection, “Kanisat al-Qiyama.”

* A theory that is accepted to this day by the Druze of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, who worship al-Hakim as what the Caliph had claimed to be: an incarnation of God.

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