Tag Archives: Byzantium

The Shadow Line. Part 1 – That Damn Graph.

Seek and Ye Shall Find…

The most popular search-term which appears to draw net-trawlers to this corner of the virtual ocean is ‘Saint Patrick’ (and variations thereof), closely followed by ‘Clovis’, and ‘God’. I think this is an interesting situation in itself, but understandable considering the nature of the Endeavour. Indeed most of the search-terms WordPress informs me of appear to be reasonable, before we inevitably reach the realms of utter nonsense, but one query does stick out: ‘dark ages graph’ (and variations thereof). I have discussed, and dismissed, this graph before, but only in brief. Clearly the People (and variations thereof) demand more, though to what end I do not know. I hope the case is that they have seen the graph somewhere, recognised it as nonsense, but yet wish to seek out further detail. I fear, however, that the searchers seek it out to confirm their heartfelt belief in the inadequacy of religion, accepting this graph as some kind of ‘proof’ that the Catholic Church stymied science, and by extension mankind, for the best part of a millennium. This is the scenario you will find in most skeptic/atheist boards and sites, this tedious graph rolled out as ‘evidence’. Hopefully I will be able to aid those of you who are suspicious of the graph, and illuminate those of you who accept it.

First, Some History.

'The Dark Ages'

Taken from the original article (link just over there, to the left).

After some research, I believe I have traced the origin of this pestilential image to an article entitled “The Myth of Christianity Founding Modern Science and Medicine (And the Hole Left by the Christian Dark Ages*)“, which was originally posted on the 22nd of May 2007, with some (unspecified) additions and corrections on the 20th of January 2010. Spreading to forums, by 2008 it was an anti-religious demotivational poster. The article itself is an interesting piece of work which hopes to rebut the claims of Christians who would suggest that Science owes its birth, in some fashion, to religion. In theory, I agree with the writer, though not with his evidence, conclusions, or the manner in which he arrives at them.

The Graph is the Thing…

Leaving aside the article itself for the moment (since the graph appears to have taken on a life of its own), my first question is from where did the writer get the data points from which to plot the graph? How does one judge scientific advancement, or indeed its decline? Did the writer simply take the cumulative amount of inventions created by each of the early empires he mentions? Did he apply some value system to the inventive process? Is it based on the material power of each empire? What is the basic criteria by which we judge ‘scientific advancement’? Scientific advancement appears to be, in this graph, a quantifiable property, a thing we can measure, which, in the modern world it may well be, since we have things like patent offices, but in ancient times, things get murky. Following from that, how does one deduce the reversal of such advancement? Nowadays it would be relatively easy; civilisation as we currently know it would collapse without oil, in fact I know a few people who consider their broadband speeds dipping below 3mbps as the beginning of a dark age. The strange thing is that for most people in the Middle Ages, nothing had changed from Roman times, or even Greek ones. The graph presumes a bizarre level of universality which is untenable, while also seemingly arguing that all history is necessarily progressive unless some outside force hinders it.

Empires and the Fall of Rome.

Contrary to popular belief, Rome did not fall because of Christianity. It fell because of the massive invasions of Germanic peoples, pagans mostly, who tramped around the Western Empire, generally making a mess of things. There were also issues of currency devaluation, the inherent difficulties in governing a massive empire with primitive communication networks, and the fact that the war with Persia was a massive drain on the economy (Americans, learn from history). The West was not where the clever people lived, it was not where the money was made; the East was where the Empire made its fortunes and where the great scholars lived. Gaul, Spain, Britain, these were rustic provinces which provided men and material, the most valuable provinces being Egypt, Greece, Africa, and Asia Minor, home to great urban centres, and lucrative trade. With the decline of the Empire in the West, the provinces of Rome were divided up amongst a variety of competing kingdoms, more keen on spending money on weapons than on books. The only folks who were still keen on the whole book-learning gig were the Church, specifically the great monasteries who carefully copied many works from Antiquity, works that would otherwise have been lost. And even then, while the city of Rome may have fallen to barbarians, the Roman Empire still hung around, except that we call it the Byzantine Empire (they considered themselves, and were considered by others, to be the Roman Empire), clinging on to the wealthier parts of the Mediterranean. In a modern sense we might call this Imperial down-sizing for the sake of efficiency, out-sourcing the governance of the less profitable western provinces to new entrepreneurial kingdoms.

It’s a Numbers Game.

For a moment, let’s wander back to the question of how we judge ‘scientific advancement’, placing it with a historical context. We might suggest that the number of inventions a society creates, or breakthroughs in medicine, or fun scientific discoveries would be a good indicator. The Romans had a very clever way of making concrete, the Greeks invented the natural sciences, etc., etc., with the presumption that the ‘Dark Ages’ offered little. Well, just because things were thought of, or invented doesn’t mean that they were used. A Greek also invented the steam-engine about 2,000 years ago, but nobody cared because slave-labour was cheap. Greek philosophers, while being very clever and all that, had no evidence of their theories (they would have to wait for 20th Century science to prove them right, but sadly they had died in the meantime), and so didn’t really offer a tangible and useful alternative to traditional thought. What I am trying to get at is that the importance of an invention or theory is dependent on its usefulness. Newton’s theory of gravity explained the world pretty well for a long time, so nobody bothered to change it, until scientists began to look at the very very big, and the very very small, and saw that it no longer held up. In walks Einstein and his clever theory about relatives, giving us the modern world. Julius Caesar could have thought up the notion of a guided missile to replace catapults and archers, and we would think him very clever, but that wouldn’t mean the Romans were more technologically advanced than the Gauls; all he would have had was the notion of a guided missile, not the micro-electronics needed to guide it. On a more realistic level, we might wonder why the Romans or the Greeks didn’t invent printing, but preferred to write on papyrus and such, even though they were astonishingly literate civilisations by the standards of the day. It was simply because there was no demand for mass-produced volumes, only a tiny minority of people could read and write, which was true up until surprising recently.

Hark, a Vagrant.

Map of the "barbarian" invasions of ...

Giant arrows are the real impediment to scientific advancement (Image via Wikipedia)

The greatest cause for the decline of Western Europe in the post-Roman world was the sudden appearance of a lot of Germans who wanted indoor plumbing. They didn’t want to destroy Rome, we must be at pains to remember, they wanted to be Rome. The problem was that there was too many of them. Where there had been one (half of an) empire there were now multiple competing kingdoms, all of which dreamed of being as powerful as Rome, and tried to imitate it as best they could. Unluckily for these new kings, most of the clever people had run away, though nobody’s really sure why, it’s not like a bunch of thugs showed up and began pillaging and burning and plundering and… oh, wait… In any case, the Church took over the apparatus of the Roman state in the West, opening schools and (admittedly primitive) hospitals, enforcing laws, and maintaining order, largely because no one else did. Of course there was a certain godly bias to the way they did things, but if the Church hadn’t stepped in and done its best to preserve Roman ways a true dark age would have fallen on the West. Renaissance scholars relied on manuscripts preserved and copied by monks, and indeed based the way that they wrote on Carolingian scripts (of course they thought the script was Roman, because nothing good happened in the Dark Ages).

Continental Divide.

If the Church was such a detrimental force, why was it that the Eastern Empire lasted admirably for quite a few more centuries? It didn’t become scientifically backwards, its construction programmes remained ambitious, and its wealth remained ridiculous, even with the rising power of Christianity. The great Islamic empires, which stretched across the Mediterranean world and into the Middle East, were not unduly impeded by faith, at first anyway. Graeco-Roman culture and learning survived in many respects thanks to early Islam. This mythical ‘Dark Age’ only happened in the remnants of the Western Empire, which reveals a certain bias. Since Britain, France, Spain, and Italy were all part of the glorious Roman Empire, and because they in many respects created and defined the modern world, it is assumed that they were equally as important in ancient times as they are (or were) in recent history. The reality is that most of the great cultural achievements of ancient world happened in the Near East, not Western Europe. Aside from the city of Rome itself, all the great libraries of the ancient world are found in the Near East. Rome was a cultural and scientific backwater when the Greeks found it, it just happened that the Romans were really really good at conquering people who were cleverer than them. The coastal regions of Spain and France were ‘civilised’ by the Romans, but the few cities found in the hinterlands of these regions didn’t even come close to the size and complexity of the cities found in Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt, or the Levant.  The ‘Dark Ages’, if such a thing existed, was a minor blip on the radar, the rest of the world got on just fine without Western Europe.

If we imagine, for a moment, the United States of America as Rome, the issue may become more clear. The great cultural centres of America are, not unlike Rome, its major cities, which are mostly found on the coasts. Much of the materials needed to sustain these cities come from the central states, which may also have large cities, but nothing which compares to the vast metropolises of the north-east or south-west. The central states may benefit from the advances and the wealth of the ocean-facing states, but they are not major economic powerhouses, or home to great academic institutions, or large-scale scientific endeavours (I admit that I am generalising, but you get my drift). If these central states suddenly became a variety of competing nations, or become occupied by migrant Canadians, they may lose the benefits of having belonged to one integrated state, but the coastal regions would still continue to do what they do, probably complaining that the price of corn has gone up.  Western Europe was a part of the great Graeco-Roman civilisation, but it was not really a contributor to it, so, in a sense, nothing really change ‘on the ground’ when the Barbarians took over. And it was the Church which preserved what little Romanitas remained, and which taught the new overlords the value of an education.

Part 2

Bad History.

I’m not sure what’s happening, but it’s very very wrong…

I was recently introduced to a woeful show, ‘Legend Quest’, which appears on a channel called ‘SyFy’, a series purporting to be based in such factual disciplines as history and archaeology. Let’s cut to the chase; it isn’t. This programme is little less than a shallow pool of supposition coupled with annoying camera-work; logic and reason take a back seat as history and archaeology are abused in some bizarre effort to capitalise on Dan Brown’s gimmick of dressing fact with fantasy. Part of the problem might be in that the channel is not what one would call a reputable source of documentary broadcasts, and aside from that, can’t spell ( the contraction derives from Science-Fiction, where have those ys come from? And since when do sci-fi and fantasy belong to the same genre? How can the incomparable Philip K. Dick be dragged on to the same spectrum as George R. R. Martin?). This programme, with its annoying premise blurring fact and fiction, wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t portrayed as a documentary, a factual presentation set in the real world, if we weren’t led to believe that it offers us history, the very meaning of which is not fiction, not fantasy, just facts interpreted logically and reasonably.

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia (Image via Wikipedia)

Identity Theft.

Let’s take a look at some of the mysteries this series claims to have resolved. In the first episode we are treated to a new twist on the legend of the Ark of the Covenant, and a Scotsman doing his best impersonation of Indiana Jones. He heads off with his crew to Ethiopia, which is a good start because the Ethiopian Church claims that they actually have the Ark under guard in Axum. Is this where the show takes us? No. We are instead brought to Lalibela, the second-most holy site in Ethiopia. Here, because the churches are carved out of rock, a feat which the presenter decides the people of the region incapable of, in the shape of crosses, we are told that the structures were cut out by the Templars (did I mention the presenter is a member of the modern Knights Templar?). Wow. I mean, what arrogance to suggest that the Ethiopians could not carve these churches, that they must have had help from more skillful Europeans. And what a leap it is to ‘confirm’ this theory with the moronic deduction that since the churches are in the shape on an equal-armed cross, the symbol of the Templars, they must have been built by that Crusading Order. It must be pointed out that this symbol was the accepted cross of the Orthodox Church for centuries before the Templars appeared on the scene. So, at best, this programme might have suggested that the Ark was in Lalibela for a while before being brought to Axum, and that is all that they could reasonably say. But no, that’s not conspiratorial enough for our intrepid host; the Templars took it from Ethiopia first to Tuscany, and then to the Cathedral of Chartres, which lies near Paris. Because that makes perfect sense.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral (Image via Wikipedia)

The leap to Tuscany is drawn from an image of a double-headed eagle on the walls of the church in Lalibela; this is a common symbol in the Near East, used by, among others, the Byzantines, the Seljuk Turks, the Armenians, and the Hitties. I should make it clear that list covers several millennia of use before the Templars ever dreamed of heading off to foreign deserts to kill people for believing in a different interpretation of the same deity. But, what the hell, the presenter decides it must be a Templar symbol. He even meets a Grand Master of the Order who tells him clearly that one must distinguish between the myth and the history of the Templar. A delightfully veiled “cop the hell on”. And then the subject of the conversation leaps to Chartres Cathedral, which makes me want to see the uncut version as the interview we are shown is cut in a curious fashion. At Chartres the presenter finds a carving of the Ark which he takes to be evidence of the Ark’s presence. Yeah, because medieval Christian Churches don’t often have religious imagery from the Bible plastered all over their walls, columns, floors, windows, or every available surface. A scarred slab is ‘discovered’ in the middle of the cathedral, which the team decide must hide the Ark, not even for a moment pausing to ask anyone for the history of the site or architectural details. This slab may have been an entrance to a crypt, the site of an old altar, or any number of things other than a hole in which the Ark was hidden. The line of reasoning is as convincing as a wet sheet of paper is strong. Or, in other terms, slightly more convincing that homeopathy, but only slightly.

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland (Image via Wikipedia)

A Sword and a Stone.

In another episode the presenter somehow conflates the legends of the Stone of Destiny with the Stone of Scone. Leaving aside whether or not (just so you know, not) these are the same object, the line of reasoning is again deeply flawed. First we are introduced to a real historian who has studied the Stone of Scone at Edinburgh Castle, and who essentially scoffs at the presenter’s crazy theory. Then we are treated to the crew’s obvious surprise at not being allowed to go in and film in the museum, with the not so subtle hint that the ‘establishment’ is trying to hide something. Really? What kind of professional TV crew, documentary or not, thinks that they can just walk on into a museum without asking for permission in advance? The whole scenario is clearly staged. Later, at Iona (I really do not know how they got to Iona, it makes no sense at all) they wander around the grounds, and move furniture and rugs without ever consulting anyone. There’s even a point where one of the crew asks if it is okay if they move things and the presenter replies, yeah if you do it with respect. What on earth does that mean? I have the sneaking suspicion they didn’t ask for permission this time, and just went ahead and filmed, which would explain why they are always running about breathlessly… They ‘discover’ a stone under the floor of a small room; for a hiding-place it’s not very clever if it can be found after two minutes of searching. And even then, all they find is a fairly plain stone slab which could be a headstone, since it has a cross inscribed on it; they have no, I repeat, no evidence to even suggest, let alone prove, that this is the true Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny, which apparently sits atop Tara in any case. Also, at one point the presenter states that Iona was founded by Scottish colonists, when it was in fact founded by Colum Cille of the Ui Neill of Ireland, and became a missionary base for Irish monks.

As for the episode concerning Excalibur, well, that’s easy. There was no King Arthur to have a sword, he’s just a myth, so there is no physical sword to be discovered; problem solved. Yet somehow we are given a twenty-minute romp through this man’s personal delusional version of history. I have no idea why the presenter thinks King Richard had Excalibur, that is a truly baffling leap, and how he came to the conclusion that Richard had to buy an army from Tancred in Sicily, when he in fact invaded it to secure the release of his sister from Tancred, has me stumped. And, predictably, the Templars are involved.

A web of lies.

Whoever wrote and researched this series would seem to have a similar obscene relationship with the truth as the Vatican, flirting with it, and touching it in a way that can only be described as uncomfortable. Leaps of ill-conceived logic are made frequently, religious art and icons are misinterpreted, and the process of historical and archaeological research, deduction, and reasoning are grossly misunderstood. I cannot believe that this claims to be reality, though it does belong on the SyFy channel, but only as a compliment to Warehouse 13, and with a clear indication that it is fictional.

This programme is painfully misleading, and its website is confusing. At the very beginning of the programme the presenter states:

“My name is Ashley Cowie. I’m an author and archaeologist explorer specializing in ancient symbols and mysterious legends. I’ve spent years studying some of the world’s most fascinating relics. Now I’m on the hunt to find where they are. Some would hope that these secrets remain hidden but I’ll leave no stone unturned to uncover the truth in my…”Legend Quest”.”

Firstly, what kind of archaeologist would put “author” first? Secondly, as a proclaimed archaeologist, it is suspicious that he has studied relics (a word I am reliably told a real archaeologist would never use) that he has never seen, or that nobody else has; that’s just not how archaeology works. Archaeologists go out and find things, and then study them, that’s the bloody point. Also, he never mentions what qualifies him as an archaeologist.

The associated website has some curious fictions of its own. We are informed that “In 2002, Ashley was elected into the “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” the oldest and most exclusive historical society in Europe.  Founded by Royal appointment in 1732, this society currently holds only 3000 fellows.” (http://www.syfy.com/legendquest/team/ashley_cowie). This is really weird, and I mean really. Firstly, why is “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland” surrounded by quotation marks? Is it not a reference to the real society, just one made up to make this guy look good? “Madness”, I hear you say, “You, dear author, have been infected by the conspiracy nonsense of this prattling man!” And you might be right, dear reader. But let me take you to secondly, which is that  “The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was founded in 1780 by David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829), and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1783.” (http://www.socantscot.org/content.asp?Page=251&Menu=237). The date on the SyFy website contradicts what the Society’s own website says, and the SyFy site is completely wrong in stating that the presenter is a member if the oldest historical society in Europe, it’s not even the oldest in Britain. His books don’t appear in their list of publications, but they do have a book on the Stone of Scone which contradicts what he argues. Something is very very wrong. On top of this the website biography states that the presenter is a historian, not an archaeologist as he claims in his introduction on the show. Furthermore, no reference is made to where, or to what degree, he was educated in either field. Is anyone else thinking that the fiction isn’t just contained to the programme itself?

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”

If it’s supposed to be fantasy fair enough, but “Legend Quest” should be clearly labelled as such; lies like these can be dangerous, I might smack someone if I heard them rattle this nonsense off to a group of friends at a party. But seriously, if people are led to believe that what this man is doing is real history and archaeology it devalues those fields and builds a deeply misleading image of them in the minds of the viewers. His crazy conspiracies are given an element of credence by the documentary style of the programme, which might lead people to believe that what he says is true, when it is categorically not. He’s not within an ass’s roar of the truth.

Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is what gives madmen power, it erodes the confidence people have in critical analysis and academic research, it allows the implausible to be dressed as the probable. A lie repeated confidently is believed true, and facts which offer truth are ignored. This is a seemingly more frequent occurrence in our TV shows, and the words of our elected officials; it’s all part of the same problem. Nobody takes the time to really think and reason things out, possibly because we are not taught this skill at school, but also due to the very fact that the people and programmes we have been inculcated to trust are using this trust against us to achieve their own ends.

Or maybe I’m just a cynic…

It seems I am not alone in doubt the legitimacy of this programme – http://tv.yahoo.com/news/syfy-channel-fabricates-footage-area-51-legend-quest-212600449.html .

Issues of Investment

Who’s the Boss?

The Investiture Controversy, which had its roots in the 8th century and was unresolved until the 12th, was basically a fight between the Pope and various kings and emperors over who was more important. The Catholic Church reckoned, since the Pope was God’s representative on Earth, and they held the keys to salvation, that they were clearly more important than all the kings in the world put together. The kings, however, disagreed, as they had all the money, the power, and the women.

Who’s the vassal now?

The king of the Franks was king in name only; the kingdom was ruled by a man called Pippin, whose father had ruled the kingdom before him, but was also not a king. Pippin didn’t like having the responsibilities of a king without all the cool stuff that went with it, the robes, the crown, the authority to kill anyone, and so he asked the Pope if he could be king. The papacy feared the growing power of the Lombards in Italy, and the possibility that annihilation might be on the cards, so basically Pope Zachary switched teams. Previously, Rome had been a subject of the Byzantine Empire, but they weren’t doing a very good job of protecting the Eternal City from rampaging barbarians, so Pope Zack reckoned he owed no loyalty to Constantinople. The emerging power that was the united Frankish kingdom of Pippin-not-yet-a-king seemed like a better bet. Zack agreed that Pippin could be king if he came and beat the crap out of the Lombards. Zack died in 752, but the papacy was saved by the bell two years later, as Pippin, once he was anointed king, gave the Lombards a good thumping, and granted the papacy authority of a swathe of land from Ravenna to Rome. Pippin’s son, Charlemagne, confirmed the donation of land to the papacy, and the Pope made him an emperor to rival the one that sat in Constantinople. Here we find the cause of the controversy; had the Carolingians given the land to the papacy in trade to gain legitimacy, making the Pope and independent and sovereign ruler? Or had they seen it as investing a vassal with property, like they had done, and would continue to do, with the rulers of Brittany, Aquitaine, or, to a certain degree, Croatia? Or had the Pope appointed the Carolingians as his protector, an employee of his state, a bodyguard, without relinquishing his own authority? Who was in charge of whom?

King’s pawn to bishop…

The other part of the problem was the issue of the appointment of bishops. The new ‘barbarian’ kings of Europe frequently granted bishoprics and other important ecclesiastical lands and titles to members of their family, or loyal entourage, allowing them access to the vast wealth and manpower at the command of their local churches. The papacy wanted to maintain that power as its own, and assure its freedom to appoint whatever bishops it chose. The papacy could not advance too much in the pursuit of this cause as could not risk annoying the Holy Roman Emperor too much, since his army was much bigger than the Pope’s. Luckily for the papacy, the Emperor died, and a new one took his place, but being only six years old, the new Emperor Henry had very little authority. The papacy launched its programme of reform, appointing bishops as it thought it should. When the young Emperor Henry grew up, he also appointed his own bishops, as did the king of England, another king that the Pope thought of as a vassal. The Emperor renounced his support of the Pope, and the Pope excommunicated him. What followed was essentially a civil war; many of the lords and bishops of the Holy Roman Empire picked a side, and fought intermittently for 50 years. The rebel lords appointed their own king, and the Emperor created an Anti-pope in the first recorded particle accelerator. The Emperor lost the war in the end, as his son chose to rebel against him and support the papacy.

The road to secularism.

After fifty years of war over who had the right to invest whom, the kings of Europe were less keen on employing religious folk as ministers, attendants, legates, and courtiers, as they had done in the past. They turned instead to men educated outside the clerical system, a process which led eventually to the secular bureaucratic system which we have now. In the short-term it looked as if the papacy had won, but men seeking advancement realised that they could find employment without giving up sex, drugs, and troubadours, turned away from the priestly orders and made themselves servants of the state, not the Church. Ultimately this bit the papacy in the arse when in 1870 an Italian nationalist army succeeded in seizing what remained of the Papal States, and integrating them into the recently united state Italy.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

Il Papa di Tutti i Papi.

The Rock

The  apostle Peter went to Rome, died and was buried there. Or not, depending on whom you talk to. In any event, the people who went on to invent the Papacy thought that Peter did die in Rome, so that’s what is most relevant at the moment. He was known the ‘Rock’ of the Church, the earliest known reference to professional wrestling in Western Europe. Rome was the centre of the Roman Empire and therefore probably the best place to try to convince the Romans to stop killing your mates because they believed in one god, not one for every day of the week, every event and every place; that’s what saints are for. But the Church in Jerusalem probably held precedence over Rome because of its connection to the person they thought to be most important, Jesus, not the Emperors, of which they may have been more than one depending on the whims of the army. Over time Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople all rose in importance, the last one particularly as the seat of the Empire moved there under Constantine, but there was no real organised Church until the second century. These five Churches held councils, organised picnics, and chastised heretics and scolded schismatics. Clearly this disunity and lack of organisation would not appeal to a people fond of building roads with no bends, rivers with no bends and empires with no bends. They were not a bendy people. They probably never had a law that said it was okay to steal food for a pregnant woman because she craved it, which the early Irish did because they were more enlightened about women’s issues. A woman could even divorce her husband under Irish law if he was too fat or old to have sex. Anyway, the Emperor Constantine decided he didn’t like the idea of a myriad different doctrines and discussions and arguments and bibles and such. Council of NicaeaSo he gathered all the bishops together in the city so good he named it after himself (actually he called it Nova Roma, but everyone else thought Constantinople was catchier) and told them to come up with one Church or else he’d introduce them to some pointy bits of steel, or maybe some playful felines.

Musical Chairs

What with Nova Roma being the new seat of the Empire old Rome was suddenly not the place to be on Friday nights. So the bishops of Nova Roma thought that they should be the primary Church in the land, but so did Rome since they held the seat of the Empire first and for far longer and sure they were ‘old’ but that doesn’t mean they still couldn’t be a useful participant in society and shouldn’t be ignored just because they are kind of forgetful and leave the lights on from time to time…. For the sake of convenience the Empire was divided in twain and a short while later a bunch of Germans decided to move in to the Western half. You’d imagine all the new barbarian kingdoms would bow to Rome and the East would follow Constantinople, but they were barbarians and didn’t know that’s how things worked and so made a mess of the very neat and unbendy empire. The men who would be Pope had to contend with the very independent Visigoths, Franks and Germans who generally didn’t like being to what to do at the best of times. The best example of that is of course when a Roman guard said ‘No, you can’t come in, sure aren’t ye fine where ye are?’ The Churches of North Africa and Spain considered Rome to be an intellectual backwater and so largely ignored it for a long time but then the Umayyad came to show them how wrong they were. On their way to Spain they also cut off Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem from the rest of Christendom until some men encased in steel decided they wanted it back. This left Constantinople and Rome as top dogs of the Christian world, or so they liked to believe at an any rate. Rome made a concentrated effort to become dominant in the West, often in collusion with powerful kings, like Charlemagne. Conveniently named people like Gregory the Great instilled strange notions like morality on the clergy at large because the reality was in the Middle Ages that a substantial amount of clerical appointments were due to politics and money and who you knew rather than how pious you were. Monks, abbots and bishops were often expected to not only pray for but fight in the king’s army, which one would imagine ran contrary to the whole Christian experiment. For a time the Popes lived in France under the control of the king, but eventually they moved back to Rome, because let’s face it Rome is a wicked cool city, where they ruled the Papal States as a secular prince, expanding their domains through conquest and diplomacy, which might seem strange to modern eyes but was the done thing in those days. There were Popes and Anti-Popes, a special type of Pope made in a particle accelerator at CERN, and splits and schisms and then a man nailed a note to a door which caused more wars. And now the priest faces the congregation and doesn’t speak in Latin anymore, which is useful because neither does anyone else.

Reality Check:

The evolution of the papacy from being one of the many leaders of Christianity to being the dominant voice in Western Christendom is a long a complex history involving the interplay between religion and politics, personal gain and true piety. This is over one thousand years of history in less than one thousand words so clearly the reality is far more intricate with many nuances.

Beware Christians Bearing Arms.

Who Started What?

One of the interesting features about the Crusades was that they weren’t organised very well in some respects. Some of them weren’t really organised at all, they just kind of happened. There were plans and schemes and such but they were not orchestrated by one single authority. All that bound them together was Jerusalem, or the idea of Jerusalem as most of the participants had never before left their own villages let alone their own kingdoms. Who came up with the idea of ‘Crusade’? Well, in reality that notion did not appear until much later, almost 200 years after they had begun. The first crusaders referred to themselves as armed pilgrims, which doesn’t really sound much less intimidating. They were going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as people had been doing for centuries, they just took swords, shields, spears, bows, arrows, plate-mail, chain-mail, war-horses, catapults and siege towers instead of the usual nothing-but-food-and-water ethos that other pilgrims adhered to. And also, unlike normal pilgrims who ran away when faced with unhappy foreigners, these new-age pilgrims met them with a considerable amount of aggression. This notion of armed pilgrimage came about before Pope Urban II,Pope Urban II but he was the one who got it going. Important people had been thinking that the Holy Land should be freed from Islam for quite some time. Urban, and several of his successors, reckoned the Muslims didn’t really need it (or Spain, or Sicily), and besides, the long walk would do the pilgrims a world of good and then they could get their sins remitted and go to heaven. That was actually one of the reasons for crusading, overwhelming guilt. Everyone in Western Europe lived under the burden of crushing, heart-attack inducing, oppressive guilt, especially knights and the like whose job it was to kill, and endemic warfare, mostly due to the massive amount of killings perpetrated by those same knights. The popes came up with a great solution, export the problem somewhere else and let someone else deal with these armour-clad sociopaths. And wouldn’t it be handy if they did something useful, like, I dunno, conquer a holy city or something…?


The Seljuk Turks had recently seized Anatolia, modern Turkey, from the Byzantine Empire, the greatest empire in the West at that time, which really wasn’t saying much. There were some other places that were far more enlightened, like Muslim Spain, but Byzantium was the richest. The emperor’s robes dripped with precious stones and gold and weighed more than he did. The Byzantine army however wasn’t really up to the same level. The Emperor relied on foreign mercenaries to defend his walls, including men from all over Western Europe. When the Seljuks invaded Anatolia the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes led an army out to fight them. The two forces met near the town of Manzikert. The army of the empire was defeated, thrown into confusion, chased from the field of battle, and the emperor was captured and blinded. You could imagine that the Seljuks were pretty happy with themselves having won new lands for themselves and thought themselves pretty safe now that they had beat the socks off the Byzantines. Safe and secure with loads of land to graze their horses on, practice their archery skills, play in the meadows, smoke pipes and figure out what to do next. Maybe raise a family, buy a dog, get some rugs of the Persians next door… And then all of a sudden thirty thousand Europeans appear and start barging their way through your land. Dirty, smelly, unruly, armour-clad men wandering around Seljuk land like a drunk looking for chips. They smashed their way through Anatolia, gained an amazing victory at Antioch by defeating a much larger army, and then seized Jerusalem. In the space of roughly two years these so-called pilgrims had clobbered their way through the lands the Seljuks had only themselves recently conquered. This army came from out of nowhere and brought two hundred years of war with them. Why? Because, in part, of Manzikert. The leaders of the West were very suddenly made to realise that those Seljuks meant business and Byzantium wasn’t up to the task anymore. Alexios I Komnenos, Emperor of what was left of Rome, had asked for help from Christian kings and the Pope for any troops they could spare as he and his predecessors had done many times before. Knights from every kingdom had fought under his banner. Something was different this time though. This time the Pope had notions of his own and the knights of Europe were hungry for land. This time Alexios didn’t get the usual handful of knights, this time he got a Crusade.

Don’t Trust Hermits Called Peter

Before the French went looking for a fight the Germans, not to be out-done, decided to have a go at it first.Peter the Hermit Preaching First CrusadeLed by Peter the Hermit, a man who had whipped the German peasantry and lower nobility into a religious frenzy, this first of the First Crusades was undisciplined and very un-German as armies go. Most of the army was illiterate and probably had no idea where Jerusalem was, let alone how far away it was. They started fighting and plundering before they had even left their own lands, attacking the Jews of Germany. They fought with the Christian Hungarians for food on the way to Constantinople and then fought with the Byzantine army which was commanded by the man who was essentially their employer. This would be like getting up for work, beating up a housemate for cereal, starting a fight with someone on the street for a Twix, and then once you get to work attacking other members of staff for muffins. Alexios managed to get his unruly employees across the Bosporus and pointed them in the direction of the enemy, like a drunken guided missile. This did not go very well. The ‘army’, such as it was, broke up and started to pillage and plunder, ignoring the fact that they were in the lands of people who really did not want them there. Sure the Hungarians and Byzantines didn’t want them either, but at least they were somewhat friendly. The army of the hermit was like that annoying family member you tolerate even though they drink all your wine and eat all your food and entrench themselves in front of your tv because you know they have to go home sometime and they are family after all. What if that relative went into a complete stranger’s house, what would happen then? They probably would not be forced to drink their own urine or the blood of animals when cut off from water and later to be absolutely annihilated by the Turks. Which is what happened to Peter’s army. Of the 40,000 who left Germany only a few thousand survived, saved by the Byzantines. Including Peter. Lucky him.

Once More, With Feeling…

The second First Crusade was organised by men of war, not a man who lived in a cave, and as such was substantially better organised. It was led by men like Stephen Count of Blois, Godfrey of Boullion, and Raymond Count of Toulouse. These were seriously powerful men who ruled vast swathes of France and Germany. These were men of faith and courage who commanded lords and knights, not a peasant rabble. They marched their massive armies across Europe to Byzantium where the met the Emperor Alexios. They were joined there by a Norman army led by Bohemund. This was probably the most professional of the crusading armies, battle-hardened from Sicilian campaigns against the Moors, and its leader was seeking to carve out a kingdom for himself. Many of the leaders swore an oath of fealty to Alexios and promised that everything they fought for would be his, except for Raymond of Toulouse, who dared to negotiate with the Emperor on equal terms. You have to remember, Constantinople was the most important city in the Western World at the time, and Byzantium the greatest empire. It was Rome, or rather all that was left of Rome, and that gave it a certain air of awesome. That and the fact that it was one of the richest cities in the world. In any event, the Crusaders left Constantinople full of hope and courage. They too marched into Anatolia and were harried and harassed by Turkish armies and eventually found their way to Jerusalem after an amazing victory at Antioch which had confirmed in their minds that God was on their side.

Man on Fire

While at Antioch a certain monk called Peter found the Holy Lance which had pierced Christ at the Crucifixion. Except that while at Constantinople the crusaders had all gone on tours of the holy shrines and seen something very similar… How very odd it must have been to find another exact same unique relic. They hadn’t learned the lesson of hermits called Peter. Maybe the fact that he was a monk confused them. To prove his piety and honesty he decided to undergo trial by fire. A long narrow corridor of wood, as wide and tall as a man, was constructed and set alight. Peter then walked down the corridor of flame. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. At the end of it he was met by his adoring fans who nearly trampled him to death. Imagine that, surviving a slice of hell only to be congratulated to near-death. As he survived some people said that he was protected by God and had spoken the truth. Others said that he had been burned and trampled and died a few days later so how could you argue that God really liked this guy? Ah but he was kept alive for a short time, maybe God did protect him but then punished Peter for making him save him. One of the leaders of the Crusade took the Lance, rode out with the whole army and beat the Seljuk army and the Lance and poor Peter were largely forgotten to history. And conspiracy novels. So, don’t trust religious Peters and keep them away from naked flames, they may be flammable…

The Mislaid Crusade

The Fourth Crusade was announced not long after the Third, which had ended in a tie and Jerusalem in Muslim hands. The Pope, Innocent III, wanted Jerusalem back in Christian hands. An army was called to meet a Venice. For a change the Crusade would not go overland, through Byzantium and then through Anatolia; it had taken them a while to notice that plan usually ended in armies being torn apart before getting to their destination. This time they would take the direct route. So the armies would arrive at Venice, hop on some ships that were being built there in advance and then sail to the Holy Land in style. On getting to Venice, the Venetians asked the crusaders to pay for all the new fancy ships, but the crusaders didn’t have enough money. So the Venetians said ‘If you help us capture Zara we can split the spoils and then we’ll see about the payment.’ The crusaders said ‘fair enough’ and off they went and captured the city. The city wasn’t as rich as it was supposed to be, so they were hungry, in debt, and were excommunicated by the Pope for attacking Christians, which really wasn’t what crusading was supposed to be about. The leaders of the crusade didn’t stop there. It appears that they lied to the troops, told them that they were un-ex-communicated, and now the Emperor of Byzantium would help them. But first they would have to make him emperor. The wrong Alexios was in power. Alexios III had deposed Issac whose son, Alexios IV, was now with the crusaders and looking to get back in power. The crusaders went and captured Constantinople, a Christian city, installed Alexios IV as emperor. Alexios IV was deposed and killed a few months later by Alexios V. When the crusaders went looking to get paid Alexios V told them he wouldn’t pay because he wasn’t the one who made the deal, but they didn’t care, one Alexios was as good as another. Again they attacked the city, appointed one of their own as Emperor and sacked the city for three days, promptly forgetting about the crusade. This new Latin Empire of Constantinople lasted 60 years. If you lived as long as the Latin Empire you wouldn’t see retirement, so it wasn’t terribly successful as empires go, just as the Fourth Crusade wasn’t the most successful of crusades…