Archive for category Medieval History
I love medieval history. I know that makes me weird. It’s ok.
Once, my father brought one of his friends up to New Hampshire to visit me. While sitting in a diner, my dad says, “Joe, ask him what he does with his free time.” His friend looked at me. I told him, “I study medieval and Byzantine history.” The two of them exchanged a look and my dad just laughed.
It is not that my father thinks I am weird. He gets it. History is the fabric of our own existence, and the medieval world is our most neglected and possibly also most influential thread of our history.
Given an opportunity to read a book that explores the Plantagenet kings who defined what it meant to be English in the Middle Ages, of course someone interested in such history would want to read it.
It should come as no surprise that when the opportunity came up to review The Plantagenets by Dan Jones (Penguin Group – Viking), I leapt at it.
What can I say? Dan Jones was a great job of surveying the period from Henry II’s ascension in 1154 until Henry VII’s ascension in 1485. Being three hundred years makes the job of creating a readable single volume history hard enough; but when those three centuries are filled with Plantagenet intrigue, corruption, marriage, warfare, plague, and any number of other elements, the job’s complexity is multiplied.
Dan Jones’ prose is direct and to the point, but he takes the time to occasionally pause for a brief humanizing anecdote that helps us understand specifics a little better. He balances his views of all of the Plantagenet kings and avoids the generalized caricatures you find in many works on the period.
Most importantly, Jones does not gloss over significant events. He does not simply note, as many histories do, that the Hundred Years’ War was a catalyst for the rising use of English as England pulled away from France. He takes the time to note the progress of this change, particularly focusing on Edward III’s Pleading in English Act of 1362 which changed the official language of the courts of England. I have read a lot of popular histories of the Middle Ages, and Jones is the first to note this seminal event.
In brief, I found Dan Jones’ book to be well worth the investment of money and time to explore it. So much of the book illuminates the seed ideas of our modern English-speaking culture.
Yesterday was apparently “National Siblings Day”, and I missed it. To commemorate this rather insignificant day, I have chosen to write about a couple of my favorite siblings.
It begins with an empress, the daughter of an English king. Her name was Matilda, and her father Henry Beauclerc (Henry I) was both King of England and Duke of Normandy in the early 12th century. The path of her life was determined mostly by the early deaths of the powerful men around her.
As a child, she was married to Henry V, last of the Salian kings of the Germans. When Henry V died young, she was married to the Count of Anjou, Geoffrey the Handsome.
When her older brother and Henry’s only surviving male heir, William Adelin, died in an unfortunate shipwreck, Matilda should have inherited the rule of both England and Normandy. Instead, when her father died, Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois claimed the English throne. Matilda attempted to reclaim the throne three times, but each time Stephen managed to repel her.
The crown did not sit well on Stephen’s brow, and while he was busy trying to control Britain, Matilda’s husband Geoffrey conquered all of Normandy. This forced Stephen to surrended the title of Duke of Normandy to Geoffrey who than chose his eldest son, Henry Curtmantle, as his heir.
Stephen also had no heir, and Matilda managed to manipulate the situation so that Henry Curtmantle also received the kingship of England from Stephen. When Stephen died, Henry became King Henry II of England in addition to inheriting Normandy and Anjou from his father. He then married Eleanor of Aquitaine and quick succession became lord of more of France than the King of France controlled.
Of course, Henry was not Matilda and Geoffrey’s only son. Their middle son, named Geoffrey after his father, believed that Henry should have abdicated his rule of their paternal territory of Anjou when he became king of England. He believed this had been their father’s wishes. To drive home the point, Geoffrey actively supported Henry’s opponents in Britain and allied himself with the French king.
The French king, Louis VII, was none too pleased with Henry II. There could have been a lot of reasons for this, but chief among them was that Henry had married Louis’ ex-wife without his knowledge. In our world, that might not be a big deal, but when the marriage makes one of your vassals the master of 2/3 of your country, it is a big deal!
In order to answer Geoffrey’s attempts to wrest Anjou from his hands, Henry II crossed the English channel at the head of an army. Of course, Louis stayed out of this conflict between brothers, which raged on and off for a couple of years.
Then, in 1156, the Count of Nantes – the only French coastal town not controlled by Henry – died. The barons of Nantes asked Henry to name a new Count, and Henry selected his troublesome brother, Geoffrey. All at once, rivalries were forgotten. Geoffrey had really not been interested in Anjou at all. He just wanted to rule SOMETHING. Given the title of Count of Nantes, he became loyal to his brother until his sudden death two years later.
Not surprisingly, Henry then claimed Nantes and became its Count.
The lesson in all of this is simple. If your brother rules most of Britain and France, not even the King of France will be able to help you. Take what he gives you and be quiet, or he will just use you to claim more territory for himself.
I know this is a problem we face all the time today.
In 1098, the armies of the First Crusade were besieging the city of Antioch. One of the commanders, Etienne Henri Comte de Blois (Count Stephen Henry of Blois as English historians style his name), abandoned the army and fled back to France.
On his way, he encountered the armies of the Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos and told him that the Turkish forces were too great. Alexios, with no reason to doubt a French nobleman, did not advance further.
Eventually, the Crusaders took Antioch and repelled an attack by the Turks under Kerbogha – without Byzantine help. The failure of the Byzantines to relieve them created an animosity between the French and the Byzantines that would eventually culminate in their sack of Constantinople a century later in 1204.
Ironically, it was a Frenchman – Etienne Henri – who had prevented the Byzantine army from coming to the Crusaders’ aid.
One man did not believe in the cause, and as a result, he helped breed distrust among people who should have been allies and helped open a wound that still festers today.
Of course, the Crusades were a bloody affair and I am not advocating religious war; but it seems that if one commits to a course and others are depending on him, then you have a duty to both yourself and others to see that course through.
It is easy to surrender and call it practicality, to strike the colors of a cause you said you believed in and call it compromise. Remember, you never know who you will impact and how long that impact will echo in their lives.
In 1204, French Crusaders broke down the seawalls of Constantinople and sacked the greatest city on earth. Although the French nobles and their Venetian allies had agreed to keep the sacking to a non-violent minimum (there was a ban on raping women and killing priests), the rank and file of the Crusader army was not to be denied what they perceived to be their right.
The great city was emptied of its treasures. Its churches were gutted. Its women were defiled. Whatever blessing the city had for the nearly 1,000 years it had stood impregnable behind its walls had now passed. The barbarians had taken New Rome.
But in the Church of St. George of Mangana, the French knights encountered someone they had not expected. They met a withered old man named John Mesarites. John’s brother, Nicholas, was an influential priest in the city, and the details of this encounter are known only from Nicholas’ eulogy for his brother.
The knights, their army bloodied and the souls tarnished by their rampage entered the church. They encountered John who knelt before them and told them that his purse was so empty that he had no fear of thieves. There was just something about John. The knights summoned their superior, a baron, who sat with John on the floor and ordered him fed.
By his simple presence, John Mesarites spoke some kind of conviction into the hearts of men who were rampaging through a city – men who believed they had to the right to kill him if they felt like it. But instead of swords, Mesarites was greeted with silence.
John Mesarites is one of those people you never read about in history books. We really only know about him from his brother’s eulogy. He is essentially nameless and we have no idea what he even looked like.
But we can learn something from his example. Mesarites meant the Crusaders with the reality of his poverty. He demonstrated the kind of remarkable witness of reality that forces people to at least pause in their activity.
The church could take a lesson from Mesarites and the many nameless other saints who were simply present and changed the course of things.
In 1203, a massive Venetian fleet sailed into the Golden Horn intent on landing a Crusader army and taking the city of Constantinople. The Crusaders had intended to sail to Egypt but they had failed to pay the Venetians and now were doing the Venetians bidding in attempting to put the young claimant Alexius Angelus on the throne of Constantinople.
When the battle began at the sea walls, the Norman Crusaders almost faltered. The Venetian galleys hung back as the battle became a stalemate. Then from the midst of the fleet, one galley picked up speed and headed for the beach. At its prow was a nearly ninety year old blind man named Enrico Dandolo.
Dandolo had been elected doge of Venice in 1192. Before that, he had been a wealthy merchant from a good family and had even served as an envoy to Constantinople. When the representatives of the Fourth Crusade had come to Venice seeking passage, Dandolo had taken the cross himself.
Where there was money to be made, Dandolo was there and there was a lot of money to be made in a Crusade. But the endeavor had fallen apart and Venice was on the verge of bankruptcy if the Crusade was not profitable. So, Dandolo had led the Crusaders to Constantinople to aid Angelus’ claim to the throne because the bounty Angelus promised would cover Venice’s expenses and provide a bit of profit.
When the fleet faltered, Dandolo ordered his galley beached as a message to the rest of the galleys. His act would be told and retold for five hundred years in Venice. As a result of his charge, the Crusaders took the city and the course of history was altered.
Dandolo believed in Venice and making money. His zeal drove him to exceed any human limitation in pursuit of his goal.
What about us? Do we have within us a passion for anything that is strong enough to send us at full speed to the hostile beach? I fear the greatest problem among Christian leaders is that we do not believe anything passionately. We are lukewarm in everything rather than boiling in one.
The other night, one of our guys asked me about the differences among the various translations of the Scriptures, so I figured it was worth mentioning what is going on with all that stuff. I am going to give some basic, basic thoughts. By its nature, this kind of an entry will leave out a lot of detail, but hopefully you will get the flavor of things.
At the highest possible level, here is the challenge of studying the Bible in the English-speaking world:
The Bible is composed of several books and anthologies written in Hebrew or Greek. (There are also a couple of small portions in Aramaic, a cognate of Hebrew.)
The Old Testament
The Hebrew portion (our Old Testament) was copied by the Hebrew-speaking Jews through their history, but was translated into Greek sometime between 200 BCE and 100 CE. These translations have been compiled into what is called the Septuagint (named after a mythical group of 70 translators and abbreviated with Roman numberals as LXX).
The New Testament
The Christian Scriptures (the New Testament) was written in Greek and transmitted largely through amateur scribes copying out passages for the first 250 years or so. Coupled with LXX, this Greek version of the Old Testament has continued in use in the Greek church for the past two thousand years or so.
This Greek translation was then translated into Latin in the western part of the Roman empire. The original translations were not very good, so in 400 a bishop named Jerome was commissioned to produce a new version in Latin. This version is today called the Vulgate, meaning “common”. This was the official language of Scripture for the western church for several centuries because western Europe was cut off from the east by the rise of Islam.
The Fall of Constantinople and the Renaissance
In 1204, Norman knights under the leadership of Venice sacked the city of Constantinople, weakening it. Even after restoring their rule, the Roman emperors there (Constantinople was the eastern capital of the Roman empire and continued as Roman for centuries after the fall of Rome) were weak. Between 1204 and the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, many Greek-speaking clergy streamed to the west.
The sudden presence of people who spoke Greek as a living language prompted a number of scholars to learn the language. One in particular, Desiderius Erasmus, put together a polyglot, a Bible with the Latin Vulgate, an edition of the Greek manuscripts he could get his hands on and a new translation into Latin based on those manuscripts.
The editions of the Greek New Testament produced in this period were dubbed the textus receptus, Latin for “received text” by publishers Abraham and Bonaventure Elzevir. This was meant to indicate that their editions were based on what they had received in their hands, the texts they possessed.
Work by men like Erasmus resulted in a wave of translations in the “languages of the people”, led primarily by Martin Luther’s work in German 1522. This was followed by works in most of the major European languages.
The Englishman William Tyndale began a translation into English that was cut short by his martyrdom in 1536. The work was finished by other scholars like Miles Coverdale and smuggled into England until Elizabeth I and her successor James I allowed the revision of the English text that resulted in the so-called King James Version, published in 1611.
The problems with the work of the Renaissance were numerous. For one thing, western Europeans were still largely cut off from the vast majority of available manuscripts. As a result, men like Erasmus were working with relatively few manuscripts available to them at the time. These manuscripts had been carried from the east in the previous couple centuries. These were relatively recent copies since fleeing Orthodox monks could not carry old, disintegrating manuscripts with them.
It was not until the age of nationalism in the 19th century that scholars like Count Constantine von Tischendorf could get into the obscure recesses of the Middle East that scholars got access to the thousands of manuscripts available there.
Amazingly, these manuscripts (particularly the Greek ones) showed unprecendented harmony. While there are variants in the texts, the over 5,000 manuscripts and fragments agree in 98% of their words. The variants are mostly grammatical and spelling issues. There are fewer than 100 sentences that have any kind of controversy about them. (By way of comparison, the next best preserved is either Homer’s Illiad or Caesar’s Gallic Wars, both of which have variant numbers in the thousands!)
Most of what follows deals with the Greek text, which was being uncovered. The Hebrew Old Testament had been preserved exclusively and meticulously by a medieval caste of Jewish scribes called the Masorites. They were so meticulous that the Hebrew Bible we have today is 99.99999% the same as their 9th century CE seed text, known as the Aleppo Codex. And in turn, the Aleppo text has a similar fidelity to texts from before the time of Christ that were discovered at Qumran in the 1950′s (the Dead Sea Scrolls).
Based on the uncovered textual evidence, two Anglican churchmen named Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort produced a new text of the Greek New Testament. Their translation was then used as the basis of a new English translation called the Revised Version, published in the 1880′s.
Westcott and Hort were men of their age, carried away by the romance of the “new” and so their Greek text supplanted much of the text produced by men like Erasmus. This new text, called the critical text, was held to be superior to the textus receptus.
In their translation, Westcott and Hort supplanted much of the theologically Protestant language of the King James version with the language of a more liberal, less literal form of Christianity that was emerging at their time.
These two variants upset conservatives across the spectrum of English-speaking Christianity. This would lead, through a few permutations, to the modern “King James Only” system of belief.
Westcott and Hort’s translation was weak, based on a fadish text. Over the subsequent century, scholars have continued the work of distilling an “authoritative” Greek text as well as advancing translation technique.
(Westcott and Hort’s Greek text has been revised no fewer than 30 times, each time incorporating newly discovered manuscripts. It is currently published as the Nestle-Aland Greek Text, which is in its 27th edition. There are also competing models such as Maurice Robinson’s Majority Text.)
Of course, with new Greek texts available and with advances in translation technique and understanding the original languages, there were a lot of new translations made. Various translations reflected different philosophies of thought and different Greek texts.
There are basically five approaches to translating the original texts into English. A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts for King James Only Debate that tackled the various philosophies of translation in more depth, so I encourage you to check that series out if you’re interested.
Western cultures love a good epic that explains things. We really do.
It all really starts with the Greeks and their fixation with Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. Of course, the Greeks saw themselves as the descendants (spiritually if not physically) of Odysseus and Achilles. They were living out that heroic tradition.
When the Romans needed to connect their own greatness to the epic past, they came up with the idea of Rome being founded by one of Odysseus’ opponents, Aeneas of Troy.
And when the British wanted to come up with a reason their island nation should be great, they latched onto both Homer and Virgil and created their own epic around a character named Brutus, one of Aeneas’ companions. This story first appeared in Historia Brittonum in the 9th century, and it was still being repeated when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote three centuries later.
From Brutus, they got to the mythical king Arthur; and believe it or not, every British monarch since Edward I has claimed to be a descendant of Arthur. (Of course, Arthur probably is based on a historical person who would have lived around the time of the beginning of the 5th century CE – roughly the same time as St. Patrick and a number of other historio-mythical characters.)
Culturally, we have a longing to be a part of something, and that something is not just the Christian tradition Europe has bounced around for the past 1500 years or so. Europe reframed the Christian narrative within this great epic framework – what I am calling the Helleno-Romance-Briton Historical Epic because it is possibly the most awkward term ever devised.
I haven’t fully processed the idea yet, and it will probably come to nothing but it is lurking around the edges of my brain, so I figured I would write it out and let it gestate a bit.
One reason why Christianity has been the most successful of all world religions in crossing cultural boundaries is its adaptability. To be sure, this has not been manifested in all places and at all times, some missionary endeavors have been based on the premise that any rival belief system is of the devil and must be obliterated. Contrariwise, there have been occasions when, for the sake of number crunching, religious fundamentals have been sacrificed. On the whole, however, wise evangelists have understood not only that the gospel may be garbed in a variety of national costumes but that incorporating fresh customs and thought patterns actually enriches the life of new churches.
(Derek Wilson, Charlemagne, p 18)
Wilson’s words are actually a description of the success of Celtic Christianity in the 8th-12th centuries, but they apply equally to our postmodern world and our approach to evangelism.
In the past, the supremacy of the Western culture allowed Christianity an attitude of cultural supremacy in evangelism. In fact, the modern type of evangelism virtually required an attitude of superiority. Evangelists demanded that people of different views adopt their belief system, and that belief system was a dominate, colonial one in many cases. (I am aware that most evangelists were not representatives of state churches, but many of them still held onto the cultural trappings of their western dominions.)
In the postmodern age, we are confronted with a world that does not share our values and does not have a necessary reason to adopt our culture. For some, this is a discouraging notion. For me, it is an encouraging one. For the first time in a long time, the church is free to incorporate fresh customs and thought patterns – to enrich the life of the church of our age. This was the state of affairs in the birth of the Gentile church under Paul, in the birth of Celtic Christianity, in the subtle emergence of the Chinese church that thrives underground to this day.
That’s what I think anyway.
It is time once again for PEOPLE YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF WHO CHANGED THE WORLD!
Today, let’s look at Aetios the Eunuch.
In medieval Constantinople, eunuchs often played important roles in the operation of the imperial court. They were considered pure, although in reality they were often power-hungry and greedy.
Aetios was no exception. Throughout the period when Constantinople was under the influence (and eventually rule) of Irene of Athens (792-802), he struggled with his rival Staurakios to gain the upper hand.
After Charlemagne was declared Emperor of the Romans by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800, he sent an emissary to Constantinople suggesting the possibility of a marriage between himself and Irene. Although Irene seemed open to the idea, Aetios schemed against it and eventually arranged for Irene’s downfall.
What would have happened if Charlemagne and Irene had united the empire? It is hard to say. They were both older. Irene was nearly fifty and hardly of childbearing years. Charlemagne already had four sons, three of whom were adults, and Irene had her own son blinded and deposed. Could Charlemagne’s sons have ruled the empire together?
We’ll never know – because a eunuch no one has ever heard of managed to persuade Irene to refuse the proposal, and so doing, he changed the world.
It is time for another person you’ve never heard of who changed the world. This week, let’s look at Flavius Arbogast (died 364 CE).
In 380 CE, a Roman general named Magnus Maximus was declared emperor by his armies in Britain. He sailed his armies to Gaul and defeated the sitting western emperor Gratian and made peace with the eastern emperor Theodosius I. When Theodosius I marched against Maximus, he did so with an army that was sure to destroy him. Maximus’ army mutinied and handed him over to Theodosius who promptly had him executed.
To deal with any potential threats, Theodosius dispatched his junior general, Flavius Arbogast, to Britain to deal with any potential successors to Maximus. Arbogast found Maximus’ child son Flavius Victor in Britain and strangled him. With that simple, merciless act, Arbogast reversed the fortunes of the Romo-British people who had lived largely independent of the central imperial government. Although they remained independent (and pagan) until the early Middle Ages, Britain would not see any kind of power on the mainland of Europe until the 11th century and that came from their Norman king, William the Conqueror.
Later, Arbogast would usurp the control of the Western Empire and Theodosius would be forced to wage war against his trusted general. Arbogast committed suicide, a defeated and broken rebel who never appears in history books. But his single act of assassination may have changed the course of the history of the world.
If Flavius Victor had lived, would he have been able to unite the Romo-British and build a kingdom? Maximus may have overstretched by hoping to be emperor instead of simply king of the Britons. If Arbogast had not killed Flavius Victor, would Victor have been able to rule as such?
This longing for this unity lies under so much of the Arthurian legends that sprang up later. In fact, Magnus Maximus and Flavius Victor may have been the inspiration for much of the King Arthur legend.