The thirteenth century. The realm of myth (ours, not theirs)?

In our local library there is a shelf of books about the crusades, which happened in this century. Similarly, there is a wealth of writing available about the Cathars. Both episodes have gathered a literature and mythology around them.

So before embarking on our generation-by-generation exploration into the thirteenth century, I would like to paint a broad picture of what was at play.

The climate was warmer than now, the end of the time now known as the Mediaeval Warm period. In the west of Eurasia, people from Scandinavia were able to settle and farm in Iceland and Greenland. In the  east of Eurasia a remarkable leader appeared among the nomadic peoples of Mongolia. Temuchin united the tribes, was recognised as great khan, and then turned their attention outwards. He organised the horsemen into a formidable, coordinated fighting force. By the end of the century his descendants were rulers of China, Persia and Russia. As nomads they recognised the strengths of the settled cultures they met, adopted them and invigorated them. They encouraged learning. Hulagu Khan in Persia sponsored the establishment of the Maragha Observatory. As we have seen, Copernicus made use of the work done there when developing his heliocentric theory of the solar system.  The khans encouraged craftspeople and merchants. They kept the Great Silk Road open, linking China and the middle east. Friars were the first from Europe to travel it, followed by merchants. The most famous merchant known to us now is Marco Polo from Venice, who spent seventeen years in China. His stories of the wealth, extent and organisation of the court of Kublai Khan mesmerised his audiences. Christopher Columbus is said to have studied his book, when planning his trip over the Atlantic.

In the west, however, Temuchin was known as Genghis Khan, and was the greatly feared leader of the Mongol hordes sweeping in from the steppes.

That is the first view I would like to question. Why is it that Genghis Khan, who conquered more territory than Alexander the Great, is seen as a villain while Alexander the Great was seen as a hero? To organise a territory of such a size suggests that he must have been an extraordinary man. And as we shall see, he didn’t have a monopoly on violence.


The moslems  feared the destruction of their entire civilisation at the hands of these invaders from the east. Hulagu Khan, who set up the Maragha Observatory, also laid waste to Baghdad after the caliph didn’t capitulate immediately. He  had the caliph wrapped in a carpet and trampled to death by horses. It was profoundly shocking that the successor of the prophet should be killed. The libraries were destroyed too. It was said that the river ran black with ink from the books thrown into it. The christians were not killed, however, after some negotiation from representatives of the church in Rome.

It was feared that the moslem holy cities of Mecca and Medina would suffer a similar fate to Baghdad. But they didn’t, and within a generation the khan had converted to islam.

The christian west had an ambivalent attitude to the Mongols. Although greatly feared, they were also seen as potential allies against the muslims. Approaches were made. The Templars, those upstanding defenders of the pilgrim route to Jerusalem, fought with them. And here we approach myth number two.

I have read again and again that the Templars and Hospitallers were established to protect pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. Yet I have not found a single account from a pilgrim who received protection from them. Surely at least one would have been grateful enough to write about it? I have read, however, that the Hospitallers participated in the slave trade that existed in the eastern Mediterranean at the time. If I was a pilgrim travelling to the holy land I would steer clear of those knightly orders, in case they saw me as merchandise. However, the Templars in particular performed another function for travellers to the holy land. They were the first European bankers. A person could deposit funds at the Paris Temple, be issued with a credit note and redeem it later elsewhere, or use the funds as security for a loan. Kings, nobles, clergy and merchants as well as pilgrims made use of this service.

The crusades themselves, I am beginning to suspect, were part of a power struggle that was going on among the elites. The destabilising factor was the steady flow of ideas coming into western and northern Europe from the moslem world. Spain had seen a stream of open-minded young men from the north, willing to learn arabic so that they could translate the books they found there. Sicily was another conduit for ideas from the moslem world. The merchants from Pisa, Genoa and Venice also had good dealings with their moslem counterparts. The first universities had been set up in the twelfth century, and more were established in this one. Learning was no longer the exclusive preserve of the church. People started to think a bit more, and some of their questioning turned on the church itself. I think it is more helpful to see the crusades, both in southwest France and to the holy land, in the context of this and the increase in prosperity resulting from the warm climate. I suspect they were partly an attempt to suppress dissent and impose authority, partly diversionary tactics and partly an attack on the perceived source of those problematic new ideas: the moslem world.


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