Generation 465, 1280-1300. Assimilating new influences

For this generation, one of the most exciting places to be was Toledo in Spain. This was the high point of the translation school, in which moslems, christians and jews collaborated on the translation of books from arabic, greek and hebrew. Scholars came from northern Europe to meet and work with the translators. King Alfonso X of Castile requested that the translations be made into Castilian Spanish, not Latin as had previously been the norm, to make the learning more widely accessible.  This had the side-effect of establishing Castilian as a national language, just as Dante’s decision to write in the vernacular established the Italian language in the following generation. By the end of this generation Alfonso was dead and the school was disbanded by his successor.

However, its influence was felt. This generation also saw the peak (literally) of gothic cathedral-building. The highest church nave ever was attempted at Beauvais in northern France. Part of it collapsed when the builders pushed beyond the limits of what was possible. But they rebuilt the nave, with more reinforcements, reaching a height of 48 metres.

choir beauvais cathedral

I suspect that as we go on in our story we shall see the influence of muslim architects and glassmakers in the inspiration for these breathtaking, magnificent buildings that are still to be seen across northern Europe from Britain through France to Germany. Standing inside one of these marvellous churches today we can feel the resonances, perhaps even register something of the new influences that the builders were responding to and trying to give expression to.

But back to Spain. During this generation the merchants from Catalonia, particularly Barcelona, played a greater part in the Mediterranean trade that had hitherto been dominated by Genoa, Pisa and Venice. Aragon (which included Catalonia) was extending its influence.

The Aragonese profited from an abuse of power that took place in Sicily, for example. Sicily had been another place of meeting of influences, from the muslim world, the Mediterranean and northern Europe. A generation previously a French pope had imposed a French king on the Sicilians, having fallen out with the previous incumbent and even launched a crusade against him. Once installed in Sicily, the new king Charles of Anjou started to to have ambitions, even making plans to invade Constantinople. For this he needed funds, so he taxed the Sicilians.

But sometime people are pushed too far. After Vespers on the evening of Easter Monday, March 30th 1282 outside a church in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, a French soldier made an inappropriate advance to a Sicilian lady. Her husband came to her defence and attacked him, killing him. The husband’s compatriots joined in. Within a month or so thousands of French had been killed. Charles gave up his claim to the island and with it his plans for a pan-Mediterranean empire. A relative of the dynasty he had ousted with the pope’s help was married to a prince from Aragon. And so the Aragonese came to Sicily.

Further north in Italy, the power struggles of the merchant city-states had an unintended consequence. Genoa sent a navy into the Adriatic, to challenge Venice. They defeated the Venetians and took the surviving crews of the galleys as prisoners back to Genoa. One of the prisoners was a merchant called Marco Polo, who ended up in a room in Genoa with a poet called Rustichello from Pisa. Marco told Rustichello the story of his travels along the Great Silk Road, the time he spent in the service of Kublai Khan in Cathay, and his return by sea. Rustichello wrote it all down.

Marco Polo was able to make this trip because the Mongols had joined up the known world. It was possible to travel across central Asia, and he was not the only one to take advantage of the opportunity presented to him. A couple of generations previously a friar from Flanders, William of Rubruck, had made the trip to Karakorum in Mongolia, the headquarters of the Mongol Empire. Once there, he found French and German craftsmen living and working in the town.

Clearly, some people felt that it was safe to travel to central and eastern Asia. This suggests to me that there was more to the Mongols than the mindless violence for which they are mostly remembered in the west. Both William of Rubruck and Marco Polo described with respect and admiration the organisation of the societies they met, the variety of religious beliefs (including Nestorian Christians, Saracens or muslims, and idolaters, probably buddhists) and the open-mindedness of the khans. They were both invited to participate in public discussions with adherents of other religions about the merits of their different beliefs.

This opening of communication with the east must have had consequences in the west. To hear about countries and civilisations more sophisticated than one’s own is a lot to take in. It must alter a person’s view of the world.

In the moslem world, the place to be was Cairo. After the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in the previous generation, many of the scholars had made their way here.

To take a couple of examples:

Ibn al-Nafis wrote a description of the circulation of the blood which overturned Galen’s view that arterial and venous blood were separate, and described how the blood mixes with air in the lungs. It could be reasonably asserted that the discovery of the circulation of the blood should be attributed to him rather than the Englishman William Harvey 350 years later.

Qutb al-din Al-Shirazi was a scholar and diplomat, originally from Shiraz in Persia, who probably met Ibn al-Nafis when he was sent on a mission to the Mamluk sultans of Egypt in 1282. He identified previous astronomical observations as transits of Venus.

Qutb al-din al-Shirazi's manuscript

Here is a page from one of al-Shirazi’s manuscripts further exploring one of the perennial problems for muslim astronomers: the movement of the planets.

During this generation the Mamluk sultans also evicted the crusaders from their last stronghold in the holy land, from Acre. The Frankish kingdom of Outremer was no more.


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