Generation 462, 1220-1240. Turbulent times

So much happened in this generation. In order to even start to make sense of it all, I feel the need for a list. It includes

– the christian reconquest of Spain,

– the Albigensian Crusade in southwest France,

– the emergence of the Franciscan and Dominican friars (both Francis of Assisi and Dominic Guzman died in this generation),

– the flourishing of the troubadours initially in Occitania but  spreading further afield,

– the great gothic cathedrals of northern France, England and across to the Rhineland,

– the founding of more European universities after Paris, Bologna and Oxford a century earlier,

– a papal PR disaster. The pope excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor, who then went on to recover Jerusalem by negotiation, without any fighting apart from when he was attacked by the christians deprived of a fight.

– Genghis Khan died after destroying so much of central Asian culture that much of it never recovered.

Starting in the west, in the Iberian peninsula. The previous generation had seen the first battle along religious lines between Christians and Moors, at Las Navas de Tolosa. Previously the muslim and christian principalities and dukedoms had formed alliances amongst each other. Remember the name El Cid? That was the name given by the Moors to Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar a century previously. He was one of the many christian lords who fought for the Moors.

But  Las Navas de Tolosa was a turning point, It was christian against muslim for the first time, and the christians won, decisively. The Reconquista gained momentum, as the christian kings pushed the Moors back towards the south of the peninsula. Cordoba, once the greatest city in Europe and capital of the Moorish sultanate of al-Andalus, fell to the christians in this generation. Over the following centuries it declined, its population falling from nearly a million inhabitants to a few thousand by the eighteenth century. The glory days were over. ‘The ornament of the world’ became a backwater. By the following generation the only muslim sultanate left on the Iberian peninsula was Granada, which survived for a couple of hundred years more only by paying a heavy tribute to its christian overlords.

cordoba mosque

Here is part of the mosque at Cordoba, converted into a cathedral after the reconquest.

The pope had named the christian Reconquista a crusade. ‘Crusade’ meant that anyone who contributed financially or fought in it would be absolved from their sins. A dangerous precedent, which led to abuses over the following generations and was one of the grievances that led to the protestant reformation three centuries later.

Moving to the north of Spain, the troubadours of Occitania travelled south of the Pyrenees to visit the different dukedoms and kingdoms that made up the region. Catalan is now the nearest language to Occitan and is also spoken on both sides of the mountain chain. There were two classes of troubadours – the composers and the players or jongleurs. Although they came from all classes, many of the famous troubadours came from noble families. They represented a whole culture and exchange of ideas. They sang about love, usually an ideal love, and about current events. Their influence spread east to Sicily and north to the Rhine, where they were known as minnesingers (literally, love singers).

But the Occitan language, the language of this rich poetic culture, was a casualty of a tragedy unfolding just north of the Pyrenees. The Albigensian Crusade reached its official end in this generation. It was championed by the king in the north of France, and by 1229 it ended without achieving its primary objective of eradicating heresy. However, after 1229 this region was now firmly part of France and the Occitan language was demoted to a dialect.

Continuing northwards, something extraordinary was happening in northern France, across to England in the west and the Rhineland in the east. This was the time of the gothic cathedrals, soaring structures that used innovations in architecture to create a space that is suffused with light. An architect of the twentieth century memorably said that a house is a machine for living. Walking into one of these cathedrals, it feels like a machine to activate the human connection to the rest of the Creation. The pointed gothic arch was already known in the muslim world, as was the art of coloured glass making. But the cathedral builders of northern Europe created something quite other with these new ideas.

interior of Reims cathedral

Here is the interior of Reims Cathedral, (image courtesy of Eric Pouhier) completed just before this generation.

How to make sense of all of these events? Where is the narrative, the common thread?

Here is my first attempt.

I think it is to do with the cultural mixing that was going on between the christian and muslim worlds. They carried very different approaches to religion, very different worldviews. For the christians, the yearning was to live a righteous life. There is a timeless quality when you listen to christian devotional music. It soars, just like one of those magnificent cathedrals. The monks, nuns and other practitioners of the religion didn’t care about the ‘how’ or the ‘when’. They felt it and responded to the timeless truths, giving expression to them as best they could.

The muslims had a very different drive.They were given permission to explore the works of God, to understand them and make sense of them and put it all together. Towards this end they had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. They explored the works of the ancient Greeks, the Persians, Indians and Chinese. They translated texts and wrote commentaries, looked for patterns, built devices.

The christian north could not resist this drive to make sense of the Creation that came out of Spain, Sicily and the middle East. The troubadours put it into song. The cathedral builders built structures that had not been seen in the muslim world. And the politicians – kings, popes and barons, tried to put the lid on such dangerous independence of thinking. Those who questioned the authority of the church hierarchy and its sometimes less-than-holy priests were declared to be heretics. The two new mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, escaped the label of heresy because although espousing poverty they never questioned the church itself. They gave their allegiance to the pope. The universities tried to control the dangerous new ideas too. We have seen how the bishop of Paris published a list of forbidden subjects. The fact that these lists were so frequently re-issued suggests that not many people paid attention to them.

So my first understanding of the many different events from this time is that there was an attempt to assimilate a new frequency.

I’ll finish the story of this generation with the papal PR disaster.

One of the largest characters of this time was the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. Despite his German name, he lived in Sicily and was the grandson of  the Norman Roger II. He was known variously as the antichrist, stupor mundi (the wonder of the world) and al-Emberor. Sicily was still largely muslim, and Frederick embraced islamic culture. He learned Arabic. He was an expert on falconry and wrote a book about it, introducing the practice of hooding falcons. It was said that when the muezzin’s call for prayers was heard his court came to a stop, as most of the staff were muslim. He brought a giraffe to northern Italy as part of his retinue, a gift from the Sultan of Cairo. The pope was profoundly suspicious of him, especially as Frederick’s territories bordered the papal states both to the north and the south.

For some reason, Frederick agreed to lead a Crusade to the Holy Land, to attempt to recover Jerusalem which had been retaken by the muslims. As a lever, the pope threatened excommunication if he did not leave by a certain date. The armies gathered in south-west Italy in the summer of 1227 in readiness for the sea crossing. In the summer heat an epidemic took hold in the camp. Frederick attempted to leave but was too ill. As he had failed to meet the deadline, the pope excommunicated him.

Frederick recovered, and despite being excommunicated continued with the crusade. Not only that, by long and patient negotiation he managed to win Jerusalem for the christians, on condition that muslims could still pray there. Because he was excommunicated he was not allowed in any of the churches, but he went in anyway. The patriarch of Jerusalem was furious and refused to meet him. The Knights Templar and Hospitaller weren’t pleased either. They’d been deprived of a fight – and how would they hold on to these territories after Frederick had gone back home? He was pelted with rotten food as he approached their citadel at Acre. He went back to Sicily, only to find that the pope had excommunicated him again and launched a crusade against him. He was popular with the people of southern Italy, however, and defeated the pope’s army.

And so it was that an excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor achieved the aim of the crusade, that nobody else had been able to do, and received no thanks at all for it.


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