Generation 463, 1240-1260. A man who nearly changed the world

This generation began with one of the moments when the world could have taken a completely different turn – and then didn’t. This backwards history of the human race began with generation 500, now, with the western technology that allows me to write this blog and you to read it. In generation 463 the few who could read and write were from the privileged classes, or came to their attention. Now, in generation 500 I am one of the millions of people who have learned to read and write, and who thanks to the internet can explore huge banks of information that were unimaginable even a couple of generations ago. Who knows how different our story would have been if one man in east Asia hadn’t died after a heavy drinking session.

It is a mystery to me what motivated the Mongols. Genghis Khan had died in the previous generation and at the beginning of this one his successor, his son Ogedei, had been Great Khan for over ten years. He built the city of Karakorum in central Mongolia as a base from which to oversee his enormous empire, which was still expanding. He introduced a currency, tribute, tax collections, and an ambitious communications network. The armies were huge and carried what they needed. Each soldier had a string of horses. They brought their tents, their gers, which could be dismantled and reassembled. What was it that enabled the leaders of these armies to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homeland, probably never to see it again,  and travel to China, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, central Asia, Persia, Russia, Poland and Hungary? It can’t have been plunder. They were nomads, used to finding what they needed from the land, and moving for new pasture for their herds. Loot would slow them down, an encumbrance of the settled peoples they clearly despised. Whatever it was that drove them, it was a powerful incentive.

As each of the armies moved out they set up a way station every twenty-five miles, where horses would be kept ready if a message had to be carried. A rider arrived, changed horses and continued on to the next station and the next until he was exhausted. Then the message was transferred to another rider who would continue across the vast distances. One such message was carried in 1241 from Karakorum to the armies in Hungary, a distance of about 4000 miles. At an average of 100 miles a day, it probably took just over a month to arrive.

These armies were led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu and the most successful single general in history in terms of territory conquered, a man called Subutai. The armies were versatile, disciplined and fast. They used siege engines and gunpowder, learnt from the Chinese, and on their small fast ponies the riders could manoeuvre around the lumbering knights who confronted them, to aim their arrows at the weak points in their armour. They are the only army I know of that won a winter campaign in Russia. They were hard people, used to the cold and seemingly unafraid of dying. They were cruel to those who did not submit immediately, but were willing to work with those who did. A Russian hero from this time is Alexander Nevsky, who cooperated with them and saved many of his people as a consequence, to the disgust of some of the Russian nobility.

Batu Khan and Subutai’s armies destroyed a string of cities in Russia, Poland and the Caucasus, had just overrun Hungary and were poised to move on into the Holy Roman Empire, with the aim of stopping only when they reached the sea. Then the rider came with the message from Karakorum. The Great Khan Ogedei, who was fond of alcohol, had died after a drinking session. A new khan would have to be elected. General Subutai wanted to continue west but was overruled by Batu and the other members of Genghis Khan’s family. The entire army packed up and went back home. It took a few years for a successor to be agreed upon and in the following years the armies concentrated on moving south into Persia and east into China. Europe, despite the inability of its rulers to work together and present a united front against the horsemen, escaped that fate. Who knows what Europe would now be like if Ogedei hadn’t died at that point, leading to the withdrawal of the armies.

The Mongols were pragmatic rulers. As long as the tribute came in, they didn’t mind what belief system the subject peoples adhered to. In Karakorum there were christians, moslems and buddhists, all tolerated. This inspired the pope in Rome to see an opportunity for converts or collaboration against the moslems, as the crusades to the holy land were not going too well. It also led to opportunities for misunderstanding.

The pope sent an emissary, a franciscan friar called Giovanni da Pian del Carpini (known in English as John of Plano Carpini) with a message of peace. He wasn’t to know that the Mongol language had no word for ‘peace’. The nearest translation was ‘submission’. Ogedei’s successor Guyuk Khan sent a reply, which has been preserved in the Vatican Library.

letter from guyuk khan

Here it is, written in Persian, Turkish and Arabic. Guyuk Khan refuses to leave the territories the armies have conquered, refuses to convert to christianity and demands tribute from the pope and the other christian princes. Not likely to lead to a meeting of minds.

The focus of attention in this generation seems to have been about power. In the far west of Europe, away from the attentions of the Mongols, a different debate was taking place. A couple of generations previously the English barons had negotiated an agreement with king John. Known as the Magna Carta, it updated and codified the relationship between the three holders of power in England: the monarch, the church and the barons. The concept of separation of powers, which existed before the Norman conquest but had since lapsed, was revived and written down. In this generation king John’s son Henry had tried to evade the obligations of the Magna Carta and a new document was drawn up: the Provisions of Oxford. This was the birth of the English parliament. The Provisions of Oxford even included the idea of elected representatives. Further battles, sometimes physical, between the king and the barons continued over the following generation, but it was as if the idea once expressed would not go away.

Matthew paris's map of Britain.

Something was being born in the British Isles. Maybe because it was an island, there was even a sense of the nation state long before it emerged elsewhere. Here is a map of Britain from this period, drawn by the chronicler Matthew Paris.

The battle between the three power groups in the British Isles can be traced over the following centuries, through the Reformation three centuries later in which the power of the church was curbed, to the civil war in which the monarchy was restrained, on to the nineteenth century in which the franchise was extended.

Another power struggle was going on in mainland Europe. The church was attempting to stamp its authority. Anyone who did not submit to its structures was designated a heretic. The Albigensian Crusade in southwest France came to an end in this generation, with the siege of the last heretic stronghold at Montsegur in the Pyrenees. However the crusade had not achieved its stated objective of stamping out heresy. During this generation the entire adult population of the Lauragais, the area southwest of Toulouse, was summoned for interrogation by the inquisition. Also during this generation the pope sanctioned the use of torture by the inquisitors for the first time. It would seem that the Dominican friars who were entrusted with the interrogations felt that they needed more powers to achieve their objective. Clearly heresy had not been eradicated.

But maybe the Albigensian Crusade was successful in other ways. The king of France was nominally ruler of this region, but below the level of his overlordship it was a messy picture. The Count of Toulouse was subject to the king of England, and the kings of Aragon had claim to parts of  the east of the Languedoc. After the Albigensian Crusade this region was decisively part of France. I can’t help wondering if in fact this is what the whole venture was mainly about.


Generation 464, 1260-1280. Destruction and brilliance

So much that still resonates with us now can be traced back to this generation.

Let’s start in the oases of central Asia. Earlier in the century the Mongols had devastated a swathe of cities that saw the flowering of Persian culture. Balkh, Bokhara, Gurganj, Merv, Samarkand … They separated out the craftsmen and others with useful skills and sent them to other parts of the empire, to work for them. The women and children were sold as slaves. The able-bodied men were divided into groups, each assigned to a soldier who then killed them. No  mention is made of what happened to the old people. We can imagine they were probably left to die. The cities themselves were destroyed, by breaching dams and flooding them or otherwise breaking the irrigation systems on which they depended. If it was still on a trade route the city might be rebuilt, such as Samarkand. Otherwise the sands blew over them and they existed only in memory, to be rediscovered by archaeologists centuries later.

One family fled from Balkh in what is now northern Afghanistan, ahead of the Tartar tide. By the time we are in now their son was  in Konya in eastern Anatolia, modern-day Turkey. His books of poetry are still read and loved. His name was Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.

Rumi wrote so many beautiful and wise things. Here are a couple, both of which feel timeless to me:

‘The lion who breaks the enemy’s ranks is a minor hero compared to the lion who overcomes himself.’

‘Little by little, wean yourself. This is the gist of what I have to say. From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood, move to an infant drinking milk, to a child on solid food, to a searcher after wisdom, to a hunter of more invisible game.’

But the Mongol advance continued. Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu was given the task of completing his grandfather’s work of conquering the moslem world, and was even more ruthless than Genghis. In 1257 the caliph of Baghdad believed his city was inviolable and refused to surrender to the infidel invaders. Because he had resisted, Hulagu had every non-christian in the city killed. Hundreds of thousands of people were massacred. He spared the christians because his mother, wife and general of his army were all Nestorian christians.

Hulagu sent some of his army to complete what his grandfather had not been able to do, to defeat the small Shia sect known as the Assassins at their mountain stronghold of Alamut south of the Caspian Sea, in modern-day Iran. And here we meet the next brilliant man from this generation.

Nasir al-din al-Tusi was a survivor. He had lived and worked at Alamut for thirty years. The Assassins had a fierce reputation, so it would not have been most people’s choice of residence. When the Mongols arrived, he persuaded Hulagu to sponsor the establishment of an astronomical observatory at Maragha, three hundred miles to the west of Alamut, possibly with the incentive of offering astrological predictions.  However, as we have seen, Maragha then became a centre of learning, attracting scholars from Europe to China.

As well as making contributions to astronomy, al-Tusi invented trigonometry as a separate mathematical discipline. He was interested in evolution, too. And remember Einstein’s famous quote: that energy cannot be destroyed, it can only change its form? Here is al-Tusi’s statement of the same principle, six and a half centuries earlier:

“A body of matter cannot disappear completely. It only changes its form, condition, composition, colour and other properties and turns into a different complex or elementary matter.”

Al-Tusi also made contributions to a debate that was polarising catholic Europe. A new institution had appeared a century earlier, first in Bologna, then in Paris, Oxford and other European cities. The universities were independent of  both emperor and church. Their common language was latin. Scholars grouped around a particular master, who themselves were grouped into faculties: of law, arts, medicine, philosophy and theology, among others.

The faculty of theology grew increasingly alarmed that the other faculties were encroaching on to its territory. In 1270 the bishop of Paris issued a list of thirteen subjects that were out of bounds for discussion by the philosophers. To do so was to engage in heresy. This was one of many lists that were issued during the century – meaning that not much attention was being paid to the prohibitions.

The banned subjects highlight tensions in the world view.  Is everything governed by God, or can a human make their own mind up? How can God possibly even know everything that is going on? Do we learn about God by studying the creation, or by studying christian doctrine? And if by studying the works of God for ourselves, what is the role of the church?

Into this debate came another brilliant thinker. Originally from the province of Aquino in southern Italy, Thomas of Aquino, known now as St Thomas Aquinas came from a noble family. He was sent to Monte Cassino as a child, to train as a priest. There he met the new mendicant order of Dominicans, and joined them. This was not the career path his family had in mind for him. They kidnapped him, took him back home and tried to tempt him away from this ascetic lifestyle choice. However, Thomas was rigorous in his thinking, independent-minded and not likely to be swayed by anything other than more powerful arguments than the ones he put forward. His family eventually gave up the struggle and let him go.

He went on to study at Naples and Paris Universities. He was  meticulous, painstaking and dogged in his researches into the questions that were convulsing Paris, so in the period under discussion the Dominican order sent him back there to try to calm things down. He wrote voluminously. His masterwork, the Summa Theologica, is the most thorough exploration of what it means to be human that I have ever read. He asks, what is happiness, what is joy, what is good and hundreds of other questions. With each question he goes on to ask where do these qualities reside, what are the arguments against, what are those for, what is his conclusion, on and on for three volumes.

In other words, he used the very God-given power of independent thought that the bishop was fulminating against, and so found many of his own ideas condemned by the church.  He probably incorporated enough of the new ideas that were coming from the moslem world that could be safely absorbed by the christian north without causing major ruptures. He steered a middle path. Within a couple of generations his contribution was recognised and he was canonised.

There were other brilliant thinkers in this generation: Roger Bacon in Oxford, Gregory Bar Hebraeus from Ebra in modern Turkey (also now a saint) to name two. But those three remarkable men give a flavour of what a lively time this was.

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.