Entering late antiquity, 540-600. Generations 428-430

Many people alive in this time felt that something was coming to an end. A monk called Gregory, who went on to become pope in 590, wrote that the world ‘was growing old and hoary, hastening to its approaching death’.

He had good reason to say so. These were troubled times.

The latest set of troubles began in the year 536. From Ireland across to China, cold weather and crop failures were reported. It was a year without a summer. The historian Procopius, based in Constantinople, wrote: “during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness… and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear”.

Evidence from ice cores says that it was caused by a volcano – and more to were to follow in the next five years.

Another source of trouble was the continuing migrations. The changing climate wasn’t a cause of the migrations, but may have exacerbated them. The edges of the Roman Empire – the rivers Danube and Rhine in central Europe, for example, had long been a fragile membrane, with the Empire in the settled agricultural lands surrounding the Mediterranean, and the more mobile alliances of peoples living on the less cultivatable land beyond. The peoples living just beyond the border were traditionally paid to stay put, but that system had already broken down. A couple of centuries previously the groups living beyond the frontier had found out how to work around the Roman policy of divide and rule. They formed alliances, too large for the Roman army to easily defeat, and then either invaded or negotiated a settlement of land within the Empire itself.

And the migrants kept on coming. Around 540 it was the Avars, originating from the Eurasian steppe. They moved into the Hungarian plain in particular, and in so doing displaced the Lombards who were the current occupants. The Lombards then moved south and invaded northern Italy. This region was already suffering from Justinian’s brutal recovery of it from the previous wave of invasions (by the ostrogoths), and so had nothing left to resist the next set of incomers. The Lombards moved in and used it as a base for further expansion. Part of northern Italy is still known as Lombardy.

And it got worse. Like the Mongols seven hundred years later, the Avars brought the bubonic plague. It reached Europe and the Mediterranean in 541, and was devastating. The creaking bureaucracies of the Roman Empire based in Constantinople and the Sasanian Empire based in Ctesiphon had to cope with a reduction in tax revenues resulting from the loss of up to a third of the populations. The revenues that were used to pay the armies were reduced, and consequently so were troop numbers.

The economic basis of the Roman and Persian empires was agricultural surplus. The estates produced more food than the inhabitants could eat, and paid taxes to the central administration in Constantinople or Ctesiphon. The richest agricultural region was in the middle east, between the two empires. So it made sense to concentrate what was left of the armies there. This was a period of continual war between Constantinople and Ctesiphon, to gain control of the near east from Anatolia to Mesopotamia. Sometimes the Persians took control, at others the Romans. The conflict must have been a drain on resources and difficult to sustain with everything else that was going on.

One of the other things that was going on was endless argument among christians. Christianity had been the official religion of the Roman Empire since 313, but that was a mixed blessing to most christians, as there were many versions of their faith. Empires, it would seem, are not good with ambiguity. So the continual arguments about the nature of Jesus (for example, was he a human like the rest of us, or divine and co-eternal with God, or both?) were not welcome. Anyone who strayed from the official view of the Roman church (that Jesus incarnated in a physical body but was also divine) was deemed a heretic.

Pope Gregory adhered to a strand of christianity that had more successfully integrated into the Roman church. The happiest period of his life, he said, was when he could shut all the troubles out and get on with being a monk. He followed in the footsteps of Benedict of Nursia, who died around 545. Benedict had pursued the ascetic strand of christianity and formalised it into a rule, which he applied in his new monastery at Monte Cassino in the south of Italy. His rule book had 73 chapters, covering the varieties of monasticism, the authority of the abbot, how to manage the day-to-day life of the monastery, even down to what the monks should wear in bed. Each monastery was a self-contained unit, answerable to its abbot.

Gregory turned his own family estate into a monastery – which for me is a clue as to what was going on. This was a continuation of the Roman economic model, of an estate providing an agricultural surplus. The estate was no longer the property of one aristocratic family, but was a monastery ruled by an abbot (or abbess). When times grew hard in the territories around Rome as the Lombards ventured further south, Gregory could call on the surplus from the monasteries to feed the displaced people. His success in doing so led to the foundation of the Papal States, a swathe across central Italy ruled directly by the papacy for the next 1400 years.

Gregory is also the source of one of the best-remembered bad puns from late antiquity. The story goes that he saw some blond slaves in the slave market in Rome. On enquiring where they were from, he was told they were Angles. ‘Not Angles but angels’, he is said to have replied. Gregory sent one of his monks, by the name of Augustine, to the land of the Angles to convert the pagans. Augustine set up his first monastery in Canterbury. Perhaps that set the stamp for christianity in England – the monastic system. And maybe that is why, a millennium later, Henry VIII targeted the monasteries. They followed the Roman model, owned large tracts of rich agricultural land across the country and did not answer to the king.


Emperor Justinian also had the basilica of Hagia Sofia built in this period, after its predecessor was burned down in riots. Later it was converted to a mosque, but the original structure is still there.

Generation 461, 1200-1220. Blood ties (and learning loosens)

The world of 40 generations ago was so different from the one we live in now, that I would like to recap a little, starting with the catholic north of Europe. Society was divided into three groups: those who work, those who pray and those who fight. Those who fought were defined by blood: either the connections through family bloodlines or in the spilling of blood in honourable combat. When not fighting each other in actual battles, they fought in tournaments, often to the death. Dying was to be feared only when it was dishonourable or when there was no heir to continue the bloodline, it seems. The focus was on continuity through the generations, on perpetuation of family honour. Because of the importance of bloodlines and inheritance, members of this group tended to marry each other. So the lords and their vassals from christian Spain through France to the Rhineland and England were often cousins to some degree or another.

A hereditary king was overlord of a region. His vassals swore allegiance to him, as their vassals did to them. And so the pyramid structure went down to the level of those who work, the lowest of whom were effectively the property of their lord and tied to a particular piece of land.

This led to some anomalies. The king of France was lord of a small area around Paris, but overlord of a much larger area, approximating to modern France. The king of England was wealthier than him and lord of a much larger area, but was vassal to the French king. He  owed him subservience for the lands of Anjou, Normandy and Aquitaine that he had inherited from his parents.

This viewpoint also offers an explanation as to why the crusades were so successful at recruiting soldiers. A crusade was a military venture, a request from those who pray to those who fight. The reward for participation or financial support was absolution from sins. So the fighter did not have any worries about honour. He knew that if he died, he would not besmirch his family’s reputation.

This was the context of the Albigensian crusade, which started its bloodiest phase in this generation. Count Raymond of Toulouse was vassal to king John of England, who was in turn a vassal of king Louis of France. The catholic church was hardly established at all in Occitania, so the people had their own understandings of christianity. As they were just over the Pyrenees from Al-Andalus, the Bible was probably more widely available there. A priest who did not practise what he preached was unlikely to be respected. It was not sufficient that he had been appointed by the church to the cure of their souls. But pope Innocent III was clever and ambitious. A papal legate visiting the region was murdered. This was considered to be Raymond’s responsibility. Carnage followed.

The nobility could not think beyond the importance of blood and the honour associated with its connection or shedding. When the fourth crusade to recover the holy places from the muslims was initially successful, the sultan of Egypt offered the holy land to the crusaders without a fight if they would leave Egypt. The crusaders refused. It would not have been honourable because no blood had been shed. So they stayed at Damietta in the Nile delta, were trapped by the Nile floods and were forced to return home without winning anything. That some of them would have the chance to die well was evidently more important than the ostensible aim of the crusade. One wonders if they would have seen it as a failure in the way that we do now.

Even when a king or emperor was elected, the candidates were from a narrow group defined by blood. And so it was that when it came to selecting the next Emperor of the Germans, the electors (also a hereditary group) chose a young man from Sicily who had never set foot there. This was Frederick II whom we have already met, who also became Holy Roman Emperor.


Frederick spoke Arabic and was immersed in muslim culture. Many of the population of Sicily spoke Arabic and were muslim. Frederick and this island were a bridge between two worlds.

Frederick loved learning, and he was not the only one. Young men with inquiring minds from all over the christian north had made their way south and east, to Al-Andalus in particular, to escape from the rigid society defined by blood. One such was a man called Michael, from Scotland, who probably paid his way by busking. Michael Scot ended up in Toledo and participated in the translation movement there. Frederick employed Michael as his court astrologer, so Michael moved to Palermo.

In Palermo, Michael worked on the translation of a commentary on Aristotle by Ibn Rushd, one of the towering figures of Al-Andalus  known in the west as Averroes, who had died in 1198. Frederick arranged for copies of this translation to be sent to each of the European universities.

The significance of this chain of events cannot be underestimated. It and others like it led to the world we are in now. The works of Aristotle had been incorporated into christian thought from the earliest times, and the inconsistencies between the works of this polytheistic, inquiring Greek and the revealed, devout christian worldview had been quietly ignored. This was no longer possible, especially as Averroes brought the rigorous muslim spirit of inquiry into his commentaries. After all, the Quran encouraged humans to use their faculty of enquiry to better understand the works of God around them:

“If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise.”

One such difficulty was: is the world eternal, as Aristotle said, or was it created at a particular point in time, as clearly stated in the Bible? And if the latter, what was God doing beforehand? Which then poses the question of  why  it was appropriate to create the world at one moment and not another. These questions quite simply had not occurred to christians before.  It had been sufficient for them to know that the events described in the Bible had happened. I wonder if exposure to them activated human mental circuitries that had previously been latent or underused in the christian north. No wonder the church tried to ban such discussions with its lists of prohibited subjects.

The collaboration between Frederick and Michael Scot led to another signifiant transfer of knowledge to the north from the muslim world. Leonardo of Pisa, known today as Fibonacci, was sponsored by them. When he was a boy Leonardo lived in Bugia in what is now Algeria where his father worked at the Pisan trading outpost. While in Bugia Leonardo studied Arabic mathematics and as an adult he wrote a textbook of what he had learned, called the Liber Abaci, ‘The Book of Calculation’. This book introduced hindu-arabic numerals to the north instead of the cumbersome roman ones. For example, how do we write fourteen divided by two equals seven? 14 / 2 = 7 or XIV / II = VII? The hindu-arabic numerals are much more economical and versatile. It took a long time, but the new numbering system eventually took on. ( The Fibonacci sequence  of 1,1,2, 3, 5, 8, 13 … for which he is most remembered nowadays was just one example in this book, by the way.). Michael Scot encouraged Leonardo, and the second edition of the Liber Abaci was dedicated to him.


I find it strange that even though I knew that Leonardo of Pisa introduced rather than discovered the new numbering system, I know nothing of the people he learned it from. It is as if they have been airbrushed out of history. I hope to correct this as we go further back in our story, if only to give credit where it is due.

But the muslim world also had an achilles heel in blood ties. Mohammed had replaced tribal bloodlinks with Ummah, the community of believers. After he died the first caliphs were chosen on the basis of merit. But then the blood kicked in, and within a few generations of his death the caliphate became hereditary, but with no agreed line of succession. Brothers and uncles fought among each other, often to the death. Stable transition of government was a perennial problem in the muslim world from then on.

A corner of the christian north explored an alternative way of working together. In 1215 in a field outside Oxford in England an agreement was made between the barons, the church and the king, setting out the rights and responsibilities of each. The norman system of trial by ordeal was replaced by one of trial by jury. One of the clauses of the Magna Carta that is still part of English law says:

“NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

Pope Innocent III hated it and repudiated it as soon as he heard of it. But the idea never went away. It was read in the towns every year, renewed by successive kings (initially with great reluctance) and became the basis of the English parliament.


Generation 482, 1620-1640. Shifting focus.

The thirty years war was a fact of life for all of this generation if you lived in Europe. It was fought mainly in northern and central Europe, especially Germany and the Habsburg Empire (present day Austria, Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland). At different times Denmark, France and Sweden also sent troops to fight.

Looking back from here, I begin to suspect one reason why the supporters of the Roman Catholic church fought so bitterly and for so long. Something was slipping out of their grasp. The light of learning, enterprise, human curiosity was moving north. It found a home in the countries that largely escaped the fighting: France, England and the Netherlands.

For example, there is the story of William Harvey. Born in the south of England, a clever young man from a middle-class family, he went to Cambridge University, graduating as a Bachelor of Arts. To continue his studies after graduation, he went to the best establishment in Europe for medical studies: Padua in Italy. After studying there for four years he came back to England, returned to Cambridge and graduated as Doctor of Medicine within the year.

William Harvey is now remembered as a pioneer because he was one of a growing group who trusted the evidence of their own investigations rather than relying on books. Conventional medical science in his day was still based on books written by long-dead authorities. The standard theory of the blood, over 1300 years old, was that arterial and venous blood were different and separate. The heart was the source of heat and arterial blood in the body. Venous blood was created in the liver. From his own researches on animals, Harvey proposed that arterial and venous blood were part of the same system. He wrote that the blood circulates through the heart and lungs, around the body and back to the heart. He did not have access to a microscope, although it was invented around this time, so he could not see the capillaries that lie between the arteries and the veins. He proposed that they should be there, however, and was eventually proved right.


The anatomy lesson, Rembrandt 1631

For intellectual backup, Harvey could rely on the work of another remarkable Englishman from the previous generation. Francis Bacon also travelled and studied in southern Europe before returning to England. In his book Novum Organum (New Method), published in 1620,  he laid the basis for the scientific method. He warned of the danger of preconceptions, whether from previously written ideas or the prevailing orthodoxy, and championed the value of open-minded  enquiry and interpretation of observations. In his novel ‘New Atlantis’, published in 1623, he imagined a world where such open-minded exploration was the norm. A century later Voltaire described him as the father of experimental philosophy.

Mathematics was also explored in this generation. Some of the symbols we use now came from this period. English mathematicians devised the multiplication symbol (x) and the ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’ signs (> and <). French mathematicians went into mathematical speculation. Pierre de Fermat pondered his ‘last theorem’. Scribbled in the margin was a note that he didn’t have time to write out the proof. (The proof was finally worked out in 1995 by Andrew Wiles). France also had a brilliant networker, a priest in Paris called Marin Mersenne. As well as conducting his own researches into music theory, he corresponded with mathematicians in France and elsewhere, keeping them up-to-date with new developments and introducing them to each other.


From the perspective of now, it seems to me that the deciding factor for this new spirit in the north was not the established religion. After all, France was catholic, the Netherlands were Calvinist protestant, and the reformed Church of England was a sort of cut-down Roman catholicism without Rome or the pope. But in each of these countries, people were relatively free to explore the new ideas. The new energy that was felt in these countries had another expression. The ‘Mayflower’ sailed to north America with English and Dutch settlers, the start of a wave of emigration across the Atlantic. In catholic Italy, on the other hand, the elderly Galileo was forced to publicly recant his view that the Earth moves around the Sun, because it was deemed to conflict with the teachings of the church.