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.

Generations 453-455, 1040-1100. Constantinople calls for help

(As I said in my last post, I feel that I am travelling without a map. This post is an outline map. If it was in a book it would be in a textbox, next to the main narrative. It gives the background for the story I am interested in, which is not about kings and battles but ideas and perceptions.)

During the eleventh century there was an unstoppable movement of people expanding out from central Asia, and another uncannily similar one in northern Europe. Constantinople was caught between them, and suffered the attentions of both.

Let’s look at the Asian one first. For a long time the caliphs in Baghdad had bought boys in the slave markets on the northern border of their empire, from what is now Turkmenistan. They were mistrustful of local arab or persian vested interests and so chose an imperial guard who would be loyal to them alone.The boys were kept separate and trained to be the caliph’s personal bodyguard. They were known as the mamluks, the slaves. For most people in Baghdad the mamluks were the nearest they got to the caliphate. Eventually the caliph moved them out of Baghdad to Samarra, and then moved there to be with them.

The qualities that made the mamluks so desirable as elite soldiers were there also in the people left behind. They were brave and strong. One clan, the Seljuks, expanded out of Turkmenistan in 1040 and became known as the Seljuk Turks. They soon adopted islam, in a rough-and-ready version that suited them. They had no written language and didn’t bother to learn Arabic, the language in which the Qu’ran was written. In their rapid wave of conquest they left the caliphate alone and adopted the title of sultans, the sword arm of the caliphate.

Khorasan province, over the border from Turkmenistan in northern Persia, was undergoing a cultural renaissance at this time. The Seljuk prince to whom it was assigned appointed a brilliant Persian administrator, Nizam al-Mulk. When the prince became sultan in 1053, he took his accomplished secretary with him. In so doing, he was playing to the strengths of each culture. The Seljuks were the fighters, the sultans, the Persians with their sophisticated culture were the viziers, the administrators. And the Arabs, with their legacy going back to Mohammed four hundred years previously, carried the law.

Nizam al-Mulk (meaning ‘Order of the Realm’) organised tax collection, set up communication systems and a police force. But he is most remembered for the establishment of institutes of higher education. They were named ‘nezamiyah’ after him. They were sponsored by the ruling families and the elites.The brilliant thinker Al-Ghazali, whom we have already met, was appointed to run the nizamiyah in Baghdad in 1091.The nezamiyah inspired the establishment of madrasas across the muslim world, and some say that European universities can also be traced back to them.

khorasan_map_smImage courtesy of the Textile Museum, Washington DCUSA

The new sultan was named Alp Arslan, ‘heroic lion’, by his troops. He was over six feet tall. It was said that he grew his moustache so long that when he rode his horse it flew behind him like twin braids. Alp Arslan and his army moved along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, along the edges of the Empire. By 1068 they had reached the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia.

Well, now we call it the Byzantine Empire. At the time it saw itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire, tracing its lineage back to Emperor Constantine and beyond. This was where the Roman Empire had adopted christianity. The current emperor, Romanos IV Diogenes, decided to take the invaders on.

With a large but ill-equipped, undisciplined army he was able to keep them at bay for three years. Alp Arslan was wary of confronting Romanos head-on, but the two armies eventually met at Manzikert in what is now eastern Turkey in 1071. Romanos was unlucky, lost the battle, was captured and brought to Alp Arslan. Surprisingly, Alp Arslan did not kill him but released him with the promise of a large ransom.

Map_of_the_Anatolian_Seljuk_SultanateManzikert is just north of Lake Van, below the ‘E’ of Armenia. Image courtesy of Muslim Heritage

Romanos IV did not survive the humiliation on his return to Constantinople. He was deposed, blinded and exiled. He died of his wounds from the blinding, in 1072 at the age of 42. Alp Arslan himself died the same year and at same age, murdered while on campaign in his ancestral homelands of central Asia.

The victors named their new territory the Sultanate of Roum, after the Roman Empire that they had won it from. In time it became known as Turkey.

Now we need to skip across a continent, to north-west Europe. A few centuries earlier a similar group of brave and fierce-looking invaders had moved out from Scandinavia in their beautiful sleek boats. They colonised Greenland and Iceland to the north-west. They travelled Russia through the river systems, making settlements as far south as the Caspian Sea and near Constantinople itself. They also moved down the North Sea and repeatedly raided settlements in the British Isles. In the tenth century one group settled in northern France, where they became known as the men of the north, Norsemen, and eventually Normans. Their land became known as Normandy. They adopted the local language and religion, and then set off on another wave of conquest in the period under discussion. I suspect that 1066, the year of the Norman invasion of England, is engraved on the English national psyche just as strongly as 1789 is in the French or 1776 in the USA.

In the early eleventh century some Normans went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and on the way back found some opportunities to do what they did best: fighting. Sicily was under muslim control and a large part of southern Italy was ruled from Constantinople. In 1047 Robert Guiscard, the sixth son of a minor noble and so with no prospects at home in Normandy, arrived with five horsemen and thirty foot-followers to take his chances. By 1070 he was the ruler of southern Italy and Sicily. A generation later his son was crowned king of Sicily.

The historian Anna Comnena, the daughter of Romanos’ successor Alexius Comnenus, was fascinated and appalled by the Normans. Here is what she had to say about Robert Guiscard:

“This Robert was Norman by birth, of obscure origins, with an overbearing character and a thoroughly villainous mind; he was a brave fighter, very cunning in his assaults on the wealth and power of great men; in achieving his aims absolutely inexorable, diverting criticism by incontrovertible argument. He was a man of immense stature, surpassing even the biggest men; he had a ruddy complexion, fair hair, broad shoulders, eyes that all but shot out sparks of fire. In a well-built man one looks for breadth here and slimness there; in him all was admirably well-proportioned and elegant… Homer remarked of Achilles that when he shouted his hearers had the impression of a multitude in uproar, but Robert’s bellow, so they say, put tens of thousands to flight.” (from the Alexiad of Anna Comnena)

The invasion of Sicily marked the beginning of the slow decline of muslim occupation of Europe. In 1085 the christian rulers of northern Spain captured Toledo from the muslim rulers. Al-Andalus was also in political disarray at this time after the disintegration of the central caliphate in Cordoba in 1031. It was known as the Taifa period, a taifa being a small emirate. From then on, the many states in al-Andalus never became strong enough to resist the christians from the north for long.

Muslim merchants were not permitted to settle in non-muslim countries, but christians and jews were. This period saw the beginning of the Italian trading city-states, first Amalfi, Pisa and Genoa, and later Venice. Another factor leading to the decline of muslim power and the beginning of the end of the muslim golden age?

There was one more destabilising factor in this period, a really strange one. South of the Caspian Sea not far from where Alp Arslan’s army would have marched, a teacher called Hassan-i-Sabbah captured the mountain fortress of El-Alamut, the Eagle’s Nest, in 1090. He was a member of a shia sect (definitely not mainstream shia) and he was going to put a stop to those sunni Seljuks. He didn’t have a large army so he turned to the most effective way he could think of. He trained young men in the art of political murder. They became known as the assassins. They planned each assassination well in advance for maximum impact. Most of them were carried out in public, during Friday prayers. The assassins themselves expected to be killed straight after they had accomplished their mission, as indeed they invariably were. Nizam al-Mulk, Alp Arslan’s secretary, was one of their victims. The assassins continued their activities, adding another layer of fear in an already uncertain world, until the Mongol invaders captured El-Alamut over a century later.

This is the context of the Crusades, which began in 1095. The Seljuk Turks with their robust version of islam were less tolerant of pilgrims to Jerusalem than the shia Fatimid caliphs, based in Cairo, whom they replaced. The news of harsh treatment at the hands of unbelievers began to filter back to Europe. Secondly Romanos’ successor as Emperor of Constantinople, Alexius Comnenus, decided to overcome his dislike of the papacy and ask for help against the Turks. He was concerned that otherwise they might be wiped off the map. He sent a delegation in 1095, to meet the pope at Piacenza.

Alexios_I_KomnenosAlexius Comnenus

The request reached a pope who had difficulties of his own. Pope Urban continued the work of his predecessors, trying to carve out the authority of his church and impose it on rulers such as Robert Guiscard and the equally troublesome German Emperor. Giving them all an external enemy seemed a perfect opportunity. But not to save Constantinople: Jerusalem would be the target. Recover the holy places from the saracens! (even though they had been under saracen control for the last 400 years).

He launched the idea in a speech at Clermont in central France in 1095. As an incentive, he announced that those who agreed to do this from devotion rather than the prospect of honour or gain would be absolved of their sins when they died. In other words, it didn’t matter what dreadful things they did while on crusade because they would be going to heaven anyway. And some dreadful things were done.

The appeal was successful way beyond Urban’s expectations. The main crusader army set off two years later, in 1097. Ironically, the vanguard of the army were Normans, some of whom were related to Robert Guiscard. No wonder Alexius Comnenus didn’t let them in when they arrived at Constantinople.

Note: much of this post is based on chapter 8 of Destiny Disrupted, a history of the world through islamic eyes by Tamim Ansary. Highly recommended.

Going off the edge of the map. 1100 CE

So far in our story there has been a largely agreed-to narrative.

We began in the current generation, generation 500, with its unprecedented level of interconnectedness and availability of information. As we explored back through the twentieth century we saw how technological innovations, initially available only to the rich, eventually empowered so many more of us. Mobile phones, computers, washing machines, air travel, for example.

Then we moved back through the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. This saw technological breakthroughs and also a change in thinking. Areas previously deemed off-limits to the uninitiated were now open to question. Charles Darwin, a country vicar living in the south of England, wrote ‘The Origin of Species’ and sparked a furore which still continues in some places.

The eighteenth century saw the Enlightenment. Some people felt empowered to question established ways of organising society and describing reality. They wrote about it and talked about it in the coffee shops of Paris, London and elsewhere. The Enlightenment also saw the birth of a powerful idea, that no man has the right to own another. (Women were a grey area but the principle was established. It took another century for the same rights to be extended to them.) The same expansive sense sent men around the world. Australia and New Zealand were colonised by Europeans. Clipper ships brought cargoes of tea and spices from the East to London and Rotterdam.

And so we can continue back with a recognisable strand of events, each generation building on the achievements of the previous one. The story has been agreed. Most history books that we read will pick up on a part of this narrative.

But I have reached a break. In the year 1100 the largest city in Europe was Cordoba. I never knew that! This wasn’t covered in any history lesson I remember. In comparison to the Europe we have largely focused on so far, the muslim world of 1100 was vast. A scholar from northern Persia could travel to Baghdad or Damascus (both much bigger cities than Cordoba),  meet someone from Toledo there, and converse in their common language of Arabic to exchange ideas and experiences.

My problem is that I can’t find the map of the world I am about to enter. I have found a lot of sources, but they all tell slightly different stories. The maps don’t quite match each other, and there are a lot of blank spaces. But while the lack of a map makes this world more difficult to explore, it also is much more interesting for me.

I will have to abandon the approach of one generation at a time. Perhaps because the muslim world is so big, ideas and innovations no longer fit into tidy twenty-year slots. So the next entry in the blog will explore the world-changing events that occurred between 1050 and 1100 (or thereabouts).

Generation 457, 1120-1140. Creativity in turbulent times

Stories from this generation illustrate the fragility of the historical record, how some events are remembered, some writings are preserved and others are lost.

Some that did survive were the works of Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, written in al-Andalus a couple of generations later than this one, towards the end of the twelfth century. His older friend the vizier introduced him to the caliph, who invited him to write a summary of the works of Aristotle as they were difficult to understand. These summaries were translated into latin and caused convulsions in northern Europe in the next century.

The vizier who introduced Averroes to the caliph was called Ibn Tufayl and he lived in this generation. Ibn Tufayl was an accomplished man in his own right – but most of his writings are lost and so he is a lesser figure in our story.

One writing of Ibn Tufayl’s that has survived, however, is a story about a baby boy who was abandoned on a desert island. ‘Hayy ibn Yaqzan‘ (‘Alive the son of Awake’) tells how the baby was adopted by a gazelle, grew to adulthood and along the way explored the meaning of life from what he observed around him. The story illustrates the philosophical debates that were flourishing across the muslim world. The theme comes from the writings of Avicenna, a Persian philosopher from a century earlier. However, Ibn Tufayl develops it further. One of the questions explored is reason versus revelation: does learning come from reason, by working it out, or is it divinely inspired, by revelation? Or a combination of the two?

He was not the only creative writer of the time. North of the Almohad caliphate and south of the Pyrenees was the christian kingdom of Navarre, including the town of Tudela. A jewish poet and philosopher called Judah Halevi lived there. Here is one of his poems, a wry look at his greying hair:

One day I observed a grey hair in my head;
I plucked it right out, when it thus to me said:
‘You may smile, if you wish, at your treatment of me,
But a score of my friends soon will make a mockery of you.’

Nine centuries later, I can relate to that.

Further north still, in Paris, a philosophy teacher and his gifted female student had fallen in love.

Pierre Abelard was a prolific and clear-thinking philosopher whose outspoken opinions often got him into trouble. He was a popular teacher – and at this time a teacher earned his living by donations from the students he could attract to his classes. Paris University had not yet been established. An example of his inability to keep his mouth shut happened when he stayed at the abbey of St Denis near Paris for a while. St Denis is the patron saint of France. Abelard discovered that there were two historical St Denis (or St Dionysus) and told the abbot that they had mixed them up. For pointing this out he was expelled from the abbey.

While at St Denis he wrote a textbook entitled ‘Sic et Non‘, (‘Yes and No’ or ‘On one hand and on the other’) in which he listed 158 questions concerning contradictions in the writings of the church fathers and other classical authorities. He provided no answers – only questions. It has been said that his style of thinking would not be out of place in a 21st century university.

His emotional maturity was more questionable, however. When their affair was discovered by Heloise’s uncle, Pierre decided that they should both take holy orders. Heloise agreed, possibly because she had already decided that they should not live as man and wife. How could either of them continue their academic work with a household and children to look after? Pierre asked Heloise to take the vows first, admitting later that he did not want her to have relationships with other men if he was not allowed to.

The letters of Abelard and Heloise were preserved by accident: a century later they were translated from latin into French by Jean de Meung, the author of the Romance of the Rose.


Abelard and Heloise, from the Roman de la Rose

Heloise’s intelligence and maturity shine from the pages of their letters. Here is one extract, in which she contemplates whether she is guilty by loving him still, a decade after she has taken the veil:

“And, though exceedingly guilty, I am, as thou knowest, exceeding innocent. For it is not the deed but the intention that makes the crime. It is not what is done but the spirit in which it is done that equity considers.”

I wonder what else Heloise wrote, that has been lost.

Abelard and Heloise lived at the beginning of the intellectual flowering in Europe that was stimulated by the translations coming north from the muslim world, particularly al-Andalus. Al-Andalus itself was an outpost of a larger world which was undergoing transition. New invaders from central Asia, the Seljuk Turks, had overrun it in the previous century, from Afghanistan through to Anatolia.

But the Turks adopted the new culture they met. They left the caliphate in place in Baghdad, called themselves sultans (rulers) and employed bureaucrats from Persia as viziers to look after the administration, so that the creativity and learning continued uninterrupted.

Architecture too.             Kalyan minaret

The Kalyan minaret in Bukhara in what is now Uzbekhistan was built in 1127, under the reign of the Seljuk ruler Mohammed Arslan Khan.

A learned man who may have seen the building work in progress has also become a victim of the vagaries of the historical record. Omar Khayyam lived in Bukhara for part of his life. He died in 1131. He is best known in the west for a long poem, most of which he may or may not have written. The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam was (loosely) translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald in the nineteenth century from a fourteenth-century copy and became immensely popular. It is beautiful and lyrical, a tribute to the richnesses, joys and transitory nature of our human lives.

But Omar Khayyam was not known as a poet in his own lifetime. He was an astronomer and a mathematician specialising in algebra. He found a way to solve cubic equations by means of drawing the problems geometrically. He investigated problems with parallels and cube roots. He wrote textbooks.


This page, now in Tehran University Library, was written by Omar Khayyam. It shows a solution to cubic equations.

Earlier in his life the sultan had appointed him to head up a commission to reform the calendar. The Jalali calendar they devised was the most accurate in the world until the Gregorian reforms in Europe several centuries later. He calculated the length of the year to be 365.24219858156 days. Using 21st-century calculations, this is believed to be accurate to six decimal places. What skill, what confidence could lead him to even attempt such detailed calculation.

‘Rubaiyyat’ means ‘quatrains’ in Persian: verses of four lines. Further quatrains may have been added to the poem after Omar’s lifetime. ‘Khayyam’ means tent maker, which may have been his father’s profession. Here is a verse that was probably written by him during a difficult period:

Khayyam, who stitched the tents of science,
Has fallen in grief’s furnace and been suddenly burned,
The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life,
And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!


A modern bust of Omar Khayyam in Nishapur, Iran, where he was born and his body was buried.

Generation 458, 1140-1160. Measuring the world

This generation saw the appearance of a new style of church architecture in northern France.  Nothing like it had been seen before. As with all innovations, it was able to appear because of a combination of circumstances: the opportunity, the motivation, and the people to put it into effect.

First, the opportunity. The latin world in the previous generation had seen a publishing sensation. Adelard of Bath had travelled to the moslem world in search of learning, as had so many others. He was away for seven years, spending most of them in Antioch in present-day Turkey. There he translated books from arabic into latin. His translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry was world changing. If you studied geometry at school, a lot of it can be directly traced back to this book, originally written as a textbook by Euclid of Alexandria in the third century BC. A triangle has 180 degrees? Euclid. If you draw a diameter of a circle, then draw a line from each end of the diameter to any point on the circumference, they will meet at right angles. Ditto, Euclid. Pythagoras’ theorem (3 squared plus 4 squared equals 5 squared is the best known example) can be traced to Euclid’s Elements.

As well as the content of the book (which meant that buildings could be designed more effectively than before) Euclid’s method of reasoning was simple, irrefutable and new to the latin world. He set up a series of five axioms, which now seem self-evident. The first axiom, for example, is that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. He went on to introduce problems, and solved them with logical proofs.

islamic arch

Euclid’s work was well known in the islamic world. This arch from Madrid in al-Andalus, from the previous century, would have been impossible to build without an understanding of the principles of geometry. The pointed arch was a regular feature of islamic architecture.


This prayer niche from the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo clearly shows the pointed arch. It was built three hundred years previously, in the ninth century. 

But it was new to the latin north. Adelard’s translation went to the cathedral schools, where it encountered a different culture. It was not by accident that the church was called the Roman Catholic church. It continued the Roman Empire’s love of large structures. Large churches were not new, therefore, but what this technology allowed was a new departure in their construction. Now they could let the light in, applying the same skills in a very different expression.

Saint-Denis in Paris, Sens in Burgundy, Laon in Picardy – all were rebuilt in the new style in this generation. The builders treated the stone as a framework for the windows, using rib-vaulting and pointed arches, and filled the windows with coloured glass (another technique learned from the moslem world).

Sens cathedral

Here is the interior of Sens cathedral, with the soaring columns and huge windows of the new Frankish style, now known as Gothic.

Five centuries later the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Sir Christopher Wren, came to the same conclusion. In his ‘Parentalia’ or Memoirs, he writes, ” … what we now vulgarly call the Gothic, ought properly and truly to be named the Saracenic architecture refined by the Christians…”

In 1145 Chartres Cathedral burned down, and the opportunity was taken to rebuild it in the new style. The project was not completed until the following century, but this is where it started. There is a statue of Euclid at Chartres, as one of the representatives of the liberal arts. Luckily for us, Chartres became a backwater over the subsequent centuries, overshadowed by Paris. This meant that nobody could afford to modernise the cathedral, and so it can still be seen largely as it was eight centuries ago.

The word ‘geometry’ literally means ‘earth measuring’. The same rigorous enquiry found different expression in the south of Europe during this generation, but applied to geography (‘earth drawing’). The most accurate map and accompanying description of the world, with the unlikely title of the ‘Book of Roger’ was produced in Sicily in 1154. It set the standard until the time of Mercator, three hundred years later.

The population of Sicily was still largely moslem, as it had been reconquered from the arabs less than a century previously. Palermo, the capital, had several hundred mosques. Like his grandson Frederick II whom we have already met, the Norman king Roger II of Sicily embraced arabic culture. He was dissatisfied with the maps available and in the arabic spirit of enquiry he decided to compile a better one. He commissioned a displaced aristocrat from al-Andalus, Muhammad al-Idrisi, to coordinate the project. Over fifteen years al-Idrisi interviewed travellers, compared their stories and finally put together an authoritative description of the known world, from the Canary Islands to Korea.


There was an engraved map on a large silver plate to accompany the book. In the conventions of the time, north is at the bottom of the map and south at the top. So Asia is on the left, Africa at the top and Europe at the bottom. Both the silver plate and the original book were destroyed in riots shortly after they were finished but many copies remain.

A copy of the book is online here, and it is exquisite (even if you don’t read arabic. The maps are over two pages, so each double-page image is a map and the single pages are text.)


There was  a smaller world map in the book, with Africa at the top and Europe at the bottom. It is said that this map inspired the Portuguese explorers to attempt to sail around Africa, as it is shown surrounded by sea.

There were other towering figures in this generation. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote extensively, composed and corresponded. One of her correspondents was Bernard of Clairvaux, another influential person. He  joined the Benedictine order as a boy and wanted to reform the order, advocating a simpler life. He encouraged the establishment of monasteries in remote areas where they could be self-sufficient, living off the land. He was so driven that in his lifetime he was instrumental in the establishment of six hundred Cistercian monasteries (named after the first monastery he joined at Citeaux). He also campaigned to launch the second crusade to the Holy Land in this generation.

But the order Bernard attempted to reform had its own powerful individual. Peter the Venerable was the abbot of Cluny, the mother house of the previous wave of expansion and establishment of monasteries. He was an open-minded man who advocated understanding the saracens rather than trying to annihilate them. Especially as the second crusade turned out to be a disaster for the christians. He travelled to the Cluniac monastery of Santa Maria La Real in Najera, south of the Pyrenees, and from there to Toledo where the translation movement was in full flood. He persuaded two translators, Robert of Ketton (from a village near Rutland in present day England) and his friend Herman of Carinthia (a region in present-day Austria), to give up their attempts to translate Ptolemy’s Almagest and translate the Quran instead. Called the ‘Law of Mohammed the False Prophet’  the title shows his less-than-dispassionate approach to the subject. But at least the intention was there.

By a strange twist of fate, Robert of Ketton ended up as canon in the church at Tudela, not far from Najera. Tudela is the town from which rabbi Benjamin  set off on his travels in the following generation. So the two men almost certainly knew each other.

There was another English Robert participating in the translation movement at this time. Robert of Chester went to Segovia in al-Andalus. He translated the book that introduced Algebra to the latin north: al-Khwarizmi’s Liber algebrae et almucabola, written three centuries previously.

Generation 459, 1160-1180. Stories and songs

In 1160 Benjamin of Tudela, a rabbi from a small town in Navarre, set off on his travels. He made his way to the port of Tarragona and took a boat up the coast to Barcelona. Barcelona was a beautiful, bustling city with wise rabbis and merchants from all over the Mediterranean. From there he took another boat to Montpellier, another flourishing port, and then on to Genoa.

Genoa he found interesting. It was not ruled by a king but by rulers appointed by the people. It was one of the most successful and powerful cities of the time. Citizens were able to buy a part-share in a trading ship. Although most ships did complete their journeys some did not (due to either bad weather or piracy), and the risk could be spread by investing in more than one ship. It made sense for people from other towns to invest in Genoese ships, and so the city prospered.

From Genoa he continued down the coast, across Italy and by either sea or land through the Byzantine Empire and all the way to Jerusalem, where he visited the holy places. He came back via a different route, visiting Alexandria in Egypt and Sicily, then a powerful kingdom. On his travels he met merchants from as far away as England and India. It was an interconnected world, in which the connections were dominated by the Genoese, Pisan and Venetian traders. Benjamin wrote a book about it, effectively a twelfth-century travel guide.

Books were widely available in the world where Benjamin lived. Books in the christian north were written on vellum (calfskin) or parchment (sheepskin),  materials so valuable that they were often scraped for re-use. The moslem world used paper, a technology they had picked up from the Chinese. Paper was cheaper to produce and widely available. Purchases in the markets were wrapped in paper, just as they are today. No wonder libraries in the arabic-speaking world could contain thousands of books while it was rare for a library in the north to have even a few hundred.

The technology of paper making gradually spread north from al-Andalus, as there were extensive contacts between the two worlds. And this generation saw the flowering of another influence from al-Andalus that made its way across the Pyrenees.

The themes of the love songs of the troubadours can be traced back to arabic love poetry. Music, song and composition were a major ingredient of court life, and visitors from Provence and Aquitaine took some of the richness back home with them. Back home others took up the baton, and started composing and performing.

Troubadours came from all backgrounds. Many were from noble families, but not all. Take Bernart de Ventadorn, for example. He was probably the son of a baker, who became attached to the court of the count of Ventadorn in central France. He composed poems of unrequited love dedicated to the countess, Marguerite de Turenne.

One of them begins:

‘When I see the lark moving

His wings with joy towards the light,

then forget and let himself fall

From the sweetness that enters his heart

Oh! What great envy I feel

Toward whomever I see who’s glad!’

The poem continues with laments at the hard-hearted rejection of his love by the lady. So perhaps it is not surprising, after many poems on this theme,  that he had to leave Ventadorn.

Bernart de Ventadorn

He joined the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had married Henry II of England, and travelled with her entourage. Eleanor had grown up in the rich world of cultural exchange with al-Andalus, and she took that richness with her to England. The troubadours in her court, including Bernart, there encountered the stories of King Arthur and adapted and embellished them. Chretien de Troyes, another troubadour at the court, added Lancelot to those stories.The stories of King Arthur and his court were immensely popular over the following generations. And so the whole genre of courtly love began, with its themes of knights and ladies, of quests and trials, and unattainable love.

Between them, Henry and Eleanor controlled large parts of eastern France as well as England: from Aquitaine in the south through the Limousin and Anjou, up to Normandy and Brittany. During this period Eleanor sided with her sons against her husband in a war for control of these huge territories. When Henry eventually defeated them, Eleanor was imprisoned for sixteen years until Henry died in 1189.

The king of France sided with Eleanor and her sons, for obvious reasons. Such a powerful vassal as Henry was clearly to be resisted. This had another consequence for our story. Henry recalled all the English students from Paris University. In 1167 the students set up the University of Oxford, a place where there was already a tradition of learning. Oxford thus became the third European university after Bologna and Paris.

And there was plenty to study. The liberal arts (from ‘liber’, meaning book, not liberalism) was expanding with the steady flow of translations of greek and arabic texts from Toledo in particular, brought back by intrepid young men like Gerard of Cremona, whom we have already met.

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.