Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian




The future flag of Europe? Albania Andorra Austria Belgium Bosnia
Bulgaria Croatia Czech Republic Denmark Finland France
Germany Greece Hungary Iceland Ireland Italy
Kosovo Liechtenstein Luxembourg Macedonia Malta Monaco
Montenegro Netherlands Norway Poland Portugal Romania
San Marino Serbia Slovakia Slovenia Spain Sweden
Switzerland United Kingdom Vatican City      

A History of Europe



Chapter 8: THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES, PART II

1000 to 1300




This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Basil the Bulgar-Slayer
The Kingmaker Princesses
The Normans Go to Italy
William the Conqueror
The Norman Kingdoms
The Papal Investiture Controversy
El Cid and the Reconquest
Byzantium Under Siege Again
Frederick Barbarossa
Innocent III

Part II

Commerce in the High Middle Ages
Population Growth and Medieval Republics
The Plantagenets
Centralization in France
Frederick II, Il Stupor Mundi
The Mongol Horde in Poland and Hungary
The Embattled Empire
The Magna Carta and the First Parliament
The Evolution of Castles
Central Europe's Technological Experiment
Go to Page Navigator


Commerce in the High Middle Ages


In the eleventh century the weavers of Flanders started making a woolen cloth that was moderately priced and far better than the usual homespun. It was a big success, both home and abroad. Flemish looms began to clatter at a speed that demanded more wool than the local sheep farmers could supply. Luckily, England was just across the Channel; English wool had a reputation for being the best and the English were willing to produce as much as the market could bear. Together England and the southern Netherlands formed a truly international industry. This commodity became so important that the textile trade soon dominated all others; Flemish cloth sold as well in Italy as it did in northern Europe.

The cloth towns boomed. Ghent, the largest producer, and Bruges, the main port, grew to rival London and Paris, the two nearest political centers. Moreover, the trade was not only a benefit for England and the Netherlands; Genoese, Venetian and Pisan merchants found that Flemish woolens were the most popular and profitable product they had to sell.

The Italian cities experienced a growth just as remarkable as that in the Low Countries. In the year 1000, hardly any of them had 5,000 inhabitants. The ones on the coast were in danger from Moslem pirates, while those inland lived in total obscurity. However, by 1200 eleven of them had at least 15,000 people each, and two (Milan and Venice) were approaching 50,000. It was not just a high birthrate which caused this population explosion; the boom in new jobs attracted people to the towns whether they were needed or not. The Italians first used their newfound strength to gain control over their home waters. Then the seamen of Pisa, Genoa and Venice sailed east, to exploit the opportunities created by the First Crusade.

Pilgrims and slaves were an important part of commerce in the Middle Ages, particularly in the Middle East, where slavery was much more commonplace and where visits to holy places had been commanded by Islam. Slavery faded away in Western Europe after 1000 because the Slavs, who formed the most common raw material, were now Christian, and the popes prohibited the enslavement of anyone who converted to Christianity. But their place in the economy of the Mediterranean was more than filled by pilgrims and Crusaders; the former provided a steady profit, and the latter, though unreliable about payment, opened up and temporarily secured the Eastern markets. By 1150 the Genoese had more money invested in the Levantine trade than in all their other businesses put together. As for the Venetians, they got even more heavily involved. Their perversion of the Fourth Crusade got them part of the Byzantine Empire ("a quarter and a half of a quarter"), which they wisely took in the form of islands. Thus, Venice could sail to Constantinople, Antioch, or Alexandria and have a string of useful and easily-defended bases for more than half the journey. The last vestiges of native enterprise were eliminated, bringing all Greek commerce under Venetian control.

Venice's most serious rival was Genoa, which had become the dominant seaport of the western Mediterranean.(12) The two became mortal enemies, yet while they fought each other openly in the East, Venice quietly passed many trade goods overland to Genoa for re-export to France (Venetian goods for Germany simply went over the Alps). Since Venice created and supported the Latin Empire, Genoa backed Byzantine efforts to regain Constantinople, and in return, the Byzantines granted Genoa the highly favorable trade concessions that once belonged to Venice.

Among Western exports to the East, woolen goods predominated, though little of it was the aforementioned high-quality fabric of northwestern Europe. Most of what Asia got was produced in north Italy, especially Florence and Milan. As in Flanders, increasing demand and production soon outran the local wool supplies, and they made up for it by importing raw wool from as far away as England. In the twelfth century, silk production started in north Italy. All the large Italian towns supplemented textiles with other manufacturing; for instance, Milan was famous for its metalwork. The use of money returned, spreading from the booming Italian cities to the countryside as the urban population demanded more grain and real estate and paid for them with cold cash, instead of bartering some other product. Thus Western capitalism was reborn and in Italy the feudal system disintegrated.

Nobody had a monopoly in the North Sea. The Scandinavians still dominated fishing, with cod from Iceland and the Lofoten islands, and herring from the Baltic. However, it was English, Flemish, German and French merchants who now delivered and sold the fish.

The Varangian trade network was broken in the mid-eleventh century, when the Polovtsy invaded the Ukraine and put an end to the commerce between Russia and Constantinople. The Russian principalities redirected their exports to the Baltic and their honey, tallow, wax and furs went west in ever-increasing amounts. The Baltic not only carried the Russian trade, though; it was also a richer fishery than the North Sea, and since the pope had decreed that all Christians should eat fish on Fridays(13), fish ranked in the northern market second only to wool. This attracted Flemish merchants into the Baltic, but because they didn't like making a long detour to get around Denmark, cargoes began to be transported by land across the German district of Holstein, just south of Denmark. This shortcut brought prosperity to Hamburg and Lübeck, the German towns on the North Sea and Baltic ends of the crossing; Lübeck was also blessed with nearby deposits of salt, vital to the preservation of the herring catch.(14) Germany's share of the Baltic trade increased as rapidly and soon became the major one. New German towns were founded in the east, where the ground was cleared by the crusades of the Knights of the Sword and the Teutonic Knights. In fact the Baltic was fast becoming a German sea, interrupted only at the beginning of the thirteenth century, when Denmark burst into activity again. The Danes' valor won them a brief supremacy, but in the 1220s they suffered a crippling defeat. The German trade cartel which replaced the Danes can now be called the Hanse, for though the rules of the Hanseatic League were not put down in writing until more than a century later, the association already existed and was working in pursuit of its goals: exclude foreign traders from the Baltic and take over the trade routes of the North Sea. The Flemish were in fact shut out by 1275, and Flemish trade declined thereafter.


Population Growth and Medieval Republics


From the eighth century onward, Europe showed its recovery by growing its population at a slow but steadily increasing rate. Our current estimate has a growth of 7.5 percent in the eighth century, 10 percent in the ninth, and 12.5 percent in the tenth. This means that at the end of the Dark Ages Europe had 36 million people, a figure equal to the highest in earlier ages. The next three centuries saw a real push in procreation: 20 percent growth in the eleventh, 30 percent in the twelfth, and 36 percent in the thirteenth century. Thus, in the period covered by this chapter, the European community more than doubled, reaching an unprecedented total of 80 million.

A bit of good luck helped; plague disappeared in the eighth century, and the climate was warmer than average from 800 to 1200 (we're up to the "Medieval Warming Period"). Still, good land management was the most important factor; in Chapter 7 we looked at how the Europeans did this. The result was an improved standard of living, but thanks to the resulting population growth, there never was enough land for everyone. Some migrated to the sparsely populated lands east of the Elbe River, where they still could clear out enough acreage to build a homestead. Others didn't go very far but changed their lifestyle more dramatically; they moved to the cities and became part of the new working class. Since Flanders was one of the first places where urbanization took place, Flemish merchants and knights made an unusually large contribution to the First Crusade.

Merchant and monarch both needed to limit the power of the nobility, and since they had to work together to succeed, they got along well. In places where royal authority broke down, and where the towns were rich enough, the richest and most powerful merchants could make their towns independent city-states, with a government run by themselves. The republics of Novgorod and Venice are the best examples of urban plutocracy; by 1300 Germany and Italy had dozens of them. However, such city-states were also in danger of being captured by a despot who had no interest in what the merchants wanted, so they hired mercenaries to keep troublemakers away. Even when this was done, only Venice, protected by its wealth and by its location on an offshore island, was completely successful at preserving its freedom.

The oligarchy of the merchant city-states was the closest thing to democracy that medieval man ever saw. In most countries the vast mass of the population was rural--sullen peasants who asked for nothing but to be left alone. Those serfs who saw their fellows leave the manor for the town grew restless. Extreme wretchedness would lead to a few uprisings in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and sometimes short-lived "popular" governments, all of which were doomed to fail because the miseries they were supposed to correct were caused by a bad economy, not by misrule. There was never any spontaneous call for democracy or human rights in the Middle Ages, and it was only when the state became sick that such aberrations appeared.

Despite the frightful conditions that made up urban life (disease and lack of sanitation, to name a few), a steady stream of peasants migrated to the cities, since they offered the best opportunity for freedom; according to feudal custom, a peasant who could escape from his lord's land and stay away for a year and a day became a free man. With this check on upward mobility gone, the ex-peasants became the new middle class, taking jobs as artisans, merchants, clerks, etc. These town-dwellers(15) increasingly insisted that they be paid for their services in cash, which was more versatile and portable than grain or livestock or bales of cloth or whatever. Since the feudal lords received either goods or labor from their vassals, kings and dukes alike found that they lacked what they now needed the most, namely money. Many arisocrats were reduced to "gentleman beggars"; in France manor houses came to be known as châteaux de la misère.

During the Dark Ages, the only gold coins minted in Christendom were the famous bezants of Byzantium. Containing 4.55 grams of gold, they were worth $182 in 2010 dollars. Accepted just about everywhere, the bezants eventually spread into the commercial network of other Christian nations. The first gold coins minted in Western Europe were introduced by Frederick II in 1228, and he called them augustales because he was trying to imitate Roman coins from the time of Caesar Augustus. After Frederick's reign the city-states of Italy issued gold coins of their own, which soon were even more popular: the florin of Florence and the genovino of Genoa (both in 1252), and the ducat of Venice (1284).

Charlemagne set up the monetary system used in medieval France. The most important French coin, the livre, was theorectically worth one pound of silver. A livre could be exchanged for twenty sou, and if smaller change was needed, each sou could be broken into twelve denier. Inflation, counterfeiting, and the debasing of coinage reduced the absolute value of the livre, sou, and denier over the ages, but the names and relationship of the coins to one another stayed the same for a thousand years, until the French Revolution. This system came to England in 1066, and while the English changed the names of the coins to pounds, shillings and pennies, they kept the relationship between them until 1971, when they switched to the decimal money (100 pennies = 1 pound) used today.

While Christendom's horizons expanded, the Islamic world merely marked time. North Africa grew slightly, and the Middle East had no more people in the fourteenth century than it did in the eighth. There probably was a modest increase in Asia Minor, when Byzantium prospered under the Macedonian dynasty, but these gains were abruptly erased when first the Turks, and then the Mongols, stormed in from the east. Both of these tribes used terror at every opportunity and were quite happy to leave ruined towns standing empty; they also depopulated the countryside to get enough pasture for their flocks. Numbers fell every time a new group of nomads moved in.

What happened to demographics at the end of this period? The climate took a turn for the worse after 1200. Thirteenth-century English documents report that the weather in 1257 and 1258 was unusually dark, cold and dry, causing a castrophic famine; mass graves containing the victims of that famine were recently discovered in London. As the English chronicler Matthew Paris described it: "The north wind blew without intermission, a continued frost prevailed, accompanied by snow and such unendurable cold, that it bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle to such an extent that it seemed as if a general plague was raging amongst the sheep and lambs." We now believe that this "year without a summer" was caused by a volcano on the Indonesian island of Lombok, which exploded in 1257.

Because several generations of prosperity came before the 1257-58 disaster, it took the rest of the century for Europe's population surge to run out of steam. Then in the first half of the fourteenth century, growth was nearly zero. There were more widespread crop failures in 1315 and 1316, and the climate continued to deteriorate; sometimes we call the period between 1300 and 1700 the "Little Ice Age." What this means is that before the Black Death struck, medieval Europe had reached its Malthusian limits.

Top of the page


The Plantagenets


The only legitimate son of England's King Henry I drowned in 1120, when the ship he was on sank in the English Channel. He did have more then twenty illegitimate children, but he had already promised he would not give the throne to any of them, so he took the unprecedented step of persuading the barons to accept his only legitmate daughter, Matilda (also known as Maud), as his heir. However, Matilda was not in England, having been married first to Henry V, the Holy Roman emperor, and then to Geoffrey Plantagenet, the count of Anjou and Maine (two fiefs in central France). This meant Henry had to go to France to visit Matilda, Geoffrey and his grandchildren in 1135. He ended up spending four months there, due to a quarrel with Geoffrey. What made his long stay really bad was that his favorite food was lampreys, though they made him sick and his doctor ordered him not to eat any more. One day he decided to have the fish anyway, and after a "surfeit of lampreys," Henry got a severe case of ptomaine poisoning and died.

Before Matilda could return to England and claim the throne, Henry's nephew, Stephen of Blois, rushed to London and usurped it. To make the English nobility accept him, Stephen granted too many concessions, and soon the barons were raising private armies. The result was nineteen years of anarchy and civil war (1135-54); "while Christ and His saints slept" are the words used by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to summarize one of the worst periods in English history.

Stephen won the first rounds, by suppressing rebellions in Devon, Wales and Scotland. Then in 1139 Matilda invaded England (from Normandy). Two years later Stephen was defeated at Lincoln, taken to Winchester and locked up; Matilda was now elected Domina Anglorum. However, she could only hold Stephen prisoner for six months, before the nobles made so much trouble that she was compelled to release him. Of course that could only lead to more trouble, and in 1142 Stephen defeated Matilda at Oxford and destroyed that city; he resumed his reign while Matilda escaped to nearby Wallingford. The next few years saw more ravaging of the countryside, with Matilda's main base of power in Scotland (the Scots hated whomever sat on the English throne, so they were a natural ally of Matilda while Stephen had it). In addition, her half-brother Robert of Gloucester was in control of western England, and an outlaw named Geoffrey de Mandeville plundered Essex and East Anglia.

Gradually Stephen prevailed against all of them, and in 1148 Matilda fled to France. There she announced she was stepping down in favor of her son, Henry Plantagenet(16), and after he took her place in the conflict against Stephen, he did so well that eventually Stephen felt compelled to accept Henry as his heir, too. However, Stephen had two sons and a daughter -- named Eustace, William and Mary -- and though Eustace was a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, the baronage let it be known they preferred him, while the Papacy announced it would back Henry's claim. This could have led to another round of fighting, if the death of Eustace hadn't come in the same year (1153). William was only nineteen years old, so he waived his right to the crown in return for the right to add Eustace's landholdings to his own. One year later Stephen also died, and peace finally came. From all this unpleasantness, the English learned that one tyrant in London is better than a tyrant in every castle.

Henry II began his reign (1154-89) with an awesome inheritance, stretching from the border of Scotland to the Pyrenees; in another age, it would have been called an empire. From his mother he got England, Normandy, Brittany (Brittany had been a vassal of the Normans since the late tenth century), and part of Wales. From his father he got the heart of France--Anjou, Maine and Touraine--and from his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, he got all of southwestern France. In fact, Eleanor's landholdings made her the most powerful woman of the Middle Ages, and she had the experience to match; when they got married in 1152, she was 30 years old, and he was 19. Previously, Eleanor had been married to Louis VII of France, and had even gone on the Second Crusade, where she brightened up an otherwise dreary adventure by building a few hospitals on the way. Technically the king of England was still a servant of the king of France, but with two thirds of France directly answerable to Henry, he now controlled more land and people than the French king did. It was a fine case of the tail wagging the dog, and you can bet that King Louis was not pleased with this situation, especially because he knew that his failed marriage with Eleanor caused it!


Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine.


Anyway, the first task for 21-year-old Henry was to make sure the newly won peace lasted. To put the royal treasury in order, Henry II restored the system Henry I had used, having the sheriffs assess property values, collect taxes and bring them to the Royal Exchequer. In addition, he allowed feudal vassals to pay money (scutage) to their lords, as a substitute for giving service, thereby introducing a new source of revenue.(17) To keep law and order, he tore down illegal castles, but in the long run, his legal reforms were more important. He did so much to strengthen common law that he is sometimes called the "common law king," and he would have made a fine lawyer if he wasn't already wearing a crown. Like the other Germanic tribes, the Anglo-Saxons had tried civil disputes and violations of customs by bringing the accused to a meeting of the elders of tribe. The usual methods to determine guilt or innocence were trial by compurgation, combat, or ordeal. In compurgation, friends of the accused would swear to his good character and if enough of them did so, it was figured that he wasn't guilty. In trial by combat, two antagonists would go at each other with fists or clubs. In trial by ordeal, various forms of torture were used, like making the accused stick his arms in boiling tar or forcing him to carry a red-hot iron a specified distance. The most common method was to toss the victim in a pool of water: if he sank, he was declared innocent (and presumably fished out in time); if he floated, he was declared guilty and fined or put to death. All these judgments worked on the assumption that the good Lord would not allow an innocent person to suffer or fall in defeat, and that God would strike dead the man who lied in these circumstances.

Henry's solution was the first trial by jury, which was originally called an inquest. He had the royal circuit judges call in neighbors of the litigants, usually twelve in number, and allow them to question the accusers and defendants in the trial. When all twelve of them reached an agreement, it was said to be vere dictum, or "truly spoken"; from that we get the word verdict. The earliest verdicts may have been faulty because of gossip, but they represented one of the most important steps in the development of today's judicial system. Henry allowed any freeman the right to an inquest, and since only the king could grant them, the barons lost control over their courtrooms. So many people liked the new system that it quickly became the norm.

Next Henry cut the clerical courts down to size, which had jurisdiction not only over priests and monks, but also over Crusaders, students, and servants of the above. Many a churchman could thus break a law of the kingdom and escape punishments that would have meant fines, imprisonment or death to a lay person. Henry decided it was time to act in 1163, when his advisors reported that in the nine years since his coronation, at least a hundred murders and countless lesser crimes had been committed by "criminous clerks" beyond the reach of the king's justice; the worst punishment the clerical courts could give these offenders was defrocking.

Henry ended the abuses of the clergy by holding a meeting with his councilors in Clarendon Park, not far from Salisbury, and there in a hunting lodge they drafted England's first constitution (1164). The Constitution of Clarendon declared that all clergy were bound to follow the customs of the realm, prohibited appeals to the pope to counter royal decisions, forbade excommunication of lords and government officials without the knowledge of the king, and required that anyone convicted in a clerical court must be turned over to the royal court for punishment.

At this point Henry ran into serious trouble from an unexpected source: his old comrade in arms, Thomas à Becket. Becket had been a man of worldly tastes originally, and was not even a priest, but when the position of Archbishop of Canterbury became available, Henry went ahead and appointed Becket, ordaining him first so that he would qualify (Becket went from layman to archbishop in only twelve hours). To his surprise, Becket suddenly began taking his new job seriously; he first supported, then opposed the Constitution of Clarendon, and excommunicated the bishops who sided with the king. For example, he refused to allow a second trial for defrocked clergy, arguing that the Bible said no one should be judged twice for the same crime.

Thomas à Becket stood so firmly for clerical rights that eventually even the pope sent letters telling him he had gone too far, and should reach a compromise with the king. When Becket learned that the bishops were negotiating with the king behind his back, he fled to the Continent, and stayed there for six years. In 1170 he returned--and provoked Henry again by excommunicating three bishops who had taken part in the coronation of the king's son.(18) Henry got so mad that he blurted out, "Is there no one to rid me of this miserable priest?" Four knights took this as the signal to act, and murdered Becket in his cathedral. Henry had a good cry over this, and said afterwards that he did not mean violence, but the barons used this incident as their excuse to stop the king's growing power.

On the military front, Henry held onto all the land he had started with, launched an invasion of Wales that did not gain any new ground, defeated the king of Scotland, William the Lion, and made him a vassal (1174), and began the English conquest of Ireland. The latter was the idea of Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope. In 1155, the pope let Henry II know that the Irish Church was still not conforming to Rome's wishes (something that was supposedly resolved at the Conference of Whitby, in 663), and gave him a gold ring with an emerald set in it, authorizing Henry to conquer Ireland in the name of the pope. But Henry was too busy with other matters, so he didn't act on this until Dermot MacMurrough, the deposed king of Leinster, came to visit and recruit some soldiers to help him against his rivals, the kings of Connacht and Bréifne. The first group of mercenaries crossed the Irish Sea and landed at Wexford in 1169; a much larger force, under a Norman named Richard Strongbow, arrived, marched north and conquered Dublin a year later. In 1171 MacMurrough died, and because he had given his daughter in marriage to Strongbow, Strongbow was now heir to Leinster. At this stage King Henry joined the expedition, to keep Strongbow from becoming a king in his own right, and to get away from England while people were still mad over the killing of Becket. By 1177, all of the island, except for the district of Ulster, had either been conquered or had submitted to Plantagenet rule, so Henry made his son John lord over Ireland and proclaimed the campaign a success.

So far the Irish campaign had been too easy. The Irish had plenty of courage, but their bareback riders and slingers were no match for Norman knights and Welsh crossbowmen. Now England ran into the same problem that kept the Vikings from ruling the whole island--no central authority. With petty kings and chiefs all over the place, there was no way an invading force could capture one king or capital, and declare victory, the way William I had done in England. Prince John found this out in 1185, when he went to Ireland and acted so boorish that no Irish chieftain would swear loyalty to him. In fact, after John left, much of the island was free to do as it pleased, with English control only firm around Dublin and in those areas directly ruled by Norman carpetbaggers (henceforth this zone would be called "The Pale"). Sometimes even the Norman loyalty was questionable; one Norman, John de Courcy, moved to Ulster in 1177, went native, formed alliances with the nearest Irish kings, and proclaimed himself the independent "Earl of Ulster." The end result of Henry's conquest was that England and Ireland have been plagued by each other ever since.

Henry ended his career with some domestic quarrels. Since becoming queen of England, Eleanor had given birth to five sons and three daughters (she only had two daughters when she was queen of France), and as her marriage with Henry soured, she spent her free time patronizing romantic literature and music with a court full of troubadours. When the sons came of age, Henry tried to divide the kingdom between them, but that only caused them to mistrust each other and resent their father. In 1173 Eleanor and three of the sons launched a revolt against Henry; Henry won and kept Eleanor under house arrest ("castle arrest" might be a better term) after that. Still, the behavior of his offspring probably hastened his death in 1189; on his deathbed, Henry lamented that of all his children, the legitimate ones were the real bastards,(19)

The crown of Henry II now passed to Eleanor's favorite son, Richard I. Today we call Richard "the Lion-Hearted," and he gets a good press in stories like Robin Hood, but actually he was a poor monarch. To start with, he did not even speak English; the two languages he spoke fluently were French and Occitan, the native languages of his father and mother. He showed he did not have administrative skills before becoming king, when he was in charge of Aquitaine for his father; he did such a poor job there that Henry frequently had to go in and put down revolts with his sword. Besides that, he was too cruel to be called chivalrous (except in the eyes of Saladin), spent money like water to pay for his foreign wars, and couldn't get along with his partners on the Third Crusade; at Acre he actually threw down the standard of Austria's Duke Leopold and put up his own in its place, and so badly offended Philip Augustus, the current king of France, that Philip went home before the Third Crusade was finished. As a warrior Richard was skillful and fearless, and he wrote acceptable verses to go along with his accomplishments, but he failed to take back Jerusalem from the Saracens, lost 95,000 out of 100,000 men, was captured on the way home by the same Duke Leopold he had insulted, and held prisoner in Germany until Eleanor could collect and pay a huge ransom of 150,000 German marks (about $4 billion in today's money). Only six months of his ten-year reign were spent in England; he got away whenever he could because the climate was too cold and wet for his liking, and while raising funds for the Third Crusade, he reportedly said, "If I could find a buyer I would have sold London itself." In fact, the only thing he liked about England was the money it generated, and he became one of England's most popular kings because he was gone most of the time. In 1199 one of his vassals in France revolted, and while besieging a minor castle belonging to that rebel, Richard was fatally wounded by a crossbow bolt to the shoulder, and was buried in Normandy; his brother John took his place.

Top of the page


Centralization in France


The main accomplishment of the first Capetian kings was keeping the crown in their family. The nobles who elected Hugh Capet wanted an elected monarchy like what existed across the border in Germany. When William the Conqueror became king of England, his French lord, King Philip I, had direct control over just a small part of his country--the Ile de France, a piece of territory around Paris and Orléans that was less than 100 miles long. In the rest of France, dukes and minor nobles fought among themselves constantly, viewing the waging of "private wars" as a sacred right (they only considered themselves French because the alternative would have been to submit to the Holy Roman Empire and become German). But the Capetian kings, with the support of the church, nurtured the idea that the monarchy is a sacred office, and cleverly arranged support among the nobles for their heirs. Before the king died, the young prince was crowned by the church and became "associated" with his father in his rule. By the end of the twelfth century the hereditary principle had become so ingrained that French kings no longer had to crown their sons while they were alive.

The fifth Capetian king, Louis VI (1108-1137, also known as Louis the Fat), was the first to successfully strengthen royal power. Louis crushed the lawless barons who defied royal authority in the Ile de France, capturing their castles and sometimes tearing them down. He also used the fact that Paris was an international marketplace to his advantage; any trader who wanted to make a profit in France came to Paris to find many customers, meaning that he would travel on the roads of Paris or on the Seine River. The kings charged a toll on traders and other travelers passing through the Ile de France, and used the revenue gained to pay for their monarchy-strengthening programs. By putting down bandit raids on monasteries and bringing law and order to the towns, and building new churches and schools, they gained the support of the clergy and townspeople. Eventually the lords came around too, when they found that the king's court was the best place to resolve their quarrels impartially.

Louis made his word law in the Ile de France, established a solid base to extend royal power from, and increased the prestige of the monarchy so much that the great duke of Aquitaine gave his daughter Eleanor to Louis' son, Louis VII, instead of to a rival duke. Unfortunately, they failed to have a son, and Eleanor's behavior so scandalized the pious Louis VII ("I thought I married a king," Eleanor once exclaimed, "but instead I am the wife of a monk!") that he got a divorce; Eleanor and Aquitaine now went to her second husband, the future Henry II of England.

We have already described the peculiar situation in the mid-twelfth century, where most of France was actually under the control of the king of England. That situation began to change under Philip II (1180-1223), also known as Philip Augustus. Philip made little headway against Henry II, except to make Henry's life miserable by encouraging his faithless sons, Richard and John, to revolt. When Richard got to be king, he further taunted Philip by building his strongest castle, Chateau Gaillard, on a cliff overlooking the Seine River, just fifty miles from Paris. Richard was so confident of the strength of Chateau Gaillard's defenses that he boasted, "I could hold Chateau Gaillard if it was made of butter."

Philip was in a hurry to get back from the Third Crusade because he felt Richard had too many French fiefs, and he could do something about it if he returned to France first. He was correct on both counts, but once Richard arrived, he recovered the lost positions. However, Philip got a second chance when John succeeded Richard. This time the cause was a replay of what caused the Trojan War: John had taken the fiancée of Hugh the Brown, the lord of Poitou, as his wife, gave no compensation to the offended noble, and refused to show up when King Philip ordered him to come and explain his actions in person. Philip began the war by invading Normandy in 1202; Chateau Gaillard fell in March 1204, after a seven-month siege(20), and the rest of Normandy quickly followed. Then in 1206 he occupied Anjou and Maine, thereby taking everything John held north of the Loire River, except for Calais. John now made the recovery of those territories his top priority, and formed an alliance with two other enemies of Philip: Otto IV, the Holy Roman emperor, and Count Ferdinand of Flanders. Together they launched a two-pronged invasion, John landing in the southern province of Poitou, while the Germans and Flemings attacked from the north. Philip's son, Louis VIII, held off the English long enough for Philip to win a decisive victory at the battle of Bouvines (1214); Ferdinand was captured and Otto's horse bolted, carrying away the emperor from the battlefield (his retainers followed, ending German participation in a hurry). By the time the fighting ended, Philip had tripled the size of the French royal domain. With his now-sizeable treasury he paved the muddy streets of Paris and built the Louvre as a fortress to guard the Seine.

Philip also sent out royal agents to collect taxes, administer small communities, and try the cases that had formerly been brought to the lords. In northern France these agents were called baillis (bailiffs), while in the south they were known as sénéchaux (seneschals or stewards). On the surface they resembled the English circuit judges, but instead of going out on a one-time assignment, Philip assigned each one to a district and kept him there for several years. If the man proved himself competent, he got another assignment when this one ended; otherwise he was fired.

In the controversy between the Papacy and the German emperors, the French kings usually sided with the Papacy, because they didn't get along well with the emperors either. However, even in the best of times the kings could collide with the popes; Philip II defied Pope Innocent III by having French bishops annul his marriage. The pope responded by imposing an interdict on France; we saw earlier how that brought England's King John to his knees. Philip backed down, and his wife became queen again. On the other hand, the church inadvertently also helped to expand the royal domain. Philip did not take part in the Albigensian Crusade because he had to keep a watchful eye on his English and German enemies, but he allowed his vassals to do so. After Philip's death, Louis VIII (1223-1226) led a new crusade to exterminate the remaining Albigensians, and used the expiration of a ten-year truce with England as an excuse to overrun Poitou (1224).


The conquests of Philip Augustus
Philip Augustus made France strong; these maps show how France was organized at the beginning and the end of his reign. The red area belonged to the king of England, the blue areas belonged to the king of France, the green areas belonged to the French king's dukes, and the yellow areas belonged to the Church.


Louis VIII's successor, Louis IX, was also known as St. Louis because he prayed for hours at a time and did many good deeds. He founded hospitals, asylums, and homes for the blind and reformed prostitutes; he often fed the poor at public expense, sometimes waiting on them himself. Louis believed himself responsible only to God, who had put him on the throne to lead his people out of a life of sin. Accordingly, he was the first French king to issue edicts for the whole kingdom without the prior consent of his council of great vassals. He also ordered an end to trial by combat and private warfare. Certain matters, such as treason and crimes on the highways, were declared to be the exclusive jurisdiction of the royal courts. In addition to the baillis and sénéchaux, he sent out enquêteurs (inquisitors) to hear the complaints of the royal subjects, no matter how lowly their rank. These men were not judges but good-will ambassadors; the grievances they heard were taken back to the king, whereupon he would act to redress them. Like the trial by inquest system set up in England, the result was a gain in rights for the lower classes, and ordinary people began looking to the king, rather than to their barons, for justice. Often this meant personal involvement, as his friend, Jean de Joinville, explained: "In summer, after hearing mass the king went often to the wood of Vincennes, where he would sit with his back against an oak . . . Those who had any suit to present could come to speak to him without hindrance from any man."

In foreign affairs Louis got mixed results. His English rival, Henry III, made two unsuccessful attempts to recover Poitou, in 1230 and 1242. Then in 1248 he went on the Seventh Crusade, only to be captured by the Moslems in Egypt; he did not come home until 1254, and his mother, Blanche of Castile, ran the kingdom until her death in 1252. In 1258 Louis signed the Treaty of Corbeil, relinquishing to the kingdom of Aragon all French claims to Barcelona and Roussillon, in return for which the Aragonese renounced their claims to parts of Provence and Languedoc. In 1259 he signed the Treaty of Paris, by which Henry III was allowed to keep his territories in southwestern France in return for recognition that Louis was now lord over the ancestral lands of the Normans and Plantagenets. Finally, Louis was forced to get involved in Italy and North Africa by the actions of his brother Charles, which are covered in the next section.

By the end of Louis' reign (1270), every part of France was under some degree of royal control, and France had replaced Germany as the most important kingdom in Christendom. He was succeeded first by Philip III, and then by the last important Capetian, Philip IV (1285-1314, also known as Philip the Fair for his good looks). The opposite of his saintly grandfather, Philip was a man of craft, violence, and deceit. He took advantage of anti-Semitic feelings to expel the Jews from France and confiscate their possessions (Philip's English contemporary, Edward I, had done the same in 1290.). Heavily in debt to the Knights Templars, who had become bankers after the Crusades, Philip had the order suppressed on trumped-up charges of heresy.

Philip formed a committee of ministers to run the day-to-day affairs of the country, and recruited them not from the noble families, but from young law school graduates. As in Italy and England, France had seen its first universities spring up in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the new scholars were just as excited over Justinian's law code as they were over Aristotle's scientific writings. Philip's lawyers found in the old Roman laws a way to justify giving ultimate power to the king, so when a French Parliament, the Etats-Généraux (Estates General), was formed, it acted as a rubber stamp to listen to and approve the king's actions, rather than act as a debating society the way England's Parliament did.

The Estates General was first called in 1302 to hear why the king was acting to remove a pope who demanded too much; it met again in 1314 so the king could explain his reasons for a new tax. In neither case did he allow the delegates to vote on his decision, but they and the common people got the idea that the king was acting with their consent, and working to improve their lives. This assembly was organized into three bodies or "estates": one for the nobles and knights, one for the clergy, and one for the bourgeoisie (townspeople).

Top of the page


Frederick II, Il Stupor Mundi


For centuries Italy had been a battleground between the pope and various outside invaders: Byzantines, Arabs, Germans and Normans. When Frederick II inherited the entire peninsula from his parents, Henry VI of the Holy Roman Empire and Constance, daughter of the last Norman king of Sicily, the conflict ended triumphantly in the Germans' favor. It also expanded the Empire to its greatest size since Charlemagne's time.

Frederick II's Empire
The Holy Roman Empire, under Frederick II (1212-1250).

Because he was only four years old when Henry died (1198), Frederick had to fight for the imperial crown; it was also claimed by Henry's brother, Philip of Swabia, and by Otto of Saxony, the current leader of the Welf clan. At first Frederick's mother acted as regent, but she died only six months later, so Pope Innocent III became Frederick's guardian until he grew up.(21)

In 1208 Philip of Swabia was assassinated, and Otto of Saxony became the next emperor. Otto IV was the pope's man before the coronation, but after he got the crown he decided that he wanted to rule like a real king, with nobody telling him what to do. Just a few months later Otto invaded Italy. The pope excommunicated Otto at once, and told the German princes to choose a new emperor; the only candidate with a legitimate claim was young Frederick. Innocent would have preferred crowning an adult, but when Frederick declared he was marching north with only a few followers, the pope had to give his blessing. It was a dangerous journey, with enemies waiting in several places to capture the boy from Apulia; somehow he avoided them all, made it to Germany and found much more support there. In 1212 he was crowned king of Germany at Frankfurt, but it took more fighting, and alliances with France and the Papacy, before Otto was finally defeated (1218).

During the struggle, Frederick made many concessions: to the pope he promised that he would give up Sicily and go on a crusade. To the German princes and bishops he granted several rights that had belonged to the emperors previously, including the right to build castles, grant town charters, and levy taxes. Such decentralization backfired; soon Frederick and his successors would find they no longer had enough political power to keep the Empire in one piece. Among the dukes, he could only hold onto power by diluting it.

Frederick II was the most remarkable man to take charge of the Empire. Though his ancestry was mainly German, he was born in Italy, and always regarded Sicily as his most important province; indeed, it was the only province with much organization above the city-state level. He spoke nine languages, and regularly used five of them: German, Italian, Latin, Greek and Arabic. In an age when religion was everyone's main intellectual interest, Frederick was an agnostic. This probably came about because there were still Moslems on Sicily, allowing him to get a good look at both Christianity and Islam; he ended up claiming that humanity had been deceived by three imposters--Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.(22) Although Frederick enjoyed a long reign during the time when most of western Europe's Gothic cathedrals were built, he himself only built one new church, when he wasn't busy fighting the Papacy and its allies. Once he had a condemned criminal sealed in a barrel and drowned while he and his courtiers listened for the sound of an escaping soul; when they didn't hear anything unexpected, they concluded that the soul didn't exist. Another time, to find out what language the first people spoke, he had a group of orphaned infants sent to a deserted island, in the care of deaf-mute nurses. Unfortunately, when he visited the island a few years later to learn the results, he found that a lethal plague had ruined his experiment. During a gold shortage he successfully introduced a form of money made of stamped leather or parchment, with a promise to pay the holder in gold later--a forerunner of today's paper money. Finally he had the disturbing habit of taking a weekly bath. People gave him the nickname of Il Stupor Mundi, "the Wonder of the World."

For these reasons, Frederick had second thoughts about his promises to the Papacy before long. He did not go when the Fifth Crusade departed in 1218; soon many would think it failed because of his absence. Even worse from the pope's point of view, Frederick refused to abandon Sicily. Instead of making his infant son Henry the king of Sicily, he took him to Germany and made him king of Swabia. However, Innocent's aged and pious successor, Honorius III, needed a strong ruler to save him from the Roman mob, which had just run him out of town. When Frederick returned Honorius to Rome at the head of an army, and promised to rid the Empire of heresy, the pope decided he was all right, and crowned him emperor in 1220.

Though he persecuted local heretics like the Albigensians and Waldensians(23), Frederick was surprisingly lenient to Moslems. The Moslem community on the island of Sicily was in full revolt at the beginning of Frederick's reign, but he did not massacre or torture them when he put down the rebellion. Instead he deported whole communities to northern Apulia, where he allowed them to continue in their old trades, from agriculture to carpet weaving to arms making; he even let them practice Islam in peace. This act of generosity turned the former rebels into passionate Hohenstaufen loyalists. Later on, he recruited Italian Moslems to serve as his bodyguards, because they were brave and completely immune to threats of excommunication from the pope.

Frederick knew that a modern government needed a well-educated civil service, so in Naples he built Europe's first completely secular university. However, all his efforts to promote intellectual activity were meant to give him more power; he was no friend to democracy or human rights. For example, when parents sent their children to the Church-controlled universities abroad, Frederick told them to bring the kids back quickly when they were finished, to reduce the chance of them picking up dangerous ideas. Accordingly, once he had firm control over Sicily, he tried to strengthen his rule over the rest of the Empire. He couldn't do much with Germany, because its princes were too powerful, and the primitive German economy didn't generate much revenue. However, the fifty city-states of north Italy were another matter; trade and banking gave them lots of cash, and they were much too independent. Frederick called for the head of every state and free city within the Empire to meet with him in a great gathering, at the north Italian city of Cremona, on Easter of 1226. The topics of discussion would be imperial rights in Italy, the suppression of heretics, and why Frederick had not gone on a crusade like he promised; nobody doubted that the first topic would be the main one. It was a bust; nobody came, not even Frederick's son Henry. Instead, the frightened leaders of north Italy revived their alliance from the previous century, the Lombard League, and blocked the Alpine passes to keep the Germans from supporting Frederick. The emperor responded by telling the pope that he would have to forget about the crusade, because north Italy wouldn't give him the knights and funds he needed for an overseas venture. This diplomacy worked with Honorius, who was nearly 100 years old at this point and obsessed with launching the Sixth Crusade. A series of Papal threats and decrees forced the Italians to make a compromise; though the pope would not live to see it, the crusade must go forth.

At any rate, Frederick could not postpone the crusade much longer, due to a personal reason: he had married Isabella, the heiress of Jerusalem, in 1225, and would have to go east to claim her land. When he tried to leave in 1227, an epidemic among himself and his troops brought them back within three days. This was too much for the strict new pope, Gregory IX, so he excommunicated the emperor. That got Frederick to leave again in the following spring, but only a thousand German knights and his Moslem bodyguards were willing to support an excommunicated monarch, so he negotiated a ten-year treaty with the sultan of Egypt, and returned to Italy in 1229.

Frederick's relationship with Innocent III and Honorius III had been an uneasy one; the popes didn't like the fact that they couldn't control this emperor, but they couldn't do without him either. Now under Gregory IX, the Papacy became the emperor's worst enemy, and would remain so for the rest of the Hohenstaufen years. While Frederick was on the crusade, Gregory sided with the Lombard League against the emperor, tried to get a Welf "antiking" elected in Germany, spread a rumor that Frederick had died in the Holy Land, and sent troops to occupy Sicily. Frederick, very much alive, quickly cleared the Papal invaders out of his home base, but Gregory wouldn't agree to cancel the excommunication until the Teutonic Knights (the German Crusaders in the Baltic) and most of the German princes put pressure on him to reach a compromise.

In 1228 Frederick's son Henry came of age, and he tried to rule Germany through an alliance with the rulers of the German states. It didn't work, because Henry had neither his father's diplomatic skills nor his determination. Seeing Frederick's concessions to the Germans as the cause of all his problems, he declared himself in revolt in 1234, with the Lombard League as his ally. Frederick marched north, captured Henry, and kept him confined in the castles of Apulia until his death in 1242. Another son of Frederick, Conrad, took charge of Germany and finished putting down the rebellion. Frederick got the Germans to recognize imperial supremacy at the Diet of Mainz in 1235, but north Italy still refused to do likewise, so in 1237 Frederick made another invasion of that troublesome region.

The Lombard League had nothing that could stop Frederick's German knights and Saracen archers; he destroyed the mercenaries and citizen-soldiers of the city-states at every encounter. Cities, provinces and bishops hastily pledged their allegiance, but then Frederick made the biggest mistake of his career--he demanded everyone's unconditional surrender. This was too much for the Italians, and a new rebellion began while the old one was ending. This time Frederick had complete control of the countryside, but he could not capture the north Italian cities, because he lacked good siege equipment. In fact, the whole Empire had a shortage of siege weaponry, and when Frederick called on every vassal for reinforcements--even Hungary and Provence--the additional forces made no difference. In 1239 Frederick called for the cardinals of the Church to rebel against their master's "dangerous plans," and Gregory excommunicated the emperor a second time. In response, Frederick expelled several religious orders from Sicily, and diverted his troops from north Italy to occupy Tuscany and the Papal State. He declared that he would never return any of the lands he took from the pope, and the entire Papal State, including Rome, would now become part of his south Italian kingdom.

He never got to finish off Rome. While leading a procession to St. Peter's cathedral, the 95-year-old pope met a mob that favored Frederick. Gregory held up a reliquary which was said to contain the heads of the apostles Peter and Paul, and shouted, "O Saints! You must defend Rome, for the Romans will defend her no more." This so shamed the crowd that they tore the imperial eagles off their clothes and manned the city defenses. Soon Frederick, as ill-equipped as ever for a siege, had to give up. Then Gregory announced a great council of the Church for Easter 1241. Frederick rightly expected that the pope would depose him at such a gathering, so he prevented the meeting from happening by blockading the city.

Top of the page


The Mongol Horde in Poland and Hungary


The ongoing struggle between the two most powerful leaders of Christendom not only scandalized Europe, but also put it in great peril. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, a barbarian chief named Temujin brought the tribes of Mongolia under his rule. In 1206 they convened a kurultai, a grand congress, at which Temujin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, the "Universal Ruler." Now that all of Mongolia was his, Genghis Khan sent his armies forth to conquer the rest of the world, for the same reason that the Arabs attacked the Byzantine and Persian Empires after Arabia was united; they needed to fight and loot somebody, and they could no longer do it to each other. Most of the Great Khan's wars were inflicted upon Asia, but in 1221 one of his armies raided Iran, crossed the Caucasus and entered Russia. This raid was a roaring success; it caught the Russians and steppe barbarians before they could form a united front, and delivered a series of crushing defeats, before returning to Mongolia in 1223. Consequently you could bet your last gold coin that someday the Mongols would come back for more.

But first they had to take care of business at home. Genghis died in 1227. and the Mongols elected his son Ogotai to succeed him. Ogotai wasn't as aggressive as his father, but many of the folks around him were, so the empire, which now stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria, continued to grow. New campaigns were launched in China and Iran, to finish the conquests that Genghis had started. It wasn't until 1236 that the Mongols got around to invading Europe again.

Though thirteen years had passed since the first invasion, the Europeans had done nothing to prepare for the second one. They could not unite against a common enemy, to start with. The original Russian state had broken up in the mid-eleventh century; in its place were a dozen petty states, of which Novgorod was the biggest and Vladimir was the strongest. Nor would any help come from the west, while the pope and the Holy Roman emperor were locked in their vicious quarrel. Thus, when the Mongols returned they were able to defeat their opponents one by one, just like they had done the first time. From 1237 to 1240 they conquered the Volga Bulgars, the Russians, the Alans and the Cumans.(24) Next it was the turn of central Europe, and the Mongol army split in three for this; one force invaded Poland, one force invaded Transylvania, while the main force, led by Batu Khan (Genghis Khan's grandson) and an excellent general named Subotai, invaded Hungary. No doubt they were planning to make the pasturelands of Hungary their advance base, the way the Huns, Avars and Magyars had done. Before the whole European campaign got started, Ogotai Khan's strategists had predicted it would take sixteen to eighteen years to conquer Europe; because they had taken Russia and the Ukraine in four years, you could say they were ahead of schedule at this point.

The Mongols in Poland sacked Lublin, Sandomierz and Krakow, the capital, which the king of Poland had abandoned to them. Continuing on into Silesia, they encountered an army of Polish and German knights roughly the same size as their force and smashed it (the battle of Liegnitz, at modern Legnica, April 9, 1241); then they moved into Hungary to rejoin their comrades there.

Battle of Liegnitz.
The battle of Liegnitz; the Mongols are on the left.

Meanwhile in Hungary, a large group of Cumans (estimates of their numbers range from 40,000 to 200,000) fled across the border, offering to become Catholics and join the Hungarian army if King Bela IV would take them under his protection. The king accepted, but a lot of Hungarians did not trust the new recruits, especially after they saw the king take the side of the Cumans, in a dispute between them and the nobility. When the king ordered all his troops, including the Cumans, to assemble in the city of Pest, riots broke out and the Cuman khan was killed. Believing they had been betrayed, the Cumans pillaged the Hungarian countryside, instead of defending it. What remained of the Hungarian army advanced to the Sajó River, which was flooded at the time, and they captured the only bridge across it. The wet, forested terrain favored the Hungarians, and they had the element of surprise when they took the bridge, but their advantage was short-lived; in his most brilliant victory, Subotai outflanked and ambushed the enemy camp (the battle of Mohi, April 11, 1241). The Mongols overran all of Hungary after that, and the king fled to an island off the Dalmatian coast.


The Mongol invasion of Europe, 1241-1242.

Unlike European armies, Mongolian armies move best in cold weather; during the winter of 1241-42 they crossed the frozen Danube, and even sent an experimental raid into Austria. However, Ogotai Khan died back in Mongolia, and word of his death reached the army in Europe the following spring. The whole royal family, including Batu, was expected to take part in voting for Ogotai's successor, so Batu had to go to Mongolia. The army marched through Bulgaria to reach the Black Sea in 1242, and then headed east across the steppes. Bela IV returned from exile to take the Hungarian throne again, ruling until his death in 1270. Modern historians do not like the idea that one man, five thousand miles away from the action, can change the course of world events; they might point out that the Mongols did not have the resources to hold onto anything west of Russia for any length of time. Myself, I prefer to think that the khan's death saved central Europe from some horrid atrocities. If the Mongols had continued into Germany or Italy, they would have made the tenth-century raids of the Magyars look puny by comparison.(25)

Top of the page


The Embattled Empire


While the Mongols were at the Holy Roman Empire's door, some European leaders, notably Louis IX of France and Conrad, Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, tried to persuade Pope Gregory IX and Emperor Frederick II to talk peace. Gradually Frederick gained the upper hand; the pro-imperial city of Padua defeated Milan, and Frederick's allies in Pisa destroyed a Genoese fleet carrying Papal delegates to Rome. Gregory died right after agreeing to negotiations, and because of the blockade of Rome, the election of a new pope had to wait until 1243.

The next pope, Innocent IV, was as implacable as Gregory IX had been. For a year peace talks went on, but neither side trusted the other enough to permit a successful conclusion. Suddenly Innocent fled to Lyons in Burgundy, which meant he was still in the Empire but well beyond Frederick's reach. There in 1245 he summoned the Church council Gregory had wanted. The results were what Frederick had feared: the pope declared the emperor excommunicated and deposed, with his subjects released from all vows of obedience.

After that there was no more talk of a compromise. Papal envoys encouraged revolt by offering Frederick's titles to anyone willing to take them. In response Frederick mutilated, blinded or executed the traitors he now saw everywhere. Both sides suffered badly from defeats. Frederick captured several cities in Lombardy, and in Germany King Conrad defeated Innocent's champion on the north side of the Alps, William of Holland; on the other hand pro-Papal forces from Bologna captured Frederick's favorite (though illegitimate) son, Enzo, and locked him up for the rest of his life. The fighting went on until Frederick died in Apulia, on December 13, 1250.

Frederick's death must have seemed like a miracle to the Papacy. Nevertheless, the pope still lived in fear that the Holy Roman emperors would grind the Papal State between the northern (German) and southern (Italian) halves of their dominion. Maybe the immediate danger had passed, but who could say that it would never return? The way to prevent this was to get rid of the Hohenstaufens, because only they had a claim to both the German and Sicilian crowns. The Papacy soon got a chance to do this; all of Frederick's legitimate sons had died by 1254, leaving Conradin, an infant grandson, as the rightful heir. Within months Conradin was pushed off the throne by Manfred, an illegitimate son of Frederick. The pope denounced this usurpation, declared the imperial crown forfeit, and offered it to France's Louis IX. Louis had enough to keep himself busy, so he passed the offer to his ambitious brother, Charles of Anjou. Charles duly invaded Italy, killed Manfred at the battle of Benevento (1266), and made himself master of the kingdom of Sicily. Two years later, the fifteen-year-old Conradin made another attempt to claim his inheritance; Charles captured him and publicly beheaded the young "viper" in the Naples marketplace. The connection between Germany and south Italy was permanently broken.(26)

In the long run, nobody gained much from Charles' Italian adventure. The Papacy had spent much of its moral authority fighting the emperors, and after 1300 its French allies became more dangerous than either the heretics or the Hohenstaufens had been. And Charles came to resemble the demon he had exorcised. Besides Sicily he held Anjou (his original fief in central France) and Provence (which he gained by marriage), and he wasn't going to stop there. Soon the exhausted cities of north and central Italy, including Rome, surrendered their freedom, but two old Norman projects (North Africa and the Balkans) lured him away before he could subjugate the Italians completely. For North Africa he persuaded his brother, a pious but incompetent Crusader, to make an attack on Tunisia, instead of Egypt or the Holy Land. Louis quickly died of dysentery, and all Charles got from Tunisia was a promise of tribute, soon revoked (1272). In 1271 he invaded the Balkans, where he found the last pieces of the Latin Empire looking for a protector, now that the Byzantines had returned to Constantinople. By 1278 Albania and western Greece were his, allowing him to proclaim himself the prince of Achaea.

What all these lands were worth was another matter. Charles and his retainers made themselves so unpopular in Sicily that a full-blown rebellion engulfed the island in 1282. This uprising is called the Revolt of the Sicilian Vespers, because it began during an evening church service near Palermo, where some Sicilians assaulted and killed a group of French soldiers who insulted them. Charles, who was on the mainland preparing an expedition against Constantinople, had to postpone it indefinitely. He couldn't suppress the Sicilians because they invited Aragon's Pedro III to become their king; the Aragonese navy defeated both the Angevin and French fleets easily. Charles died in 1285 and the war went on until 1302. In 1295 James II, the son of Pedro, agreed to a treaty that gave him Sardinia and Corsica, in exchange for Sicily; the Sicilians would have none of this and they crowned James' brother, Frederick II (1295-1337), instead. After seven more years of fighting, this Frederick got a new treaty where both the pope and the Angevins recognized him as king of Sicily. The family of Charles retained Provence and the south Italian mainland, now renamed the Kingdom of Naples. Anjou had been lost when that county became a daughter's dowry in 1290, while the Greek holdings went to a separate grandson of Charles in 1307.

Top of the page


The Magna Carta and the First Parliament


Today most of us remember King John as the chief villain in the Robin Hood stories, who exploited the people of England while Richard I was off on the Third Crusade, and his reign was such a disaster that afterwards, Englishmen swore they would never again have a king by that name. However, John was not so much evil as he was incompetent. You could say that he had the reverse Midas touch; everything he touched turned to crap. He had many grand ideas, and made heavy use of taxes, fines, confiscations and outright extortion to pay for them, but was too erratic in temperament to complete what he started. His subjects called him "Lackland" because he inherited nothing from his father, Henry II, and his wars with the king of France went so badly that he got an even more embarrassing nickname, "Softsword" (if you think "Softsword" also had a sexual meaning, you're probably right). The vast French landholdings of Henry II dwindled under John to Poitou, Guyenne, and Calais; though John spent lavishly on castles to defend his French holdings, some of the lords ruling those territories felt so little loyalty to him that they handed over the castles to Philip Augustus without a battle. What remained by the end of John's reign was too far away to be very profitable.

The main result of these losses was a changed attitude; in a sense, John was the first real "English" king since 1066. The kings before him had to travel constantly between their holdings in England and France, and of the two places, France was both richer and had a more pleasant climate, so they saw themselves as more French than English. By contrast, John spoke English; he and his successors would see England as their true home. Still, after losing the battle of Bouvines, John came home to find the country poorer and angry at him.

This led to the one positive achievement of John's reign--the Magna Carta. Among his subjects, the nobility and clergy were the angriest of all; they had to pay most of the new taxes, because the peasants did not have money to give. Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called for the barons to demand the rights they had enjoyed under Henry I, a hundred years before. After months of secret meetings, the drafting and rewriting of their declaration, and mounting tensions, a small band of lords and knights marched on and occupied London. John's army deserted him, and the barons confronted the king at Runnymeade, a meadow on the banks of the Thames. There they detained John for several days until he gave in and signed their declaration, known afterwards as the Magna Carta (June 15, 1215).


King John at Runnymeade
King John signs the Magna Carta.


The Magna Carta was written in Latin on parchment; it was a thoroughly feudal document in that while it guaranteed the rights of the nobility, it said nothing about the serfs. Of its 63 provisions, all but 12 are now obsolete; still, we consider it a milestone in the history of political and social development, and one of the first charters promoting freedom. Most importantly it established the concept of Lex Rex (instead of Rex Lex), meaning that no man is above the law of the land, not even the king. Originally the document was supposed to expire after three months, but it became so meaningful to the English (and heirs of England like the United States) that it has become a permanent part of the law; no one in England today would think of running the country without it. For example:

  • Article 12 forbade the vassal to pay money to his lord instead of military service without the vassal's consent; from this would come the idea that taxes should not be imposed or raised without the taxpayer's approval.
  • Article 20 was a limitation on "cruel & unusual punishment", declaring that a freeman could be fined "only according to the measure of his offenses."
  • Article 28 forbade the seizure of "corn or other movable goods" without immediate payment; this would find its way into the fifth amendment of the US Constitution.
  • Article 38 introduced the idea that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.
  • Article 39 guaranteed a trial by jury for anyone.
  • Article 60 promised equal treatment for both clergy and laymen.
In the short run, however, the Magna Carta caused chaos. The pope viewed these events as an act of rebellion, and excommunicated Langton and the 25 barons who made John sign the document, because after the king's capitulation in 1213, he was in effect the pope's vassal. Encouraged by this, John tried to renounce the Magna Carta and recruited mercenaries to put the barons back in their place. In response, the barons called on the French for help, and Louis VIII, the son of Philip Augustus, brought an army across the Channel and took London, claiming the crown of England for himself while John was putting down revolts in the north. John returned in October of 1216, but disaster struck when he tried to take a shortcut through The Wash, an inlet of the North Sea surrounded by marshes in East Anglia. The tide came in faster than expected, while the baggage train was crossing the Wellstream River, and most of the pack horses, along with their drivers, the king's wealth and many of his personal belongings, were lost in quicksand. The king was already ill from dysentery, and died a week later.

John's son, Henry III, was crowned immediately, but he was only nine years old, so for a decade three regents governed in his name: William Marshall, Hubert de Burgh, and Cardinal Guala. These were responsible men who governed by the Magna Carta, so the kingdom was in good hands. In May 1217 they defeated the French force in London, and destroyed the fleet carrying reinforcements in August, thereby persuading the French to go home. At the age of twenty Henry got to rule by himself, with the approval of the pope.

Though Henry III enjoyed one of the longest reigns in English history (1216-72), he was another poor king. Under him England prospered, but this was in spite of his actions, and political reform came because of his actions. The main problem was that he got along too well with foreigners, especially if they were French or Italian. He never shook off the impression that he was really controlled by the pope; his wife, Eleanor of Provence, was the sister of the king of France, and brought several friends and relatives from Savoy when she came to England; his sister, also named Eleanor, married a French noble, Simon de Montfort, who became the Earl of Leicester. Henry was loyal to the pope, his wife and his friends, but suspected everyone else, so the English nobles saw their rights erode, as they were pushed aside to make room for foreign newcomers.

During the war between Frederick II and the Papacy (see the previous section), Henry appointed 300 Italian priests to fill vacancies in England; in return, he got twenty percent of the revenue collected by the Church. Most Englishmen resented this; in 1245 a Papal legate arrived to raise money from the local clergy, and English nobles threatened to tear him to pieces if he did not leave. When the Hohenstauffen family became extinct, the pope offered Henry the crown of Sicily for £90,000, which would have meant more taxes on the barons against their wishes. Henry accepted, and prepared to send an army to Sicily on this bizarre venture, only to find that he couldn't raise the money he needed; the barons wouldn't cooperate until he agreed to remove the queen's friends. Moreover, a revolt in Wales drove out his troops. In the end he had to let Sicily go to Charles of Anjou, while he dealt with these troubles at home. This took until 1258, when he held a conference with Simon de Montfort, now the leader of the opposition, and they reached the following compromise, known as the Provisions of Oxford:

  1. A council of 15 barons would advise the king.
  2. The king could make no decision without this council's approval.
  3. The council would appoint the treasurer, justiciar, and chancellor, the three most important ministers.
  4. All ministers would be responsible to the council.
  5. Council meetings, soon to be known as parliaments(27), would be held three times a year to discuss issues of the realm. Some knights and other minor nobles would be summoned to these meetings.
This arrangement only lasted until 1261, when the pope absolved Henry and he brought his friends back. Relations between the king and the nobles got worse, until in 1263 they turned the matter over to Louis IX, asking him to act as an independent arbiter. The French and English had fought just a few years earlier, but Louis had such a reputation for piety and justice that everyone agreed he would be fair--until his belief in the divine right of kings made him rule in Henry's favor. Simon now realized that war was the only way to avoid losing everything he had gained to this point.

The barons won the first round at the battle of Lewes, capturing the king and his son, Edward (1264). Now Simon set up an opposition government, which lasted for fifteen months. This was the first true English Parliament, a grand council with two knights from every shire and two burgesses from every town. He let them do almost nothing, but flattered them by just by inviting them to attend the meeting, and got them to agree that they didn't like high taxes or foreign military expeditions. However, the new order got little popular support, and a year later Prince Edward escaped, resulting in the defeat and death of Simon at the battle of Evesham. Still, Henry got the message. He let Edward do most of the ruling for the rest of his reign, and the next time he wanted to raise taxes (1268), he summoned the knights and burgesses to get their approval.

Edward I also saw the need for reform, and after he became king he would summon parliaments to hear petitions and judicial appeals, to raise money (normally the king's budget was limited to what he could raise from his personal landholdings, about £730,000 a year), and to approve royal decisions. Over the course of his reign (1272-1307) Edward called 34 parliaments; they didn't yet meet at an agreed-on time every year. Gradually, as the rules of parliamentary procedure were worked out, the members organized into four groups or houses:

  1. The House of Lords: Most nobles, bishops, and important abbotts.
  2. Knights.
  3. Merchants and burgesses, to represent the towns.
  4. Lower clergy.
Later on the lower clergy dropped out and held their own meetings separately, while #2 and #3 merged to form the House of Commons. Unlike the other legislatures of Europe, which only stood up for the rights of the upper class, the English Parliament could claim to represent all of England, so in ages to come it would be the government body that encouraged nationalism. By the end of the thirteenth century Parliament had become the most important branch of the English government, the official policy-maker and tax-granter.

Edward I had everything going for him from the start. Because he had peace with the French and with his own people, he could concentrate on completing the conquest of the British Isles, something his predecessors never had much time for. Wales in particular needed pacification, having risen in revolt during the latter years of Henry III. In 1267 the Welsh united behind one leader, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd of Gwynedd. He refused to submit to Edward's authority, so in 1277 Edward launched an invasion that overran most of Llywelyn's lands. The Welsh prince was treated leniently at first, but when he revolted again in 1282, Edward sent a second force to end Welsh independence for good. However, the Welsh still weren't willing to accept an English king, so Edward promised them a prince who did not speak English--his six-month-old son! Thus the future King Edward II became the first "Prince of Wales," and all heirs to the English crown have held the title since then. Edward also tried to conquer Scotland, but didn't do as well there; we'll cover that story in the next chapter.

Top of the page


The Evolution of Castles


The Romans were masters at military engineering; their fortified camps and extensive walls testified to their skill. That talent, like so many other aspects of Imperial Rome, became a dead art when the barbarians moved in. Tribes like the Franks and the Saxons didn't know how to build stone fortifications, so instead they raised earthworks like Offa's Dyke, and more of the longhouses that characterized ancient Europe.

After the Empire's fall, Roman walls and buildings were often cannibalized to build churches. Churches were the only stone buildings in most places; for all other structures, the inhabitants of Dark Age Europe preferred wood. Wood was readily available, cheaper than stone, and carpenters were easier to find/train than masons. For those reasons, we can't point to any castle in present-day England and say, "This is Camelot." King Arthur's home, if it existed, was a wooden fort that has burned down or rotted away over the centuries.

The second wave of barbarian attacks on western Europe--those of the Vikings, Moslems and Magyars in the ninth and tenth centuries--convinced many that it was time for better defenses. The first castles were built to meet this need. In every case a castle's location was chosen with the idea that it would either (1) increase the strength of a natural obstacle, such as a hill, river or swamp, or (2) create a new obstacle by its existence. Either way, it slowed down an invading force considerably, by forcing it to conduct a siege. A new form of military science developed around making new weapons to break through a castle's defenses, and to prevent such attacks from succeeding (see footnote #20). No military commander looked forward to a siege, because they could be long, expensive and bloody, especially for the attacker. Typically an attacking force had to outnumber the defenders by four to one in order to capture a castle by direct assault, and it took two attackers for every defender just to surround a castle and starve out the occupants.

Economics was a factor in placement as well; a castle cost more than a few pennies to maintain, and it needed people to garrison the structure, dredge the moat, and make repairs. Thus, a castle could not be built very far from the community which supported it, and that community had to be at least reasonably well-off, since the castle, unlike a monastery containing farms or vineyards, did not generate any income. Unfortunately, once the castle was up, it worked too well; not only did it keep the enemy at a distance, but it also allowed the noble who owned it to revolt against his king, or to conduct "private wars" against other nobles. No doubt this slowed down the centralization of government that we discussed earlier in this chapter.

The early castles were made completely of wood, and thus resembled the stockade forts built in the western United States before 1900. The most common castle design at this stage was called the "motte and bailey" structure. To build a motte and bailey castle, the first step involved digging a ditch around the whole site, and heaping up the dirt to form a mound (the "motte"). A drawbridge over the ditch served as the castle's only entrance. Sometimes the ditch would be filled with water to make a moat, but even when left dry it made attacks on the castle more difficult. Then a palisade of sharpened wooden logs would be built all the way around the top part of the mound, usually topped with thorn bushes to make scaling them painful. The courtyard (the "bailey") enclosed by this palisade would hold buildings such as the chapel, stables and smithy, as well as a fortified manor house that would serve as a final stronghold for the lord and his men, should an enemy get past the ditch and palisade. After the builders switched to stone, the manor house became the main tower of the castle, called the donjon or keep.


Painting of a motte and bailey castle.

A typical motte and bailey castle.


Of course wooden castles were easy to set on fire, but they were also easily rebuilt. In 1139 two nobles, Henry of Bourbourg and Arnold of Ardres, were fighting a private war among themselves. Henry secretly inspected the ruins of an old destroyed castle near Arnold's citadel, and ordered a prefabricated castle raised on the same spot. One morning Arnold woke up and saw a complete wooden castle menacing him--one that had not existed a day earlier!

The Normans were the first to build castles out of stone. By the end of the tenth century, France had some castles that were at least part stone; after 1066 these techniques were introduced to England. Once it became clear how much stronger stone castles were, wooden castles disappeared as fast as they could be replaced. One of the oldest standing examples of a stone castle is the famous Tower of London, begun in 1070. Stone also allowed the introduction of features that were not possible before, such as towers built into the main wall. At first the towers were always rectangular in shape, but during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries round towers became commonplace, when it was discovered that they stood up better to attacks from catapults and other siege engines.(28) Another valuable addition was the crenelated battlement, which allowed archers on top of castle walls to fire at attackers without exposing themselves.

After the Normans disappeared, Spain took the lead in castle technology, due to the many wars between Christians and Moors for control of the Iberian peninsula. Indeed, central Spain had so many castles that Castile got its name from them. The Umayyads built hundreds of forts, called alcazabas, while they were in charge. Unlike the Christian strongholds, the alcazabas did not include a keep, since their primary function was to serve as barracks for soldiers, rather than as a noble's house; the Christians usually added a keep after they captured one. In Spain the main building material was not stone or wood but tapia, a mixture of cement and pebbles that produced extremely strong walls and towers. However, the builders shaped tapia by pouring it between boards and leaving it to dry in the sun, so it could not be used to make round towers. Thus, the typical Spanish castle followed the contours of the site it was built on, and had square or polygon-shaped towers. Spain also led the way in developing a stronger gate, as we will see shortly.

Knights returning from the Crusades brought back more ideas on how to improve a castle's defenses. The most important was flanking towers; by spacing towers less than a bowshot apart, and by adding archer's ports in the sides, the defenders could keep the entire wall covered with arrow fire. Conical roofs often capped the towers, to provide further protection at the top. They also added a covered walkway on the outside of the wall, called a hoarding. This made it easier to deal with enemies who got to the base of the wall; by removing floorboards they could shoot arrows, or drop nasty stuff like rocks and garbage on the attackers.(29) As with the rest of the castle, this feature was built first with wood, and later with stone; the term machicolation is used for a covered stone catwalk with holes in the bottom for discharging missiles.

Because people had to get in and out of the castle in peacetime, the gate was usually the weakest part of the structure. To remedy this problem, architects from the thirteenth century onwards replaced the simple gate with the barbican, a narrow, well-defended passage between two sets of doors. Other additions included a flanking tower on each side of the gate, and the porticullis, a wood-and-iron grid that was lowered by pulleys behind the drawbridge. All this transformed the gate into the strongest part of the castle, so after this we see castles built with more than one gate in them, making it easier for the defenders to leave and forcing the attacker to bring more men, now that each gate had to be blockaded during a siege.

The peak period for castle building took place during the last quarter of the thirteenth century. Some of the best examples we have from this time are English castles like Conway and Caernarvon, which Edward I built to maintain control over the parts of Wales he had conquered; and Carcassonne, which enclosed an entire town in southern France. After this an economic slump and the infamous Black Death made sure that fewer castles would go up in the fourteenth century. By the time Europe recovered from these calamities, cannon had arrived to knock holes in castle walls, so castles were no longer an effective means of defense. As the architects of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries rushed to build new types of fortifications, the castle became nothing more than the ornament of royalty. The last castles raised, such as the Bavarian ones of the nineteenth century (see below and also Chapter 13, footnote #16), were glorified mansions, built to show off the wealth and exalted status of the owner.


Bavarian Castle


Top of the page


Central Europe's Technological Experiment


While England and France developed centralized nation-states, Italy and Germany went to pieces, as we saw in the previous sections. But while political progress was hindered, Italians led the way in promoting trade, and Germans cleverly invented various forms of machinery which harnessed wind and water on a large scale, replaced the work of many hands (and animals), and anticipated the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century.

Mining had been practiced by the Romans, but most mines had been abandoned during the Dark Ages. One metal that remained in constant use was iron, due to the obvious need for farming equipment and weapons. Gradually, the iron was supplemented with rich deposits of gold, silver and copper that were present in Germany. Then the Germans took the water mill--a device used strictly for grinding grain so far--and applied the machinery to mining.

To us the windmill seems like the natural companion to the water mill, because while streams froze in the winter, the winds continued to blow. However, it took longer for windmills to be put to work. All the reports we have of windmills before the twelfth century come from Asia, so the idea for them may have been brought to Europe by Crusaders coming home. By 1300, both water mills and windmills were driving the tools for fulling cloth, tanning leather, sawing wood, and crushing ore. Other mills operated the bellows for blast furnaces, the hammers of forges, the millstones used to finish and polish arms and armor, and grind pigments for paint and mash for beer.

At first the owners of the properties containing mines claimed the yields they produced and used their serfs to work them. Then Frederick Barbarossa declared that all mines belonged to the emperor, and all mining was done under state control thereafter. In England the Crown claimed gold and silver deposits, but allowed the landowners to keep the profits from other metals, so long as royalties were paid to the king. The capital needed to get mining operations started came from Italian bankers, and sometimes from kings, queens and members of the bourgeoisie who invested in the venture.

Germany's products and technology set the standards for the rest of Europe. When in 1551 Spain reopened a silver and lead mine that had lain unused under the Moorish occupation, 200 skilled German miners were hired to operate it. England's Elizabeth I also looked to Germany for technicians and skilled laborers, and Norway did the same when it opened a silver mine in 1623.(30)

Our medieval ancestors were fascinated by the combination of color and light, which shows in the rich decoration of churches with stained-glass windows. In the process they invented the lens, possibly through an accidental discovery by a Venetian glassmaker. Italians were using eyeglasses by the thirteenth century.

Science as we know it was not practiced before the modern era, but what we call the scientific method was first articulated by Roger Bacon (1210-93), a thirteenth-century Franciscan monk who taught at the universities of Paris and Oxford. Bacon criticized the scholars of his day for paying too much attention to Aristotle--not because they disagreed with the teachings of Christianity--but because their preoccupation with the classics kept them from conducting studies and experimentation in the world around them. "If I had my way," he wrote in one fit of exasperation, "I should burn all the books of Aristotle, for the study of them can only lead to a loss of time, produce error, and increase ignorance." Aristotle himself probably would have agreed with this, had he known that some day educated men would treat bad translations of his work like Bibles, containing all possible knowledge. If only they would get their noses out of books and try some new research, Bacon argued, than someday science would work wonders more amazing than magic. "Machines may be made," he predicted, "by which the largest ships, with only one man steering them, will be moved faster than if they were filled with rowers; wagons may be built which will move with incredible speed and without the aid of beasts; flying machines can be constructed in which a man . . . may beat the air with wings like a bird . . . machines will make it possible to go to the bottom of seas and rivers."(31)

In previous eras diseases had been viewed as the wrath of God, and medicine was just another form of magic. But the Crusades and trade with the Islamic world introduced Arabic drugs to Christendom, and by the eleventh century Italy had seven medical schools to teach Greek, Arabic and Hebrew medicine. Gradually the standards required of doctors rose, laws were enacted concerning the licensing of their practice, and some cities (notably those in Flanders) began to take an active concern in the cleanliness of food and water.

The twelfth century saw the first European hospitals as well. At first they were simple whitewashed wooden structures, founded by the monasteries, but soon kings, queens, and wealthy bankers were building their own, and city governments were running them. The second generation of hospitals were two to three-story buildings, with marble pillars in front to make them resemble palaces; usually they were built outside the walls of the city to isolate infected patients from the general population.

As the fourteenth century dawned, progress in politics, economics, technology and social services was visible everywhere. Medieval man had institutions that handled justice more fairly and made it easier for him to live in peace with his neighbor. He could send his sons to school, and if he lived in the city, he could move to a higher station in society. He had products that were unknown to his ancestors, and new ways to earn the money to buy them. He also had hospitals to care for the sick, and the beginnings of a science that could discover why people got ill in the first place. A great future may have been expected, but few could see that misfortune hovered just beyond the next horizon.


This is the End of Chapter 8.

FOOTNOTES


12. At first Amalfi was the most prominent port west of Rome (ninth-tenth centuries). Pisa became important in the eleventh century, but not until the Normans ruined Amalfi (1131) were the Pisans able to operate in the West without competition. That ended in the last years of the twelfth century, when Pisa was forced to yield first place to Genoa.

13. This decree did not stem from any Biblical commandment; the pope who did it wanted to help the fishing industry.

14. This made Lübeck the natural choice when a location was needed for the headquarters of the Hanseatic League.

15. The archaic word for town was burg. Hence the inhabitants of cities were called burgesses in England, bourgeoisie in France, and burghers in Germany.

16. Because the Plantagenets had their original home in Anjou, some history books call them the Angevins instead.

17. We saw in Chapter 6 that all nobles were expected to fight for the king, but there have always been some who tried to get out of that responsibility. In the Dark Ages, knights and barons who would not fight were simply called cowards. Scutage made the most of that situation; because knights and other nobles were expensive, the king could often hire several ordinary soldiers with the money one noble paid. The new system worked for Henry II, and for his son Richard I, because as you will see, Richard was always short on money. However, King John went too far when he collected this tax during a time of peace. Paying a tax to avoid fighting made sense, but paying a tax because the king didn't have anyone to fight was both stupid and unfair. Thus, the barons made sure scutage was one of the issues covered when they wrote the Magna Carta (see Article 12).

18. Becket felt that coronations were something only the Archbishop of Canterbury (namely himself) should perform.

19. Henry II's eldest son (1155-83), now called "Henry the Young King," must have been the most spoiled prince who ever lived. Henry II may have caused this by fussing over him too much; he opted for a co-regency, crowning the younger Henry king at the age of 12, while he was very much alive and well. At the feast that followed, Henry II even waited on his son, telling him, "Surely no man alive has so noble a servant." to which the prince sarcastically replied, "It is only fitting that the son of a count should wait upon the son of a king." After that he constantly demanded more money and power from his father; even being made duke of Normandy and count of Anjou didn't keep him from joining Eleanor's rebellion. Fortunately for England, he died of a fever at the age of 28, so he never got to rule alone. Unfortunately, Henry II's other sons weren't much of an improvement, as you will see if you read on.

20. Remember how in "Star Wars," Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star by firing two torpedoes through one of the space station's vents? A similar fatal weakness brought down the supposedly impregnable Chateau Gaillard, only a few years after Richard I built it. In his infinite wisdom, King John decided that the castle chapel needed a toilet, and the toilet waste was disposed of by a chute, which dumped it outside the castle walls. When Philip II attacked the castle, he got past the moat and the outer bailey, but all assaults failed to take the toughest tower, the keep, until a French soldier named Ralph noticed that the garderobe (poop chute) was big enough for a man to crawl through. Ralph and some other men who weren't afraid of getting really filthy climbed up the shaft, and once at the top, they overpowered (by smell as well as by their strength!) the English guards, opened the gates, and let the rest of the French army in.
Today we sometimes refer to toilets as "Johns," and I wouldn't be surprised if the nickname started as one more way to make fun of the inept King John, because the French got into his favorite castle through the John!

21. Henry VI never got along well with the Church; no doubt he would have been appalled to know that Innocent was managing the Empire for his son. Henry liked to motivate the troops by having nuns stripped naked, smearing them with honey and feathers, and sending them on horseback past his cheering men.

22. Sicily was where Islam, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity met, making for one of the richest cultures in Medieval Europe. Frederick's main palace at Foggia, in the district of Apulia, was a luxurious haven of Oriental splendor with eunuch-guarded harems, scholars, philosophers, poets, musicians and exotic animals, like the one the Normans had at Palermo previously. Nearly a century later, Dante called Frederick's court the birthplace of Italian poetry.

23. Frederick treated the Jews no better and no worse than other Italian rulers. With the Inquisition getting started elsewhere at this time, this was probably a good thing.

24. The Cumans were a Turkish tribe that settled the Ukraine in 1060, the last nomads to arrive before the Mongols. They were a tribe of many names: "Cuman" was the Greek/Byzantine name for them, while the Russians called them Polovtsy, other Turks called them Ghuzz or Oghuz, and the Mongols called them Kipchaks. Finally, if you meet a modern-day Hungarian with the last name of Kun (as in Bela Kun, the communist leader), you know he is decended from those Cumans who took refuge in Hungary in the 1240s.

25. Frederick's favorite hobby was falconry, and he wrote a 589-page manual on the care and training of falcons which still exists, called The Art of Hunting with Birds. The book was richly illustrated with pictures like this one, which shows Frederick with a hooded falcon.

Frederick II with a falcon

Later on, when somebody asked Frederick about the Mongol invasion, he said half-seriously that if the Mongols conquered his empire, he would like to become the Great Khan's falconer!

26. Thanks to the campaign of Charles, France would be preoccupied with gaining control over Italy for much of the next six hundred years.

27. The name Parliament comes from the French verb Parler, meaning "to speak."

28. Most catapults used the power of tension, provided by twisted ropes or an oversized bow, to propel their missiles. A catapult that launched missiles with a counterweight is called a trebuchet (see below).

Trebuchet

The most common missiles for catapults were rocks, which could range in weight from three to three hundred pounds. Smaller rocks were used more often, because only the trebuchets could handle the big ones. Moreover, suitable boulders were hard to find, and harder to transport to the site of a siege.
For variety, siege engineers could use other types of ammunition, like spears/arrows. Pots of burning liquids, like tar (or gunpowder after 1300), made great incendiary bombs. If catapult users wanted to humiliate the enemy, they might hurl garbage, dung, or dead animals (e.g., remember the taunting French soldiers in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Or to inflict both insult and injury, they might launch beehives and poisonous snakes; the Roman emperor Elagabalus threw these at crowds as a practical joke. The worst kind of ammunition involved people. For example, the Crusaders demoralized their Turkish opponents by throwing the heads of Turks over castle walls, and in the next chapter we will see the Mongols use whole corpses the same way. Finally, there are a few reports of a ruler who rejected an embassy by loading the ambassador in a catapult, and firing him back in the direction he came from.

29. Our imagination conjures up visions of a castle's soldiers dumping boiling oil on those enemies who tried scaling the walls, but oil was usually too expensive for this. Boiling water or red-hot sand worked nearly as well, as it could get between the joints in a suit of armor.

30. In 2005, a medieval silver mine was discovered (I didn't hear what part of Europe it was in, so I'm guessing it was in the Alps), when the glacier on top of it melted. The mining tools were carefully arranged inside, leading us to believe that around 1300, the miners went home for the winter, expecting to come back and do some more digging next year. I can just imagine Big Ulrich telling the other miners on the last day, "This is my pick, don't none of you forget it!" Instead, the ice and snow covering the mine didn't melt when spring arrived, forcing the miners to seek new jobs.

31. Roger Bacon is also credited with being the first European to write about gunpowder. In a mystical text, dated between 1248 and 1257, he wrote an anagram which when translated, described a formula combining saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal; Bacon reported that this chemical mixture created light and noise very much like lightning and thunder, and suggested that it might someday be used as a weapon. However, he did not take credit for inventing gunpowder. For many years it was thought that the real inventor was Berthold Schwarz, a German Franciscan who dabbled in alchemy. According to the story, one day in 1354, Schwarz mixed the ingredients for gunpowder in a mortar, and caused an explosion that sent the mortar's lid flying. However, the accounts disagree on whether Schwarz was killed by his experiment, and we know that firearms already existed before 1354, so the story is not taken seriously today.


Support this site!

© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



PAGE  NAVIGATOR


 

A History of Europe

 

Other History Papers

Beyond History

 






Visitors: