The early medieval period is one of absolute faith, stunning brutality, bottomless greed, pitiless cruelty, venal treachery, rampant warfare, low politics and boundless personal ambition. The dark age of warlords is at last passing away in Europe. The successful warlords have inadvertently transformed themselves into feudal nobility and royalty, but a strong sword arm is no longer enough to carve out a petty kingdom, not if you intend to keep it and pass it on to your children. A kingdom is no longer enough when your vassals hold lands from you and serve in your armies in return. More is always needed. But these are not yet nations – loyalties are still personal, rather than to an abstract idea of a nation.
The feudal system is at heart simple: give military service to a liege lord and in return you gain the income and title to land as his vassal. In turn vassals can give away smaller parcels of land to their followers and so on. Those at the top become immensely powerful: they are knights, barons, counts, dukes, princes and monarchs. The peasants at the bottom are squeezed to supply the fighting men with the necessities and luxuries of life. Great warriors can gain land and followers and become noble through warfare, so they have every incentive to fight. If their king lacks enemies, they can pick their own foes. If they run out of outsiders, they can fight each other. The age of petty warlords may have come to an end, but the age of war certainly hasn’t! This constant violence may be one of the reasons why the Pope will demand a Crusade to the Holy Land – perhaps it is better that outsiders suffer rather than fellow Christians!
Religion is a central feature of life for nearly everyone, but even now there are places where paganism still holds sway. The Church fights against these old ways, and although the Catholic and Orthodox churches have drifted apart, they are both immensely powerful. The Orthodox Church is almost an arm of government for the Byzantine Empire, supporting the Emperor and doing his bidding. The Catholic Pope, however, claims the power to make and break Catholic emperors and kings. This has already caused tensions as kings and popes have fought over points of protocol and administrative procedure. Kings want to control the Church within their lands; the Church claims the authority of God to decide who can be a king, and is more than willing to excommunicate those who go against it. In the face of heretics and infidels, however, Church and royalty are as one. Heresy threatens the established order of things; the Muslims seem to threaten everything! And fearful people lash out at their perceived enemies; they crusade to “rescue” their holy sites from unbelievers.
Islam is, perhaps, drawing its breath after headlong expansion, but it remains the repository of learning: chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, theological debate, poetry, music and high art. In short, Islam is the home of civilization. From Cordoba in Spain to Cairo, Jerusalem and Baghdad, the Islamic sultans and khalifah allow their subjects a surprising (to outsiders) freedom of worship and they encourage learning. But there is no reason to suppose that the so-far irresistible march of Islam has stopped, and the Islamic princes are ready to defend what is, by right of possession, their land. In the east, the Seljuk Turks have ambitions to rule even more of the world.
In the Byzantine Empire plots and counterplots, treacheries and assassinations go on as they have done for five centuries and more. The winner of these internecine struggles sits upon the throne; the losers are blinded, castrated, exiled or, in the case of the lucky ones, killed outright. “Byzantine” has become a byword for dark and complex intrigue, and with good reason. In Constantinople, the Emperors have their own motives for wanting aid from the knights of the west, motives that have little to do with “rescuing” holy places and much to do with defending their own lands and power from the threat from more vigorous peoples.
By 1200 the nations of Europe and the Mediterranean are beginning to emerge in the dynastic struggles between the continent’s ruling families, although the borders of these nations are still subject to “debate” at the point of a sword. Kingdoms are usually the motley collection of lands that a king can hold by force of arms, their borders shifting thanks to claim and counter-claim, driven by inheritance and constant warfare. New empires are rising, and others are starting their long slide into obscurity and defeat.
This is the era of courtly love, the favourite subject of the troubadours and minstrels. It is a time of tournaments and chivalry, when knights can win great fame and wealth through personal valour, but it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a tournament and a small pitched battle! It is also a time when the acts of the great and the good often fall well short of the ideals of courtly love and of chivalry. War, even more than arranged marriages and cunning diplomacy, is still the way to win and keep a domain.
In the west, kings and princes still dream of liberating the Holy Land and “saving” the holy places of Christianity, even though most Islamic princes are tolerant enough to allow genuine pilgrimages. This access is not extended to armed mobs under the command of charismatic, ambitious and utterly unscrupulous men, all loudly proclaiming their loyalty to a cause that may be already lost. In the meantime, the Christian princes’ struggles against each other, their plotting, their endless warfare, have prompted the Church to declare Days of Peace: a day each week when Christians are supposed to stop fighting fellow Christians. These Days of Peace have been ignored and the fighting has gone on much as before. At the Lateran Council the Church has tried to ban anyone using crossbows in warfare. The ban failed.
In Spain the Christians have sometimes stopped fighting each other, but only so that they can attack their common enemies, the Moorish Almohad princes. They have been successful, but it has been a slow business taking lands and then extirpating all traces of a people, their culture and their religion, while still maintaining old rivalries against fellow Christians. The Almohads are retrenching, but they are still a formidable threat.
In the east, dukes and princes battle to establish new dynasties and kingdoms among the remnants of old ones and on the plains that stretch endlessly to the east. And they watch for the coming of fearsome steppe warriors – another wave of invaders terrible enough to have ridden from the depths of Hell itself! After all, Attila came from the same steppes… Even the prayers of both Orthodox and Catholic clergy seem futile against such foes!
The Catholic Church has been thwarted in its ambition to be the sole kingmaker in Christian lands. Instead, it has turned with ferocity on heretics and unbelievers within Christianity’s borders. Theological debate about the poverty of Christ, the wealth of the Church itself, or small points of dogma can lead those involved in the argument to the purging fires of a heretic’s stake! The Church now has a new weapon at its disposal in this struggle: the Inquisition, a secret religious police for rooting out incorrect thought and punishing those doing the thinking. The Church still has its old weapon, the call to arms for a Crusade, but now this power is aimed at heretics and pagans in Europe, as well as its “traditional” Islamic targets. The Church has become embroiled in politics, particularly within the Holy Roman Empire as Church support (but always at a price!) can make the difference to any Emperor’s achievements. In the same way, the Emperor often wants a friendly Pope, meaning that interference in the Church’s business is the order of the day.
The Byzantine Empire faces many threats. Constantinople may still be the greatest city in the world, but its power is beginning to look hollow. The Empire, however, has lasted centuries and its rulers have become masters of survival in the face of adversity: Emperors always find the means to hold on. The Turks show no signs of losing their combativeness, and now rule only a few days’ ride from Constantinople. The Holy Land – once part of the Empire – has been lost again. Now it belongs to the Egyptian Sultanate, and years after his death the name of the great “Saladin” still strikes terror into Christian hearts!
By the 1320s, many of the animosities of Europe are now fixed ideas. Enemies have been made and repeatedly fought. The French and English have spent so long at war with each other that the dynastic hatreds and rivalries have been transformed into instinctive national loathing in both countries. Raid, pillage and plunder are now as much a part of this struggle as open battle. England has also settled into its long rivalry with Scotland. These hatreds are still to be played out, and there are no guaranteed winners and losers.
There is still no such thing as modern “Germany” but the Germans are the dominant people of the Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, the Empire and Germany are almost the same, and the Teutonic Knights are only one of the Imperial forces pushing to the east, into Lithuania, Poland and pagan Prussia. The Italians and the Spanish have still to achieve nationhood, but they are fighting hard to maintain their respective identities and independence against all comers. Their cultures are wealthy, vibrant and confident, even in the midst of war.
Princes still propose Crusades to free the Holy Land, but to curry favour with the Church rather than actually carry out such a military venture. The crusading orders of knighthood have pulled out of the east and, without fuss, dedicated themselves to other tasks. The Knights Templar, however, are no more; they have been forcibly disbanded, accused of heresy, and executed for their “crimes”. Apart from assaults on pagans and heretics, the great Age of Crusades appears to be drawing to a close, other than as a convenient rallying cry. Western Europe may have become resigned to the idea that military power will not free the Holy Land from Islamic princes, but it has not lost its Church-inspired hostility towards those same Islamic rulers. Even so, reality is recognised and ambassadors from Christian kings visit Muslim courts.
Europe is a changing place. Thanks to growing trade and a rising population, it is wealthier than it has been since the time of the Romans. This growing wealth is financing magnificent cathedrals throughout the Christian world, and innumerable superb churches in Italy and beyond. The same wealth is allowing the growth of a merchant class with aspirations that are not tied solely to owning land – the old feudal order is being challenged by new money in the new towns and cities. Learning is valued again in the new universities that dot the continent, although the Church carefully controls many of them.
The Catholic Church itself is still a force in everyday life, although it has also become deeply involved in dynastic politics. Both the French and Imperial rulers have made a point of interfering in papal elections in the hope of gaining political advantage. There are those who argue against the power and wealth of the Papacy, but they do so carefully. The Inquisition is powerful, especially so in Spain where it roots out insincere converts who, it is believed, might betray the land to its former Islamic rulers.
The Islamic world seems to have ‘paused for breath’. The shock of losing Baghdad and its Khalifah to the Mongols, though this was a generation and more ago, seems to have caused a loss of some confidence. On the western margins of Islam, the Almohads are in slow retreat before the Catholic armies of Spain, fighting to keep what has been theirs against the tide of battle. In Egypt, the ruling dynasty – dominated by Mamluk slave warriors – has lost its taste for a cultural life and become militaristic. The Turks still press hard against Byzantium’s shrinking frontiers, and show no signs of wishing to leave the Byzantine Empire to expire on its own.
The Byzantine Empire is a shadow of its former self, yet still with power enough to make mischief, still with wealth enough to be desirable. The Imperial court in Constantinople behaves much as it has always done: plotting while ignoring the gathering storm outside the walls. The Empire’s death is, however, not inevitable as wealth can always be translated into military power. The Orthodox Church is in retreat in the former provinces of the Empire, brushed aside by the Islamic faith of the Turks. Elsewhere Orthodoxy is growing in strength, as the armies of the Russian princes are holding the line against the barbarians and pagans from the eastern steppes, even if this is only on the sufferance of the Mongol hordes. These same Russian armies bring greater glories to the princes of Novogorod and Kiev and allow them to establish new holdings on the steppes.