Born c. 1079
Peter Abelard was a philosopher, meaning that his writings addressed the nature of values and reality. Like most European thinkers of his time, Abelard was particularly concerned with a better understanding of Christianity. This led him into investigations of ethics, or the philosophy of right and wrong. His belief that sin has more to do with a person's attitude than with their actions would hardly raise any eyebrows today, but in twelfth-century France, such ideas nearly got him killed. In a time and place when the authority of the Bible and the Catholic Church were absolute, Abelard seemed to be questioning both. Similarly, his explanations concerning the nature of ideas placed him at odds with many of the leading minds of the day.
But Abelard is not remembered merely as a thinker; his tragic but tender love affair with Héloïse, a student who became his wife and...
(The entire section is 2292 words.)
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Khalji, Ala-ud-din Muhammad
"The usual policy of the Sultans was clearly sketched by Ala-ud-din, who required his advisers to draw up 'rules and regulations for grinding down the Hindus, and for depriving them of that wealth and property which fosters disaffection and rebellion.'"
Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage
Ala-ud-din was one of the most noteworthy of India's Muslim rulers during the Middle Ages. Although Hinduism and not Islam (the religion of Muslims) is the majority religion in India, Muslim invasions in the 700s and afterwards spread the faith throughout the subcontinent, so that by Ala-ud-din's time Islam dominated the land politically if not in terms of population. Ala-ud-din launched an ambitious and bloody campaign of conquest that took him deep into southern India—and might have gone on to even more far-flung campaigns if he had not wisely heeded the suggestions of his advisors.
Muslims and Hindus
Today the Indian subcontinent is divided into several countries, most notably India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The latter two, in the west and east, respectively, have Muslim majorities, whereas India's population is overwhelmingly Hindu. It would be hard to imagine two religions more different...
(The entire section is 1632 words.)
Russian prince and hero
Numbered among the greatest of Russia's heroes, Alexander Nevsky saved his country many times, both in battle with invaders from the west, and later by negotiating with the Mongols. The defeat of the Teutonic Knights of Germany was a particularly dramatic event, a battle on ice that would form a memorable scene in a 1938 film about Alexander's defense of Russia. By contrast, the role Alexander took with regard to the Mongols seemed like a case of giving in to a foreign invader. Yet he had little choice, and in retrospect it seems certain that he acted wisely.
The many Russias
Russia first emerged as a political entity in about 900 under the leadership of Kiev (kee-YEV), a city-state that is now the capital of Ukraine. Thus historians refer to the country during this...
(The entire section is 2131 words.)
North African church leader and philosopher
Aside from Jesus Christ and others from the New Testament, no one had as great an influence on the shaping of the Christian faith as Saint Augustine, who helped bridge the period between ancient and medieval times. He grew up in a world heavily influenced by the Roman Empire, but during his life the power of Rome became increasingly shaky, and he promoted Christian faith as a more stable foundation than any earthly kingdom.
Augustine served as bishop or church leader over the North African city of Hippo, and he wrote literally hundreds of books discussing specific aspects of Christianity. Many of the questions addressed by Augustine have long since been decided, but two of his works, Confessions and the City of God, remain...
(The entire section is 2257 words.)
As a thinker, Averroës represented the pinnacle of Islamic civilization in Spain; he was also the last of his line. Though devoutly committed to the beliefs of Islam, he placed great value on the workings of human reason, and in his many writings sought to explain how it was possible to be a person of both faith and thought. Unbeknownst to him, he would exert his greatest influence in the Christian lands of Western Europe, where his legacy brought about a renewed interest in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.
The world of Averroës's birth
His name at birth was Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd, and to this day he is known in the Arab world as ibn Rushd (IB'n RÜSH't). In the West, however,...
(The entire section is 2091 words.)
Byzantine emperor and conqueror
Ruler of the Byzantine Empire from 976 to 1025, a time when the power of the Muslim caliphate had faded and the Seljuk Turks had not yet made their impact, Basil II brought his realm to its greatest height since the time of Justinian (see entry). His story shares certain themes with that of England's King Alfred and Mali's Sundiata Keita (see boxes): in each case, the ruler of a beleaguered people led them in wars of conquest that united them and brought them to new glories. As leader of a world power, Basil would have the most impact of the three, but his victories would also be the most short-lived.
An unlikely hero
Unattractive and uneducated, Basil made an unlikely hero in Greek society, which placed a high emphasis on physical beauty and learning. Given the fact...
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Clairvaux, Bernard of
French monk and religious leader
Aside from royalty, politically influential figures of medieval Western Europe tended to be popes or other high church officials. Bernard of Clairvaux, by contrast, was a mere monk of the Cistercian order, and throughout his career held no official position of significance in the church—yet he was one of the most influential figures in the Catholic world.
In addition to his reform of the Cistercians, which he helped make one of the most powerful orders in Christendom, Bernard is remembered for his pivotal role in promoting the Second Crusade. When the latter ended in failure, he was widely criticized. He is also remembered with some disapproval as the man who tried to have Abelard (see entry) imprisoned for his unorthodox views. Yet he was also a figure of great sincerity, occasional compassion, and fascinating complexity.
(The entire section is 1881 words.)
In his Consolation of Philosophy, written in a prison cell as he awaited execution, Boethius developed a view of the world that came to symbolize the medieval age in Europe. True virtue, he explained, lay not in changing one's fate, but in accepting the fate one was assigned by Fortune. His personification of "Fortune" and "Philosophy" as women also set the tone for countless medieval allegories, symbolic stories in which characters represented ideas. Though he was born after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Boethius was a Roman to the core, and as with Augustine (see entry), his writings represent a vital link between the ancient and medieval worlds.
A distinguished Roman family
Four years before Boethius (boh-EE-thee-us) was born, the Western Roman Empire...
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Frankish king and emperor of the West
Charlemagne was unquestionably the most important ruler in Western Europe between 400 and 1000. Only Clovis (see entry) could compete for that distinction, but Charlemagne—who like Clovis came from the nation called the Franks—achieved far more than Clovis could even have imagined. In Clovis's time the Franks, one of many tribes that invaded former Roman territories, conquered much of what is now France, in the process giving their name to the country; Charlemagne's power, by contrast, would extend throughout the entire western portion of the European continent.
Yet Charlemagne's impact went far beyond the military victories that built his vast empire. By forging an alliance with the church, he solidified the idea of kings and popes as joint political leaders. Furthermore, by encouraging the arts and...
(The entire section is 1706 words.)
Pisan, Christine de
Born c. 1364
Died c. 1430
French poet and essayist
Christine de Pisan was the first known woman in Europe to earn her living by writing. As a poet, she won much acclaim among the nobility of France and neighboring lands. Her extensive essays and works of scholarship, most notably The City of Ladies, provide a valuable contribution to an understanding not only of her own ideas, but also of European society during the Middle Ages.
Christine was a true feminist who used her pen to make the case that women should enjoy the same rights before God as men. She did not undertake her poetic work or other writings out of lofty ideals, or as a hobby; rather, she wrote because she had to support her family.
In the court of Charles V
Christine de Pisan (pee-ZAHN; sometimes rendered as Pizan) was...
(The entire section is 2108 words.)
Born c. 466
Americans look to George Washington as the father of their country; but Clovis, who lived more than twelve hundred years before Washington, was the father of the French nation. He was the first significant king of the Franks, a tribe that gave its name to the entire country; and even more important, he was the first notable ruler in Western Europe following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Clovis succeeded in gaining the blessing of the Christian church in Rome, which was eager to ally itself with a new leader after the fall of the empire. He also united the peoples of what is now France and surrounding areas, establishing the foundations of the medieval political order....
(The entire section is 1891 words.)
Methodius, St. Cyril and St.
Born c. 827
Born c. 825
In 863, the brothers Cyril and Methodius went as Christian missionaries to Central Europe. There they found a people ignorant not only of the Christian message, but even of reading and writing. Before they could teach them about Jesus Christ, the two Greek missionaries had to help them develop a written language, and thus was born the Cyrillic alphabet, used today in Russia and other countries. Perhaps even more important, however, was the indirect role played by Cyril and...
(The entire section is 1547 words.)
When listing the world's greatest writers, critics almost always include Dante Alighieri, whose reputation is so great that he is often identified simply as "Dante." His reputation rests primarily, but not solely, on the Divine Comedy, an extended poetic work depicting a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
A book rich in images and details, the Divine Comedy can be read on a number of levels. To a student of the Middle Ages, it provides a vast and varied view of the time, particularly its leading figures and its attitudes. As a work written in Italian at a time when all "serious" literature was in Latin, it formed the foundation of Italy's literature and its national consciousness.
Pivotal early events
Born in the northern Italian city of Florence, Dante Alighieri (DAHN-tay al-eeg-YEER-ee)...
(The entire section is 1475 words.)
Born c. 1043
Spanish warrior and hero
The pages of medieval history are filled with figures whose biographies are equal parts legend and fact—or in some cases, more legend than fact—from the saintly Rabia al-Adawiyya (see entry) to the devilish Vlad Tepes (see box in Tamerlane entry). Perhaps nowhere is this mixture of fact and fiction more evident than in the life of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid.
Mythologized as a valiant Christian knight who fought heroically against the Muslims, he was in reality a soldier of fortune who spent most of his career in conflict with a Christian king, and who at one time served a Muslim emir. At least parts of the legend are accurate: El Cid was without question a brave and talented warrior, and he was at least as honorable as most knights of his time. Certainly there is an air of romance even to the tale of the real El Cid, and it is on this foundation of air that the legend was...
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Aquitaine, Eleanor of
Queen of France and England
Eleanor of Aquitaine was a rare individual indeed. As wife of Louis VII, she ruled France, only to divorce her husband and marry Henry of Anjou, who would later make her queen of England. Marriage may have gotten her into positions of power, but what Eleanor did with that power was her own special gift. Both shrewd and intelligent, she was a highly cultured woman who managed to stay atop the shifting political structures of Western Europe, and at the same time cultivated learning and the arts in her lands.
The court at Aquitaine
During her long and varied life, Eleanor often found herself (or in many cases, put herself) at the center of conflicts. It was perhaps a trait she learned from her...
(The entire section is 2563 words.)
English Scholars, Thinkers, and Writers
Born c. 735
English scholar and teacher
St. Anselm of Canterbury
Born c. 1033
Italian-English church leader and philosopher
Thomas à Becket
English church leader and chancellor
William of Ockham
Born c. 1290
Born c. 1340
English author and poet
"Defend me with your sword, and I will support you with my pen."
Promise allegedly made to Emperor Ludwig IV by William of Ockham
Because it is an island and geographically separated from the European continent, England's civilization became quite different from the rest of Europe. Successive waves of invasion gave it many influences, contributing to the broad reach of the English language. Likewise England developed an emphasis on freedom and individualism unmatched among European nations. These concepts became central to the foundation of America, and thus all Americans—regardless of ethnic heritage—can claim ties to the English traditions....
(The entire section is 2136 words.)
Assisi, St. Francis of
Italian religious leader
Francis of Assisi is remembered as a great example of sainthood as that term is understood both within the Catholic Church and by the world in general. As with Augustine (see entry), an encounter with God transformed him from a reckless youth to a sober, thoughtful defender of the faith. Unlike Augustine, however, Francis produced no significant writings: rather, his triumph was in his deeds for the poor and the needy. His kindness to all creatures and his belief that all deserved God's good will became legendary, and later, tales circulated of his preaching to the animals.
A spoiled boy
The eldest son of Pietro and Pica Bernardone was born with the name Giovanni, or John, in the central Italian city of Assisi (uh-SEE-see). His father, a wealthy cloth merchant, was away on business at the time, but as soon as Pietro returned, the family began calling the boy by...
(The entire section is 2055 words.)
Born c. 1162
Mongolian chieftain and conqueror
No empire in history has ever been as large as that conquered in the 1200s by the Mongols, who began their conquests as a simple nation of shepherds and nomads in Central Asia. What welded them into a mighty fighting force was not a religion, or a political belief, or even a shared need for land or food; it was a man, a severe but shrewd warlord known to history as Genghis Khan.
The son of a chieftain
Today Mongolia is a quiet, underpopulated, and underdeveloped land to the north of China. For centuries, it had been home to a hardy nomadic people who had no written language or—until the Middle Ages—cities of their own. The man who briefly made Mongolia the most powerful nation on Earth was born with the name Temujin (TIM-yuh-jin) in 1162.
According to legend, Temujin came into the world grasping a lump of clotted blood, a sign of the forcefulness and violence that would dominate his life. His father was a chieftain...
(The entire section is 1902 words.)
Born c. 540
When Gregory I, or Gregory the Great, became pope in 590, the church and indeed all of Western Europe was in ruins. People still believed that the Western Roman Empire, smashed by barbarian invasions more than a century before, could be resurrected with the help of the Eastern Roman Empire in Greece. Gregory himself started out with that belief, but when he got no help from the emperor in Constantinople, he began building the church as a powerful, self-sufficient political entity.
A Roman prefect
As with many figures from the premodern period, little is known about Gregory's early life. He was born in about 540, a member of a wealthy Roman family. The family enjoyed great political power as well, but the Rome they lived in was a mere shadow of its former glory: two centuries of destruction by barbarian tribes such as the Lombards had left it in ruins. This ruining of Rome was both physical, in terms of...
(The entire section is 2048 words.)
Gregory VII and Henry IV
Born c. 1020
German king and Holy Roman emperor
"In the name of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I withdraw … from Henry … the rule over the whole kingdom of the Germans and over Italy. And I absolve all Christians from the bonds of the oath which they have made or shall make to him; and I forbid any one to serve him as king."
"First Deposition and Banning of Henry IV," February 22, 1076
Gregory VII was the pope, leader of the Catholic Church, and Henry IV, as Holy Roman emperor, ruled a number of lands. Thus they were the two most powerful men in Western Europe, and in 1075, they faced off in a power struggle called the Investiture Controversy that would have an enormous impact on history.
The immediate cause was the right of the emperors to appoint bishops and other church leaders, a right that the pope claimed solely for himself. In reality, the conflict between Gregory and Henry represented a much larger battle between church and state, a battle that would influence events in the Middle Ages and would continue to affect public life even in modern times.
(The entire section is 2287 words.)
Portuguese prince, supporter of exploration
As a supporter of some of the first European voyages of exploration, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal added immeasurably to Westerners' knowledge of other lands—yet he never actually took part in any voyages. Committed to spreading the Christian faith to other lands, he was very much a man of the Middle Ages, yet he helped bring about changes that would usher in the modern era.
A prophecy at his birth
Henry's father, John I, was the first king in the house of Aviz, which would rule Portugal for nearly two centuries beginning in 1385. A year later, Portugal signed a treaty with England, and to seal the agreement, Philippa of Lancaster, an English noblewoman, was married to King John. The couple had several sons, and the third one to survive—death in infancy or childhood was common in the...
(The entire section is 2138 words.)
The Venerable Bede
Anglo-Saxon historian and theologian
Chinese government official and historian
Born c. 1083
Byzantine princess and historian
"As such peace and prosperity prevail these days, many … have laid aside their weapons … rather than study the arts of war. What the result of this will be, the future will show."
The Venerable Bede
The work of historians is always important, seldom more so than in the Middle Ages. Not only did people then lack modern forms of communication, but in Western Europe at least, the medieval period was a time when the pace of learning slowed for several centuries. Thus it became all the more important to access the wisdom of the past, a time when communication and learning had flourished under the civilizations of Greece and Rome. But history was also important as a means of guessing what might happen in the future. When the Anglo-Saxon historian St. Bede noted that the people of England had ceased to study the arts of war,...
(The entire section is 2166 words.)
Emperors, Holy Roman
Otto the Great
German king, Holy Roman emperor
German king, Holy Roman emperor
Frederick I Barbarossa
German king, Holy Roman emperor
Sicilian and German king, Holy Roman emperor
"The Renewal of the Roman Empire"
Inscription on seal ring of Otto III, signifying his life's goal
There is a joke almost as old as the Middle Ages themselves, to the effect that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Actually the observation, originally made by the French writer Voltaire in the 1700s, has a grain of truth. A revival of the realm established first under Charlemagne (see entry), the Holy Roman Empire represented an attempt to restore the glories of the Roman Empire of old, but its center was in Germany, and it was seldom unified. As for being "holy," this title referred only to the fact that rulers of the empire, like the four men profiled here, were traditionally crowned by the pope. Ironically, as the career of Emperor Henry IV...
(The entire section is 2195 words.)
Born c. 1161
The papacy, or office of the pope, reached its peak during the reign of Innocent III, who held the position from 1198 to 1216. A ruthless negotiator and an expert manipulator of men, he was a politician who outwitted some of the greatest strategic minds on the European continent. Yet it would be a mistake to view him merely as power-hungry or politically ambitious; Innocent was also a man of sincere religious beliefs whose passion for what he believed was right actually contributed to some of the worst excesses of his rule.
The church had come a long way since St. Benedict (see box) led his monks to new standards of discipline more than six centuries before. Nor was the pope's role under the same threats faced by Urban II (see box) a century before...
(The entire section is 2382 words.)
Athens, Irene of
Born c. 752
Irene of Athens was the only woman to serve as sole ruler over the Byzantine Empire, and by calling the Seventh Ecumenical Council, she helped bring an end to the iconoclastic controversy that had rocked Byzantine society for years. Ironically, however, her greatest impact on history was unexpected. The Byzantine emperor controlled what remained of the Roman Empire, but according to Roman law, no woman could legally rule. Therefore when Irene took control it could be claimed that the Roman throne was vacant, and this gave the pope the opportunity to recognize Charlemagne (see entry) as the ruler of a new Roman Empire.
The iconoclastic controversy
The Byzantine Empire, or Byzantium (bi-ZAN-teeum), grew out of the Eastern Roman Empire. After the collapse of the Roman Empire's western portion in 476, the two former halves of the empire grew apart. Eventually the Greek Orthodox...
(The entire section is 1663 words.)
Arc, Joan of
Born c. 1412
French military leader and martyr
Few people ever make history, and a person who does so in his or her teens is extremely rare. Joan of Arc, who came to prominence at the age of seventeen, never lived to see twenty. In less than three years, however, she turned the tide of a century-long conflict, and proved that a girl could lead men to victory.
Joan claimed to hear voices, which she said came from the saints, giving her wisdom from God. Whatever the source of her knowledge, she was uncannily wise beyond her years, and she might have led France to greater and greater victories if she had not been captured by her nation's enemies. Under trial as a heretic, her prophetic gift was turned against her as evidence that she was doing the Devil's...
(The entire section is 2408 words.)
The Byzantine Empire, which grew out of the Eastern Roman Empire in Greece, carried Roman culture into the Middle Ages. It was a splendid and sometimes powerful realm, a stronghold of civilization in a dark time, and Justinian was perhaps its greatest ruler.
Justinian reconquered the Western Roman Empire, which had fallen to invading tribes in 476, and briefly reunited former Roman lands under his leadership. More lasting was his legal code, or system of laws, which provided the foundation for much of the law that exists today. Justinian built dozens of churches, most notably the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and under his reign, Byzantine arts—including mosaics, colored bits of glass or tile arranged to form a picture—reached a high point.
In his uncle's...
(The entire section is 2518 words.)
Mongol ruler of China
Though he belonged to the Mongol nation, conquerors of half the known world, Kublai Khan is remembered more for his peacetime activities than for his record as a warrior. Grandson of the fierce Genghis Khan (see entry), Kublai himself subdued China and established that nation's first foreign-dominated dynasty, the Yüan (yee-WAHN). But he was also an enthusiastic supporter of the arts and sciences, and through his contact with Marco Polo (see entry), he became widely known in the Western world.
Genghis and Kublai
Khan is a term for a chieftain in Central Asia, home of the Mongol people. The Mongols were a nomadic, or wandering, nation that had little effect on world events until the time of Genghis Khan (JING-us; c. 1162–1227), Kublai's grandfather. Genghis led them on a series of conquests that would make the Mongols rulers over the largest empire in history....
(The entire section is 2092 words.)
Born c. 970
Died c. 1020
"There was dew on the grass, and the first thing they did was to get some of it on their hands and put it to their lips, and to them it seemed the sweetest thing they had ever tasted."
Description of Markland, from Erik the Red's Saga
Almost five hundred years before Christopher Columbus's ships landed in the New World, Leif Eriksson and his crew of Vikings became the first Europeans to reach North America. As was the case with Columbus later, they had no idea where they were—except that they knew they had found a land rich in natural resources. But whereas Columbus and others who followed possessed firearms, giving them military superiority over the Native Americans, the Vikings had no such advantage. Therefore they did not conquer the lands they discovered; but there is virtually no doubt that they set foot on them.
One cannot discuss the career of Leif Eriksson (LAYF) without referring to that of his father, Erik the Red. Erik was a Viking, born in Norway in about 950. By that time, groups of Vikings—sometimes called Norsemen or Northmen—had long since fanned out from their homeland in Scandinavia. They committed murder and mayhem in Ireland, which they...
(The entire section is 1652 words.)
The philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote about a number of subjects, and became justifiably recognized as a man of wisdom not only in spiritual but in scientific matters. As a scholar of the scriptures, he added immeasurably to the literature of the Jewish faith. As a student of philosophy, he achieved a synthesis, or joining, of the ancient Greeks' wisdom with the faith of the Old Testament. As a physician and scientist, he may be considered one of the earliest fathers of psychology as a discipline.
The second Moses
He is known to much of the world as Maimonides (my-MAHN-i-deez), and some scholars of Jewish thought refer to him by the nickname Rambam, but during his lifetime he went by the name Moses ben Maimon (my-MOHN). In Hebrew, ben means "son of,"...
(The entire section is 1710 words.)
Born c. 1280
Died c. 1337
Emperor of Mali
Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali in West Africa, was the first African ruler to become widely known throughout Europe and the Middle East. His was an extraordinarily wealthy land, and it enjoyed respect far and wide, while at home he oversaw a growing and highly organized realm. A devout Muslim, he helped extend the influence of Islam throughout his region, and became celebrated for his pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, during which he stopped in the Egyptian capital of Cairo and spent so much gold that he nearly wrecked the Egyptian economy.
The empire of Mali
The modern nation called Mali (MAH-lee) is a land-locked...
(The entire section is 1644 words.)
Scientists and Mathematicians (Middle Ages)
Died c. 550
Indian mathematician and astronomer
Born c. 864
Died c. 925
Arab physician and philosopher
Born c. 780
Died c. 850
Arab mathematician, astronomer, and geographer
Arab mathematician and physicist
English philosopher and scientist
"Praise God the creator who has bestowed upon man the power to discover the significance of numbers. Indeed, reflecting that all things which men need require computation, I discovered that all things involve number.… Moreover I discovered all numbers to be so arranged that they proceed from unity up to ten."
Al-Khwarizmi, Kitab al-jabr wa al-muquabalah
In modern times, people are accustomed to thinking of the...
(The entire section is 2253 words.)
Askia, Mohammed I
Born c. 1442
"This king makes war only upon neighboring enemies and upon those who do not want to pay him tribute. When he has gained a victory, he has all of them—even the children—sold in the market at Timbuktu."
Leo Africanus, describing Mohammed I Askia
Mohammed I Askia ruled Songhai, perhaps the most powerful empire of premodern Africa, at its height. Under his reign, the Songhai controlled a vast area in the continent's western corner, ranging from the dry sands of the Sahara to the dense rain forests of modern-day Nigeria. A devout Muslim, he united much of his land under the faith, and ruled a well-administered empire. In spite of all his achievements, however, he was doomed to die in humiliation, and the empire did not long outlast him.
Though he ruled by the name Mohammed I Askia (ahs-KEE-uh), the latter being the title of the dynasty or royal house he established, he was born Muhammed Ture ibn Abi Bakr (TOOR-ay eeb'n ah-BEE BAHK'r) in about 1442. By that time, Europe was coming out of the Middle Ages, but the modern era would not come to Africa for a few more years—and when it did, it would come in the form of slave-traders dealing in human lives....
(The entire section is 2108 words.)
"Rulers of many peoples eat the bread of sorrow."
Attributed to Montezuma I
Because the United States borders on Mexico and Americans are relatively familiar with its culture, the name of the Aztec emperor Montezuma is practically a household word. However, that name is typically used in reference to Montezuma II, who ruled from 1502 to 1520 and whose reign was cut short by the arrival of the Spaniards under Hernán Cortés. But before Montezuma II, there were two centuries of Aztec rulers—including the first Montezuma, whose reign ended when Montezuma II was just two years old.
Whereas Montezuma II lived to see defeat at the hands of the invaders, predecessors such as Montezuma I lived and died in a prosperous, powerful empire. The reign of Montezuma I saw its share of troubles, but until the Europeans came, no force was great enough to dislodge the mighty Aztecs.
The people known as the Aztecs arrived in central Mexico in about 1250. According to later legends, their priests had been told by the gods that they should claim a spot on the marshy western edge of Lake Texcoco (tays-KOH-koh), today the site of Mexico's capital, Mexico City. Even the...
(The entire section is 1216 words.)
Born c. 570
Arab prophet, founder of Islam
Only a handful of people have influenced history as much as the prophet Muhammad. Most of these people were religious teachers such as Jesus Christ, or conquerors such as Alexander the Great. Muhammad, however, was both a religious teacher and a conqueror.
He is often regarded as the founder of Islam, or the Muslim religion, and as the author of its holy book, the Koran. Muslims, however, regard Muhammad as the last in a long line of prophets who brought the truth of Allah, or God, and in their view he did not write the Koran; rather, he received it from Allah. His role as a conqueror is more clear: under his leadership, the Muslim Arabs established the foundations of an empire that would soon rule much of the world....
(The entire section is 2015 words.)
Born c. 978
"The priest began to tell stories about the uncertainty of this life and the retributions of the life to come. Genji was appalled to think how heavy his own sins had already been.… But immediately his thoughts strayed to the lovely face which he had seen that afternoon; and longing to know more of her he asked, 'Who lives with you here?'"
Tale of Genji
The writing of novels, extended works of fiction written in prose rather than poetry, is a relatively recent development: Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1353; see box), which is considered by some to be one of the first "novels," was not really a novel but a collection of short tales. Among the earliest works typically recognized as novels were Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais of France (c. 1495–1553), Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes of Spain (1547–1616), and Pilgrim's Progess by John Bunyan of England (1628–1688). Yet many centuries before these men, the first novel in history made its appearance. Its author was not a European—nor was she a man.
She was Murasaki Shikibu, author of the Tale of Genji. Much about her life is a mystery: historians do not even know her real name. But perhaps the key to her...
(The entire section is 2046 words.)
Turkish warlord, founder of Ottoman Empire
Today Istanbul is a magnificent city that serves as a crossroads between worlds: Europe, of which it is geographically a part, and the Asian mainland of Turkey just a few miles distant, to which it is culturally tied by nearly six centuries of history. Once, however, Istanbul was Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, and its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was regarded as a crisis for the Christian nations of Europe.
The fall of Constantinople was one of the events that heralded the end of the Middle Ages, but it had been foreseen nearly two centuries before—according to legend, at least—in a dream by Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. It is no wonder that such a leader, who founded one of the world's...
(The entire section is 2121 words.)
Yupanqui, Pachacutec Inca
"Although his father and some other predecessors may have been at least partly legendary, Pachacuti was a real person, the actual founder of the Inca Empire and perhaps the greatest man produced in ancient America."
Jonathan Norton Leonard, Ancient America
Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, sometimes referred to as Pachacuti, was not the first emperor of the Inca people in South America, but he was the first one whose existence is firmly established in history. More important, he was the greatest of the Inca rulers, an empire builder who began with a kingdom of perhaps twenty-five square miles and shaped it into a vast realm. He initiated a system of roads and a highly organized government that ruled its people efficiently and—by the standards of premodern America—with justice.
The achievements of Pachacutec were all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he was not his father's chosen successor, and that severe technological and administrative limitations faced the Incas. Not only did they lack the use of the wheel or of most pack animals, a handicap in their high mountain environment, but unlike the Aztecs or Maya, they did not even have a written language.
Roots of the Inca people
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Born c. 396
Died c. 459
Patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick remains one of the Middle Ages' most well-known saints, thanks in large part to the wild celebrations on his festival day on March 17. Wherever there are sons and daughters of Ireland—as in America, a country with far more people of Irish heritage than Ireland itself—there is plenty of merry-making on St. Patrick's Day.
Yet it might astound many to learn, first of all, that Patrick was not Irish; rather, he was a missionary, a religious teacher sent to people in a foreign land, from Roman-controlled Britain. Nor was he a particularly jolly figure, despite all the fun associated with his day. Furthermore, many of the feats attributed to him—for instance, driving all the snakes out of Ireland—are the product of medieval legend-making, not fact.
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The journeys of Marco Polo were as remarkable in the Middle Ages as travel to another planet would be in modern times, and the information he brought back to Europe greatly expanded human knowledge. But his stories about faraway lands sounded so outrageous, and involved so many big numbers, that his neighbors nicknamed him "Marco Millions."
Setting out from his hometown of Venice, Italy, with his father and uncle in 1271, Marco was only seventeen years old when he began his travels. It would be twenty-four years before he returned to Europe, and during that time he would see half the known world. He would also have a series of amazing adventures, and would become personally acquainted with one of the medieval world's most remarkable rulers, Kublai Khan (see entry).
Venice and Cathay
In Marco Polo's time Venice was a powerful city-state, home to merchants and voyagers such as his father, Nicolo, and uncle, Maffeo. When Marco...
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Born c. 717
"O God, if I worship Thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine everlasting beauty."
Prayer attributed to Rabia
Amystic is someone who seeks direct contact with God through meditation or special insight. Mystics believe this is possible—indeed, only possible—outside the context of formal religion. But this unorthodox approach does not mean that mystics expect a "shortcut," as the life and teachings of an extraordinary woman named Rabia al-Adawiyya illustrate.
Founder of the Sufis, a sect of Islamic mystics, Rabia was sold into slavery; she gained her freedom, according to some legends, because her master was awed by a miraculous light shining above her head. She devoted her life to a quest for direct contact with Allah, or God.
The Middle Ages was a time when mysticism proliferated in lands influenced by the great religions of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some of these mystics would be judged insane if they lived in modern times; others were fanatics of one kind or another who used...
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Richard I, better known as Richard the Lionheart or Richard the Lion-Hearted, was one of the Middle Ages' most celebrated and romantic figures. He was immortalized in the tales of Robin Hood and in countless legends, and centuries later in the novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Yet when one studies his actual career and character, it is hard to understand why.
Richard deserves a place among England's worst kings, though perhaps he cannot be judged in those terms since he spent all but six months of his ten-year reign away from England. In fact he cared much for France, his homeland, and for his wars in faraway places, most notably the Third Crusade (1189–92). Despite the fact that he was a sometimes talented military leader—one of his few actual merits—the crusade was a disaster, and for Richard it ended with his being kidnapped by a noble he had insulted. He...
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Kurdish-Egyptian sultan and warrior
Assessing the career of Saladin more than eight centuries after his death, French historian René Grousset echoed a sentiment often expressed in Saladin's own lifetime. In Grousset's opinion, the Muslim leader's devotion to God—without the extremism that sometimes goes with such faith—expressed the virtues of generosity and kindness prized by the Europeans who fought against him in the Third Crusade (1189–92).
Thus Saladin won as many admirers among the "Franks," as the Muslims disdainfully called the European invaders, as he did from people on his own side. Indeed, Saladin came much closer to the ideals of knighthood than most crusaders—including Richard I (see entry), with whom he was often associated in later legends....
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Japanese prince and regent
Like Clovis in France (see entry) and Toghril Beg in Turkey (see box), the Japanese prince Shotoku Taishi (shoh-TOH-koo ty-EE-shee) can rightly be called "the father of his country." As regent or advisor to the empress, he held the true political power in Japan, and exercised it to initiate a series of reforms that affected virtually every aspect of Japanese life.
In the realm of law and government, Shotoku is credited as the author of the "Seventeen-Article Constitution," a document that provided the governing principles of Japanese society. These principles were a combination of Japan's native Shinto religion and two belief systems, Buddhism and Confucianism, imported from China. The widespread acceptance of those "foreign" ideas, and their incorporation into Japanese culture, can largely be attributed to Shotoku, who remains one of Japan's most highly esteemed historical figures....
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Chinese emperor, co-founder of the T'ang dynasty
Along with his father, T'ai Tsung is credited as the cofounder of the T'ang dynasty (618–907), one of China's greatest ruling houses. The T'ang were noted for the fairness of their government, which contrasted with the more authoritarian region of the preceding Sui dynasty. Under T'ang rule, China's borders reached their greatest extent in history up to that time, and approached the Confucian model of peace and harmony that the Chinese had long prized.
The founding of the T'ang dynasty
Chinese emperors are known by a title assigned only after their death; thus during his lifetime, T'ai Tsung (dy-DZAWNG) was known as Li Shih-min (ZHUR-min). His father, Li Yüan (yee-WAHN; 565–635) would reign from 618 to 626 as the first...
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Though not related to Genghis Khan (see entry), Tamerlane came from similar Central Asian roots and saw himself as a successor to the great conqueror. He set out to build an empire of his own, ravaging an area from modern-day Turkey to India, and from Russia to Syria. Along the way, he left a trail of death and mayhem, and though he made significant cultural contributions in his capital at Samarkand, these were outweighed by the misfortunes he dealt his own fellow Mongols and Muslims.
Mongols and Turks
Tamerlane is actually the name by which he became known to Europeans, who were largely spared the force of his wrath. Actually, his name was Timur (tee-MOOR), and an injury earned him the...
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Born c. 1225
Italian philosopher and theologian
The writings of Thomas Aquinas represented the pinnacle of the medieval school of thought known as Scholasticism. The latter, which had its roots in the work of Abelard (see entry) and others, attempted to bring together Christian faith, classical learning, and knowledge of the world. Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa theologica to address new ideas that seemed to threaten the stability of Christian faith. As an inheritor of the Scholastic tradition, Thomas and his work can be seen on the one hand as the culmination of many centuries of thinking. Yet other ways of looking at the world were also emerging in Thomas's time and afterward, and thus his adherence to the Scholastic line can also be viewed as a defense of an old way of life against change.
The influence of Frederick II
Born of nobility in the Italian town of Aquino—hence his name, Aquinas...
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Chinese emperor, founder of Sui dynasty
Founder of the short-lived Sui dynasty, Wen Ti (or Yang Chien, as he was born) is little known outside of China, but he was a highly important figure in that nation's history. He reunified the empire after three centuries of chaos, establishing a strong central government and a set of reforms that paved the way for the T'ang dynasty of T'ai Tsung (see entry). Wen Ti was also a ruthless figure, a man who did not shrink back from killing his own grandson, and as a leader he was equally severe.
Seizing power over the Chou
In many ways, China can be compared to the Roman Empire. As Rome had flourished under strong rulers during ancient times, China reached a height of unity and order under the Han (HAHN) dynasty, established in 207 B.C.. But whereas Rome began a long, slow decline in the third century A.D.., China entered a period of outright disorder or anarchy following the downfall of the Han in 220.
The man who brought an end to this chaos with the establishment of the Sui dynasty (SWEE) was Yang Chien (YAHNG jee-AHN), who would be remembered by his reign title of Wen Ti (wun-DEE). He grew up in Chou (ZHOH), one of the many states competing to control northern China. The Chou rulers...
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Conqueror, William the
Born c. 1027
Norman king of England
William I, better known as William the Conqueror, was an illegitimate child who grew up to become one of the most powerful men in Western Europe. In 1066, he launched an invasion of England and gained control after defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.
The victory of William and the Normans forever changed the character of England. He instituted new laws and greatly increased the power of English kings over noblemen. He also initiated a new line of English royalty, and even today the British royal house is distantly related to William. But the greatest mark on history left by William came with the influence of the Normans on aspects of English life ranging from architecture to language.
The ancestors of William's father, Duke Robert I of Normandy, were Vikings or "Northmen"; hence the name they took on when they settled in France:...
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"A sage mother will befall and her imperium [empire] will be prosperous forever."
"Prophecy" concerning Wu Zetian's rule
In China as in many other countries, women have exerted an influence over the government without actually holding office. Usually they have been wives or lovers of men in power, and often they have held greater authority than their men. But in nearly four thousand years of Chinese history, only one woman has ever officially ruled China: Wu Ze-tian. During her reign, she proved herself the equal of any man—both in ability and in ruthlessness.
Friends in high places
She is sometimes known as Wu Chao (ZHOW), the name she would take when she assumed the Chinese throne, but she was born Wu Ze-tian or Wu Tse-t'ien (zeh-CHEE-en). Her father, Wu Shi-huo (zhee-WOH), was a wealthy businessman in southeastern China in 617 when he received an important request from Li Yüan (yee-WAHN), then the military commander of the region. At that time, the harsh Sui (SWEE) dynasty ruled China, but Li Yüan had plans for its overthrow, and he needed Wu Shi-huo's help.
In the following year, Li Yüan and his son Li Shih-min (ZHUR-min) took power with the...
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