- Anna Comnena
- Usamah ibn Munqidh
- Al-Bekri and Leo Africanus
- Marco Polo
- Jacob von Königshofen
People often have a difficult time accepting other groups, and this was certainly the case in the medieval period, when nations clung fiercely to their religions and ways of life. The difficulties of travel also made it unlikely that people would come into regular contact with outsiders—except in the highly undesirable circumstance of an invasion or attack.
From the A.D. 300s, as the Western Roman Empire began to crumble, parts of Europe sustained waves of attacks by various invaders; however, the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine (BIZ-un-teen) Empire, continued to thrive in Greece. In 1071, however, the Byzantines suffered a stunning defeat by the Turks, a formerly nomadic or wandering tribe from Central Asia that had settled in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). As a result, in 1095 the Byzantine emperor called for help from Western Europe.
East-West relations in Europe had long been strained, with the Byzantines regarding the Westerners as uncouth, and the...
(The entire section is 790 words.)
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Excerpt from The Alexiad
Published in The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, 1921
"Alexius was not yet, or very slightly, rested from his labors when he heard rumors of the arrival of innumerable Frankish armies."
The Byzantine (BIZ-un-teen) Empire—sometimes referred to as "Byzantium" (bi-ZAN-tee-um)—was a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire. In fact, the Byzantines referred to themselves as "Romans" rather than using the term Byzantine, which referred to the old name of their capital in Greece. In A.D. 330, the center of Byzantium had become Constantinople (kahn-stan-ti-NOH-pul), capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, Byzantium became more and more separated from Western Europe. This led to a division of faiths, with Western Europe adhering to Latin Christianity, or Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Europe accepting the Greek Orthodox Church. Many differences developed, with Catholics taking their leadership from the pope while members of the Orthodox Church increasingly charted a separate course. In 1054, the Latin and Greek churches officially separated.
Three years later, the Comnenus (kahm-NEEN-us) family assumed the Byzantine throne and established a dynasty, or royal line of...
(The entire section is 2687 words.)
Usamah ibn Munqidh
Excerpt from The Memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh
Published in An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh, 1987
"When one comes to recount cases regarding the Franks, he cannot but glorify Allah (exalted is he!) and sanctify him, for he sees them as animals possessing the virtues of courage and fighting, but nothing else."
In 1095, armies from Western Europe marched on Palestine, intent on gaining control of the Holy Land—that is, the area where most of the events recorded in the Bible took place. Standing in their way were the Muslims who controlled the area. The Muslim or Islamic faith has much in common with Christianity and Judaism, including its respect for many of the people and places referred to in the Old and New testaments.
For centuries, Christians who wanted to visit the holy sites had done so without interference, but once the area came under the control of the Turks, a people who came ultimately from the grasslands of Central Asia, things began to change. Not only were the Turks less willing to allow Christian pilgrims to enter the Holy Land, but European leaders—including the pope, the leader of Roman Catholic Christianity—desired to gain control of Palestine for themselves.
The First Crusade...
(The entire section is 1393 words.)
Al-Bekri and Leo Africanus
Excerpt from Al-Masalik wa ʾl-Mamalik
Published in African Civilization Revisited, 1991
Excerpt from Description of Africa
Published in Readings about the World, Volume 2, 1999
"The king of Ghana can put two hundred thousand warriors in the field, more than forty thousand being armed with bow and arrow."
From Al-Masalik wa ʾl-Mamalik
"Many hand-written books imported from Barbary are also sold [in the market at Timbuktu]. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise."
From Description of Africa
The Sahara Desert in Africa is larger than the continental United States. Not surprisingly, this most forbidding of all deserts ensured that the southern part of the African continent would be shut off from the northern part, where the people had much greater opportunities for communication with other lands. Some of the most notable civilizations of premodern Africa, however, arose on the edges of the Sahara.
Among these was Ghana (GAH-nuh), which reached its high point in the A.D. 1000s. Ghana became incredibly wealthy and powerful, largely on the strength of its enormous gold reserves. Another important...
(The entire section is 2625 words.)
Excerpt from The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East
Published in 1903
"I repeat that everything appertaining to this city is on so vast a scale, and the Great Kaan's yearly revenues therefrom are so immense, that it is not easy even to put it in writing, and it seems past belief to one who merely hears it told."
The Mongols were a nomadic, or wandering, people who lived in Central Asia between China and what is now Russia—the area of modern-day Mongolia. For a brief period during the 1200s, this small nation of warriors controlled much of the known world, thanks to a series of conquests begun by Genghis Khan (JING-us KAHN; c. 1162–1227). Under his leadership and that of those who followed, the Mongols took control of an area that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the outskirts of Vienna, Austria, a distance of about 4,500 miles.
After Genghis, the greatest Mongol khan, or ruler, was Kublai Khan (KOO-bluh; 1215–1294; ruled 1260–1294), who led the Mongols in the conquest of China. For centuries, the Chinese had regarded the Mongols and other nomadic tribes with distrust, and they regarded Kublai's victory over them in 1279 as a disaster. Yet the short-lived Mongol empire also had the effect of opening up trade routes, and as a result there...
(The entire section is 2940 words.)
Jacob von Königshofen
"The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry, St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 1349—About the Great Plague and the Burning of the Jews"
Published in The Jew in the Medieval World, 1938
"The deputies of the city of Strasbourg were asked what they were going to do with their Jews. They answered and said that they knew no evil of them. Then they asked the Strasbourgers why they had closed the wells and put away the buckets, and there was a great indignation and clamor against the deputies from Strasbourg."
Between 1347 and 1351, Europe suffered one of the worst disasters of human history: the Black Death, sometimes known simply as the Plague. A disease carried by bacteria, or microscopic organisms, the Plague spread rapidly throughout the continent, killing between twenty-five and thirty-five million people out of a population estimated at 100 million. Victims usually died within four days of contracting the disease, but they were four days of horror. In the final hours, the victim turned purplish-black from lung failure; hence the name Black Death.
The medical causes of the Black Death are clear today, but medieval Europeans had no concept of bacteria. Instead, some blamed spiritual causes, while others found a different target: the Jews. For many years, a spirit of anti-Semitism (hatred of, or...
(The entire section is 2400 words.)
- Lady Sarashina
- The Thousand and One Nights
- Christine de Pisan and The Goodman of Paris
People in the modern West—that is, Europe and the countries influenced by European civilization—tend to hold certain views on human personality and feelings. Typically, Westerners place a high emphasis on the individual: each person is unique and special, they would say, with a right to choose their own destiny. Yet as obvious as this viewpoint might seem to most Americans, it is far from universal. In many parts of the world today, people hold a strikingly different view of the individual: in several non-Western societies, submission to parents, teachers, and rulers is encouraged while self-interest or individual expression is discouraged. Nor has the West always been so oriented toward the self or the individual; these concepts have only come to the fore-front of Western thinking in recent centuries.
In part for this reason, the Confessions of Augustine (aw-GUS-tin; 354–430) is considered one of the greatest works of Western literature. Here, in a work so old it almost qualifies as ancient rather than medieval, is a...
(The entire section is 717 words.)
Excerpt from the Confessions
Published in Confessions and Enchiridion, 1955
"I was not in love as yet, but I was in love with love; and, from a hidden hunger, I hated myself for not feeling more intensely a sense of hunger. I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving."
Perhaps no figure in medieval Christianity was as admired and influential as Augustine (aw-GUS-tin; 354–430). Yet he was a man not only of the Middle Ages, but also of ancient times: he grew up in a world still dominated by the Western Roman Empire, but lived to see the beginning of its end. In this confused, changing environment, Augustine's writings presented an all-embracing view of Christian faith as the one solid rock in a sea of uncertainty.
Augustine grew up in North Africa, which was then part of the Roman Empire, and studied in Carthage. The latter city, located in what is now Tunisia, was a great center of learning—but it was also, as he made clear in his Confessions, a place where a young man could get into a great deal of mischief. While there, Augustine became involved in a number of sexual relationships, one of which resulted in the birth of a son; spent time with a gang of troublemakers called the "wreckers"; and flirted with a faith called Manichaeism (manuh-KEE-izm), which the...
(The entire section is 2575 words.)
Excerpt from The Diary of Lady Sarashina
Published in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, 1920
"That evening, after I had gone to my room, my companion came in to tell me that he had replied to my poem: 'If there be such a tranquil night as that of the rain, I should like in some way to make you listen to my lute, playing all the songs I can remember.'"
During the Heian period (hay-YAHN; 794–1185) of medieval Japan, when the capital was at Heian, or Kyoto, life in the Japanese imperial court began to turn inward. Nobles tended to look down on people outside the capital; hence Lady Sarashina (1009–1059) was embarrassed by the fact that she had lived in the country for part of her childhood, writing in her diary that "I am ashamed to think that inhabitants of the Royal City will think me an uncultured girl."
During this time, the division between city and country became so severe that the rural provinces functioned almost as separate countries. This period saw the rise of a feudal system much like that of medieval Europe, with landowners controlling peasant farmers through the military power of their knights or samurai. As with Europe in feudal times, there was a strongly romantic flavor to the world of samurai and noble ladies, an atmosphere reflected in many poems and other works of...
(The entire section is 2621 words.)
The Thousand and One Nights
Excerpt from The Thousand and One Nights
Published in Stories from the Thousand and One Nights: The Arabian Night's Entertainments, 1937
"The King, hearing these words, and being restless, was pleased with the idea of listening to the story; and thus, on the first night of the thousand and one, Shahrazad commenced her recitations."
The Thousand and One Nights, better known in the West as The Arabian Nights, almost needs no introduction. There is hardly a person alive who has not been enthralled by one of its tales, particularly the three most famous: "Ala-ed-Din [Aladdin] and the Wonderful Lamp," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and "Sinbad the Sailor." Out of the hundreds of other tales that form the book, perhaps the most well known is the "frame story"—that is, the story that provided a larger context or meaning for all the tales.
It seems that a certain king came to distrust all women after he discovered that his wife had been unfaithful to him. He therefore resolved to sleep with a different wife every night, then have her beheaded in the morning. But one wife, Shahrazad (SHAR-uh-zahd) or Sheherazade (shuh-HAIR-uhzahd), outsmarted him. On her first night with him, she began telling a tale, but when dawn came she was not finished. The king was intrigued, and therefore he...
(The entire section is 2850 words.)
Christine de Pisan and The Goodman of Paris
Excerpt from The Treasure of the City of Ladies
Published in 1985
Excerpt from The Goodman of Paris
Published in 1928
"And besides encouraging the others, the wife herself should be involved in the work to the extent that she knows all about it, so that she may know how to oversee his workers if her husband is absent, and to reprove them if they do not do well."
From The Treasure of the City of Ladies
"I have often wondered how I might find a simple general introduction to teach you…. [M]e-seems that … it can be accomplished in this way, namely in a general instruction that I will write for you."
From The Goodman of Paris
In the 1300s and 1400s, as Europe passed from the Middle Ages into the beginnings of the Renaissance (RIN-uh-sahnts), trade was increasing, cities were growing, and a new middle and working class appeared. Both groups, an essential part of a growing economy, fell between the rich and the poor: the middle class were typically owners of small businesses, and the working class were less educated (and usually less wealthy) people who worked with their hands.
As contact between various classes increased, so did awareness of social...
(The entire section is 2689 words.)
Church and State
- Gregory of Tours
- Shotoku Taishi
- Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII
- Dante Alighieri
Church and state" is another term for "religion and government." Both are powerful and influential forces that sometimes find themselves in conflict, a conflict that still concerns people today. For instance, many Christians in America believe that public schools should hold prayer each morning, whereas a wide array of people in groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) oppose this on the grounds that it goes against "the separation of church and state." This expression refers to the fact that in America, no religious body is allowed to dominate the government. Though they do not agree on what "separation of church and state" means, most Americans agree with the basic principle. This was not the case in the Middle Ages, a time when people had no concept of separation between religion and government.
The relationship between the Catholic Church and the governments of medieval Western Europe became so strong, in fact, that it was hard to imagine a time when the two were not linked. Certainly there had been a connection between government and religion...
(The entire section is 803 words.)
Gregory of Tours
Excerpt from History of the Franks
Published in Readings in European History, 1905
"And seizing his ax, he cast it on the ground. And when the soldier had bent a little to pick it up the king raised his hands and crushed his head with his own ax. 'Thus,' he said, 'didst thou to the vase at Soissons.'"
When one studies the relationship between medieval European kingdoms and the Catholic Church, it is hard to imagine a time when the kings of Western Europe were not Christians, or at least not Catholic. But before the time of Clovis (c. 466–511; ruled 481–511), tribal kings accepted a number of different faiths. Hence Clovis's conversion to Christianity in 496, an event recorded by Gregory of Tours (TOOR; 538–594) in his History of the Franks, was an event of key importance.
In Clovis's time, the Western Roman Empire lay in ruins, and a variety of invading tribes ruled most of Western Europe. Among these tribes were the Franks, Clovis's people, who eventually gave their name to the region they occupied: France. They were far from the most powerful among the tribes of Europe, which included the Visigoths who controlled Spain, or the Ostrogoths in control of Italy. Many of these groups had converted to Christianity, but to a form of the Christian faith that had been declared...
(The entire section is 2818 words.)
Published in Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from Earliest Times to A.D. 697, 1896
"Sincerely reverence the three treasures. The three treasures: the Buddha, the Law, and the Priesthood, are the … supreme objects of faith in all countries. What man in what age can fail to reverence this law?"
Though Japan had been inhabited for thousands of years, it first emerged as a unified nation under the leadership of the Yamato (yuh-MAH-toh; "imperial") family in the Kofun period (koh-FUN; 250–552). It is likely that these early Japanese were heavily influenced by visitors from China, and from the 300s onward, the country welcomed a steady stream of Chinese and Korean immigrants.
During the Asuka period (552–645), the royal court in Korea introduced the leaders of Japan to a new religion, Buddhism (BÜD-izm). This sparked a conflict among the Japanese ruling classes, many of whom still embraced Japan's traditional religion, Shinto ("way of the gods"). Leading the movement for the acceptance of Buddhism was the Soga clan, whose most powerful member was Prince Shotoku Taishi (shoh-TOH-koo ty-EE-shee; 573–621).
In 604, Shotoku issued his "Seventeen-Article Constitution." The document gave the central government enormous powers, and encouraged...
(The entire section is 2306 words.)
Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII
"Letter to Gregory VII," January 24, 1076
Published in Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, 1910
"First Deposition and Banning of Henry IV," February 22, 1076
Published in Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, 1910
"Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand [Gregory], at present not pope but false monk."
From "Letter to Gregory VII"
During the early part of the Middle Ages, popes—that is, the spiritual and political leaders of the Catholic Church—enjoyed good relations with kings in Western Europe. This had been the case since the time of Clovis, king of the Franks, and the strong relationship became stronger in 800, when Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne (SHAHR-luh-main; ruled 768–814) as "Emperor of the Romans."
That title suggested that the Western Roman Empire, which had died out in 476, would gain a new life through the combined powers of Church and state. This new Roman Empire, however, remained a vaguely defined political unit. Eventually it was called the Holy Roman Empire, and as such it brought together a number of smaller states within what is now Germany and surrounding countries. Holy...
(The entire section is 3067 words.)
Excerpt from the Divine Comedy
Published in The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, 1906
"Beneath my head the others are dragged down / Who have preceded me in simony, / Flattened along the fissure of the rock."
The poet Dante Alighieri (DAHN-tay al-eeg-YEER-ee; 1265–1321), usually referred to simply as Dante, is considered one of the greatest writers of all time—on a par with figures such as the Greek poet Homer (700s B.C.) or the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564–1616). By far the most widely admired of Dante's works is the Divine Comedy, which is not a comedy in the traditional sense: here the term refers to the fact that the story, told in a series of 100 "chapters" called cantos, has a happy ending.
The term "divine" is a reference to God, an abiding presence in the narrative as the poet journeys into the depths of the Inferno or Hell, guided by the departed soul of the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 B.C.; sometimes rendered as Vergil or Virgilius). Later, Dante describes a journey into Purgatory, a place of punishment for people working out their salvation and earning their way into Heaven or Paradise. A journey through Heaven constitutes the final section of the Divine Comedy.
This vast work is so complex and rich in detail that...
(The entire section is 2825 words.)
History and Fiction
- William of Malmesbury
- Lo Kuan-chung
Historians of the medieval period had quite different standards for evaluating truth and falsehood than do historical writers today. In the modern world, scholars attempt to approach historical information scientifically, sifting through the raw materials of history—that is, the records kept by people of another time—and attempting to form a picture of that era. Of course a modern historian's picture is colored by his or her unique perspective, but at least modern writers of history generally agree that as much as possible, they should set aside their own views and seek the truth from facts.
In the Middle Ages, however, historical writers lacked such standards. They were more apt, for instance, to attribute events to the work of God or gods rather than to conditions such as weather or economics, whose causes and effects can be more clearly understood. Furthermore, it was not at all unusual for a historian to report something that he (virtually all medieval historians of any culture were men) had heard, without making much of an effort to find out whether it was true or not.
Certainly medieval historians were not entirely to blame for...
(The entire section is 901 words.)
Excerpt from Secret History
Published in Secret History, 1927
"To me, and many others of us, these two seemed not to be human beings, but veritable demons, and what the poets call vampires: who laid their heads together to see how they could most easily and quickly destroy the race and deeds of men."
The writings of the Greek historian Procopius (proh-KOH-pee-us; died c. 565), including History in Eight Books and On Buildings, have certainly inspired much admiration from scholars of the medieval world. Yet these works, respectable as they are, are not nearly as entertaining—nor do they receive as much attention today—as a gossipy, scandalous book called Secret History, which Procopius never intended to publish. Chock-full of tall tales, and so slanted with the writer's own opinions that it barely qualifies as a serious historical work, Secret History is nonetheless more intriguing than the hottest soap opera on television.
In Procopius's time, the Byzantine (BIZ-un-teen) Empire, which grew out of the Eastern Roman Empire in Greece, was ruled by the emperor Justinian (483–565; ruled 527–565). Justinian, often considered the greatest Byzantine emperor, set out to reconquer lands that had once belonged to the Western Roman Empire, and in this undertaking he...
(The entire section is 2770 words.)
William of Malmesbury
Excerpt from Gesta regum Anglorum
Published in Readings in European History, 1904
"This was a fatal day to England, and melancholy havoc was wrought in our dear country during the change of its lords."
In 793, a terrifying force swept out of northern Europe: a group of invaders known as Vikings, Northmen, or Norsemen. Whatever their name, they spread death and destruction throughout the continent for the next two centuries. By the late 900s, however, Vikings had settled in various areas, including a region in the north of France. This area, settled in 911, came to be known as Normandy. Like their forefathers the Vikings, the Normans—their name was a version of "Northmen"—were a restless people, eager for conquest. Early in the eleventh century, a new opportunity appeared for them when Emma, daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy, married Ethelred the Unready (ruled 978–1016), king of England.
Ethelred was a descendant of invaders from Germany who in the 400s had taken Britain from the Celts, who had controlled the island for a thousand years. Unable to defend themselves after soldiers from the declining Roman Empire departed in 410, the Britons (as the British Celts were called) had actually invited the German tribes—known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—to help them defend their...
(The entire section is 2569 words.)
Excerpt from Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Published in San kuo, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925
"As he drew near the throne, a rushing whirlwind arose in the corner of the hall and, lo! from the roof beams floated down a monstrous black serpent that coiled itself up on the very seat of majesty. The Emperor fell in a swoon. Those nearest him hastily raised and bore him to his palace while the courtiers scattered and fled. The serpent disappeared."
The people of China, particularly during the premodern era, tended to have a unique view of history. For many centuries during ancient times, the Chinese believed that theirs was the only civilization in the world. It is understandable why they thought this, because they had no contact with the cultures of India, far away across high mountains to the south; nor did they know of Greece or Rome. All around them, they saw only barbarians, or uncivilized people, threatening their borders. Therefore to the Chinese, China was the world.
Coupled with this idea was the notion that history—Chinese history, that is, which in the view of the Chinese was world history—ran in cycles of about three or four hundred years. A new dynasty, or ruling house, would establish power, and enjoy many years of peace and stability. But eventually, signs would appear...
(The entire section is 2563 words.)