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A History of Europe


476 to 741

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

Part I

The Rise of Feudalism
What Really Happened in Medieval Warfare
Theodoric the Ostrogoth
Justinian's Campaigns
Avars, Lombards and Slavs on the Move

Part II

The Byzantine Way
The Visigoth Kingdom
The Merovingian Dynasty
England: The Heptarchy
Commerce in the Dark Ages
The Church's Role in the Recovery of the West
Against Islam's First Wave: The Empire and the Eastern Church
Iconoclasm: Act I
Population in the Dark Ages
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The Byzantine Way

To a Christian living in the Dark Ages, Byzantium was the place to be, even during the years of the Empireís contraction. It was here that something resembling classical society had survived, though now it had a Christian superstructure instead of a pagan one. Thus, it is appropriate to describe the Byzantine Empireís political system here.

To start with, it was full of symbolism. If God brought order to the universe, then the emperor must do the same on earth. Thus, human government was made to imitate divine government, and everything the emperor did in public was surrounded with ceremony. Moreover, anything associated with the emperor--his throne, crown, vestments, palace, court, statues/portraits, and even his daily schedule--was full of symbols to remind people that he was Godís appointed governor on earth.

Yet while the emperorís court was made to look heavenly, in practice it was full of intrigue and treachery. In fact, because of that, we now use the term "Byzantine" to describe a government where webs of conspiracy are commonplace. Because there were no absolute laws to decide who was a legitimate candidate for emperor, many people tried to claim the throne for themselves. The Byzantines felt that God chose their emperors, but the only way they had to determine what Godís will might be was to look and see who happened to be emperor. Any means used to seize power was okay--but only if it was successful. A would-be ruler who tried and failed was considered an enemy of God, and could not expect forgiveness. Likewise, a deposed emperor was seen as having fallen out of Godís favor, and ahead of him was a fate just as ghastly as if he was an unsuccessful usurper. Of the 88 emperors who ruled Byzantium from the fourth to the fifteenth century, 29 met violent deaths. Many ex-emperors and would-be emperors also suffered blinding and other mutilations, because it was felt that only a person with an unblemished face was qualified to rule. Thirteen more emperors took refuge in monasteries when they were deposed, and often spent the rest of their lives there.

The empress had a private court in the womenís quarters of the palace, from which she held audiences and banquets of her own, and gave out gifts to retainers and visitors. Some empresses, like the aforementioned Theodora, became famous for certain idiosyncrasies. One such was Zoe (see Chapter 8), who came out of obscurity when her husband, Constantine VIII, died in 1028. Though already fifty years old, she still had the blond hair and good looks of youth, so she set out to use her charms and prolong them by any means possible. She turned her apartments into a laboratory full of pipes, braziers, and other tools of alchemy. Thus, she kept her face free of wrinkles until she was in her sixties, and married three husbands in succession, making each a legitimate ruler through marriage. Only in her final years did she spend as much time in devotions and prayer as she had once spent on chemicals; when she died in 1050, she was 72 and still beautiful.

The Byzantines were not a warlike people, but they were forced to keep a standing army to defend themselves against many enemies. This army, which at its peak numbered 120,000 men, was expensive to maintain, so they looked for anything which might reduce the loss of lives or equipment. Consequently, they zealously pursued diplomacy, and always tried using it before they called out the armed forces. Byzantine diplomacy was a fine art and full of skullduggery at the same time. Typically, the emperor would awe a neighboring state with formal receptions and marvelous gifts, and honor treaty obligations as a good Christian monarch should, but at the same time he would undermine that state by giving money and arms to its enemies and encouraging them to attack. Another popular tactic was to befriend a foreign ruler with a political marriage, or give shelter to some king or queen in exile until a coup could be arranged to put them back on their thrones (and afterwards a regular subsidy from Constantinople would keep them friendly).

Many of the highest offices went to eunuchs. A eunuch could not be an emperor, because he had no descendants to bequeath the crown to, so he was more trustworthy than somebody with children. Thus, he found many opportunities for advancement, and the Byzantines, unlike other cultures, did not see castration as a disgrace. Noblemen might castrate their sons to give them more opportunities for good jobs, and at least one emperor, Romanus I, is known to have done that. Patriarchs and commanders of the army and navy were frequently eunuchs, like Narses. Doctors also found it to their advantage, for only eunuchs and female doctors could treat women. Overall, the presence of eunuchs in the imperial system may have brought stability, but as in ancient Rome and China, it eventually led to corruption.

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The Visigoth Kingdom

The Visigoths took a very large chunk of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, but failed to hold onto much of it in the sixth. As noted earlier in this chapter, they lost most of southern France to the Frankish king Clovis in 507. This forced them to move their capital from Toulouse to Toledo, where it remained for the rest of their time in Spain. Then in the middle of the century came Justinian's invasion. The weakness of their kingdom showed in the fact that Justinian defeated them with only two thousand men, led by an eighty-seven-year-old official named Liberius.

The Visigoths did badly against both Clovis and Justinian because the kingdom was not held together very well; there were separate law codes for Visigoths and Romans, separate Christian sects for each group (the Visigoths were Arian and the Romans were Catholic), and struggles between the king and nobility weakened the state some more. This state of affairs began to turn around under King Leowgild (568-586), who pushed the Romans back to the coast (575) and conquered the kingdom of the Suevi (584), uniting most of the Iberian peninsula under his control. His successor Rekhared (586-601) became a Catholic in 589, ending the religious dispute they had with the Franks, Byzantines and their own subjects. In 631 they took the last Roman outposts, and two years later they established an elective monarchy. A later king, Rekiswinth, created a code of laws which applied to both Goths and Romans (the Lex Visigothorum, 654).

Though they defeated the Romans and eliminated the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, there was one group of people in the peninsula that the Visigoths could never conquer permanently--the Basques. The kings routinely sent expeditions into the Pyrenees, and the royal chronicles ended each king's list of accomplishments with the line et domuit Vascones (and subjugated the Basques), letting us know that none of them could hold the Basque country for long. In fact, the last Visigoth king, Roderick (see below), was trying yet another time to subjugate the Basques when word reached him that the Moslems were invading the realm from the south, forcing him to call off the Basque campaign.

As long as they were Arian, the Visigoths didn't care much about what their subjects believed (if they had they would have converted sooner), but after Rekhared switched, one's choice of religion became a serious matter. The Catholic Church was particularly concerned about a group that wouldn't convert to any form of Christianity--Spanish Jews. A series of church councils, held at Toledo with the king presiding, ordered a complete suppression of Judaism; any Jewish practice would be severely punished, and Jews were ordered to convert or get out of the country. The most drastic recommendation from the Church, put forth in 694, would have eliminated the Jews as a distinct people; it called for the enslaving of all adult Jews and the raising of their children as Christians. What saved the Jews at this point was that the decrees against them were not always enforced; some Visigoth kings didn't think anti-Semitism was cool.

By 708 the Islamic conquest of Morocco was complete, and the Visigoths committed a series of dumb acts that made sure their worst nightmares would come true. First, the Visigoth king, a religious moderate named Witiza, died in 710. His son Womba wasn't anti-Semitic enough to suit the Church, so it backed Roderick, the duke of Baetica, and Roderick took the throne instead. In response to this coup, Roderick's enemies and Womba's friends got together, and invited the Moslems to come to Spain; one of them, Count Julian of Ceuta, even provided ships for the crossing.

The invasion went better than expected, from the Moslem point of view; in 711 an Arab-Berber army crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, and in a single battle killed Roderick and destroyed the Visigoth Kingdom. Most of the Iberian peninsula fell effortlessly under “Moorish” (Moslem) occupation by 713. In fact, it fell so quickly that the Arabs didn't have enough troops to pacify the whole territory. By now they had decided that they wouldn't let anybody else rule Spain, so they couldn't even trust the Visigoths on their side. Their solution was to give weapons to the Jews they had just liberated, and use them as a police force. The heirs of Witiza held out at Narbonne (in Septimania) until 720; the fall of Narbonne gave the Moslems a bridgehead across the Pyrenees.

Despite their success, the Moslems could never subjugate the northernmost part of Spain. From their stronghold in the Pyrenees, the Basques continued to resist all invaders from outside. In the mountains to the west of the Basques, some Gothic nobles imitated them. A Moslem invasion of this region was defeated by a local aristocrat named Pelagius (Pelayo in modern Spanish) in 718. Aside from the fact that the Christians won, we cannot say anything certain about this clash, now called the battle of Covadonga. Because we don't have figures on how many soldiers participated, Covadonga may have just been a skirmish, but like the siege of Mount Badon in King Arthur's England, it looms large in the legands of the country where it took place--for very similar reasons. Pelagius/Pelayo became the founder of a Christian kingdom called Asturias, and Covadonga was remembered as the first step in the Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain.

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The Merovingian Dynasty

Unlike their rivals, the Franks did not try to maintain the outmoded Roman system of government. While Theodoric the Ostrogoth levied the old taxes, tried to revive the decaying cities, talked of restoring the Roman Empire, and even allowed the Roman Senate to hold meetings, Clovis and his successors let the whole machine run down. The economic trends we noted during the last years of the Western Roman Empire, like the depopulation of towns and the declining use of money, were allowed to proceed to completion. By the end of the seventh century the Frankish kingdom had no towns and no taxes. It was a rural society held together by a few wooden forts and the loyalty of the Franks to their king(s).

This loyalty must have been strong, for the kingdom survived many attempts to divide it. The main source of division was the kings themselves; they treated the kingdom like it was their personal estate, and always ordered that it be divided between their sons. No matter how many sons there were, each must inherit a share. But in those days life was “nasty, brutish and short,” meaning that because so many sons died without heirs, sooner or later the kingdom would come back together again. This sounds like luck, but if anyone had wanted to start a revolt, there were as many opportunities as there were princes. The Franks must have had a very strong sense of unity, which tied into their very strong sense of royal legitimacy. There were some horrid examples of treachery, murder and mutilation within the Merovingian family (a son of Clovis burned one of his rebellious offspring alive), but paradoxically, the long-haired person who sat on the throne was in less danger than the rest of the family; he was considered sacred, above any conflict that did not involve the whole state. The king was also backed by the Church; whether or not the clergy liked the throne's current occupant, they were committed by Church policy to support the rightful monarch of the Franks.(17)

Clovis had four sons: Theodoric I of Rheims, Chlodomar of Orléans, Childebert I of Paris, and Chlotar I of Soissons. Upon his death in 511 the kingdom was divided into eight parts; each son got a fourth of the land Clovis had started with, and a fourth of the land he conquered. They managed to get along without too much friction; in fact, the kingdom continued to expand vigorously. They conquered the Thuringians and Gascony in 531; then they defeated the Burgundians at Autun and took over their country (532-534). When Justinian attacked the Ostrogoths the Franks seized Provence (537) and drove the Ostrogoths out of eastern Switzerland (536-539). Theudebert, the son of Theodoric I of Rheims, followed this up with an invasion of northwest Italy, where he destroyed Milan, defeated both the Ostrogoths and the army of Belisarius, and briefly occupied Genoa (539), but disease struck his troops and forced him to withdraw under a truce. In Constantinople, Justinian commemorated this lucky break by striking a medal that gave him a rather meaningless title, "Conqueror of the Franks." In 555 the Bavarians also acknowledged Frankish supremacy.

The temporary division of the Frankish kingdom lasted until 558, when Chlotar I, the youngest son, was the last one living; at that point the whole kingdom went to him by default. Like Clovis he had four sons (Charibert of Paris, Guntram of Orleans, Sigebert of Metz, and Chilperic I of Soissons), so a new division took place on his death three years later. In fact, during the whole period from 511 to 679, there were only twenty-two years when the Merovingians were united under one king.

Because the Merovingian males were now dying (or getting killed off) faster than the characters on Game of Thrones, power went by default to two queens: Brunhilde and Fredegund. Brunhilde was originally a Visigoth princess from Spain, who had been given in marriage to Sigebert of Metz. Fredegund had a more common background; starting as a palace servant, she got the attention of Chilperic I of Soissons, became his mistress, then became his third wife, and finally became queen, after persuading Chilperic to put away his first wife and kill the second one.

Unfortunately, the second wife was Galeswintha, Brunhilde's sister, and her death caused a blood feud between Brunhilde and Fredegund which lasted for more than forty years. First they pulled their husbands into the quarrel, which wasn't difficult because an argument over how to divide the estate of Charibert of Paris, who had died childless in 567, had put Sigebert and Chilperic on bad terms with each other already. Sigebert banished Chiperic from the kingdom, raised an army, besieged Chilperic in the ancestral capital of Tournai, and was on the verge of becoming king of all the Franks when he was suddenly assassinated by agents of Fredegund (575). Brunhilde, humiliated and taken prisoner, barely managed to escape, and took charge of the east in the name of her son, Childebert II.

The Frankish kingdom was now split three ways, with Burgundy under Guntram of Orleans, Austrasia, meaning the "eastern land" under Childebert, and Neustria (most of modern France, called the "new land" because it had been conquered by Clovis) under Chilperic and Fredegund. Chilperic was in turn assassinated in 584, and Neustria passed to the son of Chilperic and Fredegund, Chlotar II (also spelled Lothar). When Guntram died in 592, his inheritance passed to Childebert, but Childebert died only three years later, so his estate was divided between two sons, Theudebert II and Theodoric II, with Brunhilde managing the government for both. Because Chlotar wasn't old enough to rule alone either, this meant that Fredegund was the real ruler of the west, while Brunhilde ruled the east and south.

Fredegund died of natural causes in 597, believe it or not, and Brunhilde now sought revenge on the surviving members of Fredegund's family. She got her sons to join forces against Chlotar II, reducing him to a petty king. Before they could finish the job, however, jealousy sprang up between the two brothers, and they waged war on each other instead, until Theudebert was killed in 612. A year later Theodoric died, too, and Brunhilde, now almost eighty years old, became regent of the whole kingdom, in the name of Sigebert II, her great-grandson and the son of Theodoric. This was too much for the Frankish nobility; even those who had served under Brunhilde didn't want a woman to have absolute power, so they went over to Chlotar. Before 613 was over, Chlotar captured Brunhilde and Sigebert on the battlefield, and executed them; for his aunt he devised a humiliating fate, first making the queen ride a camel past the jeering troops, then having her dragged to death behind a horse, thus finishing what his mother had started.

Because Chlotar was the last surviving great-grandson of Clovis, the kingdom was reunited under him. However, he was in no way an absolute monarch; he had to share power with Arnulf, the bishop of Metz, and Pepin the Elder (580?-639?, also called Pepin of Landen), an Austrasian noble. Ten years later Chlotar gave Austrasia to his son Dagobert, keeping Neustria and Burgundy for himself. By this time the Franks of the west and south were speaking the debased Latin of their ex-Roman subjects, which during the next few centuries, through gradual changes in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, would turn into French.(18) Meanwhile, the eastern Franks stuck to the German language of their forefathers. When transportation and communications are poor, a difference in language can cause very powerful political strains. Consequently the division of the realm into French and German halves was more natural than the arbitrary partitions of the sixth century, and it became the usual pattern thereafter.

After Dagobert (629-639) none of the Merovingians had any real power. Indeed, most of them died before the age of twenty, so today's French call them Rois-fainéants, the "Do-Nothing Kings." Effective power fell into the hands of the Frankish equivalent of a prime minister, the majordomo, or “mayor of the palace.” As you might expect, in both Austrasia and Neustria this job went to the strongest and boldest of the local barons. It was Pepin of Herstal, the grandson of Pepin the Elder and mayor of the palace in Austrasia, who reunited the kingdom in 687. By doing that Pepin founded a new dynasty, though he never sat on the throne.(19) As for the real king, Pepin and his successors would bring him to the Field of March, the annual meeting between the king and the nobility, but kept him gently confined the rest of the time.

Today Pepin is only remembered for being the father of Charles Martel. However, Charles Martel was an illegitimate son, so all of his success came from from his fighting ability, not from belonging to the right family. When Pepin died in 714, his will revealed that he left everything to a grandson who, unlike Charles, was of legitimate birth. The grandson in question was only eight years old, so his mother ruled over both him and the king as regent; Charles was locked up in the German town of Cologne. However, the soldiers of the kingdom didn't want to serve under a child or a woman, so when Charles escaped, he was quickly able to recruit an army of his own. Charles lost the first battle of his rebellion and was forced to flee, but he quickly raised another army, and won the next battle by ambushing his opponents during their mid-day siesta. By 717 he had fought his way to the top in Austrasia; by 719 Neustria was his as well. Charles now became the majordomo, though he let the grandson of Pepin and the regent mother live, a merciful act in those harsh times.

Martel means “the hammer,” and was a tribute to the victory that Charles won, against a new enemy that could have killed them all. In the 720s, the Moslems of Spain began raiding the Frankish kingdom from their base in Septimania. The local duke, Odo of Aquitaine, defeated the first Moorish invasion, at Toulouse in 721. He was called "Odo the Great" because he had also fought Charles Martel previously, as the current champion of the kingdom's Neustrian faction. Then Charles spent the mid-720s campaigning in Germany against the pagan Saxons, but by the end of the decade the Moslem threat was too much for any duke to handle on his own. In 732 a combined army of Arabs and Berbers crossed the Pyrenees, destroyed Bordeaux, slaughtered the entire population of that town, defeated Odo in a battle at the Garonne River, and looted the rich monasteries of Aquitaine. The Moslems were expected to go after Tours next, because that was the site of St. Martin's basilica and tomb. Martin was a popular fourth-century theologian (see Chapter 5, footnote #18), and western Europe's age of cathedral-building was centuries in the future, so any stone church larger than a chapel was important at this date, and Martin's church was considered the holiest place in the kingdom. The Frankish nobility put aside their petty bickering, drawn together by their common fear of the “infidels.”

What Charles needed to stop this menace was a professional standing army, not a levy of peasants that could only be away from their farms between planting and harvest time. To get this army, Charles mobilized the realm ruthlessly, even confiscating Church lands to bribe or reward Frankish fighting men. In October 732, Charles and his host intercepted the Moslem invaders in central France, between the towns of Tours and Poitiers. For a week the two forces scouted one another, looking for an opening. When the battle did take place, the recently recruited knights didn't do very well; the Franks rode small ponies at this early date, did not have stirrups to keep them from falling out of the saddle every time something hit them, and were only poorly trained in the use of cavalry. By contrast, the Moslems were veterans with fine Arabian mounts. It was the Frankish infantry, massed together in a phalanx-style formation, that stood firm long enough for Charles to prevail; this victory made him both a Christian hero and the strongest man in the West.

The battle of Tours is called one of the turning points in history, and rightly so; had the Moslems succeeded in conquering France, there would probably be a Koran in every hotel room today! But in the hindsight of history, it appears that the battle has also been over-hyped. First of all, it did not have results in the short run; Charles had to defeat a second Moorish invasion, this time in the Rhone valley, in 739, and Moslem raiders continued to make trouble until the Franks conquered Septimania in 759. Secondly, it is possible that a Moslem defeat would have been the most likely outcome, regardless of the circumstances. With winter on the way, and his troops weighed down by loot, the best choice for the Moslem commander, Abdul Rahman al-Ghafiqi, would have been to withdraw to Spain and come back another year. France is not a desert but part of a forest-filled temperate zone, quite unsuitable for mounted archers used to the burning sands of Arabia and North Africa. More importantly, Abdul Rahman did not scout France adequately, thinking that only barbarian hordes existed north of the Pyrenees. Most important of all, the Moslems were fighting a whole nation, not just its rulers. The Byzantines, Persians and Visigoths were exhausted by long periods of war, and their rulers were unpopular; by contrast, the people of France did not see themselves as oppressed.

Charles Martel was the man who made the Frankish kingdom work, but like his father, he never felt it would be right to take the crown. By Frankish definition the king was a Merovingian, and no one could think of a way to legally separate that title from the royal family, so Charles continued to rule with a puppet king as his front man. Four years before Charles' death in 741, the Merovingian king died without leaving an heir, but even then Charles was so confident of his power--and so lacking in imagination--that instead of taking the throne for himself, he simply left it vacant.

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England: The Heptarchy

When King Arthur departed for Avalon, he bequeathed the British crown to his cousin Constantine (IV), the son of the duke of Cornwall. Constantine had a short reign of four years; he crushed a Saxon revolt, only to be struck down by “God’s vengeance,” whatever that might be. Next came an unnamed son of Constantine, whose reign ended when he was imprisoned by his nephew, Aurelius Conanus (Kynan Wledic in Welsh). Three years later he was succeeded by Vortiporius, who repelled an invasion from Germany; Vortiporius only ruled for about year, though, and his fate is unrecorded. Next came Malgo (550?-555?, Maelgwyn Gwynedd in Welsh); he died from the plague that shook sixth-century Europe, and neither of his sons (Ennianus and Run) succeeded him.

We don’t know if the next king, Keredic, was related to his predecessors. In his reign the Anglo-Saxons lost their fear of the Britons and resumed their advance. The second time the West Saxons reached the Severn they won (the battle of Dyrham, 577). Keredic retreated into Wales; after this the British kingdom (or kingdoms, now disunity is taking its toll) was centered on the county of Gwynedd, in the northwest corner of Wales. His reign was followed by three unnamed “tyrants,” before Cadvan took over, shortly after the year 600.

At first Cadvan (Cadfan ap Iago) was only king of Gwynedd; he became the leader of all Britons by engaging Ethelfrith, the Angle king of Northumbria, in battle.(20) Ethelfrith got the better of the fighting, though; he won a victory at Chester which matched the Saxon triumph at Dyrham, thus conquering almost all of the north (616). As a result of these two battles the Britons of Wales were cut off from their kinsmen in the northwest (Strathclyde) and the southwest (Devon). This put an end to any hopes of a British comeback.

Cadvan married a Saxon noblewoman, and in 625 he was followed by Cadwallo, who died of old age in 633. Then came Cadwallader (Kydwaladr Vendigaid), whose reign was divided into two parts: 633-643 and 654-664. A decade after becoming king, Cadwallader came down with an unspecified illness; while was out of action, the Britons fought among themselves, crops were neglected, and plague and famine followed. For safety’s sake, Cadwallader went to the Continent, taking refuge with Alan II, king of Brittany and a member of King Arthur’s family. There he recovered, and eleven years later the kindly Alan persuaded him to return to Britain and resume his reign. After him his son Yvor and his nephew Yni jointly ruled over the remaining Britons in Wales. These were the last kings who styled themselves “kings of the Britons”; indeed the terms Britain and British disappeared and from now on the surviving Britons were known as Welsh (“barbaric foreigners”). Definitely bully-boy behavior; first the Saxons took somebody else's land, then they called the original residents "barbarians."(21)

The partnership of Yvor and Yni lasted for their lifetimes, and they were a persistent nuisance to the Saxons, “. . . but little good did it do them!” It was in Britain, more than any other part of the Roman Empire, that the German invaders succeeded in imposing their laws, language and farming methods on the population; both Christianity and the use of Latin disappeared almost completely. That, and the atrocities committed in the wars, caused Britons to bitterly dismiss their new rulers as “a race hateful both to God and men.”

There were originally more than a dozen Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. One king was usually recognized as Bretwalda, meaning “Britain-ruler,” by the others, but the title only meant that he was recognized as the most powerful king on the island. It did not give him more power, nor was it hereditary. In 604 the two kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira merged to form Northumbria, and then Northumbria extended its control over all of northern Britain: Strathclyde, and the mini-kingdoms of the Picts and Scots. Consequently Northumbria was the usual Bretwalda in the mid-seventh century.

It wouldn't last, though. In 679 the king of Mercia got the Bretwalda title and began to put more meaning into it, and in 695 the Strathclyde Welsh, Picts and Scots threw off the Northumbrian yoke. The Mercians climbed to the top by annexing the small kingdoms on their borders: Magon (Hereford), Hwicce (Worcester), Middlesex, the kingdom of the Middle Angles and Lindsay (Lincoln). The number of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was thus reduced to seven (Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Wessex and Kent), giving rise to the term “Heptarchy” that is sometimes used for this period of English history. In the days of Offa, king of Mercia from 757 to 796, every ruler south of the Humber River had to get his approval for any important act.

The Anglo-Saxons often marked important boundaries with earthen walls. King Offa built one which still stands today (Offa’s Dyke), all along the border between England and Wales. Whether he meant it or not, this marked the end of the Anglo-Saxon advance. Eighty percent of the inhabitants of Britain (about a million altogether) were now either English or living under English control.

Britain during the Heptarchy
The Anglo-Saxon and Welsh kingdoms under the Heptarchy.

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Commerce in the Dark Ages

From Asia’s point of view, post-Roman Europe was beyond the commercial and cultural pale. In the late fifth century only three cities in the Mediterranean basin (Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria) had more than 75,000 people, and four cities (Carthage, Rome, Milan and Salonika) were second-rate, each numbering somewhere between 25,000 and 75,000 souls each.(22) The only significant trade routes during this period went between these cities. To the merchant traveling by ship or caravan, the town offered a safe haven where he could sell his merchandise and restock on supplies. To the townsman, the trader was both a source of revenue and the place to find the products of local agriculture and industry. All towns produced textiles, glass, pottery and metalwork, and though the basic techniques used to make these products were the same everywhere, a unique item could be traded at a higher price, due to an unusual style or excellent craftsmanship. Products like these were a common part of every merchant's inventory and brought him a profit when more unique goods were lacking.

Two commodities were special enough to be imported from the Orient. One of these, silk, traversed the famous Silk Road from China through Central Asia and Persia, entering the Eastern Roman Empire at Antioch. Europeans knew nothing about how silk was made, so they paid a premium price for both raw silk and finished clothing. The other commodity, spices, started in India and usually went through the Persian Gulf, joining the Silk Road in Mesopotamia. Some spice-carrying ships also sailed up the Red Sea and unloaded in Egypt, linking with the Mediterranean network at Alexandria. The term “spice” as used here is misleading, for it not only refers to condiments like pepper, cloves and nutmeg, but also dyes, alum, perfumes, pigments, gums, and a variety of substances that were untested, but believed to be of medical value.

Because luxuries like silk and spices are the trade goods most often mentioned in the Middle Ages, one gets the impression that the Eastern Roman Empire failed to balance its trade, and that its reserves of gold were spent on things the people could do without. This is because contemporary sources are misleading; they mention interesting items like Baltic amber, Arabian pearls and Indian gems, while neglecting the more mundane goods of everyday trade. The size of the Empire's cities suggests that they did enough manufacturing to pay for the imported luxuries, and if the emperor forbade the export of bullion, it was not because of poverty but because of military weakness. He needed all available gold to subsidize friends and placate enemies abroad.

Whereas goods on the Asian trade routes had to be expensive, lightweight and nonperishable to be worth transporting, the Mediterranean trade network was a bulk transport system, that measured cargoes by the ton, rather than by the price. The principal commodities were grain (mostly wheat and barley), wine and oil, though timber and metals were nearly as important. Besides these, the typical merchant would deal in furs from northern Europe, and slaves from just about anywhere. Profit did not always drive this trade; the supply of wheat to Rome and Constantinople, for example, was a state service, and the wheat had to be delivered under any market conditions.

We can get a good idea of how the Roman economy worked by observing Egypt, the Empire's richest province. Egypt produced reliable surpluses of wheat and flax, it had a monopoly on papyrus, still the most popular writing material, and the Alexandria glassblowers were famous for their specialized work. Add the spice traffic and the result was a very large volume of exports. However, the government took much of the wheat, linen and papyrus without making any kind of payment, so the Egyptians didn’t prosper. In fact, they had to work hard to pay for the iron, timber, wine and oil that they imported.(23)

The lack of cities in most of Europe was due to the predatory activity of the barbarians that had brought down the Western Roman Empire. Traffic in the western Mediterranean had all but come to a stop, thanks to the piracy of the Vandals. Rome's population declined when the Egyptian grain supply that fed her during the Pax Romana was shifted to Constantinople; those who remained had to rely on the smaller surpluses from Africa and Sicily. Nomad raids and the shrinking number of farmers forced the Romans to abandon much of their African farmland before the Vandals took it, and as the Vandals grew less belligerent they found themselves unable to bring it back under cultivation. Though the Eastern emperor Justinian conquered the Vandals, he too proved incapable of recovering the valuable hinterland.

Justinian's trade problem was that payment for the silk and spices went to his archenemy, the Persian Empire. To cut the Persian stranglehold on the east-west trade network, he encouraged merchants to go around Persia, instead of through it. An embassy was sent to the Turks in Central Asia to see if they would like to take part in a trade route that ran north of the Caspian, while interference in Arabian and Abyssinian affairs was supposed to make the Red Sea a safer place to sail than the Persian Gulf. Greeks had been sailing between India and Egypt since the second century B.C., and Arab ships now carried goods this way. Still, Egyptian merchants were more interested in the gold, ivory, and slaves of Black Africa, and the only spices they wanted were Arabian frankincense and myrrh. Both of Justinian's proposed trade routes were smart, but they failed because they were too far ahead of his time; he had no control over places as far away as Russia and Abyssinia. His biggest economic success was discovering the secret behind silk; silkworms were obtained by stealth and put to work around 550.(24)

The emperors of the seventh and eighth centuries found their prospects depressing in the extreme. Many cities went up in smoke during the final war with Persia, and few were rebuilt. The Arabs did even more damage, raiding everywhere and taking away half the Empire’s land and people. Egypt’s grain started going to the Middle East instead of Constantinople, and following the loss of grain, the capital’s population fell so fast that for a while it looked like New Rome would go the way of Old Rome. Fortunately there were a few improvements, the main one being that Justinian's trade projects were now working. The arrival of a friendly tribe in south Russia, the Khazars, made it possible to set up the trade route around the Caspian. Trade with the Khazars brought some economic compensation for the loss of so much elsewhere; as Mediterranean commerce shrank, Black Sea traffic expanded. Even so, imperial resources were so depleted that it was an achievement just to survive. The loss of Egypt meant not only a shortage of food but also a shortage of gold; the iconoclastic movement may have been partly motivated by the state's need to tap the Church's supply of precious metal.

Trade in northwest Europe all but disappeared when the last Roman ship left the Atlantic (422). By then, the towns of France, Britain and Spain had been reduced to a few fortified outposts. The remaining commercial activity was picked up by a German tribe living on the shore of the North Sea, the Frisians. This grew to become a considerable traffic in wine, salt and oil by the eighth century. A few goods from Constantinople made it over the Alps to France; in return the West sent slaves, iron, and timber to the East. Still, it wasn't enough trade to justify building new roads, and many of the old roads fell into disuse because barbarians and bandits made traveling on them too risky. "It says much of the Middle Ages," as William Manchester put it, "that in the year 1500, after a thousand years of neglect, the roads built by the Romans were still the best in the continent."

This is as good a place as any to look at medieval textiles. There are four naturally occurring fibers which can be woven into cloth. Two have already been discussed, silk and flax. The use of wool was universal, but northwestern Europe always produced the best, so before 1000 it began to export woolen goods. Cotton growing was confined to the Middle East. Later it would be introduced to Spain and Italy by the Moslems, but it could not grow in the cold north and there was little demand for it there. Of the dyes available, most of those which came from plants (woad/indigo, saffron and madder) were common to all countries; the litmus lichen, though, grew only in the north. By far the best dyes were extracted from insects of the Coccidae family. The most famous of these today is cochineal, but this comes from the New World, and other species produced the carmine of Spain and the Middle East (especially Asia Minor and Transcaucasia) and the lac of India.(25)

To vary the effects possible with dyes and to render them more brilliant and durable, mordants (usually alum) were used. Originally alum was obtained from the Sahara via Egypt and Morocco and from Asia Minor. Around 1300 the city-state of Genoa gained complete control of the market, obtaining their supply from rich mines in what was now western Turkey. Arab chemists learned how to make synthetic alum (from aluminum sulphate and wine), but this never replaced the real thing. When the Turks established the Ottoman Empire, Europe was only saved from an alum famine by the discovery of extensive deposits of alunite (a mineral very similar to and easily transformed into alum) in the part of Italy ruled by the pope. Papal alum factories started production in the mid-fifteenth century and the Papacy held a monopoly on alum for a long time thereafter.

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The Church’s Role in the Recovery of The West

The Church was the only institution of the Western Roman Empire that was still in one piece after the empire's collapse, and at first it was too deeply involved in the ailing society around it to avoid contracting its diseases. Incompetence, venality and even immorality became commonplace among the clergy, brought on in part because of the way bishops were appointed. Theoretically each bishop was elected in a regional church council and approved by the people in his district. But as time went on the Church grew richer and stronger, in part because of the gifts bestowed on it by the wealthy and the pious. By 700 it owned an estimated one third of all land in the Frankish kingdom, in an age when land was the only real source of wealth. Under these conditions important offices in the Church became jobs worth having, which the kings handed out to favorite courtiers or ambitious Frankish aristocrats. Most of them were semiliterates who knew little of Christian doctrine, tradition or liturgy; some were greedy, willful and nepotistic.

Fortunately for the West, the Church possessed remarkable powers of self-regeneration, and as the official clergy declined recovery came from a group that went to the opposite extreme: the ascetics. Ascetics turn up in all religious movements and, though more prominent in Oriental religions like Buddhism, they have always been present in Christianity. Emulation of lonely hermits like St. Anthony soon led to the hermit colony and when rules were established this became the monastery. By the end of the fourth century monasteries were commonplace in the Eastern Roman Empire; the West had fewer because it was hard for the poor western provinces to pay for the upkeep of the monks. Individual hermits were also more common in the east, the most famous of these being St. Simeon the Stylite (390-459), who practiced an extreme form of disciplined living by erecting a sixty-foot high pillar in Syria and living on top of it for the last 36 years of his life.

Western monasticism began its reform of the Church in the sixth century, when St. Benedict of Nursia founded a new Monastery at Monte Cassino, a lonely hilltop between Rome and Naples. At first he lived like the holy hermits of the East, staying in a cave overlooking a stream from a location so inaccessible that food had to be lowered to him on a rope by a friend who visited him every day. He attracted a lot of visitors during the three years he spent there, but eventually came to the conclusion that self-denial by itself is not the way to salvation. Afterwards, he preached strict rules to live by, but they were meant to help man get along better with his fellow man, not to mortify the flesh. For example, when one hermit tried to invent a new form of saintliness by chaining himself to a rock in a cave, Benedict sent him this message: “Break thy chain, for the true servant of God is chained not to rocks by iron, but to righteousness by Christ.”

From his own experience Benedict knew that only a few people are suited to live the disciplined life without direction, so he organized his monastery on a fully communal basis, and put down the rules for it in a remarkable book called A Little Rule for Beginners. The book outlined a complete social system that actually worked; the monks were required to balance their prayers with manual labor in farming or crafts, so that the monastery fed and maintained itself, rather than depending on contributions like the ones in the Eastern Roman Empire did. The monks elected their own governing abbot, who was answerable only to the pope, and to keep stability, each monk took an additional vow (besides the usual ones for poverty, celibacy and obedience) in which he promised to remain in the monastery until death, unless given special permission to leave. Monks were also forbidden to risk their health by fasting or doing anything else which did not benefit the entire community. The Benedictine Rule was a moderate and merciful alternative to what had been practiced before.

The Benedictine order was such a success that it quickly replaced all others in the West, including the zealous communities of Ireland. They became islands of stability in a troubled world, and attracted the commerce and scholarship of the day. The grain fields, vineyards, orchards, fish ponds, and workshops of the monasteries became the testing place for new techniques. The monastery also became a hospital for the sick, a school for those seeking an education, and a guesthouse for travelers. Thus despite their vows, the Benedictine monks grew rich and powerful precisely because the politics of the secular world didn't get in the way.(26)

The first monk to become a pope was a Benedictine--Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great (590-604). When Gregory was elected pope, he probably was not expected to be more than a shortlived caretaker; he was 49 years old, balding, frail, and suffering from a variety of ailments; he also continued to practice the humility of a monk, calling himself "servant of the servants of God." But he was also strong-willed, bold and energetic, and he had acquired much political experience. In his youth he was a prefect of Rome until the age of 33, when he suddenly gave up both his work and his fortune to join the priesthood. Gregory's talents were too valuable to be left unused in a cloister for long. He was pressed into service first as a deacon of Rome, then as papal envoy to Constantinople. After that mission he served as abbot of his monastery until a plague carried off Pope Pelagius II, and Gregory was elected despite his protests against serving in the world again.

By playing off the Lombards against the Eastern Roman Empire, Gregory succeeded in keeping both at a safe distance. He was also tireless in pursuing two goals: the conversion of non-Catholic barbarians (particularly the Visigoths and Lombards) and the placing of Western Europe's churches under direct Papal control. His success in all these endeavors insured that the Western Church would be a truly international one, making him the first of the medieval-era popes who ruled with the power of a king (in the absence of real kings), and whose activities allowed the growth of Papal power in the following centuries.

Gregory's greatest success was far away from Rome; he started the reconversion of pagan England. According to one story of questionable origin, he became interested in the Anglo-Saxons when he saw some blond-haired youths on sale in a slave market in Rome. Upon hearing that these attractive unfortunates were Angles, Gregory remarked, "Not Angles but Angels, had they but the Gospel." In 596 he dispatched a group of Benedictine monks led by Augustine, a member of Gregory's own St. Andrew's monastery. But in France the monks heard another tale about the people Gregory called "Angels"--that they drank human blood and liked the Christian variety best. This rumor sent Augustine hurrying back to Rome, where the pope heard him out but refused to cancel the mission.

Augustine and his party finally arrived in England in 597, and without losing a single drop of blood, they quickly won an important convert. King Ethelbert of Kent had made himself susceptible to Christianity by marrying a pious Frankish princess, and his baptism opened many doors. The Italian missionaries were allowed to preach and build churches all over Kent and the surrounding pocket-sized kingdoms that acknowledged Kent's overlordship. Augustine set up his headquarters at Canterbury, and became the first bishop of the English Church.

The Church's second major base in England also came about because of a royal mixed marriage. Edwin of Northumbria chose for his queen Ethelbert's Christian daughter; he was willing to convert if the Church insisted on it, but first put Christianity to the same test that Clovis did. Edwin was planning an attack on the kingdom of Wessex, and expected it to prove whether Christianity was stronger than paganism. The king won and called a council to win over his followers. They all listened to an influential monk named Paulinus, and gave in to baptism when Paulinus used one of Christianity's most effective tools--the promise of a blessed afterlife. Soon after this mass conversion, Paulinus became archbishop of York.

By the end of the seventh century, most Anglo-Saxons had become Christians, but it was not a smooth conversion. In most places both Christianity and paganism were enforced at sword point by a royal protector, and the death of that king allowed the other side a chance to make a comeback. For example, Mercia, the central English kingdom, was a strong holdout for paganism under the reign of King Penda (626-655); upon his death Mercia switched sides, advancing Christianity instead of hindering it. Another challenge came from the disunity of the clergy. On Iona, a tiny islet off the west coast of Scotland, an Irish priest named St. Columba (520-597) set up a monastery which became the advance base for Irish missionaries to Britain. The sixth century saw Irish monks convert the Picts; in the seventh century they traveled all over England, especially Northumbria. But Ireland had never been a part of the Roman Empire, and the church started there by St. Patrick in the fifth century developed with no contact or influence from Rome. By now cultural differences between the footloose Irish and the transplanted Italians ensured that they would not see eye to eye; the tug-of-war between them for control of the English churches impaired the work of both and spread confusion among their Anglo-Saxon converts.

To settle this dispute, King Oswiu of Northumbria called a grand conference at Whitby in 663. The two rivals staked their arguments on a small but crucial disagreement over how to calculate the date of Easter, but Oswiu used politics to make up his mind. He knew that whether or not they were right, the independent Irish did not have a single ally, royal or ecclesiastical, while the Italians were backed by the pope, whose authority over all Christians was admitted even by the Irishmen. Thus the Celtic churches of Britain and a reluctant Ireland were brought back into the Roman fold.

The eighth century saw the Anglo-Saxon Christians make a reverse invasion of the Continent. As newcomers to the faith themselves, they practiced it more carefully than those who had been Christians all their lives, and their enthusiasm attracted many who heard them preach. They were led by Winfrith of Crediton (680-754), better known by his Latin name of Boniface (“doer of good”), who began the missionary journey by crossing over to Frisia in 716. As in England, Irish monks had gone this way as early as the sixth century, but while they had the religious fervor and a strict organization, they lacked resources and the strength of numbers. Boniface lacked neither. The English Church gladly sent him all the Benedictines he needed, and the black-robed monks quickly fanned out to the east and south, founding monasteries as they went. Chief among these was Fulda, which reportedly had 4,000 monks in it soon after it was founded. So many Bavarians and Thuringians were converted by Boniface and his brothers that he is now regarded as the true founder of the German Church, and in 732 Charles Martel made him archbishop of Mainz, in effect putting him in charge over all Christians in the eastern Frankish territory (Germany). He also got along well with Charles's son Pepin, because his work at did much to strengthen Frankish power east of the Rhine. For example, early in Pepin's reign Boniface annointed him with holy oil, in the fashion of Old Testament kings, and persuaded him to marry his mistress Bertrada, so that the son they already had would be legitimate.

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Against Islam’s First Wave: The Empire and the Eastern Church

By the fifth century, the Church had been organized so that it was led by five super-bishops, called patriarchs, in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Among them the patriarch of Rome claimed to be foremost and the others went along with this, but they did not regard this as having much practical significance. In fact, the ultimate religious authority was wielded by the emperors. Then came the Arab conquest of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria, and their patriarchates declined to insignificance. Now Constantinople and Rome were the last contenders left in the ring, and because transportation between them was slow and full of risks in those days, the Byzantine emperor only had firm control over the former.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the patriarch of Rome (called the pope from the end of the fifth century onward) promoted Rome's claim of pre-eminence over the whole Church, cleverly linking his cause with a campaign to oppose imperial direction of religious affairs. This meant that while the patriarchate in Constantinople functioned as a branch of the government, forced to follow the twists of imperial politics, the only eastern doctrine/heresy that spread to the western Church was Arianism. Consequently the pope appeared to outsiders as a truer spokesman for Christ. An early example of such steadfastness came when Emperor Zeno and Acacius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, appointed a fellow named Paul the Stammerer, as the new Patriarch of Alexandria. As one might expect with a name like that, Paul was difficult to understand (perhaps that is why he got the job?), but his words that could be understood let everyone know he was a militant Monophysite. When the patriarch of Rome, Felix III, heard that Acacius had put a heretic in charge of the African Church, he summoned the Patriarch to explain his actions. Acacius did not come, so in 484 Felix took an unprecented action; he called a synod which deposed and excommunicated Acacius. But Acacius had a reputation for being bad-tempered, so no clergyman had the nerve to tell him to his face that he wasn't Patriarch anymore. What they did instead probably made the matter worse; they wrote the news on a piece of parchment, waited until Acacius conducted a service in Hagia Sophia, and then one of them actually sneaked up and pinned the note on the back of his robe! Acacius must have been embarrassed to discover he was wearing the medieval version of a "Kick Me!" sign, and when he found it, he turned right around and excommunicated the pope. The resulting split, called the Acacian Schism, divided the Church for the next thirty-five years.

When Belisarius first recovered Rome for the Empire, he deposed the current pope, Silverius, on a charge of writing treasonous letters to the Ostrogoths (537). However, the old days had not really returned; the Lombards and Gregory the Great saw to that. The bulk of churches under the pope's authority still lay outside the Empire in countries like France, so most papal activity was beyond the emperor's control. What’s more, the weakening of the Empire after Justinian I reduced the possibility of interference from Constantinople.

The inhabitants of Syria, Armenia and Egypt cared even less for the emperor than the Italians did. This showed in how easily they fell first to the Persians, and then to the Arabs, in the early seventh century. After Heraclius regained those provinces from the Persians, he tried to make peace with the Monophysites by promoting a compromise doctrine, Monotheletism, which suggested that the union of God and man in Jesus did not submerge the identity of either component, because Jesus had two spirits but one will. Monotheletism did nothing to reconcile the schismatics, and even worse, it irritated the provinces that had stayed loyal; the pope called it a heresy. Debates got so heated that in 648 the emperor Constans II issued the Typos (Statement), which banned all further discussion on the nature and wills of Christ, punishable by flogging, imprisonment, or exile.

Meanwhile, the Empire’s defensive war against Islam became the main factor in Byzantine history. What is remarkable is the length of time Byzantium resisted--eight hundred years. Nor was this the only enemy it had to face. While the Arabs took away North Africa and most of the Middle East, the Avars, Slavs and Lombards nibbled at imperial territory. By the early eighth century, the Empire was left with just Asia Minor, Thrace, and a collection of islands and enclaves in the central and eastern Mediterranean. Because of political instability in Constantinople, the Empire put up little resistance on any front--except when the enemy approached Constantinople itself.

After Heraclius, the Empire saw the worst political chaos it had experienced since the time of the "Soldier Emperors," four hundred years earlier. During the seventy-six years between Heraclius and Leo III, there were ten emperors. Eight of them were overthrown, the exceptions being Constantine III, who died of tuberculosis as we mentioned earlier, and Constantine IV, who died of dysentery. Justinian II had the dubious distinction of being thrown out twice!

Anyway, the Typos of Constans should have been the end of the debate over what the Son of God was made of, because by then the Arabs had overrun all the Monophysite areas, meaning that the Orthodox Church no longer had to compromise with anybody. Instead, the clergy of Rome stirred up the pot once more when Pope Theodore I died in 649, and they elected and installed his successor, Martin I, without waiting for the usual confirmation of the election from the emperor. Three months later, Martin showed he was independent-minded when he summoned 105 bishops from Italy, Sicily, Africa and Sardinia, and at the synod that followed, they condemned Monotheletism, the Typos, and the four eastern patriarchs who endorsed the one-will doctrine. The synod avoided any criticism of the emperor, but Constans saw it as an act of insubordination anyway. The first general he sent to arrest the pope, Olympius, switched sides, proclaimed himself emperor, and then died of a fever as soon as he launched his revolt. The second general, Theodore Calliopas, arrived in the Lateran in 653, to find a sick pontiff on a bed, surrounded by his clergy. The troops began to vandalize the church, and fights broke out out between them and the priests, until Martin gave himself up. After that, the four-month journey to Constantinople left him so weak from gout, dysentery and seasickness that he had to be carried into the palace on a litter. Then he was placed in solitary confinement for three months, and put on trial for a trumped-up charge that he had been sending money to the Arabs. Found guilty, he was flogged, imprisoned again, and finally exiled to the Crimea. There he suffered more physical hardship until he died in September 655. Near the end he wrote that the loneliness bothered him most of all: "I am surprised at the indifference and hardheartedness of my former associates. They have so completely forgotten me that they do not even want to know whether I am alive." Martin was later remembered as a saint and a martyr, but Rome was not willing to defy the Empire--yet.

In the same year that Martin died, the Arabs won a naval victory at the so-called Battle of the Masts, which shattered the Empire's control of the eastern Mediterranean. This victory wasn't followed up right away, but it got Constans thinking that he ought to check out what assets he still had in the West. In 661 he became the first eastern emperor to visit the West in more than two hundred years. Before leaving, he had his younger brother Theodosius murdered, fearing that he would try to usurp the throne in his absence; this caused crowds in Constantinople to shout "Cain! Cain!" wherever he went. In Italy, he led a brief campaign against the Lombard duke of Benevento, which captured a few towns, only to end in defeat. From there Constans went to Naples and then on to Rome, where he stayed for twelve days. He got along well with Pope Vitalian, and together they took part in several ceremonies, but his troops saw the visit as an excuse for looting, and when he gave the order, they stripped the ruins of Rome of statues, metal ornaments, and even metal roofs--anything made of copper or bronze that could be melted down into something the emperor might find more useful. It was loaded on ships bound for Constantinople, but unfortunately for him, Arab pirates captured the ships when they went to sea, and they sold the metal in Egypt. After Rome, Constans conducted more looting in Calabria and Sardinia, and crossed over to Sicily in 664, where he spent the rest of his reign. When he announced that he would move the Empire's capital from Constantinople to Syracuse, he got the same bad reaction that Heraclius got when he suggested that he would move the capital. Again the opponents of the plan had their way, and this time one of them resorted to violence; in 668, while Constans was taking a bath, a servant knocked him on the head with the vase he was pouring water from, and left the emperor in the tub to drown. He was succeeded by his son Constantine IV (668-685), who had no wish to hold his court anywhere but Constantinople.

But Constantine probably wouldn't have been able to abandon the capital if he wanted to; the Arab fleet had it under siege from 673 to 677. Constantinople was saved by a devastating new weapon on the Byzantine ships, a primitive flamethrower called “Greek fire,”(27), which incinerated the Arab attackers. The surviving Arabs could not break through the city's formidable defenses, and after going through a rough winter, they were forced to withdraw. After that was done, Constantine took care of some old business by convening the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681, also called the Third Council of Constantinople). This reaffirmed the Orthodox doctrines established at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, did away with Monotheletism by declaring it a heresy, and posthumously rehabilitated Pope Martin I, by declaring his excommunication from the Church invalid.

Meanwhile, the Empire got a new enemy--the Bulgars. The Bulgars had just lost their home in south Russia to another nomadic tribe, the Khazars. One Bulgar prince, Asparukh, took his followers west, crossed the lower Danube in 679, and settled the ancient province of Moesia. The Byzantines tried to stop him, were defeated twice, and in 681 they recognized Bulgaria's independence. The area occupied by the Bulgars contained seven Slavic tribes and the ancient Thracians, so these ethnic groups intermarried, becoming today’s Bulgarians, and the Bulgars learned the language of the Slavs.

Constantine IV was succeeded by his son, Justinian II, in 685. He started out by striking at the Arabs in Armenia, but because the eastern provinces were otherwise at peace, he soon changed his mind, and concentrated his efforts on recovering the Balkans from the Slavs and Bulgars. By transferring cavalry units from Asia Minor to Europe, he was able to launch a campaign in 688 that cleared a path from Constantinople to Thessalonica, the Empire's second most important European city, and ended a siege of the latter. He returned to Asia Minor with 30,000 newly recruited Slavic troops, but after they won another battle in Armenia, the Arabs bribed them to revolt, and by the time Justinian put down that rebellion, the Arabs had conquered Armenia again.

At home, Justinian II ruthlessly persecuted anyone who didn't follow the Orthodox doctrine, especially Manicheans. That, and the way he extorted money to finance his lavish building projects, offended most of his subjects, and when Leontius, the general commanding the theme of Greece, revolted, the Patriarch and the "Blue" faction from the Hippodrome gave their support. Justinian was deposed, his nose was cut off, his tongue was split, and he was exiled to the Black Sea port of Cherson. Leontius, however, only lasted three years (695-698), before he lost the throne and his nose to another revolting general, Tiberius III.

Tiberius feared that Justinian would make a comeback, despite his disfigurements, so he tried to arrest him and bring him back to Constantinople. Justinian acted first, escaping to the Khazar kingdom. The Khazars, who were just starting to get civilized at this point, were delighted to make friends with a former emperor, and Busir Glavan, the Khazar khagan, gave him his sister for a wife and a home to live in. He could not stay there for long, though. Soon Busir was offered a bribe by Tiberius to kill Justinian, and dispatched two Khazar officials, Papatzys and Balgitzin, to get rid of him; Justinian was warned of the plot by his wife, and strangled the two hit men with his own hands. Then Justinian sailed with his followers to Bulgaria, and the Bulgar chief Tervel (Asparukh's successor, 701-718) gave him more support, in exchange for a land concession, the rank of caesar and a crown to go with it, and the hand of Justinian's daughter in marriage. In 705, Justinian appeared outside Constantinople with 15,000 Bulgars. Finding the walls still too tough to breach, he got in by sneaking through an unused water conduit, and used supporters inside the city to seize power in a coup d'etat. For his part in the reinstatement, Tervel was awarded the title of Caesar.

By this time Justinian II had gotten a golden nose to wear in place of his real nose, which he felt made him eligible to be the emperor again. Unfortunately, his second reign proved to be just as tyrannical as the first; he devoted much of it to getting revenge. Instead of mutilating his opponents, he simply killed them; both Leontius and Tiberius were among the first to go. Even men of the Church were not safe; the Patriarch of Constantinople was removed from office and blinded for his part in the conspiracy that ended Justinian's first reign. One of the opponents he exiled, a general named Bardanes, launched yet another revolt in 711. Justinian was on his way to Armenia, trying to rally support for his cause, when Constantinople went over to Bardanes; he was arrested when he tried to return. By now the Byzantines realized that it takes more than mutilating an unwanted man's nose and tongue to keep him out of power, so they followed Justinian's example and executed him. His six-year-old son Tiberius was also killed outright, and that ended the dynasty of Heraclius.

As emperor, Bardanes changed his name to Philippicus. By this time the “theme” system of organization had shown its worth, but it had one serious drawback; a general commanding an army and the resources of half a dozen provinces was much more powerful than a provincial governor. In fact the commander of a theme could defy the emperor himself. When more than one theme commander got this idea they began to fight each other for the throne. On the frontier, Tervel used the change in emperors as an excuse to plunder all the way up to the walls of Constantinople, and when Philippicus diverted troops to the Balkans to deal with this, the Arabs raided Asia Minor as far as Galatia. His apparent incompetence encouraged a revolt from the army in Thrace; its officers deposed and blinded Philippicus, and an army bureaucrat was crowned Emperor Anastasius II. Anastasius (713-715) succeeded in driving back the Arabs, only to see the Thracian theme revolt again. This time he submitted to the army's new choice, a former tax collector named Theodosius III, and retired to a monastery.

Theodosius III made peace with the Bulgars, but didn't last long enough to accomplish anything else. In 717 the themes of Armenia and Anatolikon (eastern Asia Minor) marched on the capital. The general of Anatolikon, Leo the Isaurian, proclaimed himself emperor when he arrived. Theodosius and his son went out peacefully, by abdicating and joining the clergy; Anastasius II tried to make a comeback, but was captured and put to death on Leo's orders.

Before the year was over, Leo became eastern Europe's equivalent of Charles Martel. The Arabs made another try at Constantinople, sending a huge army through Asia Minor, and crossing the Hellespont to attack the capital from its European side; they were soon joined by another Arab fleet. Again Greek fire saved the day, and Leo showed he was a skilled diplomat by persuading the formerly hostile Bulgars to attack the demoralized Arabs. That ended the siege in 718; only half of the 80,000 Arab soldiers made it back to Damascus, and all but five of the 1,800 Arab ships were destroyed. This allowed Leo III (717-741) to become the founder of a new dynasty, which lasted for the rest of the century.

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Iconoclasm: Act I

Though Leo III and his dynasty were called "Isaurian," he was born in Syria and raised in northern Greece. He first got the emperor's attention in 705, when as a young shepherd, he contributed 500 sheep to feed and clothe the army in its campaign against the Bulgars. Justinian II saw in Leo a man who could be useful, and offered him a job in the Imperial Guard. Once in the army, Leo rose rapidly through the ranks, until just twelve years later he got his chance to go for the throne.

Stability returned under Leo III because he divided up the themes, to keep other generals from following his example. The first theme to go was his own, the Anatolikon. Leo removed the Thracian units that had been stationed in the theme and put them under a separate command, which he called the Thracesion theme to distinguish it from the existing theme of Thrace. Next the theme of the Guard was broken up into three regiments: the Opsikion, Brucellarion and Optimation. By 950 the four themes in Asia Minor had become fourteen and were too small to be dangerous to either friend or enemy.

Near the end of the seventh century, Justinian II sent Pope Sergius I a list of 102 new rules for the Church, and Sergius rejected the rules because several worked against his interests, like priestly marriages (Constantinople allowed them but the popes opposed them). The offended emperor then sent an official to arrest the pope, but the imperial armies in Rome and Ravenna sided with the pope instead; the frightened official was found hiding under the pontiff's bed, until Sergius himself allowed him to escape. Another pope, Constantine, felt the need to go to Constantinople in 710, to show he would comply with Justinian's demands, but he was the last pope to toe the imperial line; indeed, no pope after him would visit Constantinople again, until Pope Paul VI went there in 1967. Most of the emperors after Justinian II did not try to impose their will on Rome either, so gradually the popes realized that, without having to do much on their own, they had achieved political independence. The situation as it now stood was that both the Empire and the Papacy claimed to be the ultimate authority over all Christians, but neither could enforce it. In such a situation, the Church could only remain united as long as Rome and Constantinople were in agreement.

Soon they found something to cause a break between them--the iconoclastic (image-breaking) decrees of Emperor Leo III. This emperor had lived his early years on the Empire's Syrian frontier, spoke Arabic, and thus understood the Islamic mentality. He was shamed by the image-hating and monotheistic Moslems, and thought that their success was God’s punishment for the errors of Christians. The biggest error of all was the use of images in the churches, which over the centuries had become so numerous and so venerated that to outsiders they must have resembled idols. Also keep in mind that many Christians in the Empire's eastern provinces were Monophysites, and because they considered it important to emphasize the divine nature of Jesus, any attempt to show Jesus as a man looked sinful to them. Across the frontier, the Arab caliph Yezid II had recently ordered the destruction of all pictures, sculptures and mosaics representing Jesus, Mary, and the Christian saints. Instead of protesting this vandalism of Church property, Leo decided to do likewise, ordering the destruction of Byzantium's images in 727. He had the support of the army, because many of its members were from the eastern provinces; the governmental bureaucracy also supported him because it wanted to curb the growing power of the Church.

The use of icons had grown with few checks because Christianity had never made it clear whether it was all right to make images of holy subjects. Judaism and Islam had prohibited images--for them images were a violation of the Second Commandment--while most other religions encouraged the use of images. Christianity was vague because icons weren't an issue in the first century, when the New Testament was being written. Most Christians before 100 A.D. were Jewish converts, and naturally they weren't inclined to make pictures of God. When images did appear, presumably it was because the Church had become predominantly Gentile, and ex-pagans had fewer hang-ups concerning them. In the time of Leo III, icons were a common sight in Christian cities; it was a rare procession that did not feature some icons, and many Christians had become very attached to them, claiming that their icons had the power to work miracles. Icons were adored to the point that they might even take the place of godparents at a baptism.

Leo preached against icons at first, and when that didn't work, he ordered that the whole Empire get rid of them. That was easier said than done. Leo decided to begin by taking down the most prominent icon in the capital, the icon of Christ over the main gate to the palace, and replacing it with a simple cross. He sent an official with a ladder to carry out this task, and an angry mob of women pulled him down and murdered him. Then whole sections of the empire revolted. The Patriarch of Constantinople resigned rather than obey an iconoclastic decree, so Leo replaced him with a Church leader who favored his own views.

The result was that the West (where images were not as common, so iconoclasm was not understood) and the East (where images were excessively adored) joined together in opposition to the emperor and his Patriarch. The pope denounced iconoclasm, excommunicated Leo III, and put the icons under papal protection, but his scheme to gain control over the eastern Church backfired. The autocracy in the East was strong enough to carry out the iconoclastic decrees in spite of all opposition. To deal with the pope, the emperor sent a conquering fleet to Italy, but it was shipwrecked in the Adriatic Sea. However, he could still retaliate through the bureaucracy; he transferred Sicily, the south Italian districts (which were still under Byzantine rule), and the western Balkans from Roman rule to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Central Italy remained solidly on the pope's side in the controversy, but in the confusion, the Lombards overran all of central Italy except for Venice and the area around Rome. The pope allied himself with the Venetians and declared he would win back central Italy “for the Empire,” but he would retain control over it until iconoclasm was renounced and Papal primacy was accepted. This did not work as planned, because he didn't have the men to defeat the Lombards. Soon it was obvious that the pope's bid to lead the whole Church had failed; with the eastern Church firmly under Byzantine control the pope was left as the temporal lord of a state too small to stand on its own in a Lombard environment. When the Lombards threatened the pope again, he would appeal to the Franks, instead of to the emperor, to come to the rescue.

In size of the area it encompassed, Christianity reached a low point in the early eighth century, having lost more than half of the territories containing Christians to Islam, and much of eastern Europe to expanding pagan tribes (e.g., Avars, Slavs and Bulgars). All that was left to Christendom were the British Isles, France, Switzerland, part of Germany, Italy, Thrace, Asia Minor, Nubia, Ethiopia, and some coastal enclaves in Greece and Dalmatia. Internal unity was restored by the elimination of Arianism and Monophysitism in the seventh century, but just a few decades later came the east-west split caused by the iconoclastic controversy. By conquest or conversion, Christianity was brought to the Thuringians, Bavarians, Picts, and Anglo-Saxons in Europe, and to the Nubians in Africa. Still, these were small gains to set against the loss of North Africa, Spain, most of the Middle East, and most of the Balkans.

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Population in the Dark Ages

The term Dark Ages is commonly used to describe European history between 400 and 1000 A.D. We call it that because darkness of the mind had the West in its grip. By modern standards, Constantinople was the only place left that qualified as a city. I have mentioned in other history papers that the most important ingredient for civilization is an urban community. Therefore, Constantinople may have been Western civilization's first line of defense when the forces of Islam attacked Europe, but the truth of the matter is that in the seventh and the early eighth century, Constantinople was Western civilization.

Across the rest of Europe, literacy disappeared, except among the clergy; many places did not bother to keep the records historians need. As the European's horizon shrank, superstition increased. For that reason we know much less about this period than we do about the periods before and after, and we often feel we have more in common with the classical Greeks and Romans than we do with their feudal successors.

Those who study tangible objects also have very little to go on. Museums have practically nothing from this period except weapons and jewelry. As for architecture, there's hardly any standing today. All of this points to a society less literate and less orderly than it had been in Roman times. And the fact that it left so little behind tells us that for everyone except the bullies in charge, it must have been an awful time.

Because no government in the West regularly counted its people, our population figures for this era are sketchy. Currently we estimate the Roman Empire had 45 million people in its heyday, the second century A.D. Thereafter the population declined slowly; by 400 the Empire probably had 36 million subjects, a 20% drop. This fall did not cause the subsequent collapse of the Western Empire, for the Romans still outnumbered their German opponents by at least two to one, but it certainly made defending the realm tougher. The Empire needed farmers and slaves, and the loss of both forced it to operate on a smaller budget, at a time when inflation and corruption made everything cost more.

This contraction continued for some time after Rome fell. Between 400 and 600, population dropped another 25%, bringing the Mediterranean world down to 27 million. As farmers abandoned their land, it became harder to feed those people remaining, encouraging them to move away. In the west there weren't enough German immigrants to offset the population losses; in the east and in North Africa nomads poured across the border, declaring a dramatic triumph for the pastoral way of life.

It now appears that the whole world was affected by a change of climate, a temporary cooling like the "Little Ice Age" of the fourteenth century (see Chapter 9). Dendrochronology, the study of tree-ring data, reveals to us a long period of bad weather in the sixth century, starting in 535 A.D. There was near-zero tree growth for twenty years in Britain and North America, and a thirty-year-long drought in Mexico, to give a few examples. The cause of all this is the part that's not clear; the most likely candidate is a Krakatoa-style volcanic eruption in Southeast Asia. Eruptions in the modern era of Mt. Tambor (1815), Krakatoa (1883), and Mt. Pinatubo (1991) all caused short-term climate changes, and if a really big volcano in this part of the world blew its top, like Sumatra's Mt. Toba, it would spew so much ash into the atmosphere that we'd never have to worry about global warming again! Other possibilities for a climate change include a large meteor strike--a so-called "dinosaur-killer"--or several occurrences of the "El Nino" effect. In all cases, the world would get a little cooler, and the length of the growing season would shrink, reducing crop yields.(28)

The result of all this would be a worldwide economic and demographic slowdown. Our estimates for world population give us a figure of 205 million in 400 A.D., and 235 million in 1000--a 15% increase. In the previous 600 years the increase had been nearly 100% and it would be 100% in the following 600 years. Nowadays we are worried about too many people, and rightly so--for us a 100% increase takes less than 60 years, not 600. But at a time when many areas of the world were empty and its resources were not efficiently used, a static population meant that life was too short and that civilization could not solve its social, economic and technological problems.

The term "Dark Ages" does not work as well with non-European civilizations, because most of them bounced back sooner. For both the Arabs and the Chinese, the slump ended soon after 600 A.D.; today their descendants regard the seventh century as the beginning of a golden age. It's a similar story in the New World, where the Maya civilization peaked in the seventh century. We even see a curious upswing in Scandinavia; though the ancestors of the Vikings lived in an area where the climate was never very pleasant, their population began to grow while other European communities were still shrinking. One place that had a dark age lasting as long as Europe's was India; there the collapse of the Gupta Empire in the fifth century was followed by several hundred years of turmoil, in which legends replace historical records and kingdoms rose and fell that were even less stable than their counterparts in western Europe.

Disease epidemics also worked to make life more difficult. In other times and places, bad epidemics have reduced a community's population by at least a third; it happened in all of Europe with the Black Death in the fourteenth century, and in Ireland with the Potato Famine in the nineteenth century. We know that a plague hit China around 160 A.D., spread to Rome twenty years later, and caused a series of aftershocks until 250. Earlier in this chapter we also took note of "Justinian's plague," which first struck in 541, and hit again in each generation until 750. Although these plagues could have done the demographic damage we see, it took Europe an unusually long time--seven to eight hundred years--to get its population back up to Roman levels. Compare this with the 150 years Europe needed to recover from the Black Death. If epidemics are the main culprit behind the Dark Ages, they didn't work alone.

This is the End of Chapter 6.


17. The clergymen of the Dark Ages who remained faithful to their teachings had their work cut out for them, because many kings, like Clovis, did not think they had to change their rowdy lifestyle--they figured that baptism would remove all previous sins. For example, St. Eloi served as mentor for the Frankish king Dagobert I, who insisted on keeping all three of his wives and a dozen concubines. To atone for future sins, the kings made generous contributions to churches and monasteries. In Dagobert's case it worked; he was canonized immediately after his death.

18. “Some of them had taken to eating frogs and snails and were gradually turning into Frenchmen, a fact not generally known at the time since there were no French as yet.”--Will Cuppy. From The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1950, pp. 79-80.
In Aquitaine, Latin became Occitan; in Burgundy it became ProvenÁal.

19. Pepin's other titles were Pepin the Middle, Pepin the Fat, and Pepin the Younger.

20. Ethelfrith was allied with Ethelbert of Kent. Together at Bangor they carried out a bloody massacre of 1,200 British monks who refused to submit to the pope (604); that is why records on British history before the seventh century are so hard to come by. Had those monks survived, we might know the truth about King Arthur, for example.

21. The West Saxons had conquered most of the kingdom of Devon by 720 but they did not occupy the Cornwall peninsula until 838. To the east they conquered the Isle of Wight by 685. This made them the strongest kingdom after 800.

22. These figures are approximate, as all must be before the modern era. Rome hit bottom in the mid-sixth century; changing hands five times during the war between Justinian and the Ostrogoths, most of the population was either killed or driven away. According to Procopius, there were only five hundred residents left in Rome in the late 540s. Since the former imperial capital had held a population of 150,000 as recently as the early fifth century, this means that the few remaining inhabitants were surrounded by an awesome number of ruins. Because the aqueducts no longer worked, and nobody was maintaining the canals or embankments along the Tiber River, malarial swamps formed inside the city walls, and floods caused the ancient apartment buildings (insulae) to come crashing down. One noble converted the Colosseum into his personal fortress, while another did the same with Hadrian’s tomb. The Pantheon survived because the popes converted it into a church.
Pope Gregory I gets the credit for attracting enough church-related business to start the city's recovery, but it was a very slow process; by 1000 A.D., there were probably no more than 15,000 residents. Because Rome still counted as more than a town at this point, it shows how far the rest of western Europe had sunk.

23. The papyrus monopoly wasn’t the money-maker it used to be, because papyrus was no longer the most convenient writing material available. Since the third century, the parchment codex or book had been steadily replacing the papyrus scroll.

Medieval Helpdesk: In this funny Norwegian language video, a monk gets help to use his first book!

24. According to Gibbon, two Persian Christians smuggled silkworms to the West by concealing their eggs in a hollow cane. They gave the secret to Justinian rather than to their own king because Christians were still persecuted in Persia at that time.

25. India also exported a logwood dye.

26. At first Western scholars and writers continued to use the Roman calendar, which counts years from 753 B.C., the traditional date of the founding of Rome. In 525 Pope John I introduced the calendar we are familiar with, which marks years as either B.C. (before Christ) or A.D. (from the Latin Anno Domini, meaning "Our year of the Lord"). It was popularized by the Venerable Bede, the foremost scholar of seventh-century England, who used it in all his works. Few historians today believe that 1 A.D. is the correct date for the birth of Jesus; the pope picked it through some obscure reasoning that had to do with the date of Easter. It now appears that 4 B.C. or even 6 B.C. is more likely, since the principal villain of the Christmas story, King Herod, died in 4 B.C.. Correcting the year number would mean changing just about every book that has been written since Bede's time, so it is too late to fix the calendar now.

27. The main ingredient for Greek fire was petroleum, which merchants could collect from surface pools in places like Azerbaijan. It was too flammable to transport by land--a wagonload of the stuff ran the risk of exploding when it hit a bump--so it became strictly a naval weapon. Soon those handling Greek fire decided it was dangerous to even transport it across rough seas; this is why we only hear about it used to defend Constantinople. To deliver it to the target, Greek fire was squirted out of a bellows-like device, located in the forecastle of each galley. Since the exact recipe was a military secret, we don't have it today; they may have added calcium phosphide to the oil to make it ignite. Calcium phosphide can be made by heating a mixture of lime, bones, and urine.

Greek fire thumbnail.
Greek fire in action. Click on the thumbnail to open the picture full size (346 KB) in a new tab.

28. According to Michael McCormick, a medieval historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, the worst year to be alive in was 536, because we now know that it was the beginning of the coldest decade in 2,300 years, and we have records from the time reporting widespread crop failures in Europe. As he put it, "It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year."

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