The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1867-1918 by John W. Mason (1985)

This is another very short book, one of the popular Seminar Studies in History series. These all follow the same layout: 100 or so pages of text divided up into brisk, logical chapters, followed by a short Assessment section, and then a small selection of original source documents from the period.  It’s a very useful format for school or college students to give you a quick, punchy overview of a historical issue.

This one opens by summarising the central challenge faced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it entered the twentieth century: how to take forward a fragmented, multi-cultural empire based on traditional dynastic and semi-feudal personal ties into the age of nationalism and democracy where every individual was, in theory at least, a citizen, equal before the law.

On page one Mason locates four key failures of late imperial governance:

  1. the failure to solve the Czech-German conflict in the 1880s and 1890s
  2. the failure to develop a genuine parliamentary government in the late 1890s
  3. failure to solve the Austro-Hungarian conflict in the early 1900s
  4. failure to solve the South Slav conflict in the decade before World War One

PART ONE The background

1. The Hapsburg Monarchy in European History

The Hapsburg monarchy lasted 640 years from 1278 to 1918. It was a dynastic creation, never attached to a specific country. In 1867 (following Hungary’s defeat to Prussia in the war of 1866) the state was organised into the so-called Dual Monarchy, with the Hapsburg ruler titled the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary. This gave Hungary more autonomy and respect than it had previously had.

The name ‘Hapsburg’ derives from Habichtsburg meaning ‘Castle of the Hawks’, located in what is now the Swiss canton of Aargau. During the eleventh century the knights from this castle extended their power to build up a position of growing influence in south Germany.

Meanwhile, the eastern March – the Oster Reich – of Charlemagne’s massive empire was granted to the Babenberg family in the tenth century and they held it for the next 300 years.

In 1273 the electors of the Holy Roman Empire elected Rudolf of Hapsburg to the office of Holy Roman Emperor. In the 14th century the Hapsburgs acquired Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Istria and Trieste to their domain. In the 15th another Hapsburg was elected emperor and from 1438 till the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806 the Crown remained almost continuously in their house.

When King Louis II of Bohemia and Hungary died without issue in 1526, both his crowns passed to the Hapsburgs. This marked a turning point because up till then all Hapsburg land had been German-speaking. Now the Hapsburg administration had to take account of various non-German nations with their own independent histories.

This leads to a Big Historical Idea: just as the countries of the West were beginning to develop the idea of the nation state, central Europe was going down a different path, towards a multi-national empire.

Even more decisive was the role the Hapsburgs played in defending Europe from the Turks. Twice, in 1529 and 1683, the Turks laid siege to Vienna, a very under-reported and under-appreciated part of European history.

The Turkish threat had effectively been repulsed by the start of the 18th century and the Hapsburgs embarked on their new role in Europe which was to act as a counterweight to ambitious France, starting with the War of Spanish Succession (1702-14).

The long rule of the Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) saw her undertake reform and centralisation of the administration. But her power in central Europe was challenged by Hohenzollern Prussia under Frederick the Great (1740-86). During this period, Poland was partitioned and Austria was given from it the southern province of Galicia, which she retained right up till the end of the Great War.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815) unleashed the ideas of nationalism and democracy across Europe, both of which struck at the heart of the multi-ethnic and hierarchical structure of the Empire.

Under Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, Austria had arguably been part of the continent-wide movement of reform associated with the Enlightenment, take for example their legislation to remove many of the restrictions placed on the Jewish population.

But the twin forces of nationalism and democracy were such a threat to a multinational polity that from this point onwards the Hapsburgs and the empire they led, became a reactionary force, embodied in the machinations of their legendary Foreign Minister, Klemens von Metternich (foreign minister from 1809 to 1848).

In 1848 revolutions took place all across Europe, with no fewer than five in capitals controlled by the dynasty – in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Croatia and in northern Italy (territory which the Hapsburgs had seized after the defeat of Napoleon). Hapsburg forces put down the revolutions in four of the locations, but it required the intervention of the Russian army to defeat the revolutionary Hungarian forces. The Magyars never forgot this bitter defeat.

In the Crimean War (1853-6) Austria kept neutral from both sides (Britain & France versus Russia) which weakened her role in Europe. In 1859 France supported the desire for independence of Piedmont, the north Italian state ruled by the Hapsburgs since the defeat of Napoleon, and hammered the Austrians at the Battles of Magenta and Solferino. In response the Hapsburgs introduced some administrative reforms, but in 1866 lost another war, this time against Prussia under Bismarck, decided at the Battle of Sadowa.

Seriously weakened, and now definitely deprived of all influence in a Germany unified under Prussian rule, the Emperor’s politicians were compelled to bolster the Empire’s authority be devising a new agreement with the large Kingdom of Hungary to the East.

2. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise

Hence the Compromise or Ausgleich of 1867 which recognised the sovereign equality of two states, Austria and Hungary, bringing them under the rule of one man, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. The dual monarchy wasn’t the same as a federation, constitutionally it was unique. But it bolstered the Hapsburgs a) territory b) manpower. Crucially it provided a bulwark against the Slavs in the Balkans, quelling pan-Slavic sentiment.

The drawback of the Compromise was that it was essentially a personal agreement between the Emperor Franz Josef and the Magyar ruling class. Even liberal and progressive German-speaking Austrians felt left out, and that’s before you consider the numerous other nationalities contained within the empire.

PART TWO Domestic affairs

3. The Nationality Questions

The Treaty of Versailles entrenched the idea of national self-determination preached by American President Woodrow Wilson, and resulted in the break-up of the empire into a host of new nation states based on ethnicity. Viewed from this angle, it looks as though the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foredoomed to collapse. But all the histories I’ve read there was no such inevitability. This one wants to scotch two assumptions –

  1. that all the nationalities thought they’d be better off outside the empire (many realised they wouldn’t)
  2. that all the nationalities were ‘at war’ with imperial authorities; many weren’t, they were in much sharper conflict with each other

In the West the state and the nation were closely aligned; but in the East you can see how they are in fact distinct ideas. The state is an administrative unit and in Central and Eastern Europe was based on ancient rights and privileges of rulers, often going back to medieval origins.

From the mid-nineteenth century these traditional ideas were challenged by a concept of ‘nation’ based on ethnicity, culture and language. Otto Bauer the Austrian Marxist made a famous categorisation of the peoples of the empire into ‘historic’ nations, those which had an aristocracy and bourgeoisie and an independent national history;

  • Germans
  • Magyars
  • Poles
  • Italians
  • Croats

and those who don’t:

  • Czechs
  • Serbs
  • Slovaks
  • Slovenes
  • Ruthenians
  • Romanians

Most modern commentators include the Czechs in the list of ‘historic’ nations.

The Germans

In the western half of the empire the Germans made up 10 million or 35% of the population of 28 million. Nonetheless the administration was thoroughly German in character. The official language of the empire was German. The great majority of the civil servants were German, 78% of the officers in the army were German. The cultural life of Vienna, the capitalist class and the press were overwhelmingly German. Three political parties dominated from 1880 onwards, which adopted the three logical policies:

  1. The Pan-Germans looked beyond Austria to a nationalist union of all German peoples under Bismarcks Prussia
  2. The Christian Socialist Party under Karl Lueger aimed to unite all the nationalities under the dynasty
  3. The left-wing Social Democrats aimed to unite the working class of all the nationalities, thus dissolving the nationalities problem

The Czechs

Third largest ethnic group (after the Germans and Hungarians) with 6.5 million or 12% of the population. In Bohemia roughly two fifths of the people were German, three fifths Czech.The Czechs were the only one of the minorities which lived entirely within the borders of the empire, and some they were bitterly disappointed by the Compromise of 1867, which they thought should have recognised their identity and importance. Czech nationalists thought the deal left them at the mercy of German Austrians in the West and Hungarians in the East.

From the 1880s the struggle between Czech and German expressed itself in the issue of the official language taught in schools and used in the bureaucracy. The Czech population increased dramatically: Prague was an overwhelmingly German city in 1850 but 90% Czech by 1910. Germans found it harder to dismiss the Czechs as peasants Slavs, as Bohemia rapidly industrialised and became the economic powerhouse of the empire.

The Poles

The Poles were the fourth largest group, in 1910 4.9 million or 17.8% of the western part of the empire, most of them living in Galicia. Galicia was a) a province of Poland which had been obliterated from the map when it was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 18th century b) at the north-east fringe of the empire, beyond the Carpathian mountain range.

The Austrians needed the support of the Poles to make up a majority in the parliament in Vienna, and so made so many concessions to the Polish Conservative Party in Galicia that it enjoyed almost complete autonomy, with Polish recognised as the official  language, Polish universities and so on.

The Ruthenians

Only three fifths of the population of Galicia was Polish; the other two-fifths were Ruthenians. The Ruthenians belonged to the same ethnic group as the Ukrainians but were distinguished by adherence to the Latin/Greek Uniat church. The Ruthenians were the most socially backward group in the empire and very much under the thumb of the politically advanced Poles, responding by setting up a peasants’ party.

Conservative ‘Old Ruthenians’ gave way to ‘Young Ruthenians’ in the 1880s, who sought union with the 30 million Ukrainians living to their East. The more concessions the central government made to the Poles, the more it alienated the Ruthenians. After 1900 Ruthenians and Poles clashed over electoral or educational issues, sometimes violently.

The Slovenes

1.25 million or 4.4 per cent of the population of the Austrian half of the empire, the Slovenes were scattered over half a dozen Crownlands, and lacked even a written literature in their own land. Even mild efforts at nationalism, such as setting up a Slovene-speaking school, were fiercely opposed by the German majorities in their regions.

The Italians

770,000, the smallest national group in the empire, with Italian-speaking areas in the Tyrol and along the Adriatic coast, which had quite different concerns. In the Tyrol the Italians fought against the dominance of the Germans. Along the Adriatic they were a privileged minority among a Slav majority.

In May 1915 Italy betrayed its treaty promises to Germany and Austria-Hungary and joined the Allies because Britain and France promised Italy possession of the Tyrol and the Adriatic Littoral (and money).

The Magyars

10 million Magyars formed 48% of the population of Hungary. The Magyars dominated the country, owning, for example 97% of joint stock companies. It was dominated by ‘Magyarisation’ meaning fierce determination of the magyar ruling class to impose uniformity of language across the territory. If minorities like Romanians or Slovenes agreed to teach their children Hungarian and support Magyar rule, they could become citizens; otherwise they were subject to fierce discrimination. The Magyars didn’t want to exterminate the minorities, but assimilate them into oblivion.

Budapest was three quarters German in 1848 and three quarters German in 1910. Mason tells us that all attempts to reform the Dual Monarchy ultimately foundered on Hungary’s refusal to abandon its unbending policy of Magyarisation.

The Romanians

The largest non-Magyar group in Hungary, about 3 million, their aspirations were ignored in the 1867 Compromise, and the Hungarians’ intransigent policy of Magyarisation drove more and more to think about joining the independent Kingdom of Romania, just across the border from Hungarian Transylvania, and the forming of a National Party in 1881, which slowly poisoned Austria’s relations with Romania.

The Slovaks

The Slovaks were the weakest and least privileged group in the Hapsburg Monarchy, 9% of the population, a peasant people who had lived under Magyar domination for a thousand years. The 1867 Compromise made the Czechs and Croats second class citizens but condemned the Slovaks to cultural eradication. From the 1890s they started co-operating with the Czechs and slowly the idea of a combined Czech and Slovak nation evolved.

The Croats

9% of the population of Hungary. They had a national history and a strong aristocracy and considered themselves in direct touch with the Hapsburg monarchy. By an 1868 compromise Croatia received autonomy within the Hungarian state, but the head of the Croat state was imposed by the Hungarian government and the rule of Count Khuen-Héderváry was so repressive that Croatia became the seat of a movement to unite all the empire’s South Slavs.

The Serbs

About 2 million Serbs lived in the empire, divided between Dalmatia, Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They didn’t have an independent national history until 1878 when the Congress of Berlin created a small state of Serbia independent of the Ottoman Empire, from which point every perceived injustice against the Serbs prompted calls for a pan-Slave movement, and/or for a Greater Serbia. The biggest incident on the road to collapse was the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the majority of whose population were Serbs.

The Jews

The Jews made up about 5% of the population in both Austria and Hungary. From 1850 Jews moved in large numbers into Lower Austria, overwhelmingly from poor rural Galicia (Poland), a large number of them migrating to Vienna, where they came to dominate cultural activity out of proportion to their numbers.

The Jews became so prominent in the Hungarian capital that some called it Judapest. The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus joked that ‘the Jews control the press, they control the stock market, and now [with the advent of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis] they control the unconscious’.

The success of Jews in business and the stock market and banking created an association between ‘Jew’ and ‘capitalist’ which complicated class conflict and led to an easy demonisation of the Jews as responsible for much of the exploitation, low wages and fat profits of capitalism.

4. The economy

The Hapsburg Empire was behind Germany, France and Britain in industrialisation. It didn’t have large stocks of coal, it had no large ports, parts of it (like Galicia) were split off from the empire by high mountains; the great Hungarian Plain was designed for agriculture not industry.

It was a predominantly agricultural economy: in 1910 agriculture made up 50% of the Austrian economy, two-thirds of the Hungarian. Most of the trade was between Hapsburg regions and nations; the 1867 Compromise established a free trade area throughout the empire.  Only a small percentage of GDP came from exports.

In Hungary serfdom was only abolished in 1848. For most of the period, Hungary was characterised by Magyar landlords, sometimes with very extensive holdings, lording it over illiterate peasants of the various nationalities. That’s one reason why nationalist grievances became mixed up in economic ones. Only in the decade before the war did Hungary begin to industrialise.

Industrialisation was funded by banks which remained firmly in German and Hungarian hands. The industrial heartland of the empire was the Czech Crownlands (Bohemia and Moravia) which developed a strong textiles industry and then iron and steel, metallurgy and engineering. This became another source of tension between Czechs and Germans, because many of the industries remained in the hands of German managers, backed by German hands.

(Remember the passage in Ernst Pawel’s biography describing the end of the Great War, the declaration of independence, and the way the new Czech government immediately a) renamed all its businesses and industries in Czech and b) undertook a wholesale replacement of all German bureaucrats and business men with Czech replacements.)

The late 1860s saw a mounting fever of speculation which led to a stock market crash in 1873 and a prolonged depression afterwards. This led to low growth, and poverty among the urban proletariat and among rural peasants, which led to the rise of nationalist and populist parties.

5. The politics of Dualism

The Austrian (i.e. German-speaking) Liberal Party ruled after the 1867 Compromise. But that compromise had alienated the Czechs whose MPs didn’t even attend the parliament. But it was the massive financial crash of 1873 which ruined the Liberal Party, associated as it was with business and the banks.

In 1871 there was an attempt by the conservative aristocrat Count Hohenwart to reform the monarchy and turn it into a federation, who drafted some ‘Fundamental Articles’ which were intended to give the Czechs parity with the Hungarians, but this was fiercely opposed by the Hungarian prime minister, Count Andrássy. The Czechs never trusted the dynasty after that, and boycotted the Vienna parliament.

In 1879 Franz Joseph asked his boyhood friend Count Taaffe to form a new government and Taaffe went on to govern till 1893, passing a series of reforms which echoed those of Bismarck in Germany, such as extending the franchise, workers health and accident insurance, limiting the working day to 11 hours etc.

But when he tried to tackle the German-Czech issue by breaking up Czech provinces into smaller units based along ethnic lines, his plans were scuppered by the Poles, the Clericals and the Feudals, and the German Liberals and he was forced to resign. Over the next twenty years three parties emerged:

The Social Democrats

This left-wing party emerged from the trade union movement in 1889 and its soft Marxist outlook focused on economic and social reform cut across ethnic lines and so was a force for keeping the empire together. At the Brünner Conference of 1899 they called for the transformation of the empire into a democratic federation of nationalities.

The Christian Socials

Founded in 1890 by the phenomenally popular Karl Lueger who became mayor of Vienna 1897-1910, based around a devout Catholicism which linked democratic concern for ‘the small man’, responsible social reform, anti-semitism and loyalty to the dynasty. Turning artisans and small shopkeepers into a strong anti-socialist, anti-capitalist, pro-Hapsburg bloc.

The Pan-Germans

The extreme anti-semitic Pan-German Party founded by Georg von Schönerer. Starting as a liberal he grew disenchanted and wanted a) to separate out the German-speaking areas from their Slav populations and b) unite with the Reich. In 1884 he led a battle to nationalise the Nordbahm railway which had been financed by the Rothschilds. He failed, but gained wide support for presenting the plan as a battle of the Jews versus the people. Although small in numbers, the Pan-Germans spread vicious racist ideas and their supporters were prone to violence.

The end of parliamentary governance

The next government of Alfred III, Prince of Windisch-Grätz, was brought down after two years because it agreed to allow a German secondary school in southern Styria to have parallel lessons in Slovene at which point the German National Party rejected it, voted against it, and brought down the government.

The next government was led by a Pole, Count Kasimir Felix Badeni. In 1897 he tried to settle the perpetual conflict between Czechs and Germans by moving a law that said that from 1901 no official should be employed in Bohemia or Moravia who wasn’t fluent in German and Czech. Since most Czechs spoke German, this was no problem for them, but hardly any Germans spoke Czech and there was uproar in parliament, with all kinds of tactics used to stall the passage of the bill, riots broke out on the streets of Vienna and then Prague. Franz Joseph was forced to accept Badeni’s resignation, and the Vienna parliament never had the same prestige or power again.

It couldn’t function properly and legislation was from 1897 passed only by emergency decree via Article 14 of the constitution. Government was no longer carried out by politicians and ministers but by civil servants. The Germans and the Czechs continued to obstruct parliament

Several more ministries tried and failed to solve the nationalities problem, while the emperor accepted advice that extending the franchise to the working class might help create a mood of social solidarity. So a bill was passed in 1907 giving the vote to all men over 24. But it was irrelevant. By this stage parliament didn’t govern the empire, bureaucrats did. Extending the franchise brought in a new wave of socialist parties, which combined with the nationality parties, to make governing impossible. During the parliament of 1911 no fewer than 30 parties blocked the passage of all constructive measures in parliament.

6. Vienna – Cultural centre of the Empire

Traditional liberal culture was based on the premise of rational man existing within as stable, civic social order. By the 1890s this society was beginning to disintegrate…

The political crisis in late nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary was caused by the bankruptcy of liberalism. The result was the sudden growth of a number of anti-liberal mass movements. In the cultural sphere the consequence of the breakdown of liberalism were no less dramatic…

Mason distinguishes three phases or artistic eras in this period:

1. The 1870s

In the 1870s students formed the Pernerstorfer Circle, seeking an alternative to liberalism, which they rejected and found inspiration in early Nietzsche, his writings about the imagination and the Dionysian spirit, leading to veneration of the music dramas of Wagner. The most famous member was the composer Gustav Mahler.

2. The 1890s – Young Vienna

Aestheticism and impressionism, focus on the fleeting moment, in-depth analysis of subjective psychology. A moment’s reflection shows how this is a rejection of rational citizens living in a stable social order, and instead prioritises the non-stop swirl of sense impressions. The leading writers of the Young Vienna literary movement were Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Arthur Schnitzler, with his frank depictions of the sex lives and moral hypocrisy of the Viennese bourgeoisie.

3. After 1900 – Kraus, Loos and Schoenberg

The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus published a fortnightly magazine, Die Fackel, in which he flayed all political parties and most of the writers of the day. He carried out a one-man crusade against loose writing, sentimentality and pomposity. Mason doesn’t mention something Ernst Pawl emphasises in his biography of Kafka, which is that plenty of Kraus’s journalism railed against the Jewish influence on German prose, criticising its importation of Yiddishisms and other impurities. It was this attitude which led Pawl to diagnose Kraus as a leading example of the ‘Jewish self-hatred’ of the period.

Adolf Loos was a radical architect who despised any ornament whatsoever. He designed a starkly modernist house which was built in 1910 opposite the imperial palace and was a harsh modernist critique of the wedding cake baroque style of the empire.

Arnold Schoenberg thought Western music had reached the end of the road, and devised an entirely new way of composing music based on giving each note in the scale an equal value i.e. leaving behind traditional notions of a home key or key tones, i.e. 500 years of tradition that a piece of music is composed in a certain key and will develop through a fairly predictable set of chords and other keys closely related to it. Schoenberg demolished all that. In his system all notes are equal and their deployment is based on mathematical principles. Hence his theory came to be known as ‘atonality’ or the ‘twelve tone’ system.

And looming behind these three was one of the most influential minds of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud, the conservative and urbane Jew who did more than almost anyone else to undermine the idea of the rational, citizen or the rational human being. In Freud’s theory most of the activity of the human mind is unconscious and consists of a seething mass of primitive drives and urges. For the early period, from his first formulation of psychoanalysis in 1895 through to the outbreak of the First World War, Freud concentrated on the sexual nature of many or most of these urges, and the psychic mechanisms by which human beings try to repress or control them (via psychological techniques such as displacement or repression).

But the experience of the Great War made Freud change his theory in recognition of the vast role he now thought was played by violence and a Death Drive, which matched and sometimes overcame the sex urge.

Whatever the changing details, Freud’s theory can be seen as just the most radical and drastic attack on the notion of the sensible, rational citizen which were widespread in this time, and at this place.

Leading not only Mason but countless other critics and commentators to speculate that there was something about the complexity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and something about the thoroughness with which it collapsed, which led to the creation of so many anti-liberal and radical ideologies.

All the art exhibitions I’ve ever been to tend to praise and adulate 1900s Vienna as a breeding ground of amazing experiments in the arts and sciences. Many of them praise the artistic radicalism of a Loos or Schoenberg or Egon Schiele as a slap in the face to boring old bourgeois morality and aesthetics.

Not so many dwell on the really big picture which is that all these artistic innovations were the result of a massive collapse of the idea of a liberal society inhabited by rational citizens and that, in the political sphere, this collapse gave rise to new types of political movement, anti-liberal movements of the extreme left and extreme right, to the Communism and Fascism which were to tear Europe apart, lead to tens of millions of deaths and murder and torture, and the partition of Europe for most of the twentieth century.

PART THREE Foreign affairs

7. The Dual Alliance

In international affairs the thirty-six years between the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the start of the Great War in 1914 were dominated by the Balkan Problem or the South Slav Question.

In the 1600s the Muslim Ottoman Empire had extended its reach right up to the walls of Vienna. The Ottomans were held off and pushed back so the border between Christendom and Islam hovered around south Hungary and Bulgaria. But the Balkans contained many ethnic groups and nationalities. Slowly, during the 19th century, Ottoman rule decayed causing two things to happen:

  1. individual ethnic groups or nations tried to assert their independence from the Ottoman Empire
  2. each time they did so tension flared up between Russia, who saw herself as protector of all the Slavs in the Balkans, and Austria-Hungary, who feared that the creation of a gaggle of independent states in the Balkans under Russian control would inflame her own minorities and undermine the empire

The Congress of Berlin was held in 1878 to try and adjudicate between the conflicting claims of Russia and Austria-Hungary, and the host of little countries who wanted independence from the Ottomans.

This section details the long history of the complex diplomatic policies adopted by successive foreign ministers of the empire, which all had more or less the same goal – to preserve the integrity and security of the empire – but changed in the light of changing events, such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, and so on through to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Young Turk revolution of 1908 which led to the Bosnian Crisis of the same year, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

What’s striking or piquant is that the three autocracies – Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia – had a really profound interest in maintaining their semi-feudal reactionary regimes, and this was highlighted by the fact that they periodically signed variations on a Three Emperors Alliance (1881) – but that they kept allowing this fundamental interest to be decoyed by the festering sore of countless little conflicts and eruptions in the Balkans.

So that by 1907 Germany came to see its interests as tied to a strong Austria-Hungary which would prevent Russian expansion southwards; while Russia came to see itself as faced by a Germanic bloc and so sought alliance with France to counterweight the German threat. And so Europe was divided into two armed camps, an impression cemented when Italy joined a pact with Germany and Austria-Hungary, despite historic antagonism to Austria, with whom she had had to fight wars to regain territory in the north.

8. The Drift to war

One way of thinking about the First World War was that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the crown, was without doubt a scandalous event but that it gave the Austro-Hungarian Empire a golden opportunity to smack down cocky little Serbia and thus re-establish the empire’s authority in the Balkans, which had been steadily slipping for a generation as a) more Balkan states became independent or b) fell under the influence of Russia.

After all, the empire had intervened in 1908 to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina with a view to creating a South Slav bloc of nations under her protection. Seen from her angle, this was one more step of the same type. Although, admittedly, a risky one. Her annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 led to a six-month-long diplomatic crisis which nearly sparked a European war, and there had been further, limited, Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. Most people thought this was more of the same.

So Austria issued a fierce ultimatum which was impossible to fulfil and prepared for a quick brutal suppression of Serbia. But she hadn’t anticipated that Russia would mobilise in favour of what was, after all, a small nation, with the result that the German military weighed in giving Austria-Hungary a promise of unconditional support; and when both of them saw Russia proceeding with its war mobilisation, the Germans mechanically and unthinkingly adopted the dusty old plan which had been perfected decades earlier, a plan to knock France out of any coming conflict with a quick surgical strike, just as they had back in 1870, before turning to the East to deal with a Russia they were sure was enfeebled after its humiliating defeat against Japan in 1905.

But the quick surgical strike against France failed because a) the French were supported by just enough of a British Expeditionary Force to stall the German advance and b) the Russians mobilised, attacked and advanced into East Prussia quicker than the Germans anticipated so that c) the German Chief of Staff Moltke made one of the most fateful decisions of the 20th century and decided to transfer some infantry corps from the Belgian wing of the German attack across Germany to staunch the Russian advance. Thus contributing to the German sweep across northern France coming to a grinding halt, to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, and to four years of grinding stalemate.

All the parties to the war miscalculated, but it was arguably the Germans – with their bright idea of a quick strike to knock France out of the war – who did most to amplify it from yet another in a long line of Balkan Wars to an international conflagration.

What comes over from this section is the hopeless inability of historians to come to a clear decision. Some historians, apparently, think Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy in the decade leading up to war was aggressive; others think it was impeccably defensive.

There is no doubt that the emperor was devoted to peace. Franz Joseph ruled the empire from 1848, when he was 18, to 1916, when he was 86, and if there was one thing he’d learned it was that whenever Austria went to war, she lost. And he was proved right.

9. War Guilt and the South Slav Question

On one level the problem was simple: about twice as many Slavs lived inside the empire (7.3 million) as outside (3.3 million). In the age of nationalism it was unlikely that the ultimate unification of these Slavs could be prevented. The question was: would this unification take place within the empire’s border i.e. at Serbia’s expense; or outside the empire’s borders, under Serbian leadership a) at the cost of the empire losing land (including most of its coastline in Dalmatia) and Slav population to Serbia b) the new Serbian state itself coming under the strong influence of Russia.

Mason discusses how this threat could possibly have been averted if the empire had made any sort of overtures to the Serbs, had courted the South Slavs. All Serbia wanted was better terms of trade and access to the sea. Refusal to countenance even this much resulted from the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy’s internal tensions, above all from the entrenched but anxious rule of the Germans and Magyars, nearly but not quite majorities in their own domains. Their inflexibility brought those domains crashing down around their ears.

10. World War One and the Collapse of the Empire

The book goes on to emphasise that, just because the empire collapsed suddenly at the end of the Great War, doesn’t mean it was doomed to. In fact for most of the four year war onlookers expected it to last, and spent their time speculating about the territorial gains or losses it would have made, but not that it would disappear.

He gives a military account of the war which emphasises the simple fact that the much-vaunted Austro-Hungarian army was simply not up to the task its politicians had set it. Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf intended at the outbreak to take out Serbia with a lightning strike, then move his corps north to Galicia to face the Russians who it was expected would mobilise slowly. But the Austro-Hungarians were repelled by ‘plucky Serbia’ and Conrad moved his forces north too slowly to prevent disastrous defeats to the Russians, who seized Galicia and Bukovina before Christmas.

In the first few months the empire lost 750,000 fighting men and a high percentage of their best officers. It’s a miracle they were able to carry on which they did, but at the cost of taking injections of better trained, better-armed German troops (remember the proud, tall, well dressed, well-fed Reich German soldiers lording it over their starving Austrian allies in the final chapters of The Good Soldier Svejk) and coming more or less under German military command.

Amazingly, in spring the following year, 1915, combined Austrian-Germany forces drove the Russians out of Galicia and seized most of Poland, defeated the numerically stronger Italian army along the Isonzo River. By 1916 the Alliance powers controlled a substantial slice of foreign territory (Poland, Russia, parts of the Balkans) and seemed to be sitting pretty.

The Austrian Social Democrat Otto Bauer wrote a book about the collapse of the empire, The Austrian Revolution, in 1925 which argued that the empire defined itself by its opposition to Tsarist Russia and dependency on Hohenzollern Germany. Certainly when the Bolsheviks seized power in St Petersburg and sued for peace, half the reason for fighting – and even be scared of the Slav menace – disappeared at a stroke.

Internal collapse

As we’ve seen, the Austrian parliament ceased to function properly before 1910 and government was run by civil servants and made by decree (the background to the novels of Franz Kafka with their infinitely complex and incomprehensible bureaucracies). Parliament was suspended from March 1914 to May 1917 because the ruling classes feared it would simply become a forum for criticism of the Crown. In 1916 the prime minister Count Stürgkh was assassinated. On November 1916 the Emperor Franz Joseph died and the crown passed to his great-nephew Archduke Charles, aged 29. The change in leadership gave an opportunity for the central powers to approach the Entente with suggestions for peace in December 1916, which, however, foundered on Germany’s refusal to cede territory back to France.

When Charles was crowned in Hungary he missed the opportunity to force the Hungarian prime minister to consider reforms, to extend the franchise, to give more rights to the non-Magyar minorities, and generally to compromise. On one level, the failure to effect any reform at all in the basic structure of the Dual Monarchy, led to its collapse.

But the most important event was the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty. If the Romanovs, why not the Hapsburgs? When Charles allowed parliament to sit again in summer 1917 initially the calls weren’t for dissolution, but for reform which gave the nationalities autonomy and rights. But during the summer Czech radicals published a manifesto calling for an independent Czech-Slovak state.

The winter of 1917-18 was harsh with widespread food shortages. There were widespread strikes. In the spring Czech prisoners of war began returning from Russian camps bearing revolutionary ideas. But the Hapsburgs were not overthrown. Mason suggests this is because what in Russia were clear, class-based animosities and movements, in Austria-Hungary were diverted into nationalist channels.

Even when America joined the war in April 1917, the Allies still didn’t call for the overthrow of the empire but its reform to give the nationalities more say. According to Mason what finally changed the Allies mind was the German offensive in Spring 1918. It became clear Austria-Hungary wouldn’t or couldn’t detach itself from Germany, and so the Allies now threw themselves behind plans to undermine the empire from within i.e. supporting Czech, Polish and Slav politicians in their calls for the abolition of the monarchy. In the summer they supported the Czechs. In September 1918 they recognised a Czech-Slovak state. Unlike the other minorities the Czechs existed entirely inside the empire, to recognising their independent state was effectively recognising the dismemberment of the empire.

The failure of the German spring offensive in the West, and the Austrian summer offensive against Italy spelled the end. In September Bulgaria sued for peace. In October Austria and Germany asked President Wilson to intervene. At the end of October the Czechs and Yugoslavs proclaimed their independence, followed by the Magyars and the Poles. On 11 November 1918 Emperor Charles abdicated. The Hapsburg Monarchy ceased to exist.

PART FOUR Assessments

Mason recaps some of the arguments about the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which, by now, I feel I have heard hundreds of times. For example, that right up to the end most commentators did not expect the empire to collapse but for the strongest minorities, such as the Czechs, to successfully argue for parity with the Magyars, for more rights and privileges. Karl Marx thought the nations without history needed to be tutored and guided by the more advanced ones i.e. the Germans.

One school sees the collapse as due to the internal contradictions i.e failure to address the nationality question i.e. failure for any serious politician at the top, even Franz Ferdinand, even Charles, to do anything to palliate the nationalities demands which would have meant diluting the stranglehold of the German-Magyar ruling elites. The elites never accepted the nationalities question as a fundamental issue, but always as a problem which could be temporarily dealt with by clever tactics.

A completely opposite view holds that it was the First World War and the First World War alone which led to the collapse of the empire. Supporting this view is the fact that even radical critics and keen slavophiles like the Englishmen Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed as late as 1913 thought the empire was growing, and simply needed to be converted into a federal arrangement of more autonomous states, maybe like Switzerland.

PART FIVE Documents

Nineteen documents kicking off with hardcore economic tables showing, for example, populations of the various nationalities, index of Austrian industrial production, Austria’s share of world trade, steel production, harvest yields.

More interesting to the average reader are:

  • Mark Twain’s eye witness account of the army marching into parliament to suspend the sitting discussing  the 1897 legislation to make Czech equal with German in Bohemia and Moravia, which spilled out into riots in Vienna and Prague
  • Leon Trotsky’s impressions of the Austrian socialist leaders i.e they are smug and self satisfied and the extreme opposite of revolutionary
  • an extract from the memoir of George Clare who was a Jew raised in Vienna and gives a vivid sense of the frailty of Jewish identity, the assimiliated Jews’ shame about his caftaned, ringleted Yiddish cousin but also his sneaking envy for their authenticity – this is exactly the sentiment expressed by Kafka in his reflections on the Jews
  • the impact of Vienna on the young Adolf Hitler, who lived in Vienna from 1908 to 1913 and a) hugely respected the anti-semitic mayor Karl Lueger and b) loathed the multi-ethnic culture and especially the ubiquity of Jews
  • memoirs of the Jewish socialist leader Julius Braunthal, who emphasises the peculiarly powerful fermenting role played by Jews in all aspects of Austrian life, society and culture
  • a society hostess describing the meeting in 1902 between Rodin and Gustav Klimt

And then excerpts from more official documents, being a letter from the leader of the 1848 revolution, the key articles from the Dual Alliance of 1879, prime minister Aehrenthal’s proposed solution to the South Slav problem, census figures about Slavs inside the empire, a report on relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary,


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Art & music

Books

Byzantium: The Apogee by John Julius Norwich (1991)

By the tenth century to be a eunuch was, for a promising youth about to enter the imperial service, a virtual guarantee of advancement; many an ambitious parent would have a younger son castrated as a matter of course. (p.130)

This is a timeline of Byzantine emperors between 802 and 1081, based on John Julius Norwich’s book, Byzantium: The Apogee (1991).

This book is volume two in his three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, and the first thing you notice is that although the book is a similar length to the first one (389 pages to volume one’s 408), it covers only half the number of years (478 years in volume one, 281 in this volume). The reason is that there are more sources for this later period, and the sources are more complete, and so our histories can be more detailed. Indeed,

thanks to such writers as Liudprand of cremona, St Theophanes and his continuators, George Cedrenus, John Scylitzes and above all the odious but ever-fascinating Michael Psellus, we can enjoy an incomparably nore colourful picture of life in the Imperial Palace of Byzantium in the early middle ages thatn we can of any other court in Europe. (p.xxii)

Permanently embattled

By the time this book starts the Byzantine Empire feels permanently embattled. Muslim armies were constantly attacking in what we now call Syria and Palestine, in Anatolia, but also in faraway Sicily, even invading the Italian Peninsula. The Muslims had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and a new breed of Arab pirates or ‘corsairs’ was attacking Byzantine shipping, and raided the islands of the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

As if this wasn’t enough, there was the barbarian threat from the north. The book opens with Constantinople besieged by the mighty armies of Khan Krum of the Bulgars, later replaced by Symeon I. And the Bulgars themselves were later superseded by the ‘Rus’, in the shape of the Khan of Kiev and his armies.

Time and again Constantinople is only saved by the impenetrability of its defensive walls. The Byzantine response to these threats was either a) to buy the attackers off with vast tributes of gold and treasure or b) occasionally to lead counter-attacking armies, and the emperors who are best remembered tend to be the ones who were successful in defeating these foes in battle.

Constant war

All this means that Norwich’s book is overwhelmingly, consistently, about war – describing campaigns, battles and – more dispiritingly – the endless cycle of sieges and sackings of cities, the massacring of inhabitants or their selling off into slavery, the ravaging of countryside, the murder and killing and raping and looting of civilians.

Every year, as spring rolled around, the campaigning season resumed and off the armies went to pillage and kill, the armies of the Bulgars or Muslims or Rus or Greeks. It does, eventually, become a quite depressing chronicle of man’s inhumanity to man. Since Norwich hardly mentions Byzantine art or architecture, what you’re left with is a gloomy cavalcade of men’s infinite capacity for murder and destruction.

Palace intrigues

And that’s before you get to the palace politics, for the book also highlights the endless scheming among the emperor’s immediate family and the higher echelons of the civil service and army. There is a whole succession of generals or top administrators who mount coups and seize ultimate power. Successful or failed, the coups are always accompanied, not just by predictable bloodshed, but by especially cruel punishments, namely the blinding and castration of the loser, and often of all his sons (to prevent them presenting a long-term threat the the winner).

The divisive impact of religion

And then there is the perpetual problem of religion. This comes in two forms:

  1. the Patriarch and ‘home’ church of the Greeks might oppose the wishes or behaviour of the emperor, raise crowds and mobs against him, excommunicate him and so on – which led to the forcible deposition and sometimes imprisonment of unruly religious leaders
  2. the Pope in faraway Rome could be just as much of a problem, acting with what the Byzantine emperors considered was unacceptable independence, and forever poking their noses into Byzantine court business, for example supporting or even harbouring a deposed Patriarch, sending ambassadors to the emperor insisting the latter obey this, that or the other stricture of the church

Iconoclasm

And that’s before you even consider the complexifying impact of the great divide about Iconoclasm – the belief that images of any sort should be banned from religion, a policy issued by an emperor which led to the gleeful destruction of untold amounts of painted icons, statues, mosaics and other art works in the following hundred years or so. But for Norwich, interested primarily in the political impact of everything, what matters is that Iconoclasm split the ruling class, with some emperors, empresses, their senior administrators and the aristocracy, and even generals and the army holding directly contrary views – some in favour of the strictest interpretation of Iconoclasm and the destruction of religious images wherever they were found – others directly opposed to this policy, and reversing it whenever they had the chance.

If you combine all these elements – repeated coups and civil wars, permanent cultural civil war over Iconoclasm, and annual invasions and attacks by at least three distinct groups of enemies (Bulgars, Rus, Muslims) – it makes for Game of Thrones levels of political intrigue, poisonings, blindings and assassinations, all set against the permanent backdrop of vicious and immensely destructive wars.

The cover illustration is of a fabulous golden icon, and my impression of Byzantine and Greek Orthodox culture had been of austere magnificence: but this book undermines that and is hard to read, not only because the details are often confusing, but because the overall impression is of unrelenting low-minded conspiracy, killing and destruction, covering entire centuries.


Emperors of Byzantium 802 – 1081

The Empress Irene

Iconoclasm (the banning of religious images and icons) had been instituted by Leo III the Isaurian in 726. 80 years later it still divided the empire. The empress Irene had dominated her weak husband, Leo IV (775-780) and their son, Constantine VI (780-797) who came to the throne aged just nine and who, when he became a threat to her power, Irene had arrested and blinded, resulting in his death soon afterwards.

So then the wicked Empress Irene reigned by herself for five years, alienating most sections of the empire – by being a woman, by being an icon-supporter, and for the foul murder of her own son.

In 800 Pope Leo II crowned King Charles of the Franks as Holy Roman Emperor in St Peter’s Rome. This astonished the Byzantines who considered it an appalling assault on their power and prerogatives, but to both Pope and new Emperor, Irene, as a woman, simply did not count and so, for them, the throne of Roman emperor was vacant.

To seal the deal Charlemagne, in 802, sent Irene a proposal of marriage. This in fact struck her as a decent exit strategy to escape the gathering number of enemies to her rule. But her leading ministers rebelled. Led by the Logosthete of the Treasury (the minister of finance), they mounted a coup, and exiled Irene.

Nicephorian dynasty (802–813)

Nicephorus I Logothetes (802 – 811)

The leader of the coup against Irene took the name Nicephorus. Irene had cancelled loads of taxes in a bid to be popular with the people and thus brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy. The fact that Nicephorus had been finance minister meant he understood how important it was to revitalise the tax base, rebuild the city’s walls, and build up the army. In 803 an Armenian general in the Byzantine army, Bardanes Turcus, rebelled but his revolt was crushed, Bardanes being sent to a monastery where he was, in the traditional style, blinded to prevent him being any more of a threat.

Irene had tried to buy off both the Khan of the Bulgars (in the north) and the Muslim Caliph Harun al-Raschid (in the East) with gold tribute. Nicephorus immediately cancelled both these tributes, sparking war with both (although Raschid died in 809).

He led initially successful campaigns against the Bulgars but was killed at the Battle of Pliska against the mighty leader of the Bulgars, Khan Krum. Initially, Nicephorus had successfully led raids into Bulgar territory and destroyed their capital city, but he and his army were eventually caught in a narrow defile and annihilated. Krum had Nicephorus’s skull encased in silver and used it as a cup for wine-drinking.

Staurakios (July – October 811)

The only son of Nicephoros I, Staurakios automatically succeeded on his father’s death but had been present at the Battle of Pliska and was himself severely wounded, left paralyzed and in constant pain. He was forced to resign within a year, and retired to a monastery where he died soon after.

Michael I Rangabe (811 – 813)

Son-in-law of Nicephorus I, Michael succeeded Staurakios on the latter’s abdication. A spendthrift in everything except defence, he wasted money on high living while Khan Krum devastated various Byzantine towns.

In late 812 Krum offered battle some miles from the capital and in June Michael marched out at the head of an army but, as battle began, the Anatolian wing of the Byzantine army, led by Leo the Armenian, deserted their posts. As a result the Byzantine army was decimated, Michael made it back to Constantinople where he abdicated (retiring to a monastery where he lived quietly for another thirty years), all four of his sons were castrated and his wife and daughters sent to a monastery – while Leo the Armenian returned to the capital and seized the throne.

Non-dynastic

Leo V ‘the Armenian’ (813 – 820)

Born about 775, Leo joined the army and rose to become a general in which capacity he betrayed the army in a confrontation with Khan Krum of the Bulgars, leading to the abdication of Michael I.

Leo still had to deal with Krum and arranged a meeting with the Bulgar at which he treacherously set assassins to kill him. They failed and Krum made off, infuriated, destroyed all the buildings without Constantinople’s city walls – palaces and churches – then systematically destroyed every Byzantine town he could seize, murdering all the men and taking the women and children into slavery. Adrianople was burned to the ground and the entire population sent into slavery beyond the Danube.

Leo, for his part, mounted some sneaky raids into Bulgar territory where, the chroniclers report, his armies had instructions to kill all the children (dashing their heads against rocks and walls, is the precise description). It was a war of extermination on both sides.

Then, just as Krum was supervising the siege engines rumbling up to the walls of Constantinople for a final siege, he dropped dead of apoplexy. To everyone’s surprise, peace had come.

Leo devoted the remainder of his rule to reviving Iconoclasm. The previous three ill-fated emperors had been icon-supporters and their reigns had coincided with financial and military disasters. Leo hoped to revive support for his rule by falling in line with the majority of the upper class, the army and many of the Eastern refugees (who now thronged the city, having fled the armies of the Arabs) who were all deep-rooted iconoclasts. (Iconoclasm feeling became stronger the further east you went.) In 815 Leo promulgated an edict against images which led to an orgy of destruction across the empire. So much beauty and art, silken vestments, gold icons, priceless statues – destroyed forever.

Something – the chronicles are unclear – led to a rift with his one-time good friend Michael from Armoria, who began speaking openly against the emperor and who Leo had imprisoned and ordered to be thrown into a burning furnace. Before this order could be carried out, Michael was freed by accomplices who went with him to the imperial chapel on Christmas Day 820, where they struck down Leo, first cutting off his sword arm, then his head. Leo’s corpse was paraded in ignominy around the Hippodrome. Leo’s four sons were castrated (one died during the procedure) and sent, along with his wife and daughters, into exile.

Amorian dynasty (820–867)

Michael II ‘the Amorian’ (820 – 829)

Michael was an illiterate boor who made his son co-emperor in a bid to establish a settled dynasty. Almost immediately he faced a rebellion which evolved into a civil war, led by Thomas the Slav, a Byzantine general, who besieged Constantinople. However Thomas’s army was unexpectedly attacked from the north by the Bulgars and massacred. The survivors retreated to a walled town, and Michael now felt confident enough to lead a Byzantine army to besiege them. Michael quickly persuaded the rebels to surrender with a promise of mercy, and to give up Thomas – who promptly had his hands and feet chopped off and his body impaled on a stake.

During Michael’s reign the empire lost Crete to Arab pirates, who ravaged all the towns and converted the entire population into slavery. Another band of Arab adventurers began the Muslim conquest of Sicily. Both islands became the home for Arab corsairs who preyed on shipping all over the eastern Mediterranean, despite Michael sending numerous fleets to try and stop them.

Michael died peacefully in his bed, the first emperor in a sequence of six to do so.

Theophilus (829 – 842)

Born in 813, Theophilus was the only son of Michael II, the illiterate Armorian. Co-emperor since 821, he succeeded on his father’s death aged 25 and was, according to Norwich, ‘magnificently qualified to take on the responsibilities of emperor’.

Theophilus had to deal with the aggressive campaigns from the Muslim East of Caliph Mutasim, who besieged and sacked Armoria, the second city in the empire: when some of the inhabitants took refuge in the town church, Mutasim burned them alive in it, the rest of the population was put in chains and taken back across the desert towards Syria but, when water ran short on this long trek, almost all of them were executed. Only 42 made it alive to Muslim territory. Years later the 42 were offered a final choice between converting to Islam or martyrdom. All 42 chose death and were beheaded on the banks of the River Tigris, thus entering the canon of saints of the Byzantine church. Burning, murdering, death.

Theophilus continued the iconoclastic policies of his father, but rather half-heartedly (with some notably brutal exceptions: he had two Christian writers who refused to renounce icons, tattooed across their faces with a long iconoclastic poem, and he had the greatest icon painter of the time, Lazarus, scourged and branded on the palms of his hands with red hot nails). Nonetheless, in Norwich’s opinion, when Theophilus died, aged just 29, from dysentery, ‘the age of iconoclasm died with him’ (p.52).

Interestingly, in response to the Muslim seizure of Crete and Sicily, Theophilus appealed to the son of Charlemagne, Lewis the Pious, to join forces and drive the Muslims from the Mediterranean. Interesting because, as Norwich points out, if Lewis had done so, the age of the crusades (i.e. armed Western Christian knights interfering in the Muslim Mediterranean world) would have come two and a half centuries early and, if it had become a sustained campaign uniting the Western and Eastern Christians, might have seized back more of the Mediterranean littoral.

Michael III ‘the Drunkard’ (842 – 867)

Born in 840, Michael succeeded on Theophilus was succeeded by his son Michael, born in 840 and so just two years old, with the result that the empire was ruled by his mother, Theodora, until 856. She called a Church Council in 845 which anathematised Iconoclasm, not without the usual fierce ecclesiastical in-fighting. (The fierceness of language and actual bodily violence involved in these Church disputes has to be read to be believed. Senior Christian opponents to imperial policy were often arrested, tortured, scourged and whipped, branded, blinded and exiled.)

The Logothete and eunuch Theoctistus manoeuvred his way to becoming co-ruler with Theodora. (Logothete: An administrative title originating in the eastern Roman Empire. In the middle and late Byzantine Empire, it became a senior administrative title, equivalent to minister or secretary of state.)

Theoctistus led a fleet which managed to recapture Crete, and another Byzantine fleet attacked and ravaged the Muslim naval base at Damietta. In other words, this period saw the start of a significant fightback against Muslim domination of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Theoctistus and the Empress adopted the ruinous policy the pair adopted of the systematic persecution of the heretics known as Paulicians. The Paulicians were Christians of a sort, but rejected large parts of the Old and New Testament and many of the practices of the Church. They were based in Armenia, a mountainous region far to the east of Anatolia. They were ordered to renounce their beliefs but refused, and so a vast military army set out to the East and, if the chroniclers are to be believed, massacred up to 100,000 of the Paulician community – by hanging, drowning, putting to the sword and even crucifixion. Not only was this a foul atrocity in itself, but strategically short-sighted in that it drove the entire community into alliance with the Muslim regime based in Baghdad.

Map showing the spread of the Muslim empire and how surrounded and embattled the Byzantine Empire became (and how foolish it was to drive the Armenians into alliance with the Muslims)

The Empress Theodora’s brother (Michael’s uncle) Bardas, overthrew Theoctistus, confronting him in the palace with a group of soldiers and the young emperor himself, who ran him through with a sword. That was in 855.

Bardas was raised to Caesar in 862. Norwich considers Bardas’s ten year-rule (855-865) one of unparalleled success, notable for his military victories over the Bulgars to the north and the negotiation of their conversion to Christianity, for the growing confidence and distinctness of the Eastern Church, and for Bardas’s personal sponsorship of learning – setting up schools and a university – and the arts.

In the last years of Bardas’s rule the monks and scholars, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, were invited by the Khan of the Bulgars to help convert his Slavic people to Christianity. (Formerly it was believed that Cyril, forced to invent new letters to convey Slavic speech sounds, invented the Cyrillic script which is named after him. Nowadays it is thought he and Methodius invented the Glagolitic script, and that Cyrillic was developed later by their students and followers.)

This story didn’t end well, though, because the Khan of the Bulgars wrote a long letter to the emperor complaining about the endless squabbles among the Byzantine Christian missionaries, and asking for clarification on various points of theology. The emperor Michael made the mistake of arrogantly dismissing it, with the result that the Khan turned to the Pope, who gave him a clear, thorough and polite response. The result was the Khan of the Bulgars gave his allegiance to the Pope in Rome and expelled all the Byzantine missionaries.

Meanwhile, Emperor Michael declined into alcoholism. In his last years he took a favourite, Basil, a strong, illiterate peasant from Armenia, talented with horses, and raised him to the level of Court Chamberlain. All kind of speculation floats around him, including the possibility that he was Michael’s gay lover. Michael ordered Basil to marry a young woman who was almost certainly Michael’s mistress, in order to give his mistress free access to the palace (and Michael), without scandalising the clergy. It is possible, then, that when Basil’s wife bore him children, they were in fact the children of the emperor…

Whatever the details, Basil tightened his grip on Michael’s affections, becoming a serious rival to Michael’s uncle, Bardas. On 21 April 866, on the eve of a naval expedition which he was meant to be leading to liberate Crete from the Muslims, Bardas was sitting next to Michael in the imperial pavilion, when Bardas stepped forward and assassinated him. The emperor was obviously in on the coup because he issued a statement declaring Bardas a traitor and exonerating Basil.

Macedonian dynasty (867–1056)

Basil I ‘the Macedonian’ (867 – 886)

Having assassinated Michael’s uncle, Bardas, in 866, 18 months later, on 24 September 867, Basil and seven followers killed the emperor Michael as he lay in a drunken stupor in his bedchamber. Basil had himself proclaimed basileus.

Basil led successful wars in the East against the Arabs and the Paulicians, and seized back the entire Dalmatian coast, Bari, and all southern Italy for the Empire. He initiated a major review and digest of the laws (on the model of Justinian’s code) and also commissioned the building of new churches and palaces. He had four sons but one, young Constantine, was the apple of his eye. When Constantine died suddenly in 879, Basil went into a decline, becoming surly, reclusive and unbalanced. A later legend says he was killed by a stag while out hunting. We’ll never know for sure.

Leo VI ‘the Wise’ (886 – 912)

Instead of Basil’s favourite son, Constantine, it was his next eldest son, Leo, who succeeded, aged twenty. Already he has acquired the nickname ‘the wise’ for his scholarship, grace and deportment. But Leo VI’s reign saw an increase in Muslim naval raids, culminating in the Sack of Thessalonica, and was marked by unsuccessful wars against the Bulgarians under Symeon I.

Leo sparked a far-ranging religious dispute because he married a succession of wives, who all managed to die of illness or in childbirth. He kept at it because he was desperate for a male heir but when he married for the fourth time, to Zoe ‘Carbonopsina’ (of the black eyes), the church was outraged.

Orthodox theology disapproved of even one remarriage, only reluctantly admitted two – so long as the partners spent a good deal of time repenting and praying – but to remarry for a third time was completely forbidden and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nicholas, was not slow to criticise and anathematise the emperor. So Leo had Nicholas exiled and appointed a new Patriarch who carried out his wishes. But Nicholas’s dismissal and the scandal of the four marriages split the church into fiercely opposing factions.

Alexander (912 – 913)

Leo had sidelined his brother, Alexander, during his reign. When Leo finally died his brother inherited and promptly set about undoing much of his brother’s work, starting by banishing Leo’s wife, Zoe, and ignoring Leo’s careful diplomacy with the ever-threatening Bulgars. He restored the troublesome patriarch, Nicholas, who Leo had dismissed and who returned from exile furious and determined to take his revenge on everyone in the hierarchy who had condoned Leo’s marriage.

Alexander was an alcoholic and died of exhaustion after a polo game, leaving the throne to Leo’s young son, Constantine, born in 905 and so aged just seven.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913 – 959)

At Alexander’s death there is a scrabble for power. When Zoe learned that Alexander lay dying she rushed back to the palace to protect her and Leo’s son, Constantine. On his deathbed Alexander confirmed Constantine as heir, but appointed a Regency Council led by Nicholas. And the first thing Nicholas did was order the empress to have her hair shorn and be sent to a nunnery, where she was renamed Sister Anna.

Within days the leader of the army, Constantine Ducas, mounted a coup against the regency Council, but as he snuck into the city, he and his conspirators (including his eldest son, Gregory) were caught and killed. Almost certainly Nicholas was in league with Ducas but, after the coup failed, it gave Nicholas the pretext he needed to launch a drastic reign of terror.

Whole companies were massacred, their bodies impaled along the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus; others were flogged or blinded…. Ducas’s widow was exiled… his younger son… was castrated. (p.127)

Leo VI had wisely paid a tribute or bribe to Symeon the Great, Khan of the Bulgars, to stop him ravaging Thrace (the area to the north of Constantinople).

Constantine rashly stopped the payment with the result that Symeon led a Bulgar army right up to the walls of Constantinople. At this point the Patriarch Nicholas went out to see Symeon and did some kind of deal, so that the Bulgars went away.

But 1. Nicholas’s brutal treatment of the empress and 2. his brutal treatment of the army and 3. the rumour that he had sold out to the Bulgars, led to the collapse of the Regency Council. This triggered the swift return of ‘Sister Anna’, who reclaimed the role of Augusta and Regent and her true name of Zoe.

The next thing that happened was a coup organised by the admiral Romanus Lecapenos. He overthrew the empress (and sent her back to the convent again, hair shorn, Sister Anna once more) and quickly wedded his daughter to Constantine, thus becoming the young emperor’s father-in-law. Romanus worked to make himself invaluable and to seize all the levers of state. Eventually he got himself crowned senior emperor in 920.

Constantine was sidelined during the Lecapenos regime, but asserted his control by deposing Romanus’s sons in early 945. Byzantine forces helped an Armenian king against the Muslims in the East and destroyed an advancing Muslim army in south Italy, restoring a lot of the empire’s prestige. The Byzantines then caught an attacking army of Bulgars under Symeon I unprepared, forcing it to retire back over the Danube.

Constantine’s long reign also saw a flourishing of the arts known as the ‘Macedonian Renaissance’, with the emperor sponsoring encyclopaedic works and histories. He was a prolific writer himself, best remembered for the manuals on statecraft (De administrando imperio) and ceremonies (De ceremoniis) which he compiled for his son, Romanus II.

Romanus I Lecapenos (920 – 944)

This is the admiral, mentioned above, who seized power in 920 and ruled as the emperor Constantine’s ‘father-in-law’. After becoming the emperor’s father-in-law, he successively assumed higher offices until he crowned himself senior emperor. Like a previous Armenian emperor, Basil I, Romanus was keen to create a family dynasty.

His reign was marked by the end of warfare with Bulgaria and the great conquests of John Kourkouas in the East. Romanus promoted his sons Christopher, Stephen and Constantine as co-emperors over Constantine VII. Eventually Constantine VII threw off his rule and sent him to an island as a monk. He died there on 15 June 948.

Romanus II ‘the Purple-born ‘ (959 – 963)

The only surviving son of Constantine VII, Romanus was born on 15 March 938 and succeeded his father on the latter’s death in 959. He ruled for four years, although the government was led mostly by the eunuch Joseph Bringas. His reign was marked by successful warfare in the East against Sayf al-Dawla and the recovery of Crete by general Nicephorus Phocas.

Nicephorus Phocas (963 – 969)

The most successful general of his generation who restored Byzantine fortunes in the West and East, Nicephorus II was born around 912 to the powerful Phocas clan. The Phocas family were one of the leading powers in the state, having already produced several generals, including Nicephorus’ father Bardas Phocas, his brother Leo Phocas, and grandfather Nicephorus Phocas the Elder.

On the ascension of Emperor Romanus II in 959, Nicephoros and his younger brother Leo Phocas had been placed in charge of the eastern and western field armies respectively. In 960, 27,000 oarsmen and marines were assembled to man a fleet of 308 ships carrying 50,000 troops in a campaign against the Muslim Emirate of Crete. They besieged the capital, Chandax, till it fell in 961, and took back the island after 130 years of Muslim occupation. Meanwhile, another Byzantine force recovered Cyprus in 965.

Nicephorus was recalled to Constantinople by Constantine and sent to the East, where he defeated the governor of Tarsus, ibn al-Zayyat in open battle, before taking the major Muslim city of Aleppo. From 964 to 965, he led an army of 40,000 men which liberated Cilicia and raided in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. Then Nicephorus led Byzantine forces which besieged and took Tarsus. In 968, Nicephorus conducted a raid through Syria into Palestine which reached the city of Tripoli, raiding and sacking most of the fortresses along his path and which finally managed to take the city of Antioch. It was a high summer for the empire.

However, to finance these wars Nicephorus had increased taxes both on the people and on the church at a time of poor harvests and general dearth, while maintaining unpopular theological positions and alienating many of his most powerful allies. This combination of policies led to a series of riots in Constantinople. These involved his nephew, John Tzimiskes, who, despite having played a key role in many of his military victories, Nicephorus banished to Asia Minor on suspicion of disloyalty.

Tzimiskes was a popular general and, rallying his supporters, was smuggled back to Constantinople. Fellow conspirators let him into the palace, where he and a gang of collaborators murdered Nicephorus in his sleep. Thus ended the life of one of the most successful emperor-generals in Byzantine history.

John I Tzimiskes (969 – 976)

Tzimiskes took over as regent for the young sons of Romanus II. As ruler, Tzimiskes crushed the Rus in Bulgaria and ended the Bulgarian tsardom, before going on to campaign in the East.

According to Norwich, travelling through Anatolia John was appalled to discover the vast extent of the lands acquired by the Imperial chamberlain Basil Lecapenos. Basil got to hear about the emperor’s anger and, fearing that he was about to lose his lands and position, paid servants to administer a poison to Tzimiskes. Taken very ill, John just about made it back to Constantinople before dying. He was, in Norwich’s opinion:

One of the greatest of Byzantine emperors (p.230)

Basil II ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’ (976 – 1025)

Basil was the eldest son Romanus II, born in 958 and, with Tzimiskes’ death, he now inherited the throne aged just 18. He was to have a long and successful reign but the first half was a struggle to establish his own personal rule.

The first decade of his reign was marked by rivalry with the powerful Imperial chamberlain, the eunuch Basil Lecapenos, who he eventually managed to overthrow, confiscating all his estates and having him banished. Then there was a prolonged attempt by two rival generals  – Bardas Phocas and Bardas Sclerus – to overthrow him, though the generals spent as much time fighting each other as the emperor. Both eventually failed, though not after prolonged unrest and military campaigns.

Threatened by the rise of Thomas the Slav who revived the kingdom of the Bulgarians, Basil found it wise to form an alliance with Vladimir I of Kiev whose entry into the Church (the baptism of him and his court) Basil supervised, as well as marrying off his sister, Anna, to the new convert. Vladimir would, in time, be made into a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church, for his zeal in building churches, monasteries, and converting his people.

In his campaigns in the East against the Muslims, Basil had seen for himself the immense estates built up by the class of ‘nobles’ or ‘those with power’, and he determined to break their influence, confiscating all large estates, reducing much of the aristocracy to poverty, rejuvenating the peasant communities which the empire depended on for its manpower, and reverting large tracts of land to the emperor.

Basil then did a deal whereby Venice was awarded the coast of Dalmatia to rule under Byzantine suzerainty: this suited the Venetians for the area was rich in wood and grain, and they also wanted to campaign against Croatian pirates; and suited Basil because it left him free for his life’s work, a sustained campaign against Bulgaria. It took twenty years but he eventually defeated Thomas the Slav and his son, and the usurper who murdered the son. All Bulgarian territory and cities were seized, and all survivors of the royal family taken prisoner off to Constantinople. In fact Basil ruled wisely, keeping taxes deliberately low and assimilating leading Bulgar aristocrats into the Byzantine administration.

Basil II’s reign is widely considered the apogee of medieval Byzantium.

Map of the Byzantine Empire in the year 1025 – most of present-day Turkey, Greece, the southern Balkans and south Italy

Constantine VIII (1025 – 1028)

The second son of Romanus II, Constantine was born in 960 and raised to co-emperor in March 962. During the rule of Basil II, he spent his time in dissipation. He was 65 when he came to power and managed, in three short years, to fritter away almost all of his brother’s achievements. Unsure of his powers, he became paranoid, suspicious of courtiers and plots, and hundreds of men arrested, tortured and blinded on trumped-up charges.

Only on his death-bed, aged 68, did he worry about the succession. He had three daughters, themselves now relatively old (in their 40s and 50s) and decided that the most presentable of them, Zoe, should be married off to continue the line. After some squabbling about who the lucky man should be, his civil service settled on Romanus Argyros to be Zoe’s husband. The fact that Romanus was already married was not a barrier, since Constantine said, Marry my daughter or I will blind you and your wife. So Romanus’s wife willingly divorced him, took the veil and disappeared to a convent. Next day Romanus married Zoe. Next day the emperor was dead.

Zoe (1028 – 1050)

The daughter of Constantine VIII, Zoe succeeded on her father’s death, as the only surviving member of the Macedonian dynasty. She had three husbands – Romanus III (1028–1034), Michael IV (1034–1041) and Constantine IX (1042–1050) – who ruled in quick succession alongside her.

Zoe’s first husband: Romanus III Argyros (1028 – 1034)

Romanus was an ageing aristocrat, judge and administrator when he was chosen by Constantine VIII on his deathbed to become Zoe’s husband. He was educated but had an inflated opinion of his own abilities and led his army into a disastrous defeat against the Muslims in Syria. Realising his limitations he decided to make a name for himself by building an enormous church to Mary Mother of God, but taxed the population of Constantinople to the hilt to build it with the result that he became very unpopular.

Contemporary chroniclers also claim he had alienated his wife once he realised they were never going to conceive a child (despite both parties spending lots of money on amulets and charms and potions to restore fertility). He had her confined to her quarters and cut her spending allowance.

Gossip had it that Zoe took a young, handsome Greek lover, Michael, related to the most powerful figure at the court, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos. The chronicler Michael Psellus suggests the couple poisoned Romanus who was discovered expiring by an imperial swimming pool.

Zoe’s second husband: Michael IV ‘the Paphlagonian’ (1034 – 1041)

Within hours of Romanus’s death, Zoe arranged to be enthroned alongside her 18-year-old lover Michael.

Michael quickly came to despise his aging wife and, once again, had her confined to her quarters. He was an epileptic when they married and his condition rapidly worsened, so that he had a curtain installed around the throne which could be quickly drawn by servants at the first sign of a fresh attack.

Aided by his older brother, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos, Michael’s reign was moderately successful against internal rebellions, but his massed attempt to recover Sicily from the Muslims totally failed, not least because it was put under the command of John the Orphanotrophos’s sister’s husband, Stephen.

As he grew iller, Michael spent more time building churches and having masses said for his soul. His older brother, the by-now all-powerful John the Orphanotrophos, could see he was dying and cast around for ways to preserve the dynasty. His other brothers were eunuchs, so John’s search alighted on the son of his sister, Maria, and her husband Stephen, Michael.

Basil II had wisely decreed the defeated Bulgarians should only pay tax in kind. John the Orphanotrophos unwisely revoked this and imposed tax demands in gold. This, plus the imposition of an unpopular Greek to rule their church, led to a revolt of the Bulgars. Michael amazed everyone by taking to his horse and leading the Byzantine army which successfully put the revolt down. He then returned to the capital and died.

Zoe’s son: Michael V Calaphates (‘the Caulker’) (1041 – 1042)

In the last stages of terminal illness, Michael IV was persuaded to adopt Stephen’s son (his nephew), also named Michael, as his own son and heir. Michael IV duly died, aged just 25, and was succeeded by this nephew and namesake, who became Michael V.

In time Michael would be nicknamed calaphates or ‘the caulker’ because this had been the humble shipyard profession of his father, Stephen, before John the Orphanotrophos had wangled him a job as admiral on the ill-fated expedition to reclaim Sicily. He certainly had a very tenuous claim to the throne.

No emperor in the whole history of Byzantium had less title to the throne than Michael Calaphates. (Norwich p.292)

Michael V immediately 1. mounted an assault on the court civil service, making widespread changes 2. removed John the Orphanotrophos from power, confiscating his property and sending him to a monastery. Next he tried to sideline Zoe, having her shaven and send to a convent, but, unexpectedly, this sparked a popular revolt which led to days of mass rioting – resulting in the largest casualties from civic strife the capital had seen since the Nika riots. Michael was forced to recall her and restore her as empress on 19 April 1042, along with her sister Theodora but this wasn’t enough. Norwich quotes the eye witness account of Michael Psellus who went with the mob to the palace chapel where Michael and his uncle, Constantine, were hiding, describes them being persuaded to leave, escorted by the City Prefect through a jeering mob, and then met by the public executioner sent by Zoe, who proceeded to blind them both in front of the baying mob. They were both sent to separate monasteries, Michael dying later that year.

Michael had managed to get himself deposed after a pitiful four months and 11 days on the throne,

Zoe had hoped the riots were solely in her favour but it became apparent that the city didn’t trust her, associating her too much with the ancient regime, and began clamouring for her sister, Theodora who had, fifty years earlier, been consigned to a convent where she had spent most of her life.

Zoe’s sister: Theodora (1042 – 1056)

Born in 984, Theodora was therefore 58 when she was raised as co-ruler on 19 April 1042. However, it quickly became clear that the sisters didn’t get on and that, worse, the court, civil administration, the army and so on were liable to divide into sects supporting one or other woman. The solution was to bring a man in to rule. Theodora, still a highly religious virgin, refused absolutely to be married, but Zoe, now 64, accepted with relish. (It is symptomatic of the name shortage in Byzantium that all three of the candidates which were considered for her hand were named Constantine.)

Zoe’s third husband: Constantine IX Monomachos (1042 – 1055)

Wikipedia tells the story:

Constantine Monomachos was the son of Theodosius Monomachos, an important bureaucrat under Basil II and Constantine VIII. At some point, Theodosius had been suspected of conspiracy and his son’s career suffered accordingly. Constantine’s position improved after he married his second wife, a niece of Emperor Romanus III Argyros. After catching the eye of the Empress Zoe, Constantine was exiled to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos by Zoe’s second husband, Michael IV.

The death of Michael IV and the overthrow of Michael V in 1042 led to Constantine being recalled from his place of exile and appointed as a judge in Greece. However, prior to commencing his appointment, Constantine was summoned to Constantinople, where the fragile working relationship between Michael V’s successors, the empresses Zoe and Theodora, was breaking down. After two months of increasing acrimony between the two, Zoe decided to search for a new husband, thereby hoping to prevent her sister from increasing her popularity and authority.

After her first preference displayed contempt for the empress and her second died under mysterious circumstances, Zoe remembered the handsome and urbane Constantine. The pair were married on 11 June 1042, without the participation of Patriarch Alexius I of Constantinople, who refused to officiate over a third marriage (for both spouses). On the following day, Constantine was formally proclaimed emperor together with Zoe and her sister Theodora.

During his thirteen-year rule Constantine supported the mercantile classes and favoured the company of intellectuals, thereby alienating the military aristocracy. A pleasure-loving ruler, he installed his long-term mistress, Maria, grand-daughter of the rebel Bardas Sclerus, in the palace with the apparent approval of the old empress, although this scandalised public opinion. He endowed a number of monasteries, chiefly the Nea Moni of Chios and the Mangana Monastery.

He had to cope with two major military revolts, of George Maniakes, the empire’s leading general who was rampaging across southern Italy in combat with the new power in the region, the Normans, and who, when recalled to the capital, was so angry that he had himself declared emperor by his troops in 1042 and marched on Constantinople, ending up killed in a skirmish with loyal troops in Thessalonica in 1043; and three years later by Leo Tornikios, who raised an army in Thrace and marched on the capital, which he besieged. After two failed assaults Leo withdrew, his army deserted him and he was captured. At Christmas 1047, he was blinded and no more is known of him.

Though he survived these threats, Constantine’s rule saw the elimination of the Byzantine presence from Calabria and Sicily, the Seljuk Turks had established themselves in Baghdad and were planning their invasions of Anatolia, and the Danube frontier had been breached by a number of invading tribes – the Pechenegs, the Cumans and the Uz. Which leads Norwich to comment:

The Emperor Constantine IX was more confident than Constantine VIII, more of a realist than Romanus Argyrus, healthier than Michael IV and less headstrong than Michael V. Politically, however, through sheer idleness and irresponsibility, he was to do the Empire more harm than the rest of them put together. (p.307)

Norwich goes into great detail to describe the Great Schism between the patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople which climaxed in legates from Rome placing a grand bull of excommunication on the high altar of St Sophia cathedral during the Eucharist. It is a long, sorry, shambolic story of misunderstandings and animosity between bigots on both sides.

This was bad politics because both sides needed to unite to drive the Normans out of Sicily. Their disunity allowed the Normans to seize control of the island and part of southern Italy. Interestingly, Constantine set about restoring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which had been substantially destroyed in 1009 by Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, and endowing other churches in Palestine.

During Constantine’s reign, Theodora was again sidelined, but Zoe died in 1050, and Constantine himself followed her in 1055. At which point Theodora briefly assumed full governance of the Empire and reigned until her own death the following year (1056).

As both Theodora and Zoe had no children, the chronicler Michael Psellus describes the panic-stricken meetings in which senior officials cast around for someone to replace her. They finally settled on an elderly patrician and a member of the court bureaucracy, Michael Bringas, who had served as military finance minister (and hence the epithet Stratiotikos often attached to his name). The senior civil servants knew he was one of them, and thought he would be easily managed. The dying Empress was persuaded to nod her head in approval of the choice, just hours before she passed away.

Non-dynastic (1056–1057)

Michael VI Bringas ‘the Old’ (1056 – 1057)

Michael was in his 60s, an ageing bureaucrat who had put up with years of low level abuse from military types. Now, as emperor, he took his revenge, spending money on the civil service and state officials, but underfunding the army. In his first review of the leading generals he amazed them by berating them in violent terms, and followed it up a few days later with more of the same.

They rebelled. A conspiracy of generals persuaded their leading figure, the tall, successful leader Isaac Comnenus, to lead the army of the East against Constantinople. Everywhere they went troops and citizens rallied to his flag, but nonetheless they were forced to fight a hard-fought battle against the army of Europe which Michael had summoned to his defence, just across the Bosphorus near Nicomedi. After a prolonged struggle, the eastern army triumphed and – after negotiations with Michael’s envoys – the emperor abdicated and was allowed to retired to a monastery where he died in 1059.

Comnenid dynasty (1057–1059)

Isaac I Comnenus (1057 – 1059)

Born about 1005, Isaac was the empire’s leading general when he was declared emperor by his troops and led them against Constantinople in 1057. He reigned for just two years, during which he tried to fund and organise the army better, but alienated the church (by arresting Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch who had persuaded Michael VI to abdicate) and much of the population (rigorous collection of taxes, reduction in state salaries, confiscation of property from the mega-rich).

There are two stories about his death: either he simply abdicated, perhaps depressed by the scale of the problems he faced and the obdurate roadblocking of the civil service, and retired to a monastery. In the other version he caught a chill while out hunting which turned into pneumonia.

In both versions of the story Isaac needed to name a successor and ignored his daughter, brother and five nephews to choose Constantine Ducas, the most aristocratic of the group of intellectuals who had helped revive Byzantine learning a few years before.

Doucid dynasty (1059–1081)

Constantine X Ducas (1059 – 1067)

There is no Emperor in the history of the later Roman Empire whose accession had more disastrous consequences. (p.337)

Constantine was a highly educated Greek aristocrat but he was also, in Norwich’s opinion, ‘a hopelessly impractical and woolly-minded bureaucrat’ (p.336) and ‘arguably the most disastrous ruler ever to don the purple buskins’ (p.338).

Why all the blame? Because Constantine wasted the imperial finances on high living and indulged in theological and philosophical speculation. Meanwhile he replaced standing soldiers with mercenaries and left the frontier fortifications unrepaired.

This led to mounting unhappiness within the army and an attempt by some generals to assassinate him in 1061 which was foiled. The result of running down the army was that under his rule the Empire lost most of Byzantine Italy to the Normans under Robert Guiscard, suffered invasions by Alp Arslan in Asia Minor in 1064, resulting in the loss of the Armenian capital, and by the Oghuz Turks in the Balkans in 1065, while Belgrade was lost to the Hungarians.

But it is the rising threat from the Seljuk Turks which Norwich focuses on. He describes the Turks as being a nomadic tribe of warriors, famed for their abilities firing a bow and arrow from the saddle, which originated in Transoxiana, and moved south, converting to Islam and slowly taking over Persia. They finally seized the capital of the old Abbasid Dynasty, Baghdad, in 1055. Meanwhile they also led expeditions against Armenia, which was by way of being a buffer state between the east and the Empire, and then pushed on into Anatolia, raiding as far as Ankara and Caesarea.

It is for Constantine’s systematic and deliberate running down of the Empire’s army and physical defences that Norwich names him worst Byzantine Emperor ever. In the same year that the Turks penetrated as far as Ankyra – with no army or force of any kind sent to prevent them – that Constantine died.

On his deathbed Constantine made his wife swear not to remarry and made all the senior officials sign a pledge that the succession could only go to a member of his family, the Ducases.

By his second wife, Eudocia Macrembolitissa, Constantine had the following sons:

  • Michael VII Ducas, who succeeded as emperor
  • Andronicus Ducas, co-emperor from 1068 to 1078
  • Constantius Ducas, co-emperor from 1060 to 1078

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 1

Born about 1050, Michael was the eldest son of Constantine X and succeeded to the throne aged 17 but showed little interest in ruling, leaving that to his mother, Eudocia, and uncle, John Ducas.

On 1 January 1068, Eudocia, having deceived the leading aristocrats about her intentions in order to get her deathbed promise to Constantine not to marry again annulled, married the general Romanus Diogenes, who now became senior co-emperor alongside Michael VII, and Michael’s brothers Constantius and Andronicus.

Romanus IV Diogenes (1068 – 1071)

If the Ducas family was one of the grandest, oldest and most illustrious parts of the courtly bureaucracy, Romanus hailed from the Anatolian military aristocracy. Eudocia, at least, appeared to realise that, with the pressing threat from the Turks, the Empire needed a strong military leader.

Michael VII had surrounded himself with sycophantic court officials, and was blind to the empire collapsing around him. In dire straits, imperial officials resorted to property confiscations and even expropriated some of the wealth of the church. The underpaid army mutinied, and the Byzantines lost Bari, their last possession in Italy, to the Normans of Robert Guiscard in 1071. Simultaneously, there was a serious revolt in the Balkans, where the Empire faced an attempt at the restoration of the Bulgarian state. Although this revolt was suppressed by the general Nicephorus Bryennius, the Byzantine Empire was unable to recover its losses in Asia Minor.

Struggling against this tide, Romanus immediately began to try and correct all the abuses which had built up around the army, to settle all arrears of pay, negotiate new contracts with mercenary soldiers, raise new levies from peasants in Anatolia, improve equipment and training.

In 1068, 1069, and 1070 he led raids into Turkish territory, seizing towns. The leader of the Turks by this point was Alp Arslan and the two leaders tried to negotiate a truce, but this was constantly broken by the Turcomen, lawless bandits related to the Turks who had not adopted Islam or any central authority.

Finally Romanus set off in the spring of 1071 with the largest army he could muster to crush the Turks. But – to be brief – it was he and the Byzantine army which was crushingly and definitively defeated, at a massive battle near the small fortress of Manzikert in August 1071.

There is reams of speculation about what exactly happened, but it seems certain that, having split his army in two due to uncertainty about the precise location of the Turk army, when Romanus located it and called for the other half, led by Joseph Tarchaniotes, to come to his aid, it didn’t. Speculation why continues to this day. After lining up for an engagement the Turks then retreated systematically, luring Romanus’s army towards mountains at the edge of the plain, where he feared getting trapped, so turned his forces. But some of them interpreted this as flight, rumour spread that the Emperor was killed, the Turks suddenly attacked in force, and the rearguard, led by one of the rival Ducas clan, fled. The remaining army was massacred by the Turks, Romanus fighting to the end, captured and brought before the Turkish leader.

The battle of Manzikert was the greatest disaster suffered by the Empire of Byzantium in the seven and a half centuries of its existence. (p.357)

Alp treated Romanus with respect, concluded a treaty with him, had him dressed, his wounds treated, and escorted back towards Constantinople: it would pay him to have a defeated Emperor in his power who would respect their treaty, rather than a new young buck who would ignore it. But Romanus’s fate was already sealed.

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 2

When rumours of a calamitous defeat reached Constantinople, the initiative was taken by Michael’s uncle John Ducas and his tutor Michael Psellus. They quickly proclaimed Michael VII Senior Emperor and he was crowned as such on October 24, 1071. Eudocia was quickly despatched to a convent.

Romanus seems to have mustered what remained of his army for the return march on Constantinople but was beaten in two consecutive battles with loyalist troops, after the second of which he gave himself up. Despite promises of a safe passage he was blinded and then paraded in rags sitting backwards on a donkey.

After Manzikert, the Byzantine government sent a new army to contain the Seljuk Turks under Isaac Comnenus, a brother of the future emperor Alexius I Comnenus, but this army was defeated and its commander captured in 1073.

The problem was made worse by the desertion of the Byzantines’ western mercenaries, who became the object of the next military expedition in the area, led by the Caesar John Ducas. This campaign also ended in failure, and its commander was likewise captured by the enemy.

The victorious mercenaries now forced John Ducas to stand as pretender to the throne. The government of Michael VII was forced to recognize the conquests of the Seljuks in Asia Minor in 1074, and to seek their support against Ducas. A new army under Alexius Comnenus, reinforced by Seljuk troops sent by Malik Shah I, finally defeated the mercenaries and captured John Ducas in 1074.

The net effect of these years of chaos was that the Turks established enduring control of a vast swathe of Anatolia, previously the main source for the Empire’s grain and manpower. The Turks named it the Sultanate of Rum (derived from ‘Rome’).

The economic upheaval caused by all these defeats added to widespread dissatisfaction and in 1078 two generals, Nicephorus Bryennius and Nicephorus Botaneiates, simultaneously revolted in the Balkans and Anatolia, respectively.

Bryennius raised the standard of revolt in November 1077 in his native city of Adrianople and marched on the capital. But, out east, Botaneiates gained the support of the Seljuk Turks, and he reached Constantinople first. They arrived as rising prices and food shortages led to riots and widespread burning and looting in March 1078. Michael abdicated on March 31, 1078 and retired into the Monastery of Studium.

Nicephorus III Botaneiates (1078 – 1081)

Born in 1001, Nicephorus rose to become the strategos of the Anatolic Theme, rebelled against Michael VII and was welcomed into the capital as a saviour to the ruioting and anarchy. He had his rival Bryennius arrested and blinded.

Botaneiates was in his seventies when he came to power, old and faced with the breakdown of the civil authority (after the leading bureaucrat had been murdered in the riots) and the ongoing weakness of the army on all fronts, which led to uprisings, rebellions and invasions on all borders, Botaneiates struggled and failed to cope.

Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118)

In the nick of time arrived a saviour. Exhausted, Botaneiates abdicated in 1081 and retired to a monastery where he died on 10 December of the same year. He abdicated in favour of an aristocratic young general who was to reign for the next 37 years with a firm hand and give the Empire the stability is so sorely needed.

He was Alexius Comnenus, nephew of Isaac Comnenus. His reign was to be dominated by wars against the Normans and the Seljuk Turks, as well as the arrival of the First Crusade and the establishment of independent Crusader states. But that is the start of a new era, and so here Norwich ends the second volume of his history of the Byzantine Empire.


Thoughts

Same names

I found this book hard going for several reasons. The most obvious is there’s a lot of repetition of names. Quite a few Leos, Michaels, Nicephoruses and Theodosuses recur throughout the narrative and when, on page 265, you find yourself reading about yet another Leo or another Michael, suddenly your mind goes completely blank and you can’t remember whether this is the one who inherited as a baby or was an alcoholic or murdered his brother or what…

And it’s not just the emperors’ names which get confusing. There were roughly two other major figures at any one moment of Byzantine history – the Patriarch of Constantinople – the head of the Eastern Church – and the Logothete or Chamberlain (in fact there were a number of logothetes with specialised roles, but there only ever seems to be one head of the imperial household and/or civil service at a time).

The point is that these other figures, also share just a handful of the same names. There were quite a few patriarchs named Leo or Nicephorus, and the same with the logothetes.

Then there’s the popes. Every Eastern Emperor and Patriarch had a troubled relationship with the Patriarch of Rome who increasingly ran the Western Church and, after Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800, had an increasing say in the running of the new Holy Roman Empire.

There appear to have been no fewer than ten popes named Leo during the three hundred years covered by this book. At the moment I am reading about the overthrow of the emperor Constantine by the Armenian general Romanus who, once he had seized power, had to settle things with his powerful rival Leo Phocas, before turning to turning to settle things with pope Leo. And all this is recorded for us in the chronicle of Leo the Deacon.

There are lots of Leos in this book.

It doesn’t help that Norwich’s standard practice is to introduce a new figure with their full title and number (Leo V, Michael II) but thereafter to omit the number. So you can easily find yourself reading about a Leo conspiring against a Nicephorus while a Basil lurks in the background – and wonder whether you’re in the 8th, 9th or 10th century.

The lack of social history indicates deeper gaps and absences

In fact this confusion about names and people stems from a deeper problem. Norwich, in his preface, candidly admits he isn’t interested in economic or social history. He likes people, and so his book is purely a history of the succession of the emperors, their wives, of troublesome patriarchs and rebellious generals – a history enlivened with plenty of gossip and speculation about the emperors’ sex lives and true parentages and military campaigns and heroic monuments. Fair enough, and all very entertaining.

But the unintended consequence of this VIP-based approach is that nothing ever seems to change.

The empire is permanently threatened by the Muslims in the east and the barbarians from the north. Time and again, one or other of them leads a massive army right up to the walls of Constantinople. Time and again, the emperor has a falling-out with the patriarch, imprisons him, replaces him, and holds an ecumenical council to try and impose his will on the church. Time and again, a rebellious general or jealous colleague assassinates the emperor in the heart of the palace and declares himself basileus.

There is little or no sense of historical change or development. Instead it feels a little like we are trapped in a very ornate version of Groundhog Day.

This is more than just confusing – the absence of economic or social history really profoundly fails to capture the passage of time.

What was the impact of mass destruction? I grew puzzled and frustrated every time I read that the Bulgars razed Adrianople to the ground and took 100,000 citizens off into slavery; or the Muslims razed Armoria to the ground and devastated the entire region, or captured Sicily or Crete.

Because in Norwich’s narrative, events like this are only interesting or relevant insofar as they consolidate or undermine each emperor’s position, as they feed into court intrigues.

But I kept wondering about their effect on the Byzantine Empire as a whole? Surely the utter destruction of its second city, the ravaging of entire areas, and the loss of major islands in the Mediterranean – surely these events changed things: surely trade and the economy were affected, surely the tax base and therefore the ability to pay for civil services and the army were affected. Surely archaeology or letters or books by private citizens might shed light on the impact of these events and what it felt like to live through them.

But none of that is included in Norwich’s narrative, which focuses exclusively on the tiny, tiny number of people right at the pinnacle of the empire and their increasingly squalid and repetitive shenanigans.

This is a highly entertaining account of the colourful lives and conspiracies of the Byzantine emperors, which gives you all the major political and biographical events of the period, but – the more I read it, the more I felt I was missing out on a deeper understanding of the Byzantine Empire, of its economy and trade – was it based on farming (and if so, of what?), or mining, or trade (and if so, with who?).

Writers And of its broader social structure and changes. Were there no poets or chroniclers who give us insight into the lives of ordinary people – farmers, and traders and lawyers – beyond the corrupt and violent emperors and their horrible families?

Art Art is mentioned occasionally, but only in the context of the massive schisms caused by Iconoclasm. I appreciate that there are other, separate books devoted to Byzantine art, but it’s just one of a whole range of social and cultural areas which remain pretty much a blank.

Slavery Slavery is repeatedly mentioned as a fundamental element of the empire and, indeed, of the surrounding societies. We hear again and again that both Muslim and barbarian raiders sold their captives into slavery. But what did that mean? Who ran the slave trade? Which societies had most slaves? What was a slave’s life like? How did you escape from slavery, because there are casual mentions of former slaves who rise to positions of power…

Eunuchs Eunuchs played a key role in Byzantine civilisation, and plenty of sons of deposed emperors were castrated; but not once does Norwich explain what this really meant, I mean not only how the operation was carried out, but there is no exploration of the culture of the court eunuchs, and how this made the Byzantine court different from those of, say, the King of the Franks or the Muslim Caliph in Baghdad.

So this is a great gaudy romp of a book which gives you all the necessary dates and explanations of the political and military history – but I was left wanting to know a lot more about the Byzantine Empire.


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (2005)

Michael Wood

This is Wood’s first book. Back in 1979 he burst onto our TV screens as the boyishly enthusiastic presenter of a BBC series about ‘the Dark Ages’, spread across eight episodes, his hippy length hair and flapping flairs striding along castle walls and over Iron Age forts. I remember chatting to a middle-aged woman TV executive who openly lusted after Wood’s big smile and tight, tight trousers.

Since this debut, Wood has gone on to present no fewer than 19 TV series as well as eight one-off documentaries and to write 12 history books. In fact I was surprised and dismayed to read that the former boy wonder of history TV is now nearly 70.

Dated

The first edition of this paperback was published in 1981 and its datedness is confirmed by the short bibliography at the back which recommends a swathe of texts from the 1970s and even some from the 1960s i.e. 50 long years ago.

The very title is dated, as nowadays all the scholars refer to the period from 400 to 1000 as the Early Middle Ages;’ no-one says ‘Dark Ages’ any more – though, credit where credit’s due, maybe this TV series and book helped shed light on the period for a popular audience which helped along the wider recategorisation.

But the book’s age does mean that you are continually wondering how much of it is still true. Wood is keen on archaeological evidence and almost every chapter features sentences like ‘new archaeological evidence / new digs at XXX are just revealing / promise to reveal major new evidence about Offa/Arthur et al…’ The reader is left wondering just what ‘new evidence’ has revealed over the past 40 years and just how much of Wood’s interpretations still hold up.

Investigations

It’s important to emphasise that the book does not provide a continuous and overarching history of the period: the opposite. The key phrase is ‘in search of…’ for each chapter of the book (just like each of the TV programmes) focuses on one particular iconic figure from the period and goes ‘in search of’ them, starting with their current, often mythologised reputation, then going on to examine the documentary texts, contemporary artifacts (coins, tapestries etc) and archaeological evidence to try and get at ‘the truth behind the myth’.

The figures are: Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man, Offa, Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, King Ethelred the Unready, William the Conqueror. Each gets a chapter putting them in the context of their day, assessing the sources and material evidence for what we can really know about them, mentioning the usual anecdotes and clichés generally to dismiss them.

Contemporary comparisons

Part of Wood’s popularising approach is to make trendy comparisons to contemporary figures or situations. Some of this has dated a lot – when he mentions a contemporary satirical cartoon comparing the Prime Minister to Boadicea (or Boudica, as she was actually called) he is of course referring to Margaret Thatcher, not Theresa May. When he says that the late-Roman rulers of Britain effectively declared U.D.I. from the Empire, I just about remember what he’s referring to – Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain back in 1965 – and it’s a thought-provoking comparison – but most readers would probably have to look it up. He says that contemporaries remembered the bad winter of 763 ‘just as we do that of 1947’ – do we? He says the Northumbrians felt about Athelstan’s conquest of their kingdom ‘the same way as we feel about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ (p.145).

That said, I found many of the comparisons worked well bringing these ancient people to life, in highlighting how their behaviour is comparable to the same kind of things going on in the contemporary world:

For example, he compares the native British merchants getting involved with Roman traders like entrepreneurs in contemporary Third World countries taking out, for example, a Coca Cola franchise – or compares Boudica’s rebellion against the imperial Romans with rebellions against British Imperial rule – the most disastrous of which was probably the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – invigorating my thinking about both.

In the 440s the British King Vortigern invited warbands from Germany, Frisia and Denmark to come and help him fight against the invading Picts and Scots. As we know, a number of them decided they liked this new fertile country and decided to stay. Wood entertainingly compares the situation to modern mercenaries deciding not just to fight in but to settle and take over a modern African country.

The seventh-century English kingdoms were ruled by the descendants of the illiterate condottieri who had seized their chances in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is, let us say, as if Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare had founded his own dynasty in the Congo in the early sixties. (p.63)

I understood the reference the more since Hoare is mentioned in the memoirs of both Frederick Forsyth and Don McCullin who covered wars in Africa back in the distant 1960s.

Elsewhere he compares the builders of Offa’s Dyke to modern motorway construction companies, kingly announcements as sounding like modern propaganda by Third World dictators, the lingering influence of Rome on the 7th and 8th century kings comparable to the lingering afterglow of European imperial trappings on African dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He compares the partition of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the partition of Israel, and the readiness of armed civilians to mobilise against the invader as comparable to the readiness of Israeli reservists (p.124); the burning of Ripon Minster by the southern army of King Eardred marching north to confront Erik Bloodaxe ‘had the same effect that the shelling of Reims had in 1914 (p.181).

Learning that King Athelstan was the first king to definitively rule the entire English nation and in fact to extend his mastery over Wales and Scotland, you might think ‘game over’, it’s all peaceful from now on, but far from it. The decades after Athelstan’s death in 939 saw the ravaging of the north of England by conflicting hordes of Saxons, Vikings, Northumbrians, Scots and Welsh, until it became a kind of ‘Dark Age Vietnam’, despoiled by the Dark Age equivalent of our modern ‘saturation bombing’ (p.165).

Quibbles and kings

Pedants might quibble that Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, quite a long time before the official start date of the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, which is generally given as 400. But I can see the logic: a) Boudicca is more or less the first named leader of the Britons that history records and b) the themes of Roman colonialism and British resistance and c) the broader themes of invasion and resistance are set up very neatly by her story. In fact, given that a lot of the book is about invasion and resistance, leaving her out would have been odd.

For invasion is the main theme: the Romans arrived to find the native ‘Britons’ illiterate and so it’s only with the Romans that the written record begins, although archaeology suggests that successive waves of peoples had arrived and spread over Britain before them. But after the Romans there is a well-recorded set of invaders:

  • First the Angles and Saxons under their legendary leaders Hengist and Horsa in the 450s; the legend of King Arthur grew out of stories of native ‘British’ resistance to the Germanic invaders in the late 400s and Wood, like every other serious historian, concludes that there is not a shred of evidence for Arthur’s actual historical existence.
  • It is from the period when the Anglo-Saxon invaders settled into different ‘kingdoms’ – in fact themselves made up of loosely affiliated tribal groups – that dates the stupendous grave at Sutton Hoo with its wonderful Dark Age treasure: Wood goes ‘in search’ of the king who was buried there but, like every other scholar, says we will probably never know, though the name of King Raedwald of the East Angles is most often referred to in the scholarly literature.
  • King Offa of Mercia (757-797) was the most powerful king of his day – he was even deemed worthy of correspondence from the great Charlemagne, king of Francia (768-814) and Wood goes in search of his royal ‘palace’ at Tamworth.
  • It was King Alfred the Great (871-899) who had to deal with the arrival of a massive Viking army and, although pushed back into the marshy maze of the Somerset Levels, eventually emerged to fight the invaders to a truce, in which the Danes held all of England east of a line drawn from London to the Mersey – the so-called Danelaw.
  • It fell to his son, Edward, to successfully continue the fight against the Danes, and it was only in the reign of his son, King Athelstan (927-939) that all of England was for the first time unified under one ruler.
  • In fact, the Danes fought back and the Norse adventurer Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, briefly seized and ruled Yorkshire from York. When he was finally overthrown (in 954), that was meant to be the end of Danish rule in England…
  • Except that the Danish King Cnut managed, after a long campaign led by his father, to seize the English throne in 1016 and reigned till his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his son Harthacnut, an unpopular tyrant who reigned for just two years (1040-42). During Cnut’s reign England became part of his North Sea Empire which joined the thrones of Denmark and Sweden.
  • Cnut’s Anglo-Danish kingdom is generally forgotten because it, like a lot of Anglo-Saxon history, is eclipsed by the Norman Conquest of 1066, with which Wood logically concludes his story.

Brutality

Though he conveys infectious excitement at the achievement of an Offa or Athelstan, Wood is well aware of the brutality which was required of a Dark Ages king.

For most Dark Age kings had the inclinations of spoilt children and their moral sense was unrefined. (p.221)

We learn that after Offa’s death the men of Kent rose up against Mercian rule and were crushed, their king, Eadberht Praen, taken in chains to Mercia where his hands were cut off and he was blinded (p.107). The Vikings practiced a ritual sacrifice of their fallen opponents to Wodin, the blood eagle, which involved cutting the ribs and lungs out of the living man and arranging them to look like eagle’s wings (p.114). The great Athelstan himself barely survived an attempt apparently organised by  his brother, Edwin, to capture and blind him (p.140). When the invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, his army elected  his son, Cnut, as king to replace him. Ethelred took advantage of the hiatus to raise levies and attack Cnut in Gainsborough, forcing him to go to sea. But the Danes had taken a number of nobles or their sons hostage for good behaviour, and Cnut put them all ashore at Sandwich, after cutting off their noses and hands (p.216).

Ravaging not fighting

There was no shortage of battles during this period (the thousand years from Boudicca’s revolt in 60 to Hastings in 1066) but what I began to realise was the steady drip-drip of ‘campaigns’ which never involved two armies directly confronting each other; instead during which one or more armies rampaged through their opponents’ territory, murdering, raping, destroying crops and burning down villages, in order to terrorise their opponents into ceasing fire and offering a truce. The Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, the Welsh, the Scots and the Picts and the Irish, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans – all in their time waged ‘military’ campaigns which amounted to little more than systematic murder, rape and plunder of completely unarmed peasants as a deliberate war strategy.

I’ve always wondered why there’s a massive statue of Boudicca opposite the Houses of Parliament given that one of her main achievements was burning London to the ground, after previously ravaging all Roman settlements in her native East Anglia; and a thousand years later William the Bastard, having defeated the main Wessex army at Senlac Ridge, then set about ravaging the countryside in a wide circle to the west and up and around London – then when the English in the north resisted him, William went on a massive campaign of destruction known as the Harrying of the North (1069-70) resulting in huge destruction and widespread famine caused by his army’s looting, burning and slaughtering.

From Boadicea to the Bastard, a thousand years of horrific violence and destruction.

As David Carpenter points out in his history of the Plantagenet kings, direct confrontation in battle is risky; quite often the bigger better-led force loses, for all sorts of reasons. Hugely more controllable, predictable and effective is to ravage your opponents’ land until he sues for peace. You lose no soldiers; in fact the soldiers get all the food they want plus the perks of raping and/or killing helpless civilians, which saves on pay as well; if you do it long enough your opponent will cave in the end.

This is the depressing logic which means that, time after time, king after king and invader after invader found it cheaper, safer and more effective to kill and burn helpless civilians than to engage in a set piece battle. And it is a logic which continues to this day in horribly war-torn parts of the world.

Slavery

I’m well aware that slavery was one of the great trades of this era, that slaves were one of Roman Britain’s main exports and were still a mainstay of the economy even after William the Bastard tried to ban the trade a thousand years later, but Wood himself admits to being astonished by the range of breadth of the Dark Age slave trade (pp. 183-185):

  • The Spanish Arabs engaged in a lucrative slave trade with the Dublin Norse who often planned their attacks on Christian towns to coincide with Christian festivals when they’d be packed e.g. the raid on Kells in 951 in which the Norse took away over 3,000 slaves to sell on.
  • The Church in Britain was economically dependent on its slaves.
  • The Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland served as clearing houses for slaves seized from the interior or Wales or England and then sold on to Arab Spain, to North Africa or via the Baltic via the Russian river routes to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
  • An Arab traveller of Erik Bloodaxe’s time (the 950s) reported from Spain on the great numbers of European slaves in the harems and in the militia. The Emir of Cordoba, in particular, owned many white women.
  • Most British slaves seem to have ended up being sent via the Russian river route to the Middle East. The numerous Icelandic sagas mention the slave trade and even give portraits of individual named slave impresarios.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (962 – 973) captured tens of thousands of Slavs in his conquests eastwards, sending them in chains back to be processed by Jewish and Syrian slave merchants in Verdun, and then shipped south into Arab lands, many of them castrated first so as to be fit servants in the harem.
  • An eighth-century pilgrim in Taranto saw nine thousand Italian slaves being loaded aboard boat, just one of countless shipments to Egypt.

Almost everything about the Dark Ages is terrifying, the never-ending warfare, the endless ravaging burning and looting, but I think the vision of an entire continent dominated by the trade in slaves is the most harrowing thing of all.

The inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham’s book, The Inheritance of Rome (2009), makes the claim that only in recent times have we come to realise the extent to which the legacy of Rome lived on for centuries after the end of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to the death of the last emperor in 475). So it’s interesting to read Wood making exactly the same point in 1980:

For the so-called barbarians of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Roman empire cast the same sort of afterglow as the British Empire did in post-colonial Africa… The ruins of Rome stood around them in tangible form, of course. But it went deeper than that. The Northumbrian bretwalda, Edwin, unsophisticated but immensely proud, as Bede portrays him, made the point of having the insignia of Roman office carried aloft before him in public. He was baptised by a Roman missionary in the Roman city of York, and for all we know held court in the still standing Roman HQ building there. Such men were setting themselves up as civilised heirs of Rome… (p.108)

Conclusion

All in all this is a popularising and accessible account, dipping into the most dramatic highlights of this long period, a quick entertaining read, with many stimulating thoughts, insights and comparisons thrown in.


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The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350 by Robert Bartlett (1993)

The sub-title is ‘Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350’ and that is very much the central idea I take from this book – that before Europe embarked on its well-known colonial adventures from 1492 onwards, it had already experienced centuries of internal colonisation.

Another book I’ve recently read, Robert Fletcher’s The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD, has prepared my mind for this idea, with its account of the millennium-long process whereby Christianity was spread across the ‘nations’ (such as they were) of Europe, to the pagan peoples and rulers of the fringes. The final part of that book makes it clear that, after the First Crusade (1095-99), as Christianity was spread along the Baltic and into the last bastions of paganism in Eastern Europe, the evangelising became much more violent. It no longer amounted to a much-venerated saint converting a bunch of open-mouthed peasants by healing a sick girl; it was now about armed bands of knights united in an ‘Order’ – the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the Teutonic Order – who waged fierce wars of conquest into the East, forcibly converting the populations they conquered and building imperial castles to hold the territory they’d seized.

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Europe had to colonise itself, before its rulers went on to violently colonise the rest of the world.

Bartlett’s book aims to make you see that a number of scattered events usually treated as separate entities in siloed national histories, were actually all part of One Really Big Pattern: the spread, by conquest, of a centrally organised, Latin, Catholic Christianised state ideology right across Europe, and that this diffusion came from the heart of the old Frankish empire, from the most technologically and ideologically advanced heart of Europe consisting of north-France, north-west Germany and south-east England (after it had been conquered by the Normans in the 1060s).

Thus:

  • The Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s was partly a crude seizure of land and resources, but also involved the imposition on Gaelic Christianity of the much more centrally organised Latin Roman version.
  • A hundred years later, Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the 1280s had a similar aim of imposing a strong, centralised, Latinate organisation onto a culture traditionally made of scores of petty princes.
  • The Scots had already undergone a European-style centralising ‘revolution’ under King David I (1124-1153) and so could muster more resources to resist Edward I’s imperial ambitions – but only at the expense of handing over large parts of southern Scotland to settlement by Normans (and Flemings).
  • This period also saw the Reconquista of Spain, the long effort to push the occupying Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula, over the centuries from the reconquest of Toledo in 1085 to the recapture of Seville in 1248.
  • It was also the era of the Crusades (1095 to 1291), which imposed Latin, Catholic Christianity on formerly Orthodox territories in the Middle East.
  • Just before the First Crusade began, Norman troops under Roger I conquered the Kingdom of Sicily from the Muslims (complete by 1091).
  • En route to the Holy Land, King Richard I seized Cyprus from its Greek ruler in 1191, transferring it to Latin rule.
  • And the sack of Constantinople in 1204 led directly to the imposition of Latin, Catholic dioceses and bishops over much of the Byzantine Empire.

The same period saw the campaigns to Christianise the remote regions of northern and north-eastern Europe, now collectively referred to as the ‘Northern Crusades’. These included:

  • The Wendish Crusade (1147) against the Wends of north-east Germany and Poland.
  • The Crusade against the Livonians in the north-east Baltic in the 1190s.
  • The Teutonic Knights prolonged campaign to crush and convert the Prussians in the 1250s.
  • And a series of drawn-out campaigns against the pagan Duchy of Lithuania, the last stronghold of paganism in all Europe.

Moreover, this period also saw internal crusades to impose order and uniformity within Latin Christendom – most notoriously against the Cathars, a heretical sect which had followers across the South of France and which was brutally suppressed in the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ from 1209 to 1229 (named for the town of Albi, which was one of the heretical strongholds).

The Frankish expansion

The animation below shows the first 500 years of the spread of Christianity, the loss of the Middle east and Africa to the Muslims in the 700s and 800s, the Christian fightback – permanent in Spain, transient in the Levant – and then the abrupt worldwide explosion of Christianity commencing in 1500. It’s the first 1400 years or so we’re interested in, the fluctuations in and around the Mediterranean, and the period 950 to 1350 that Bartlett is particularly concerned with.

In a host of ways Bartlett identifies this expansion with the Franks, the Gothic tribe which seized Gaul from the Romans in the 500s and quickly established a centralised state which reached its geographical maximum under the legendary Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814. I hadn’t realised that at its peak, Charlemagne’s empire was coterminous with Western Christendom (with the exception of the Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) as this map shows. It really was an awesome achievement.

Map of Europe around 800 AD

Map of Europe around 800 AD

William of Normandy who conquered Britain in 1066 was a descendant of the Frankish kings. Frankish aristocrats played key roles in all the conquests of the day, against the Moors in Spain and the Saracens in the Levant, in Sicily and Crete and Cyprus, and in the north pressing into Denmark, into Poland and along the Baltic towards Finland and Russia. Bartlett has a nifty diagram showing that by the late Middle Ages, 80% of Europe’s monarchs were descended from the Frankish royal family or Frankish nobles.

No surprise, then, that the word ‘Frank’ began to be used widely as a generic name for the conquerors and settlers all over Europe – the Byzantine Greeks called the incoming Latins ‘the Franks’; a settlement in Hungary was called ‘the village of the Franks’; the newly conquered peoples of Silesia and Moravia had to submit to ‘Frankish law’; Welsh chroniclers refer to incursions by ‘the Franci’; and Irish monks referred to the Anglo-Norman invaders as ‘the Franks’. Similarly, in the Middle East of the Crusader era, Muslim commentators, kings and peoples came to call all Westerners ‘the Franks’. So widespread and famous was this association, that Muslim traders took the name Faranga on their journeys through the Red Sea eastwards, spreading the term as far East as China, where, when westerners arrived hundreds of years later, they were identified as the long-rumoured Fo-lang-ki. (pp.104-105).

Questions and theories

All this prompts three questions:

  1. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to convert the entire continent?
  2. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to be so centralised; why did it feel so obliged to impose uniformity of ritual and language all across the Christian world?
  3. What gave Latin Christian culture its dynamism – the aggressive confidence which would spill out to the Canary Islands (conquered in the early 1400s), to the Caribbean (1490s), to Central America (1520s), along the coast of Africa (first settlements in Mozambique in 1500), to India and beyond?

1. The first of these questions is answered at length in Richard Fletcher’s book, which shows how the Great Commission in St Matthew’s Gospel (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you‘) was interpreted by successive Church authorities to mean, first of all, gaining some converts among the rich in cities around the Roman Empire; then to convert all inhabitants of the cities; then, only slowly, to undertake the task of converting the rural peasants; and only then, in the 700s and 800s, the brave idea of venturing beyond the pale of Romanitas to try and convert pagans.

The second two questions are the ones Bartlett specifically addresses and he approaches them from different angles, examining various theories and sifting a wide range of evidence. I found two arguments particularly convincing:

2. The centralisation of the Catholic Church. This stems from the Gregorian Reforms, a series of measures instituted by Pope Gregory VII from around 1050 to 1080. They banned the purchase of clerical positions, enforced clerical celibacy, significantly extended Canon law to impose uniformity on all aspects of Catholic practice. As Wikipedia puts it, these reforms were based on Gregory’s

conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in his capacity as a divine institution, he is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church under the Petrine Commission, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity.

This gathering of power by the papacy is generally thought to have reached its height under the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198 to 1216). Innocent further extended Canon Law, upheld papal power over all secular rulers, using the Interdict to punish rulers he disagreed with (e.g. King John of England) and he was personally responsible for some of the violent campaigns we’ve listed: Innocent called for Christian crusades to be mounted against the Muslims in the Holy Land and the south of Spain, and against the Cathars in the South of France.

Making Christian belief and practice uniform was part and parcel of the extension of its power by a vigorously confident papacy, a vision of uniformity which echoed and reinforced the tendency of secular rulers to create larger ‘states’ in which they asserted increasingly centralised power and uniform laws.

3. As to the literal force behind the aggressive military confidence, Bartlett has a fascinating chapter about the technology of medieval war. Basically, the Franks had heavy war-horses, heavy body armour, the crossbow and a new design of impenetrable defensive castles and all of these were absent in the conquered territories, the Holy Land, southern Spain, Wales and Ireland, in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. These advanced military technologies gave the better-armed Franks victory – at least until their opponents managed to figure out and copy them for themselves. (The Crusades are a different case – fundamentally the Crusaders lost for lack of men and resources.)

But I was drawn to a subtler cause for this great expansion: in the 9th and 10th centuries the laws of inheritance were hazy and patrimonies and estates could be divided among a number of sons, daughters, cousins, uncles and so on. (One aspect of this is the way that Anglo-Saxon kings were chosen by acclamation, not rigid law; and this uncertainty explains the long English civil war following Henry I’s death between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois, which lasted from 1135 to 1153.)

Thus, along with the imposition of clearer laws and rules within the Church went secular attempts in Frankish lands to regularise secular law, and one element of this was to enforce the previously haphazard law of primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. But this new rigour had unexpected consequences – it forced all the other male heirs to go off looking for land.

In a fascinating chapter Bartlett sketches the histories of several aristocratic Frankish families where one son inherited the father’s entire estate and left the other 3 or 4 or 5 well-armed, well-educated, ambitious sons literally homeless and landless. There was only one thing for it – to associate themselves with the nearest campaign of Christianisation and conquest. Thus the de Joinville family from the Champagne region of France spawned sons who fought and won lands in Ireland, in Africa and Syria. The descendants of Robert de Grandmenils from Normandy (d.1050) won lands in southern Italy and Sicily, served the Byzantine Emperor, joined the First Crusade, and ended up building castles in northern Wales.

So a newly rigorous application of the law of primogeniture provided the motive for forcing dispossessed aristocrats to go a-fighting – the newly authoritarian Catholic Church provided a justifying ideology for conquest in the name of uniformity and iron armour, heavy warhorses, the crossbow and castles provided the technology. Taken together these elements at least begin to explain the phenomenal success of the ‘Frankish expansion’.

Other aspects of medieval colonisation

These ideas are pretty clearly expressed in the first three chapters; the remaining nine chapters flesh them out with a host of details examining the impact of the Frankish expansion on every aspect of medieval life: the image of the conquerors as embodied in coins, statutes and charters; the division of time into primitive pagan ‘before’ and civilised Christian ‘after’; the propagandistic literature of conquest (in various romances and epics); the giving of new Latin place names which over-wrote the native names of the conquered – the Arabs, the Irish, the Slavs; the imposition of new Frankish laws and tax codes; the proliferation of New Towns with Western-based charters, and the creation of hundreds of new villages, laid out on logical grid patterns, especially in eastern Europe. (This reminded me of the passage in Marc Morris’s history of Edward I which describes Edward’s creation of New Model Towns on grid plans in Wales (Flint) but also England (Winchelsea)).

Bartlett presents the evidence for the widespread importation from Christian Germany of heavy, iron-tipped ploughs which were much more efficient at turning the soil than the lighter, wooden Slavic ploughs, and thus increased productivity in the new settlements (pp.148-152). This went hand-in-hand with a ‘cerealisation’ of agriculture, as woods were cleared and marshes drained to provide more ploughing land to grow wheat and barley, which in turn led to significant increases in population in the newly settled lands. (Although as with all things human this had unintended consequences, little understood at the time; which is that the pagan predecessors, though fewer in number, had a more balanced diet which included fruit and berries and honey from woodlands – the switch to a cereal-based monoculture increased production but probably led to unhealthier people. Analysis of corpses suggests there was a net loss of stature in humans over the period, with the average height decreasing by about 2 inches between the early and the High Middle Ages.)

Names became homogenised. The Normans imported ‘William’ and ‘Henry’ into the England of ‘Athelstan’ and ‘Aelfric’, and then into the Wales of ‘Llywelyn’ ‘Owain’ and the Ireland of ‘Connor’, ‘Cormac’ and ‘Fergus’. Bartlett shows how these essentially Frankish names also spread east replacing ‘Zbigniew’ and ‘Jarosław’, south into Sicily and even (to a lesser extent) into Spain.

In a move typical of Bartlett’s ability to shed fascinating light on the taken-for-granted, he shows how the centralisation and harmonisation of the Latin church led to the diffusion of a small number of generic saints names. Before about 1100 the churches of the various nations were dedicated to a very wide spectrum of saints named after local holy men in Irish, Welsh, Scots, Castilian, Navarrese, Italian, Greek, Germanic or Polish and so on. But the 1200s saw the rise of a continent-wide popularity for the core gospel names – Mary at the top of the table, followed by Christ (as in Christ Church or Corpus Christi) and then the names of the most popular disciples, John, Peter, Andrew.

The names of individual people as well as the names of their churches, along with many other cultural changes which he describes – all followed this process of homogenisation and Latinisation which Bartlett calls ‘the Europeanisation of Europe’ (chapter 11).

New worlds and the New World

Bartlett doesn’t have to emphasise it but the parallels are clear to see between the colonisation by violence and crusading Christianity of the peripheral areas of Europe in the 1000s to 1300s, and the conquest of the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. It’s a mind-opening comparison, which works at multiple levels.

For example, many of the charters and decrees about the new European lands proclaimed them ’empty’ virgin land ready to be settled, despite the evidence of native populations living in well-developed (though non-Latin) settlements – just as publicists for the Americas and, later, Australia, would declare them ’empty’ of natives.

Even when there are obviously natives (Welsh, Scots, Muslims, Slavs) the official colonial medieval literature disparages the aboriginal inhabitants’ lack of literacy, of iron tools or weapons, of orthodox Christianity, of organised towns with advanced codes of law and so on.

‘They’ are in every way uncivilised; ‘we’ in every way deserve to take their land because only ‘we’ know how to make it productive and fertile.

Many of the other histories I’ve read describe the numerous medieval conquests in terms of battles, alliances, troops and armour and so on; Bartlett’s is the only one I know which goes on to explain in great detail that, once you’ve conquered your new territory – you need people to come and live in it. You have to persuade people from the old lands to risk making a long journey, so you have to advertise and give would-be settlers tax breaks and even cash incentives. Settlers in Ireland, the south of Spain, the Holy Land or Livonia were all told how much empty land they could have, were offered tax breaks for the first few years and then reduced taxes for decades after, and the lords and conquerors fell over themselves to give the new towns attractive charters and independent powers to determine their own laws and taxes.

All of these techniques would be copied by the conquistadors in Central America or the merchant adventurers who launched the first settlements in North America, or the colonial authorities desperate to fill the wide ’empty’ spaces of Australia or New Zealand. It is a mind-opening revelation to learn how all these techniques were pioneered within Europe itself and against fellow ‘Europeans’, centuries before the New World was discovered.

Conclusion

This a very persuasive book which mounts an impressive armoury of evidence – archaeological and ecological, in place names, people’s names, saints names, in cultural traditions, church records and epic poems, in the spread of monasteries and universities and charters and coinage – to force home its eye-opening central argument: that the more advanced, centrally organised parts of Europe (north-west France, north-west Germany and south-east England) (all ultimately owing their authority, technology and ideology to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne) succeeded in conquering and settling the rest of less advanced, less developed and non-Christian Europe with the aid of a panoply of technologies and ideologies, legal and cultural and physical weapons – a panoply which Europeans would then use to sail out and conquer huge tracts of the rest of the world.


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The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham (2009)

The sub-title is ‘A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’. It is the second in the ‘Penguin History of Europe’ series, following Classical Europe and preceding Europe in the High Middle Ages. It is a dense 550 pages long, plus extensive notes, bibliography, index and maps. But I’m not sure it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone. Why?

Events and theories

Very roughly there are two types of history books – ones which tell you the events in chronological order, and ones which discuss themes, theories and ideas about the events. Thus Dan Jones’s breathless account of the Plantagenet kings gives a thrilling head-on narrative of their trials and tribulations from 1120 to 1400. You can go on to explore individual Plantagenet monarchs further via in narrative-led books like Marc Morris’s accounts of King John or King Edward I.

By contrast, a thematic history would be one like John Darwin’s overview of the British Empire, which examines different elements or themes of the imperial experience, bringing together incidents, facts and stats from widely disparate territories and different points in time to prove his general points.

This book is very much the latter. Although divided into four chronological sections –

  • The Roman Empire and Its Breakup 400-550
  • The Post-Roman West 550-750
  • The Empires of the East 550-1000
  • The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West 750-1000

– it is much more a thematic than an events-based account. Wickham explains the bits he needs to, but yanks them out of contexts as disparate as Viking Iceland or Muslim Baghdad. In the same sentence he can be talking about Justinian in the 550s then switch to Constantine’s reforms in the 312s and end with some comments about Theodosius in the 390s. I found the result very confusing.

In my experience you have to read the most detailed account possible of contentious historical events in order to feel you have even the beginnings of an ‘understanding’ of them; in fact ideally you read several complementary accounts to begin to build up a three dimensional picture. By ‘understanding’ I mean the ability to put yourself in the place of the relevant players – kings, queens, nobles, opposing generals or whatever – to understand the social, economic, cultural and psychological pressures they were under, and to understand why they behaved as they did. Alaric sacked Rome because of a, b, c. Charlemagne attacked the Saxons so savagely because of x, y, z.

The further removed you are from a comprehensible, chronological and granular account of the Past, the sillier it often looks.

For example, if you are told that the armies of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century were diverted from attacking the Saracens in the Holy Land and ended up besieging, sacking and permanently weakening Christian Constantinople (in 1204) you will be tempted to make all kinds of generalisations about how stupid and violent the crusaders were, how muddle-headed medieval leaders were, how hypocritical Christianity has always been, and so on.

It’s only if you delve deeper and discover that Constantinople was experiencing a major leadership crisis in which an anti-Crusade emperor had deposed a pro-Crusade emperor and was threatening to execute him, and that this crisis was taking place against the background of mounting tension between the Latin and the Greek populations of the city which had already led to one major riot in which the city’s Greek population had massacred or forced to flee the entire Roman population of around 60,000 – if you’re told all this, then the crusaders’ motives no longer look so random and absurd: in fact you can begin to see how some of them thought the diversion was vital in order:

  • to rescue ‘their’ emperor
  • to ensure the safety of ‘their’ people in the city
  • and to establish favourable conditions for the ongoing pursuit of the crusade against the Muslims

In fact it was not so stupid after all. You are also better placed to understand the arguments within the Crusader camp about whether or not to besiege the city, as the leaders of different national factions – each with different trading and political links with the Greeks or the West – will have argued the case which best suited their interests. Now you can begin to sympathise with the conflicting arguments, you can put yourself in the place of the squabbling crusaders or the different factions within the city. Now – in other words – you have achieved what I define as a basic ‘understanding’ of the event.

Or take the famous sack of Rome in 410. I recently read John Julius Norwich’s long account of the Byzantine Empire from 300 to 800, very dense with facts and quite hard to assimilate – but it does have the merit of describing events very thoroughly, giving you a clear picture of the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire – and its clarity allows you to go back and reread passages if you get a bit lost (easy to do). Thus, although I’ve read references to Alaric and the Visigoths’ sack of Rome scores of times, Norwich’s book was the first one I’ve ever read which explains in detail the events leading up to the disaster. And it was only by reading the full sequence of events that I learned the unexpected fact that the sack was mostly the fault of the obstinate Roman authorities, because they snobbishly refused to negotiate a peace deal with Alaric, a peace deal he actually wanted, and that their foolish refusal eventually forcing him into extreme action. (See my review of Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich.) Norwich’s account was a revelation to me, completely transforming my understanding of this key event in the history of western Europe. Compare and contrast with Wickham, who covers it in one sentence (on page 80).

For me, in the study of history – the closer, the clearer and the more chronological, the better.

Modish

On top the confusing thematic approach, Wickham’s text is aggressively modern, theoretical and self-consciously up-to-date. He uses the lexicon of literary theory I was taught in the 1980s and which has gone on to infest history writing and art criticism. Events are ‘situated’ in the ‘space’ created by hierarchies, his book sets out to survey ‘the socio-political, socio-economic, political-cultural developments of the period 400-1000’ and will investigate the complexity of the state structures within which the major figures ‘operated’. And he is liberal with maybe the key indicator of fashionable post-modern jargon, ‘the Other’; hence,

The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’ (p.43).

The trouble with this kind of jargon is that it rarely explicates things and more often confuses or obscures them. ‘The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’.’ What does that say except look at my modish post-modern vocabulary. Does he mean that the Roman Empire, within which law, order, peace and trade prevailed, was surrounded by territories in which shifting alliances of illiterate barbarian tribes lived their mostly unrecorded lives, tribes which periodically threatened to overrun the borders of the Empire.

Wickham emphasises how bang up to date he is and is at great pains to skewer the vulgar error of all previous historians of this period, who thought the Roman Empire ‘collapsed’ under pressure from invading ‘barbarians’. The whole thrust of his book is that Roman law, administration and other structures lingered on much much longer than has been previously thought – hence the book’s title. But he still needs a generic word to describe the non-Roman peoples who indisputably did break across the frontiers of the Empire, who did ravage large sections of it, who did cause enormous disruption and who did form the basis of the post-Roman societies which slowly replaced the Empire. Having ruled out the use of barbarians, since that falls into the vulgar error of all previous writers on the subject, he eventually decides to call them ‘barbarians’, with added speech marks and so throughout the book the word ‘barbarian’ occurs just as much as it would in a traditional account, but with the quotes around it to remind you that the older accounts were so so wrong, and this account is so much more sophisticated.

All past accounts are wrong

The opening pages of The Inheritance of Rome explain why all previous histories of the Early Middle Ages were wrong – they suffered from any of three major flaws:

1. The Nationalist Fallacy i.e. countless histories have been written over the past two hundred years in the nations of modern Europe claiming that the period 400-1000 saw the ‘seeds’ being laid of their respective proud nation state – of modern France, Germany, Britain etc etc. No, they weren’t, says Wickham. The people we are investigating lived their own lives in their own time according to their own values inherited from their recent past – they had absolutely no inkling what would happen in the future. To write as if Charlemagne was laying the foundations for modern France is unforgiveable teleology i.e. seeing a purpose or aim in events, a sense of inevitability (rising, in conservative nationalist histories to a sense of Historical Destiny) which simply doesn’t exist and which didn’t exist at the time.

When Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate in 472 no-one knew that he would be the Last Roman Emperor in the West. All the various political players continued jostling for power in the normal way, invoking the presence, the power and the continuation of the Empire, not least the Eastern Emperor Zeno, as if a replacement would shortly be found. Even a hundred years later, the so-called ‘barbarian’ rulers of Italy were still invoking the authority of the Emperor and using Roman titles to bolster their rule. No, the ‘barbarian’ rulers of Western Europe circa 600 had no thoughts of founding France or Germany or Belgium or Holland. They must be seen entirely within the context of their own times and values to be properly understood.

Basically – avoid hindsight. Assess historical periods in themselves, as their protagonists experienced them. Don’t make the mistake of judging the Early Middle Ages as a hurried way station on the journey to later, greater things: of conceptualising Clovis as just a stepping stone to Charlemagne or Offa as just a step on the way towards Alfred.

Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap. (p.12)

2. The Modernist Fallacy i.e. European history has been a tale of steady progress towards our present giddy heights, towards the triumph of a global economy, liberal culture, science, reason, human rights and so on. These all began to appear in ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’, but then – tragically – fell into a pit of darkness with the end of Roman Imperial rule, a bleak ‘Dark Age’ awash with ‘illiterate barbarians’ who only slowly, painfully clawed humanity back up into the light, which began to shine again during the Renaissance, and has risen steadily higher ever since.

Nonsense, says Wickham. The early medieval period was first given the negative name ‘the dark ages’ by chauvinists of the Renaissance who despised everything Gothic and non-classical. Later, 18th century and Victorian historians reinforced this negative image due to the paucity of documents and evidence from it, which for so long made our knowledge of it so patchy. But recent revolutions in archaeology, along with the availability of more documents than ever before (including from behind the former Iron Curtain), and their freely available translations on the internet, mean that:

a) we can write much better, more informed histories of the period than ever before
b) this significantly increased amount of evidence shows that Roman administrative structures, law and literacy carried on for much longer than was previously thought. I.e. there is much more continuity of civilisation in post-Roman Europe than those old historians claim. I.e. it wasn’t so dark after all.

The fundamental aim of Wickham’s book is to bring together this recent(ish) research in both document-based history and archaeology to show that the Roman Empire didn’t inevitably ‘decline and fall’ under the impact of ‘barbarians’.

a) There was no inevitability: the structures – the tax system and bureaucracy and church – lasted for centuries after the first ‘barbarian’ incursions in the West and, of course, continued for an entire millennium in the Byzantine East.
b) We have lots of evidence that the so-called ‘barbarians’ – all those Goths and Vandals and Burgundians and Franks – themselves quickly assimilated Roman standards, ideas and terminology, that many of them wanted to remain vassals of the Emperor in Byzantium, centuries after the West had fallen. Roman ideas, practices, the language and bureaucracy and structures of power, all lived on for a long time into the Early Middle Ages (and for another 1000 years in the East). The so-called ‘barbarians’ in fact went out of their way to adopt the Roman language, Roman iconographies of power, a Roman bureaucracy run on Roman lines and so on, for as long as they could after seizing power in their respective areas. I.e. there wasn’t an abrupt END – there was a very, very long process of assimilation and change…

Themes not events

So this book is not a blow-by-blow chronological account of the period. It proceeds in chronological periods but skips through the events of each period pretty quickly in order to get to what motivates and interests Wickham – academic discussion of themes such as how much the Imperial tax system endured in 5th century Gaul, or just what the archaeology of the lower Danube tells us about the Romanisation of its inhabitants. And so on.

I found a lot of this discussion very interesting – and it’s good to feel you are engaging with one of the leading experts in this field – but I was only able to enjoy it because I had recently read three other books on the exact same period, and so understood what he was talking about. In other words, I would not recommend this book as a ‘history’ of the period. It is a collection of discussions and meditations on themes and topics arising from the history of the period, but it is not a detailed sequential account of what happened. For that you’d have to look elsewhere.

Interesting insights

Once you understand that it is a meta-history, interested in discussing themes and topics arising from the period, and presupposing you already have a reasonable familiarity with the actual chronology, then the book is full of insights and ideas:

  • Ethnogenesis The ‘barbarians’ were illiterate; when they conquered somewhere they recruited the local Roman bureaucracy to run things and record laws. We’ve long known that the Roman accounts of the tribes which fought and invaded were unreliable. But I hadn’t realised that the terms Ostrogoth, Visigoth and so on were merely flags of convenience later writers give to peoples who didn’t call themselves that. More searchingly, recent historians think that even the idea of coherent tribes and peoples is open to doubt. More likely these groupings were probably made up of smaller tribes or even clans which temporarily united round one or other leader for specific ad hoc campaigns or battles, before splitting up again. Complicated.
  • Britain and Ireland A sort of proof of this vision of fissiparous ‘barbarians’ comes in chapter 7 which Wickham dedicates to Ireland and Britain. Ireland was never ruled by Rome and so kept its native pattern of tiny kingdoms, maybe more than 100, each owing fealty to higher kings, who themselves owed fealty to whoever managed to seize control as the High King at any one moment. Chaotic.

The end of Roman rule in Britain

More interesting is what happened to Britain after the Romans withdrew. The collapse of post-Roman Britain seems to have been quicker and more complete than of any other Imperial territory but modern historians now think the end of Roman rule was more complicated than the bare dates suggest. In his history of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, Gildas says that most of Britain’s Roman garrison was stripped by the commander Maximus when he made his bid to become Augustus or emperor in the West, in the 380s. Maximus took the garrisons with him on his invasion of Italy but was defeated and killed in 388. Britain returned to the rule of the Emperor Theodosius – until 392 when the usurping emperor Eugenius seized power in the West, although he also was defeated by Theodosius, in 394.

When Theodosius died in 395, his 10-year-old son Honorius succeeded him as Western Roman Emperor but the real power behind the throne was Stilicho, Honorius’s father-in-law. In 401 or 402 Stilicho stripped Hadrian’s Wall of troops for the final time, to bring them to Europe to fight the Visigoths.

In 407 a Roman general in Britain, Constantine (not the Great), rallied his troops in rebellion against Honorius (perhaps because they hadn’t been paid for some time) and led them into Gaul, where Constantine set himself up as Emperor in the West. But ‘barbarian’ invasions soon destabilised his rule and in 409 or 410, British authorities expelled his magistrates and officials. The Byzantine historian Zosimus describes this as a British ‘rebellion’.

This is how the stripping away of Britain’s defending army actually took place over a thirty year period, from 380 to 410, and as a result of the (generally failed) ambitions of a succession of usurpers and military governors.

Later in his history, Zosimus says the British authorities appealed to help from the Emperor. The Emperor replied (in the so-called Rescript of Honorius) that the British civitates must look to their own defences.

That’s it. Britain had been stripped of all Roman garrisons and legions and was wide open to sea-borne invasion by Saxons and others. These are traditionally dated to the 440s and 450s. The collapse of the Roman-British lifestyle was, apparently, very quick after the garrisons withdrew. Within a generation, archaeology tells us, the towns and villas had been abandoned. 50 or 60 years later, in 510 or 520, Gildas writes his long lament for the ‘ruined’ state of Britain. By the mid-500s the Eastern historian Procopius writes that Britannia was entirely lost to the Romans.

More insights

Militarisation of the élite Following the fall of Rome, in the West the secular aristocracy became militarised: the trappings of the Emperor became more military; the importance of a secular education i.e. the ability to quote the poets and write Latin prose like Cicero, declined rapidly; wealth across the Empire also declined and the hyper-rich Senatorial wealthy class disappeared. The widespread Latin education which was the bedrock of the extensive tax-gathering bureaucracy withered and disappeared, and with it our sources of written records.

Rise of church records It is logical, but I hadn’t thought of it this way, that into the vacuum left by the falling away of Roman Imperial records come church records. In the 6th and 7th centuries, as secular records from the disappearing Roman bureaucracy grow thinner on the ground, we have increasing records of church synods, the gift of land to the church, church land ownership records, along with increasing numbers of ‘lives’ of saints and popes and holy church figures, as well as a wealth of texts recording the period’s abundant theological disputes and debates. Thus what we know about the period, and  how we think about it, is hugely conditioned by the type of writings which have survived. It opens the possibility that maybe the Roman aristocracy lingered on for centuries after the ‘fall’, but didn’t write or record their activities so systematically.

Fatal loss of Carthage It is interesting that, in Wickham’s opinion, the failure of the Roman authorities to prevent Geiseric the Vandal moving from Spain into North Africa and seizing Carthage in 439, is far more important than Alaric’s 410 Sack of Rome. The trade, tax and food umbilical cord between Rome and Carthage was broken permanently. (Carthage supplied all Rome’s foodstuffs in lieu of tax. No Carthage, no food. From the mid-5th century the population of Rome begins to drop fast; in the 6th century its population probably plummeted by 80%.)

Tax collapse And so a vast tax hole opened in the Western Empire’s finances, which made it progressively harder to pay armies (increasingly made up of ‘barbarian’ mercenaries, anyway). Slowly a shift took place towards paying armies, generals and allies off with land; very slowly the Empire moved from being a tax-based to a land-based administration. This is the basis for Western feudalism.

The Goths in their various tribal formations took Gaul, Spain, then North Africa, then Italy. But Gothic hegemony was itself transient: by 511 it was over. Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated the Goths in the Roman province of Gaul, which increasingly becomes referred to as Francia; and the Eastern general, Belisarius, led violent campaigns in Italy to expel the Goths from the mainland (although it turned out he only created an exhausted power vacuum into which a new tribe, the Lombards, would enter).

Francia But the success of Clovis I (ruled 480s to 511) would establish Frankish rule in most of Francia and transform Gaul from a peripheral kingdom into the core of Western Europe for centuries to come (up to, including and following Charlemagne’s vast extension of Frankish power in the late 700s).

Tax Wickham makes some points about tax-based regimes I’d never thought about before: Tax-based regimes are generally much richer than land-based ones, because they tax a broader spread of citizens, more effectively. Tax-based regimes also are generally more powerful than land-based ones, because tax collectors and assessors monitor the entire domain more thoroughly, and court officials, army officers etc are paid salaries from the royal treasury. By contrast land-based armies or nobles are more independent and harder to govern – which helps to explain the endless rebellions which are so characteristic of the High Middle Ages.

Meat It’s one of only hundreds of interesting details in the book, but I was fascinated to learn that the shift from Roman to post-Roman society can be measured in diet. Aristocratic, senatorial and wealthy Romans asserted their class through a rarefied diet of delicate and expensive ingredients. The ‘barbarian’ successor states liked meat. The rituals of the royal hunt, the killing of wild beasts, and the division of cooked meat to loyal retainers in the royal hall or palace replaced the ornate, lying-on-a-couch sampling dishes of larks’ tongues of the Roman Empire – and The Hunt is a central motif of art and literature, drenched with power and significance, all through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance period.

But ultimately…

Although Wickham hedges it round with modish qualifications and theoretical reminders not to be teleological or use hindsight, despite all the warnings to be more subtle and alert to slow increments rather than catastrophic ‘falls’ – nonetheless, the fact remains that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist as a coherent political entity by the mid-6th century. It was replaced by a patchwork of kingdoms ruled by non-Roman ‘barbarian’ kings. And – rather contradicting his own thesis – Wickham admits that the archaeological record shows ‘the dramatic economic simplification of most of the West’ (p.95); north of the Loire in the 5th century, in the core Mediterranean lands in the 6th.

Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalised, exchange became more localised.

Wickham sees the shift from the Empire’s efficient tax-based economy, to the land-based administration of the post-Roman states as decisive. By the mid-sixth century the successor states couldn’t have matched Roman power or wealth, no matter how hard they tried, because they lacked the sophisticated tax system and revenue. Different states, with different social and economic system, different iconographies of power and different values, were firmly established.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

A Dark Age Chronology

Inspired by Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book, The Hammer and The Cross, I collated key dates from the so-called Dark Ages (let’s say from the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 to the Norman Conquest of 1066). Why? Why not?

An at-a-glance overview of the period would be:
400 Romans leave England – Angles and Saxons invade Christian Britain
500 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms exist all across Britain, the Heptarchy
600 St Augustine comes as missionary to the pagan Anglo-Saxons
800 Vikings attack Lindisfarne, going on to colonise east and north England: a century of battles
900 Alfred the Great and successors unify the Anglo-Saxons against the Danes, creating ‘England’
1000 Aethelred the Unready fails to deal with repeated Viking attacks

5th century
410 Traditional date for the Romans quitting Britain. In fact it was a gradual process: 407 the army elects Constantine III emperor and he takes a lot of the Roman army to Gaul to attack Honorius: how many? was a military commander left or ever reappointed? 408 A Saxon attack repelled by Britons. 409 Zosimus records the natives expelled the Roman administration. 410 the rescript of Honorius – apparently the emperor Honorius telling the Britons they are on their own facing barbarian attacks.
449 (a retrospectively written section of) the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Hengest and Horsa lead Saxons, Jutes and Angles to Kent at King Vortigern’s request to protect from marauding Picts, and decide to stay: the official start of Anglo-Saxon England. The venerable Bede attributes the date of 449. Their names mean stallion and horse: were they real people or legendary symbols?

6th century
500 Beowulf born, according to JRR Tolkien’s chronology. Welsh monk & historian Gildas born.
520s Beowulf fights Grendel
525 King Hygelac of the Geats killed fighting the Franks
550 Gildas writes the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
597 Saint Augustine arrives to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons

7th century
A blank

8th century
732 The Venerable Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
772 Charlemagne comes to the throne
782 massacre of Saxon pagans at Verden
793 Vikings attack Lindisfarne

9th century
800 Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor
814 Charlemagne dies
820 13 Viking ships attack north of the Seine
825 kingdom of Wessex absorbs Sussex and Essex
830 Nennius’s history Historia Brittonum
835 Viking attack on Isle of Sheppey
849 Alfred the Great born
857 Vikings attack Paris, take Rouen
865 Grand Heathen Army invades the east and establishes the Viking kingdom of York
868 the GHA takes Nottingham. Alfred marries the Mercian princess Ealswith
870 the GHA led by Ivar the Boneless defeat the army of and kill Edmund, king of East Anglia, soon to be canonised
870s the settlement of Iceland begins
871 the Saxons fight nine big battles against the GHA: Ethelred dies and is succeeded by king Alfred who makes peace with the Danes
876 the GHA conquers Northumbria
877 the GHA occupies Wrexham and attacks Exeter
878 Alfred hides in the Somerset marshes around Athelney; emerges to defeat Guthrum and make peace at the Treaty of Wedmore and baptise him
886 final peace made with Guthrum and establishment of the Danelaw
889 Alfred’s daughter Ethelfled marries Aethelred aldorman of Mercia
892 dues to his alliances and military reforms Alfred defeats a Viking invasion fleet of 250 ships
899 Alfred dies and is succeeded by his son Edward
890-910 intense period of settlement of Iceland caused by the unification campaign of Norway’s king Harald Finehair

10th century
903 the Vikings driven out of Dublin by Caerball
910-20 Ethelred and Ethelfled build 28 fortified burhs along the border with the Danelaw to defend Mercia and Wessex
911 Rollo founds the Duchy of Normandy
911 death of King Louis the Child ends the Carolingian dynasty in the east
911 Edward son of Alfred annexes Oxford and London
914 Brittany-based Vikings raid south Wales
917 Ethelfled drives the Danes from Derby
918 Ethelfled dies, leaving a daughter, Elfwyn. Within a year she disappears from the record, probably forced into a convent, marking the End of the independent kingdom of Wessex
919 dukes elect Henry the Fowler king
920 Edward son of Alfred is king of all England south of the Mersey and Humber
924 Edward son of Alfred dies, succeeded by his brother Athelstan
927 Athelstan drives Olaf viking out of York
930 settlement of Iceland largely complete
930 Ganger Rolf / Rollo dies and is succeeded by his son William Longsword
934 Constantine king of the Scots challenges Athelstan
935 rule of Gorm the Old ends
936 Henry the Fowler’s successor, Otto the Great, symbolically crowned at Aachen Charlemagne’s capital
936 Haakon the Good of Norway drives out his brother Erik Bloodaxe
937 Athelstan and his brother march north and defeat the Irish-Norse Scots and Northumbrian Norwegians at the battle of Brunanburh, commemorated in an Anglo-Saxon poem
939 Athelstan dies: Olaf returns and retakes York
940 death of Harald Finehair king of Norway
941 Olaf dies: York passes to Olaf Sihtricsson
944 the Danes reject him: Erik Bloodaxe, an exile fromt he Norwegian court, in some versions is baptised by Athelstan and given York. But his wife is unpopular…
954 Eric Bloodaxe expelled from York by king Edred ending the Scandinavian kingdom of York: 100 years after the Danelaw was defined, all of its territories are in English hands once more
955 king Eadwig crowned at Kingston
957 his brother Edgar rises against him
959 Eadwig dies and king Edgar reigns
960s Harald Bluetooth erects the Jelling stones in memory of his parents, celebrating his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and his conversion of the Danes to Christianity
962 in exchange for his military support the Pope crowns Otto Holy Roman Emperor, a title which is to dog central Europe for the next thousand years
973 Harald Bluetooth attacks Otto from Denmark but is repelled
975 Edgar dies, is succeeded by his son Edward
978 Edward murdered to clear the succession for the 10 year old Ethelred; a cult grows around Edward the martyr undermining all Ethelred’s subsequent attempts to rally the English against the Danes
980s settlement of Greenland led by Erik the Red
983 Harald Bluetooth successfully expels Otto from Denmark
987 Harald Bluetooth overthrown by his son Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard, exiled, dies of an arrow wound, in some versions fired by a child
991 Vikings raid along the east coast and win the Battle of Maldon, commemorated in the Anglo Saxon poem
992 Ethelred raises a fleet to attack the Vikings but some Anglos on his own side betray him
993 Vikings sack Bamburgh
994 Olaf Trygvasson and Sweyn Forkbeard attack London with 94 ships
995 bishops approach Olaf and he agrees to be confirmed, sponsored by Ethelred, and to leave England
996 Olaf returns to Norway, defeats and beheads king Hakon and embarks on a violent campaign of Christianisation
998 Viking army in Dorsey
999 Viking army sails up the Thames to Rochester
999 conversion of Iceland to Christianity under threat from Olaf Trygvasson

11th century
1001 Vikings burn and pillage up the river Exe
1002 Ethelred orders the St Brice’s Day massacre of all Danes in England
1003 Sven returns and burns Exeter
1004 Sven’s Vikings burn Norwich
1005 famine drives the Vikings home
1006 Sven’s Vikings base themselves on the Isle of Wight, march through Reading to loot Winchester
1007 Ethelred offers 36,000 pounds of silver as Danegeld
1008 Ethelred orders a massive fleet built but is betrayed by his own side, the fleet is destroyed in storms, never engages the enemy
1009 Canterbury buys off Thorkell the Tall with Danegeld
1011 Thorkell’s Vikings back in Canterbury kidnap the archbishop, Alphege then, bored and drunk, stone him to death
1013 Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard arrives from Denmark and travels round the country being acclaimed king wherever he goes in the Danelaw. Ethelred flees to Normandy
1014 having conquered England and established a kingdom which includes Denmark and Norway, Sven dies. The Danes and Anglo-Danes elect his son Cnut king, but Ethelred returns, raises a fleet and army, and drives Cnut out.
1015 Cnut returns with a massive fleet and ravages the West Country. Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, had revolted against his father and established himself in the Danelaw. Over the next months, Canute conquered most of England, and Edmund had rejoined Æthelred to defend London when Æthelred died on 23 April 1016. The subsequent war between Edmund and Canute ended in a decisive victory for Canute at the Battle of Ashingdon on 18 October 1016. Edmund’s reputation as a warrior was such that Canute nevertheless agreed to divide England, Edmund taking Wessex and Canute the whole of the country beyond the Thames. However, Edmund died on 30 November and Canute became king of the whole country aged 20.
1017 Cnut formally crowned and receives 72,000 pounds Danegeld. Cnut executes high level traitors, parcels out land to his followers, marries Ethelred’s widow, Emma, and takes a Christian name.
1020s Cnut supports the rebuilding of Chartres cathedral, issues laws against heathenism
1019 upon the death of Cnut’s childless older brother Harald, Cnut becomes king of Denmark
1027 Cnut undertakes a pilgrimae to Rome to attend the coronation of the Emperor Conrad II
1035 Cnut dies intending his son by Emma, Harthacnut, to succeed. Harthacanut has to go to Norway to sort out problems there giving his half-brother, Cnut’s illegitimate son by Aelfgifu, Harold Harefoot, chance to seize the throne.
1040 Harthacnut is preparing a fleet to sail back to take Britain when Harold Harefoot dies
1042 Harthacnut proves himself a cruel king, imposing high taxes, burning Worcester to punish the citizens, before dropping dead after drinking heavily at a wedding.
1066 Harald Hardrada invades from Norway. Harold Godwinson defeats him at the battle of Stamford Bridge. William of Normandy invades. Harold loses to him at the battle of Hastings.

For a light-hearted Danish point of view see this web page.

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (2nd edn 1968)

Chapter 8 – Teutonic Mythology (pp 245-280)

Almost without exception the legends which were told among the ancestors of the Germans and Anglo-Saxons have not been handed down to us. Hence in any account of Teutonic mythology the Scandinavian traditions must of necessity form a major part. (p248)

The Eastern Goths converted to Christianity on contact with Byzantine civilisation in the 4th century. Hardly anything survives of their language or pagan religion. The Goths of central/northern Germany also left few records. Believe it or not the most thorough account we have of their beliefs is in the ‘Germania’ of the Roman historian Tacitus from the first century AD. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain began converting to Christianity in the 600s and were so thoroughly Christianised that from the 690s they began sending missionaries to Germany, whose work was later reinforced by Charlemagne (742-814), very effectively obliterating any records of Teutonic pagan beliefs. Thus it is in Iceland, at the remotest furthest point of Europe, only settled by pagan Norsemen from the 870s and only Christianised as late as 1000AD, that a relatively free, surprisingly well-educated population lovingly preserved all the stories, myths and legends stretching back centuries of their ancestors from the Continent, as well as composing numerous sagas of more recent Scandinavian and Icelandic heroes. This astonishing abundance of material, of sagas, poems, histories, directly or indirectly gives us a wealth of information about the beliefs of the various tribes and cultures who inhabited north Germany, Anglo-Saxon Britain and Scandinavia in the so-called Dark Ages.

The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology explains all this very lucidly before embarking on a detailed anthropological account of the Teutonic gods, pointing out the sociological and economic origins of different deities, referencing their counterparts in Roman or Greek or Indian mythology, but also telling the main adventures in straightforward narrative. The illustrations are good. I can’t find anywhere in the internet pictures which show in their entirety the narrow tall porch reliefs showing scenes from the adventures of Sigurd from the wonderful stave church at Hylestad in Norway.

Creation

  • In the beginning was the yawning void, Ginnungagap: vast glaciers and ice lakes from which crystallised a giant frost ogre named Ymir
  • Ymir slept, falling into a sweat, and under his left arm there grew a man and a woman, the first of the Frost Giants
  • Thawing frost then became a cow called Audhumla. The cow licked salty ice blocks. After one day of licking, she exposed a man’s hair in the ice. After two days, his head appeared. On the third day the whole man was there. His name was Buri and he begot a son named Bor, and Bor married Bestla, the daughter of a giant.
  • Bor and Bestla had three sons: Odin, Vili and Vé. These three brothers promptly murdered the primal giant Ymir. From his wounds came such a flood of blood that all the frost ogres were drowned except for the giant Bergelmir who escaped with his wife by climbing onto a tree trunk (the Norse avatar of the universal myth of a few survivors of a world flood). From this couple sprang the families of frost ogres.
  • The sons of Bor carried Ymir to the middle of Ginnungagap and made the world from his corpse. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes; from his flesh the earth; from his hair the trees; and from his bones the mountains. They made rocks and pebbles from his teeth and jaws and those bones that were broken.
  • Maggots appeared in Ymir’s flesh and came to life. They acquired human understanding and the appearance of men although they lived in the earth and in rocks. They are the dwarfs.
  • From Ymir’s skull the sons of Bor made the sky and set it over the earth with its four sides. Under each corner they put a dwarf, whose names are East, West, North, and South.
  • The sons of Bor flung Ymir’s brains into the air, and they became the clouds. Then they took the sparks and embers that were flying out of the fire region of Muspelheim and placed them in the midst of Ginnungagap to be the stars and sun and moon.
  • The earth was surrounded by a deep sea around which coiled an immense serpent.
  • To protect themselves from the hostile giants, the sons of Bor built for themselves a stronghold and named it Midgard or Middle Earth.
  • While walking along the sea shore the sons of Bor found two trees, and from them they created a man and a woman. Odin gave the man and the woman spirit and life. Vili gave them understanding and the power of movement. Vé gave them clothing and names. The man was named Ask and the woman Embla. From Ask and Embla have sprung all the races of men who lived in Midgard.
  • Odin (Woden, Wotan) married Frigg, the daughter of Fjörgvin. These early gods are the members of the Æsir. They built themselves a stronghold named Asgard, the house of the Æsir. In Asgard was the great throne Hlidskjálf where Odin sat looking out over the universe, when he was not riding through the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, or roaming Midgard, the world of men, in disguise. On his throne report of all the doings in Midgard was brought to him by his two ravens Huginn and Muginn, meaning Memory and Thought.
The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin's shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin’s shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • For being the father of gods and the father of men, Odin is known as the All-Father. Odin sought wisdom throughout the world. Most famously he asked to drink from the spring of Mimir among the roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil; but the price was his eye. Thereafter Odin is always depicted as a one-eyed man with a wide flat hat and magic spear, Gungnir.
  • The earth was Odin’s daughter and his wife as well. By her he had his first son, Thor (Donar, Donner, the thunder god). Thor is next most powerful god to Odin. He wields his mighty hammer Mjölnir, and rides a chariot drawn by two goats,  Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. Many Thor hammer amulets have been found across Scandinavia. I like the idea that pagans wore the in Christianised areas as a gesture of defiance.
  • The gods built a bridge from earth to heaven called Bifröst which is known as the rainbow bridge. At the top, defending the entrance to Asgard is the god Heimdallr, ready to blow his horn as a warning to the gods of any attack by their immemorial enemies, the giants.
  • The nine worlds of Norse mythology subsist within the vast overarching structure of the heaven-tree, Yggdrasil. On its peak sits an eagle. Watering its roots are the three Norns, equivalent to the Greek Fates who tell the past, present and future.  Every day the Norn Urd draws water from her well to water the roots of the tree. Chewing one of its roots is the dragon Nidhoggr. Scampering up and down it is the gossipy squirrel, Ratatoskr.

The Vanir

Interestingly the Teutons have two races of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir are gods of power – the AllFather Odin, the thunder god Thor, the god of war Tiu. The Vanir, by contrast, are gods of fertility, originally a group of wild nature and fertility gods and goddesses, considered to be the bringers of health, youth, fertility, luck and wealth, and masters of magic. The Vanir live in Vanaheim. There were many of them but the two principle ones were the twins Freyr, god of fertility, and Freyja, goddess of love.

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

The Nine worlds of Norse mythology

  1. In the first level was Asgard, the home of the Aesir.
  2. Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir.
  3. Alfheim, the home of the Light Elves.
  4. In the middle was Midgard “Middle Earth”, the home of the Humans.
  5. Jotunheim, the home of the Giants.
  6. Svartalfheim, the home of the Dark Elves.
  7. Nidavellir, the home of the Dwarfs.
  8. Niflheim was to the north, inside somewhere under the ground were Helheim home of the dead was.
  9. Muspelheim was to the south, it was the home of the fire Giants and Demons.
The nine worlds of Norse mythology

The nine worlds of Norse mythology

There is no spirituality in Norse culture, no religious feeling. There is fighting, deal-making, and laconic understatement which puts a brave face on the fact we will all fail and all die. The entire cycle of stories lives in the shadow of the foretold and inevitable Last Battle between Gods and Giants when the world will go down in flames: Ragnarök. Until then men and gods alike face their doom with stoic defiance.

“The Germanic gods were never thought of as more than men of superior essence; and like men they were mortal and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.” (p252)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Wikipedia Commons)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Sagas

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