History of Literature









E. H. Gombrich




"World History for Children"





 


Part IV
 

 

21 A Conqueror who Knows How to Rule

The Merovingians and their stewards - The kingdom of the Franks - Charlemagne's battles in Gaul, Italy and Spain - The Avars -Battles with the Saxons - The Heldenlieder - The crowning of the emperor - Harun al-Rashid's ambassadors - The division and decline of the Carolingian empire - Svatopluk - The Vikings - The kingdoms of the Normans

 


Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours, where he stopped an Umayyad invasion force.

 

Reading these stories may make you think it's easy to conquer the world or found a great empire, since it happens so often in the history of the world. And in fact it wasn't very difficult in earlier times. Why was that?

Imagine what it must have been like to have no newspapers and no post. Most people didn't even know what was happening in places just a few days' journey from where they lived. They stayed in their valleys and forests and tilled the land, and their knowledge of the world ended where the neighbouring tribes began. Towards these they were generally unfriendly, if not openly hostile. Each tribe harmed the other in whatever way it could, raiding cattle and setting fire to farmsteads. There was a constant tit-for-tat of stealing, feuding and fighting.

All they heard of a world beyond their own small realm were rumours and hearsay. If an army of several thousand men happened to turn up in a valley or clearing, there was little anyone could do. The neighbours thought themselves lucky if their enemies were slaughtered, and it didn't occur to them that their turn might be next. And if they weren't killed, but were merely forced to join thai army and attack their nearest neighbours, they were grateful enough. In this way armies grew bigger and a tribe on its own would find it more and more difficult to resist, no matter how bravely it fought. The Arabs often went about their conquests like this, and so did Charlemagne, the famous king of the Franks, whose story you are about to hear.

If conquest was easier than it is today, ruling was much harder. Messengers had to be sent to distant and inaccessible places, warring peoples and tribes had to be pacified and reconciled, and made to look beyond their old enmities and blood-feuds. If you wanted to be a good ruler you had to help the peasants in their misery, and you had to see that people learned something, and that the thoughts and writings of the past weren't lost and forgotten. All in all, a good ruler in those days had to be a sort of father to the vast family of his subjects, and make all their decisions for them.

This was the sort of ruler that Charlemagne was, and it is why he is rightly called 'the Great' (the Latin word magnus means 'great'). He was a grandson of Charles Martel, the commander who drove the Arabs out of the Merovingian kingdom of the Franks. The Merovingian kings were not much good at ruling. They had flowing hair and long beards and they did nothing but sit on the throne and parrot the words their advisers had taught them. They moved around in ox-carts, like peasants, not on horseback, and that was how they attended tribal gatherings. The actual governing was done by an able family to which Charles Martel belonged, as did Pepin, the father of Charlemagne. But Pepin wasn't satisfied with being a mere adviser, whispering instructions into his king's ear. He had the power of kingship and he wanted the title as well. So he overthrew the Merovingian king and proclaimed himself king of the Franks. His kingdom covered roughly the western hall of what is now Germany, and the eastern part of France.

But you mustn't imagine that this was a settled and well-organised kingdom, a proper state with officials and some sort of police force, or indeed that it was in any way similar to the Roman empire. For at this time the population wasn't united as it had been in the days of the Romans. Instead there were a number of tribes, all speaking different dialects and with different customs, who tolerated each other about as much, or as little, as the Dorians and Ionians of ancient Greece.

The tribal chieftains were known as dukes, from the Latin word ducerc, to lead, because they marched into battle at the head of their troops. Their lands were known as their duchies. There were a number of these tribal duchies in Germany: the Bavarians, the Swabians and the Alemanni, among others. But the most powerful of all was the duchy of the Franks. It drew its power from the allegiance it was owed by other tribes who had to fight on the side of the Franks in time of war. This supremacy was established in Pepin's time. And like his father, Charlemagne would use it when, in 768, he became king in his turn.

First he conquered all of France. Then he marched over the Alps to Italy where, as you remember, the Lombards had settled at the end of the Migrations. He drove out the king of the Lombards and gave control of those lands to the Pope, whose protector he would be throughout his life. Then he marched on to Spain, where he fought the Arabs, but he didn't stay there long.

Having extended his kingdom to the south and west, Charlemagne turned his attention to the east. New hordes of mounted Asiatic warriors called Avars, similar to the Huns but without a great leader like Attila, had invaded the region where Austria is today. Their camps were always well dug in and protected by rings of dykes which made them hard to capture. Charlemagne and his armies fought the Avars for eight years before defeating them so thoroughly that not a trace of them remains. However, their invasion, like that of the Huns before them, had forced out other tribes. These were the Slavs who had founded a sort of kingdom, albeit one even less stable and more disorderly than that of the Franks. Charlemagne attacked them too, forcing some to join his army and others to pay him annual tribute. Yet in all his campaigns he never lost sight of his goal: to bring all these various Germanic tribes and duchies together under his rule, and forge them into a single people.

Now at that time hardly any of the eastern half of (iermany belonged to the kingdom of the Franks. The Saxons lived there, and they were as wild and warlike as the Germanic tribes had been in Roman times. In addition, they were still heathens and would have nothing to do with Christianity. But Charlemagne saw himself as the leader of all Christians and in this he was not unlike the Muslims who thought you could force people to believe. So he fought with the Saxon chieftain, Widukind, for many years. Each time the Saxons surrendered, they would be up in arms again the next day. Charlemagne would then return and lay waste to their land. But he had only to turn his back for the Saxons to free themselves again. They would follow Charlemagne obediently into battle and then turn and attack his troops. In the end they paid a terrible price for their resistance: Charlemagne had more than four thousand of them put to death. The remaining Saxons allowed themselves to be baptised without protest, but it must have been a long time before they were able to feel any affection for the religion of loving kindness.

Charlemagne's power was by now very great indeed. But, as I said, he was not only good at conquering: he knew how to govern and take care of his people too. Schools were especially important to him, and he himself went on learning all his life. He spoke Latin as well as he did German, and he understood Greek. He was an eloquent and ready speaker with a firm clear voice. He was interested in all the arts and sciences of antiquity, taking lessons in rhetoric and astronomy from learned monks from Italy and England. It is said, however, that he found writing diffficult because his hand was more used to grasping a sword than tracing rows of beautifully curved letters with a delicate quill pen.

He loved hunting and swimming. He generally dressed simply. Under a striped silk tunic, he wore a plain linen shirt and long breeches held by gaiters below the knee, and, in winter, a fur doublet over which he flung a blue cloak. A silver- or gold-hilted sword always hung at his belt. Only on special occasions did he wear gold-embroidered robes, shoes decorated with gems, a great gold clasp on his cloak and a gold crown set with precious stones. Try to imagine that towering and imposing figure in all his finery, receiving ambassadors at his favourite palace at Aachen. They came from everywhere: from his own kingdom - that is, from France, Italy and Germany - and from the lands of the Slavs and Austria as well.

Charlemagne kept himself informed about everything that went on in his kingdom and made sure his instructions were faithfully carried out. He appointed judges and had the laws collected and written down. He nominated bishops and even fixed the price of foodstuffs. But what concerned him most was uniting all the Germans. He didn't simply want to rule a handful of tribal duchies. His aim was to weld them all into a single, strong kingdom. Any duke who objected was deposed. And it's worth noting that, from now on, whenever anyone referred to the language spoken by the Germanic tribes, they no longer said Prankish or Bavarian or Alemannish or Saxon. They simply said 'thiudisk', meaning German.

Because Charlemagne was interested in all things German, he made people write down all the ancient songs about heroes, tales which probably came from the time of the wars of the Migrations. These songs were about Theodoric (later called Dietrich of Berne), and Attila, or Etzel, King of the Huns, and Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer who was stabbed by the treacherous Hagen. But they have almost all been lost and we only know them from versions noted down some four hundred years later.

Charlemagne saw himself not only as king of the Germanic peoples and lord of the kingdom of the Franks, but as the defender of all Christians. And it seems that the pope in Rome, who had often enjoyed Charlemagne's protection against the Lombards, agreed with him. On Christmas Eve, in the year 800, when Charlemagne was kneeling in prayer in the great church of St Peter's in Rome, the pope suddenly stepped forward and placed a crown upon his head. Then the pope and all the people fell on their knees before him and proclaimed Charlemagne the new Roman emperor, chosen by God to preserve the peace of the empire. Charlemagne must have been very surprised as it appears that he had no inkling of what was in store for him. But now he wore the crown and was the first German emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, as it later was known.

Charlemagne's mission was to restore the might and grandeur of the old Roman empire. Only this time, instead of heathen Romans, the rulers would be Christian Germans, who would become the leaders of all Christendom. This was Charlemagne's aim and ambition, and it would long be that of German emperors who came after him. But none came as close to achieving it as he did. Envoys from all over the world came to his court to pay him homage. The mighty emperor of the Roman Empire of the East in Constantinople was not the only one anxious to be on good terms with him. So was the great Arab prince, Caliph Harun al-Rashid, in far-off Mesopotamia. From his fabulous palace in Baghdad, near ancient Nineveh, he sent precious gifts to Charlemagne: sumptuous robes, rare spices and an elephant, and a water clock with the most amazing mechanism, unlike anything seen before in the kingdom of the Franks. For Charlemagne's sake, Harun al-Rashid even let Christian pilgrims visit Christ's tomb in Jerusalem, unhindered and unmolested. For Jerusalem was at that time under Arab rule.

All this was due to the intelligence, energy and undoubted superiority of the new emperor, as rapidly became clear after his death in 814 when, sadly, it all fell apart. Soon the empire was shared out among Charlemagne's three grandsons in the form of three separate kingdoms: Germany, France and Italy.

In the lands that had once belonged to the Roman empire, Romance languages continued to be spoken - that is, French and Italian. The three kingdoms would never again be united. Even the German tribal duchies rebelled and won back their independence. On Charlemagne's death, the Slavs proclaimed themselves free, and founded a powerful kingdom under their first great king, Svatopluk. The schools Charlemagne had founded disappeared, and the art of reading and writing was soon lost to all but a handful of far-flung monasteries. Intrepid Germanic tribes from the north, the Danes and the Normans, mercilessly pillaged and plundered coastal cities in their Viking ships. They were almost invincible. They founded kingdoms in the east, among the Slavs, and in the west on the coast of what is now France, where Normandy still bears their name.

Before the century was out, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, Charlemagne's great achievement, was no more. Not even the name remained.

 

 

22 A Struggle to Become Lord of Christendom

East and West in Carolingian times - The blossoming of culture in China - The Magyar invasion - King Henry - Otto the Great - Austria and the Babenbergs - Feudalism and serfdom - Hugh Capet - The Danes in England - Religious appointments - The Investiture Controversy - Gregory VII and Henry IV - Canossa - Robert Guiscard and William the Conqueror

 


Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, along with his wife and young son, spent three days barefoot in the snow at Canossa

 

The history of the world is, sadly, not a pretty poem. It offers little variety, and it is nearly always the unpleasant things that are repeated, over and over again. And so it was that, barely a hundred years after Charlemagne's death, in times of chaos and misfortune, hordes of mounted warriors from the east invaded yet again, as the Avars and the Huns had before them. Not that there was anything remarkable about that. It was easier, and therefore more tempting, to take the path which led from the Asiatic steppes towards Europe than to launch raids on China. For behind the protection of Shih Huang-ti's great wall, China had now become a powerful and well-organised state, with large and prosperous cities, where life at the imperial court and in the houses of its learned high officials had reached levels of refinement and taste undreamt-of elsewhere.

At the same time as people in Germany were collecting ancient battle songs - only to burn them soon after on the grounds that they were too heathen - and monks in Europe were making timid efforts to turn Bible stories into German rhymes and Latin verse (that is, in about 800), China was home to some of the greatest poets the world has ever known. They wrote on silk, with elegant flourishes of brushes dipped in Indian ink, concise and brief verses which, in the simplest way, express so much that you need only read one once and it is in your head for ever.

Because the Chinese empire was well administered and well protected, the mounted hordes continued to direct their raids towards Europe. This time it was the Magyars' turn. With neither Pope Leo nor Charlemagne to stop them, they made short work of the lands that are now Hungary and Austria, and invaded Germany to loot and kill.

This danger forced the independent tribal duchies to elect a common leader. In 919 they chose Henry, duke of Saxony, to be their king, and he eventually succeeded in driving the Magyars out of Germany and keeping them outside the frontiers. His successor, King Otto (known as Otto the Great), did not destroy them completely, as Charlemagne had the Avars, but after a ferocious battle in 955 he forced them back into Hungary, where they settled and have remained to this day.

Otto the Great didn't keep the land he had taken from the Magyars for himself, but bestowed it on a prince, as was then the custom. His son, Otto II, did likewise when, in 976, he bestowed part of present-day Lower Austria (the district around Wachau) on a German nobleman called Leopold, a member of the Babenberg family. Like all noblemen granted land by the king, Leopold built himself a castle and ruled over his land like a prince, for while the royal grant endured he was no longer merely a royal official but the lord of his domain.

Most of the peasants who lived on these lands were no longer freemen, as German peasants had been in earlier times. They belonged to the land the king bestowed, or to land owned by a nobleman. Like the sheep or the goats that grazed there, like the deer, the bears and the wild boar in the forest, like the streams and the woodland, the meadows, the pastures and the fields, the people belonged to the land they tilled. They were known as serfs, or bondsmen, because they were bound to the land. Nor were they free citizens of the kingdom. They had neither the right to go where they wished nor the right to decide to till or not to till their fields.

'Were they slaves, then, like in antiquity?' Well, not exactly. For as you remember, the coming of Christianity had put an end to slavery in our lands. Serfs weren't slaves, because they went with the land, and the land still belonged to the king even after he had bestowed it on a nobleman. A nobleman or prince was not allowed to sell or kill serfs as masters once could their slaves. But he could make them carry out his orders. The serfs had to cultivate his land and work for him, when he told them to. They had to send regular supplies of bread and meat up to the castle for him to eat, because a nobleman didn't work in the fields. Most of his time was spent hunting, whenever he felt like it. The land the king had bestowed on him, known as his fief, was his land, and would be inherited by his son, as long as he did nothing to offend the king. In return for his fief all a prince had to do was to take his lords of the manor and his peasants with him into battle to fight for the king, if there was a war. And of course, there often was.

At this time virtually the whole of Germany had been granted in this way to different lords. The king kept little for himself, and the same went for France and England. In France, in 987, a powerful duke called Hugh Capet became king, while in 1016 England was conquered by a Danish seafarer called Cnut, or Canute, who also ruled over Norway and part of Sweden, and he, too, granted his lands as fiefs to powerful princes.

The power of the German kings was greatly increased by their victory over the Magyars. Otto the Great, having defeated the Hungarians, made the Slavic, Bohemian and Polish princes recognise him as their feudal overlord as well. This meant that they had to look on their own lands as being held in trust for the German king, and were obliged to bring their armies to his aid in time of war.
Confident in his might, Otto the Great marched on Italy, where, amidst fearful confusion, savage fighting had broken out among the Lombards. Otto declared Italy a German fief too, and bestowed it
on a Lombard prince. Greatly relieved that Otto had been able to use his power to bring the Lombard nobility to heel, the pope crowned him Roman emperor in 962, just like Charlemagne in 800.
So once again, German kings became Roman emperors, and by that title the protectors of Christendom. They owned the land the peasants ploughed from Italy to the North Sea, and from the Rhine to far beyond the Elbe, where Slav peasants became serfs of German noblemen. The emperor didn't grant these lands only to noblemen. He frequently bestowed them on priests, bishops and archbishops. And they too, being no longer mere ministers of the Church, ruled like noblemen over great estates and rode into battle at the head of their peasant armies.

At first this suited the pope very well. He was on good terms with the German emperors who protected and defended him and were all very pious men.

However, the situation soon changed. The pope didn't want the emperor to decide which of his priests should become bishop of Mainz, or Trier, or Cologne, or Passau. 'These are religious appointments,' said the pope, 'and I, as head of the Church, must decide them.' But the fact remained, they weren't just religious appointments. Take the archbishop of Cologne, for example: he was both guardian of the souls of that district and its prince and lord. Therefore the emperor maintained that it was for him to decide who was to be a prince or a lord in his land. And if you think about it for a moment, you will see that each, from his own standpoint, was right. Bestowing land on priests had created a dilemma, for the lord of all priests is the pope, but the lord of all lands is the emperor. This could only lead to trouble, and it soon did. This trouble became known as the Investiture Controversy.

In Rome, in 1073, an exceptionally pious and zealous monk, who had already devoted his life to defending the purity and power of the Church, became pope. He was called Hildebrand, and as pope took the name of Gregory VII.

Meanwhile in Germany a Prankish king was on the throne. His name was Henry I\/. Now it is important to realise that the pope saw himself not only as head of the Church, but also as the divinely
appointed ruler of all Christians on earth. At the same time, the German emperor and successor to the ancient Roman emperors and Charlemagne saw himself as protector and supreme commander of the entire Christian world. And even though Henry IV had not yet been crowned emperor, he still believed, that, as German king, it was his right. Which of the two should yield?
When the struggle between them began, the world was in an uproar. Some were for King Henry IV, others sided with Pope Gregory VII. So many people were involved in this contest that we know of 155 arguments written for and against the king by his supporters and opponents. A number of these portray King Henry as being a wicked and hot-tempered man, while in others it is the pope who is accused of being heartless and power-hungry.

I think we should believe neither. Once we have decided that each, from his own standpoint, was right, whether King Henry behaved badly towards his wife (as his opponents said), or pope Gregory was elected pope without following the usual formalities (as his opponents said), matters little to us. We can't go back into the past and see exactly what did happen, and find out whether these accusations against the pope and the king had any truth in them. They probably didn't, for when people take sides they are usually unfair. However, I'm now going to show you just how hard it is to get at the truth, after more than nine hundred years.

We can be sure of one thing: King Henry was in a difficult situation. The nobles on whom he had bestowed lands (that is, the German princes) were against him. They didn't want their king to become too powerful in case he started ordering them around. Pope Gregory opened hostilities by shutting King Henry out of the Church - by which I mean that he forbade any priest to give him Holy Communion. This was known as excommunication. Then the princes let it be known that they would have nothing to do with an excommunicated king, and that they were going to choose someone else to take his place. Somehow Henry had to get the pope to lift this terrible ban. His fate depended on it. If he failed, he would lose his throne. So, all alone and without his army, he set out for Italy to try to persuade the pope to lift the ban.

It was winter, and the German princes who wanted to prevent King Henry's reconciliation with the pope occupied all the roads and paths. So Henry, accompanied by his wife, had to make a great detour, and in the freezing winter's cold they made their way over the Alps, probably by the same pass that Hannibal had used when he invaded Italy.

Meanwhile the pope was on his way to Germany to negotiate with Henry's enemies. When he heard of Henry's approach, he fled and took refuge in a fortress in northern Italy called Canossa, convinced that Henry was arriving with an army. But when Henry appeared alone, only wishing to have the excommunication lifted, he was amazed and overjoyed. Some say the king came dressed as a penitent, wearing a rough, hooded cloak, and that the pope made him wait three days in the castle courtyard, barefoot in the snow, before he took pity on him and lifted the ban. Contemporaries describe the king as whimpering and begging the pope for mercy, which the pope, in his compassion, finally granted.

Today people still talk of 'going to Canossa' when somebody has to humble himself before his adversary. But now let's see how one of the king's friends tells the same story. This is his version: 'When Henry saw how badly things were going for him, he secretly thought up a very cunning plan. Giving no warning whatsoever, he set out to see the pope. His intention was to kill two birds with one stone: on the one hand he would have the excommunication lifted, and on the other, by going in person, he would prevent the pope from meeting his enemies, and so avert a great danger.'
So the pope's friends saw Henry's going to Canossa as an outstanding success for the pope, and the king's supporters saw it as a great triumph for their leader.

From this you can sec how careful one must be in judging a dispute between two rival powers. But the struggle did not end at Canossa, or with the death of King Henry - who had actually become emperor meanwhile - or with the death of Pope Gregory. For although Henry later managed to have Gregory deposed, the will of that great pope prevailed. Bishops were chosen by the Church, and the emperor was only allowed to say if he agreed with the choice. The pope, not the emperor, became lord of Christendom.

You remember those Nordic seafarers, the Normans, who conquered a stretch of land along the northern coast of France still known as Normandy today? They quickly learnt to speak French, like their neighbours, but they didn't lose their appetite for adventurous sea voyages and conquest. Some of them went as far as Sicily, where they fought the Arabs, then conquered southern Italy and went on, under their great leader Robert Guiscard, to defend Pope Gregory against Henry IV's attacks. Others crossed the narrow stretch of sea that lies between France and England, known as the English Channel, and under their king, William (afterwards named 'the Conqueror'), defeated the English king (a descendant of the Danish King Canute) at the Battle of Hastings. This was in 1066, a date which all the English know, because it was the last time an enemy army succeeded in setting foot on English soil.

William had his officials draw up a list naming every village and property in the land, many of which he bestowed on his fellow soldiers as fiefs. The English nobility were now Normans. And because the Normans who came from Normandy spoke French, the English language is still a mixture of words from Old German and Romance languages.

 

 

23 Chivalrous Knights

Horsemen and knights - Castles - Bondsmen - From noble youth to knight: page, squire, dubbing - A knight's duties - Minstrelsy -Tournaments - Chivalrous poetry - The Song of the Nibelungen -The First Crusade - Godfrey of Bouillon and the conquest of Jerusalem - The significance of the crusades

 


"Arrival of the Crusaders at Constantinople", by Jean Fouquet

 

I am sure you have heard of knights of old from the Age of Chivalry. And you have probably read books about knights and their squires who set out in search of adventure; stories full of shining armour, plumed helmets and noble steeds, blazoned escutcheons and impregnable fortresses, jousting and tournaments where fair ladies give prizes to the victors, wandering minstrels, forsaken damsels and departures for the Holy Land. The best thing is that all of it really existed. All that glitter and romance is no invention. Once upon a time the world really was full of colour and adventure, and people joyfully took part in that strange and wonderful game called chivalry, which was often played in deadly earnest.

But when exactly was the Age of Chivalry, and what was it really like? The word chivalry comes from the French word chevalier meaning horseman, and it was with horsemen that chivalry began. Anyone who could afford a good charger on which to ride into battle was a knight. If he couldn't, he went on foot and wasn't a knight. Noblemen whose lands had been bestowed on them by the king were also knights and their serfs had to provide hay for the horses. A nobleman might, in his turn, bestow part of his fief on his agent or steward, who would also be rich enough to own a fine horse even if, in other respects, he had little power. When his lord was summoned to war by the king he had to ride with him. So stewards were also knights. Only peasants and poor servants, farm-lads and labourers who went to war on foot weren't knights.

It all began around the time of the emperor Henry IV - that is to say, after the year 1000 - and went on for several centuries, in Germany and in England, but above all in France.

However, these knights weren't yet knights as you or I would imagine them. That only happened gradually. First the princes and nobles set about building themselves great fortresses, fortresses that were intended to be secure against all assault. These can slill be seen today in hilly places, or standing, proud and defiant, on sheer cliffs, with only one approach along a tiny, narrow track.

Before you reached the castle gate there was usually a wide ditch or moat, sometimes full of water. Over the moat was a drawbridge, with chains on either side to haul it up at any moment. When (he bridge was raised, the castle was secure and no one could get in. On the other side of the ditch were thick, strong walls with loop holes to shoot arrows through and holes for pouring boiling pitch down on the enemy. The walls themselves were topped by tooth like battlements, behind which you could hide to spy on the enemy. Within this thick wall there was often another one, and sometimes even a third, before you reached the castle courtyard. The court yard then gave access to the rooms where the knight lived. A hall with a fireplace and a fire was reserved for the women, who were not as hardened to discomfort as the men.

For there was nothing comfortable about life in a castle. The kitchen was a soot-blackened room where meat was roasted on a great spit over a crackling log fire. Apart from the rooms for the knights and their valets there were two others: the chapel, where the chaplain held divine service, and the keep. The keep was a massive tower, generally in the heart of the castle, where stores were usually kept, and in which the knights took refuge once their enemies had overcome . . . the mountain, the moat, the drawbridge, the boiling pitch and the three walls. At which point, they were confronted by this mighty tower, where the knights were often able to hold out until help arrived.

And of course, we mustn't forget the dungeons! These were cramped and freezing cells in the depths of the castle into which knights threw their prisoners. There they were left to languish in the dark until they died or were ransomed for a vast sum.

You may have seen one of these castles. But the next time you do, don't just think of the knights in chain mail who lived there. Instead, take a look at the walls and towers and spare a thought for the people who built them. Towers perched high on tops of mountain crags, walls hung between precipices. All made by peasant serfs, men deprived of liberty- bondsmen, as they were called. For it was they who had to split and carry the rocks, haul them up and pile them on top of each other. And when their strength gave out, their wives and their children had to take over. A knight could command them to do anything. Better a knight than a serf any day.

Sons of serls became serfs and the sons of knights, knights. It wasn't so very different from ancient India and its castes.

At the age of seven a knight's son was sent away to another castle, to learn about life. He was called a page, and had to serve the ladies - carry their trains and perhaps read to them aloud - for women were rarely taught to read or write whereas pages usually were. On reaching the age of fourteen, a page became a squire. He didn't have to stay in the castle and sit beside the fire any more. Instead, he was allowed to accompany his knight when he went hunting, or to war. A squire had to carry his knight's shield and spear and hand him his second lance on the battlefield when the first one shattered. He had to obey his master in all things and be true to him. If he proved a brave and loyal squire, he in his turn would be dubbed a knight at the age of twenty-one. The ceremony of dubbing was a very solemn one. The squire first had to fast and pray in the castle chapel. He also received Communion from the priest. Then, in full armour, but without his helmet, sword or shield, he knelt between two witnesses. His lord, who was to dub him a knight, tapped him on each shoulder and on the neck with the flat blade of his sword, while reciting the following words:

In the name of God and of Mary his mother
Accept this blow and never another.
Be upright, true and brave.
Better a knight than a slave.

Only then was the squire allowed to rise. He was a squire no longer. He was a knight who might now dub others knights, whose shield now bore his coat of arms - a lion, a leopard or a flower - and who would usually choose a fine motto or device to live by. He was solemnly presented with his sword and helmet, golden spurs were fitted to his boots and his shield was set on his arm. Off he rode in his bright plumed helmet, with his mighty lance and a scarlet cloak over his chain mail, accompanied by his own squire, to prove himself worthy of his knighthood.

From all this solemn ceremony you can see that a knight was by now something more than just a soldier on horseback. He was almost a member of an order, like a monk. For to be a good knight, bravery was not enough. A monk served God through prayers and good works and a knight served God through his strength. It was his duty to protect the weak and defenceless, women and the poor, widows and orphans. He was only allowed to draw his sword in a just cause, and must serve God in each and every deed. To his master - his liegelord - he owed absolute obedience. For him he must risk all. He must be neither brutal nor cowardly, and in battle must only fight man to man, never two against one. A vanquished opponent must never be humiliated. We still call this sort of behaviour chivalrous, because it conforms to the knights' ideal.

When a knight loved a lady, he did battle in her honour, and went in search of adventures to win fame for his beloved. He pronounced her name with reverence and did everything she asked. That, too, is part of chivalry. And if it seems natural to you today to let a lady go through a door first, or to bend down and pick up something she has dropped, it's because inside you there is a remnant of the thinking of those knights of old who believed that it is a gentleman's duty to protect the weak and honour women.

In peacetime, too, a knight would demonstrate his courage and his skill in games of chivalry known as tournaments. Knights from many countries gathered to test their strength at these war games. Dressed in full armour they galloped towards one another at full tilt, each doing his best to unhorse the other with his blunted lance. The lady of the castle presented the winner with a prize - usually a garland of flowers. To please the ladies a knight had to do more than shine at feats of arms. He had to behave in a moderate and noble manner, not curse or swear as soldiers usually did, and master chess-playing and poetry and other arts of peace.

In fact, knights were often great poets, who wrote songs praising the women they loved, telling of their beauty and their virtue. They also sang of the deeds of other knights of the past. There were long stories in verse, telling of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, of Perceval (or Parsifal) and Lohengrin and the Quest for the Holy Grail (the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper), of the unhappy love of Tristan and Isolde, and even stories about Alexander the Great and the Trojan War.

Minstrels wandered from castle to castle, singing of Siegfried the Dragon-slayer and Theodoric, King of the Goths (who became Dietrich of Berne). These songs, sung in Austria on the Danube at that time, are among the earliest we know, because those transcribed under Charlemagne have all been lost. And if you read the story of Siegfried in the Song of the Nibelungen, you will find all the ancient Germanic peasant warriors behaving like true knights. Even the terrifying Attila the Hun, solemnly celebrating his marriage to Siegfried's widow, Kriemhild, in Vienna, is portrayed as a noble and chivalrous king.

As you know, a knight's first duty was to fight for God and for Christendom. And it wasn't long before they found a wonderful opportunity to do so. Christ's tomb in Jerusalem was, as was the whole of Palestine, in the hands of Arab unbelievers. So when reminded of their duty to help liberate the tomb by a great preacher in France, and by the pope - whose victory over the German kings had made him the mightiest ruler of Christendom — Christian knights in their tens of thousands cried out enthusiastically: lIt is God's will! It is God's will!'

Under the leadership of a French knight, Godfrey of Bouillon, a great army set off along the Danube in 1096, first to Constantinople and then on through Asia Minor towards Palestine. These knights and their followers had crosses of red material stitched to I heir shoulders and were called 'crusaders'. Their aim was to liberate the land in which Christ's cross had once stood. When, after long years of battles and unimaginable hardships, they finally reached the walls of Jerusalem, it is said that they were so moved by the sight of the Holy City, which they knew from the Bible, that they wept and kissed the soil. Then they besieged the town. It was valiantly defended by Arab soldiers, but eventually they took it.

Once inside Jerusalem, however, they behaved neither like knights nor like Christians. They massacred all the Muslims and committed hideous atrocities. Then they did penance, and, singing psalms, proceeded barefoot to Christ's tomb.

The crusaders founded the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem, with Godfrey of Bouillon as its Protector. But because it was small and weak, far from Europe and in the midst of Muslim kingdoms, the little state was forever under attack from Arab warriors. This meant that, back in England, France and Germany, priests were forever urging knights to go on new crusades. Not all of these were successful.
However, one good thing came of the Crusades, although it wouldn't have pleased the knights at all. In the distant Orient the Christians discovered Arab culture - their buildings, their sense of beauty and their learning. And within a hundred years of the First Crusade, the writings of Alexander the Great's teacher, the books of Aristotle, were translated from Arabic into Latin and eagerly read and studied in Italy, France, Germany and England. People were surprised to find how similar many of his teachings were to those of the Church and filled heavy Latin tomes with complicated thoughts on the subject. All that the Arabs had learnt and experienced in the course of their conquests around the world was now brought back to Europe by the crusaders. In a number of ways it was the example of those they looked on as their enemies that transformed the barbaric warriors of Europe into truly chivalrous knights.

 

 

24 Emperors in the Age of Chivalry

Frederick Barbarossa - Barter and the money-based economy -Italian towns - The empire - The resistance and defeat of Milan -The dubbing feast at Mainz - The Third Crusade - Frederick II -Guelphs and Ghibellines - Innocent III - The Magna Carta - Sicily's rulers - The end of the Hohenstaufens - Ghengis Khan and the Mongol invasion - The lack of an emperor and 'fist-law' - The Kyffhauser legend - Rudolf of Habsburg - Victory over Otakar -The power of the House of Habsburg is established

 


This was the size of the warlike Mongols' mighty empire when they threatened the whole of Europe after the destruction of Breslau.
 

In these fairy-tale times, full of colour and adventure, there was a new family of knights ruling in Germany. They took their name, Hohenstaufen, from their castle. One of them was the emperor Frederick I, nicknamed Barbarossa by the Italians on account of his magnificent fiery-red beard. Now you may wonder why history should choose to remember him by his Italian name - after all, Frederick I was a German emperor. It is simply because he spent much of his time in Italy and the deeds that made him famous happened there. It wasn't just the pope and his power to bestow the imperial crown of Rome on German kings that attracted Barbarossa to Italy. He was also determined to rule the whole of Italy, because he needed money.'Couldn't he gel money from Germany?' I can hear you asking. No, he couldn't. Because in those days in Germany there was almost none at all.

Have you ever wondered why people actually need money? 'To live on, of course!' you say. But that isn't strictly true. Try eating a coin. People live on bread and other foods, and someone who grows grain and makes his own bread doesn't need money, any more than Robinson Crusoe did. Nor does anyone who is given his bread for nothing. And that's how it was in Germany. The serfs cultivated their fields and gave a tenth of their harvest to the knights and monks who owned the land.

'But where did the peasants get their ploughs from? And their smocks and their yokes and the things they needed for their animals?' Well, mostly by exchange. If, for example, a peasant had an ox, but would rather have six sheep to give him wool to make a jacket, he would exchange them for something with his neighbour. And if he had slaughtered an ox, and spent the long winter evenings turning the two horns into fine drinking cups, he could exchange one of the cups for some flax grown by his neighbour, which his wife could weave and make into a coat. This is known as barter. So in Germany people managed perfectly well in those days without money, since most of them were either peasants or landowners. Nor did the monasteries need money, for they too owned a lot of land which pious people either gave them or left to them when they died.

Apart from vast forests, small fields and a few villages, castles and monasteries, there was almost nothing else in the whole great German kingdom - that is to say, there were hardly any towns. And it was only in towns that people needed money. Shoemakers, cloth merchants and scribes can hardly satisfy their hunger and thirst with leather, cloth and ink. They need bread. But can you see yourself going to the shoemaker and paying for your shoes with bread for him to live on? And in any case, if you aren't a baker, where will you find the bread? 'From a baker!' Yes, but what will you give the baker in return? 'Perhaps I can lend him a hand.' And if he doesn't need your help? Or if you have already promised to help the lady who sells fruit? You see, it would be unimaginably complicated if people who live in towns were to barter.

This is why people agreed to decide on something to exchange which everyone would want and therefore accept, something easy to share out and carry around, which wouldn't go bad or lose its value if you put it away. It was decided that the best thing would be metal - that is, gold or silver. All money was once made of metal, and rich people went around with purses stuffed with gold coins on their belts. That meant you could give the shoemaker money for shoes, and he could use it to buy bread from the baker, who could give it to the peasant in exchange for flour, and the peasant might then use your money to buy a new plough. He wouldn't find that for barter in his neighbour's garden.

However, there were very few towns in Germany in the (lays of chivalry, so people there had little need of money, whereas in Italy money had been in use since Roman times. Italy had always had great cities and many merchants with bags of money on their belts and even more stowed away in great chests.

Some of these towns were by the sea, like Venice, which is actually in the sea on a cluster of little islands where the inhabitants had taken refuge from the Huns. Then there were other great harbour towns such as Genoa and Pisa, whose ships sailed far across the seas and came back from the Orient with fine cloth, rare spices and weapons of great value. These goods were sold off in the ports, to be sold again inland in cities like Florence, Verona or Milan, where the cloth might be made into clothes, or perhaps banners or tents. These then went to France, whose capital city, Paris, already contained almost a hundred thousand inhabitants - or to England, or even to Germany. But not much went to Germany because there was very little money there to pay for such things.
People who lived in towns grew richer and richer, and no one-could give them orders because they weren't peasants and didn't belong to anyone's fief. On the other hand, since no one had granted them land, they weren't lords either. They governed themselves, much as people did in antiquity. They had their own courts of law and were as free and independent in their cities as the monks and the knights. Such citizens (called burghers in Germany or the bourgeoisie in France) were known as the Third Estate. Of course, peasants didn't count.

This brings us back at last to the Emperor Barbarossa, who needed money. As Holy Roman Emperor he wanted to be the actual ruler of Italy, and to receive tribute and taxes from Ttalian citizens. But the citizens would have none of it. They were used to their freedom and didn't wish to give it up. So Barbarossa took an army over the Alps to Italy, where he summoned a number of famous jurists in 1158, who solemnly and publicly declared that as Holy Roman emperor and successor to the Roman Caesars, he had all the rights his predecessors had had a thousand years before.
The Italian cities took no notice. They still refused to pay. So the emperor led his army against them, and in particular against Milan, the town at the heart of the rebellion. It is said that he was so incensed by their refusal that he swore not to wear his crown until he had forced the town into submission. And he kept his oath. Only when Milan had fallen, and was utterly destroyed, did he hold a banquet at which he and his wife appeared with their crowns once more on their heads.

But no matter how many great and successful campaigns he led, Barbarossa had only to turn his back and head for home for the rumblings of revolt to start up again. The Milanese rebuilt their town and refused to recognise a German ruler. In all, Barbarossa led six campaigns against Italy, but his fame was always greater than his success.

He was seen to be the very model of a knight. He was extremely strong - mentally as well as physically. And he was generous and knew how to hold a feast. Today we have forgotten what a real feast is like. Everyday life, compared to ours, may have been mean and monotonous, but a feast in those days was unlike anything you could imagine. It was indescribably lavish and magnificent, like something out of a fairy-tale. Barbarossa held one in Mainz when his sons were dubbed knights, in 1181, to which forty thousand knights with all their squires and attendants were invited. They stayed in brightly coloured tents and the emperor and his sons had the grandest one of all, which was made of silk and stood in the centre of the encampment. Fires blazed all around with whole oxen, wild boar and innumerable chickens roasting over them on spits. People came from far and wide dressed in all sorts of costumes — jugglers and acrobats and wandering minstrels who sang all the great songs of old in the evening while they feasted. What a sight it must have been! The emperor himself displayed his skills, jousting with his sons, while all the nobles in the land looked on. A feast like this went on for days. Long after it was over the minstrels continued to sing about it.

As a true knight, Barbarossa eventually went on a crusade. This was the Third Crusade, in 1189. King Richard the Lionheart of England and the French King Philip also took part. They went by sea. But Barbarossa chose to go by land and was drowned in a river in Asia Minor.



Frederick II's troops paid with leather coins, from Chigi Codex, Vatican Library.

His grandson Frederick II of Hohenstaufen was even more remarkable, even greater and altogether more admirable than Barbarossa. He was brought up in Sicily, and while he was still a child and unable to rule himself there was a lot of trouble in Germany between the great rival families over who was to be the new sovereign. Some favoured Philip, Barbarossa's youngest son, while others had elected Otto, whose family was called Welf. This gave people who already couldn't endure each other yet another reason to squabble. If one was for Philip then his neighbour would side with Otto, and the happy custom of these rival factions -known in Italy as the Guelphs and the Ghibellines - persisted for many years. Even after Philip and Otto were long gone.

Meanwhile Frederick had grown up in Sicily. And I mean grown up. Both in body and in mind. His guardian, Pope Innocent Ш, was one of the most important men there has ever been. What Gregory VII - the German king Henry IV's great adversary - had fought so hard for, and had failed to achieve, Innocent III had accomplished. He really was lord of all Christendom. A man of exceptional intelligence and culture, he ruled them all - not just the spiritual leaders of the Church, but all the princes of Europe. His power even reached as far as England. When, one day, King John refused to carry out his orders, he excommunicated him and forbade any priest to celebrate Mass in England. The English nobility became so angry with their king that they took away almost all his power. In 1215 he had to solemnly swear that he would never again oppose their will. This was the famous Magna Carta, the Great Charter to which King John put his seal, in which he granted his barons a whole host of rights which English citizens hold to this day. But England still had to pay taxes and tribute to Pope Innocent III, so great was his power.

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen wasn't only highly intelligent: he was an attractive and likeable young man as well. In order to claim his crown as king of the Germans, he set out from Sicily, virtually on his own, on an adventurous ride which took him through Italy and over the Swiss mountains to Constance. However, when he arrived he found that his rival Otto was marching towards him at the head of an army. There seemed little hope for Frederick. But the burghers of Constance, like all those who met him and came to know him, were so charmed by him that they rallied round and hastily closed the city gates. When Otto arrived exactly one hour later, all he could do was turn round and go away.

Having similarly won over all the German princes, Frederick suddenly found he had become a mighty ruler, lord of all the vassals of Germany and Italy. So again the two powers were in conflict, just as in the days of Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV. But Frederick was no Henry. He did not go to Canossa, and he didn't intend to beg the pope for mercy. Like Pope Innocent III, he was convinced that he had been called to rule the world. Frederick knew everything that Innocent had known - after all, Innocent had been his guardian. He knew everything the Germans knew, for they were his family. And finally, he knew everything the Arabs knew, for he had grown up in Sicily. He was to spend much of his life there and in Sicily there was more for him to learn than anywhere else in the world.

Sicily had been ruled by everyone: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Italians and Germans. Soon it would be the turn of the French. It must have been just like the 'lower of Babel, except that there people had ended up understanding almost nothing, whereas Frederick ended up by understanding nearly everything there was to know. Not just every language, but many whole branches of knowledge. He wrote poetry, and he was a superb huntsman. He even wrote a book on falconry, for people hunted with hawks in those days.

Above all, he knew about religions. But there was one thing he could never understand: why people were always fighting. He liked to have discussions with learned Muslims, even though he was a devout Christian. When the pope got wind of this he was angrier than ever. And in particular a pope whose name was Gregory. He was just as powerful, but perhaps not as wise as his predecessor, Pope Innocent III. He wanted Frederick to undertake a crusade at all costs, and threatened to excommunicate him if he didn't. So in the end he did. But what all other crusades had achieved only through great sacrifices and loss of life, Frederick did without any fighting at all: Christian pilgrims were allowed to visit the Holy Sepulchre without fear of being attacked and all the land around Jerusalem was held to belong to them. And how did he do that? He just sat down with the sultan who ruled there and they came to an agreement.

Both sides were happy that things had gone so well, and that war had been averted, but the bishop of Jerusalem was not content, for no one had consulted him. So he complained to the pope that the emperor was too friendly with the Arabs, and the pope became convinced that Frederick had become a Muslim. But Emperor Frederick II didn't care. He just rejoiced that he had achieved more for Christians than anyone else had ever done and crowned himself king of Jerusalem, for no priest could be found who was willing to crown him against the pope's wishes.

Then he set sail for home, taking with him presents given to him by the sultan: hunting leopards and camels, rare stones and many other curiosities. And he made a collection of these in Sicily and
engaged great artists to work for him, and took pleasure in beautiful things whenever he was tired of ruling. But he certainly did rule. He disliked the custom of granting land as fiefs. Instead, he appointed officials and, rather than give them land, he paid them a monthly salary. For this being Italy, they already used money. And he ruled justly but also with great severity.

Frederick was so different from everyone else around him that nobody understood what he was trying to achieve. Least of all Pope Gregory, who called him the Antichrist, while others called him stupor mundi, which means the wonder of the world. In far-off Germany few people paid any attention to their strange emperor with his odd ideas. And because people didn't understand him, he had a hard life. Even his own son turned against him and stirred up trouble among the Germans, and his best-loved adviser went over to the pope, leaving Frederick entirely alone. Of all the ingenious and practical schemes he had hoped to show the world, very few saw the light of day. Unable to carry them out, he became increasingly bitter and ill-tempered. And so he died, in the year 1250.
His son Manfred died in the struggle for power when he was still a young man, and his grandson Conradin was taken prisoner by his enemies and beheaded in Naples at the age of twenty-four. Such was the sad end of that great ruling family of knights, the Hohenstaufens.

But while Frederick was still reigning in Sicily and quarrelling with the pope, a dreadful misfortune overtook the world which neither could prevent. New hordes of mounted warriors arrived from Asia. This time it was the Mongols, the most fearsome of them all. Even Shih Huang-ti's great wall could not restrain them. Under their leader, Ghengis Khan, they first conquered China, looting and sacking with appalling savagery. Then came Persia's turn, after which they took the path of the Huns, the Avars and the Magyars towards Europe. Sowing terror and destruction, they raged first through Hungary and on through Poland. Finally, in 1241, they reached the German frontier town of Breslau, which they seized and burned to the ground. Everywhere they went there was slaughter. No one was spared. Their empire was already the greatest the world had ever known. Just imagine: from Peking to Breslau! Moreover, in the course of their invasions their troops had changed from savage hordes to well-trained warriors with very cunning leaders. Christendom could do nothing to stop them. A great army of knights fell before them. And then, when the danger was at its height, their emperor died somewhere in Siberia, and the Mongols turned back, leaving nothing but wasteland behind.

In Germany the death of the last Hohenstaufen led to greater confusion than ever. No one could agree on a new king so none was chosen. And because there was neither a king nor an emperor, nor anyone else in control, everything went to the dogs. The strong simply robbed the weak of everything they had. People called it the right of might, or 'fist-law'. Of course, might is never a right, nor is it right. It's simply wrong.

People knew this well enough and despaired, and wished they could return to the old days. Now you can wish, and you can dream. But if you keep on wishing and dreaming you sometimes end up believing that what you want has come true. And so people began to persuade themselves that the Emperor Frederick wasn't really dead, but under a spell in an enchanted mountain, where he was sitting and waiting. And this in its turn had a remarkable effect. I don't know whether you have ever found yourself dreaming of someone who appears first as one person and then as someone else, and then, somehow, as both at the same time? Because this is what happened. People dreamed that a great, wise and just ruler (this was Frederick II of Sicily) was sitting deep down under the Kyffhauser mountains and would one day return and make his purpose known. And yet, at the same time, they also dreamed that he had a great beard (this was now Frederick's grandfather, Frederick I Barbarossa), and that he was all-powerful and would vanquish all his enemies and create a kingdom as wonderful and magnificent as it had been at the time of the great Feast of Mainz.
The worse things got, the more people expected a miracle. They pictured the king asleep inside the mountain, where he had slept so long that his fiery red beard had grown right through the stone
table on which he leant. Once in every hundred years, he would wake and ask his page if the ravens were still circling the mountain. Not until his page replied 'No, Sir, I can't see them' would he rise and split the table with his sword and shatter the mountain in which the spell had imprisoned him and ride out in shining armour with all his men. You can imagine what people would make of that today!
But in the end no miraculous apparition came to set the world to rights, just an energetic, able and far-sighted knight, whose castle, the Habsburg - or Hawk's Castle - was in Switzerland. His name was Rudolf. The princes had elected him king of the Germans in 1273, hoping that a knight so poor and obscure as he would be biddable and weak. But they hadn't reckoned on his intelligence and shrewdness. He may have started out with little land - and therefore little power - but he knew of a very simple way to obtain more, and with it more power.

He went to war against the rebellious King Otakar of Bohemia, defeated him and confiscated part of his kingdom. As king he was entitled to do this. Then, in 1282, he bestowed the same lands -which happened to be Austria - on his own sons. This formed the basis of his family's power. The Habsburgs were able to increase this power with a succession of new fiefs, and by marriage and inheritance, until they had become one of the most esteemed and influential noble families of Europe. It must be said that they ruled more over their vast family fief (by which I mean Austria) than they did over the German empire, despite their title of German king and emperor. Those lands were ruled by other lords - dukes and bishops and counts — all of whom lived like princes, enjoying almost unlimited power over their domains. Nevertheless, with the last of the Hohenstaufens the real Age of Chivalry had ended.

 

 

25 Cities and Citizens

Markets and towns - Merchants and knights - Guilds - Building cathedrals - Mendicant friars and penitential priests - The persecution of Jews and heretics - The Babylonian Captivity of the popes -The Hundred Years War with England - Joan of Arc - Life at court -Universities - Charles IV and Rudolf the Founder

 


Joan of Arc, by Jean-Auguste Ingres

 

In the course of the hundred years that passed between the deaths of Frederick Barbarossa in 1190 and Rudolf I of Habsburg in 1291, Europe changed in more ways than it is possible to imagine. As I have already said, at the time of Barbarossa there were powerful cities, mainly in Italy, whose citizens were bold enough to oppose and even take up arms against the emperor, while at that time Germany was largely a land of knights, monks and peasants. But over the following hundred years the situation in Germany changed beyond recognition. Many eastward crusades had already taken Germans far from home and they had established trading relationships in distant countries. They no longer exchanged oxen for sheep, or drinking horns for cloth, because they, too, were using money. And where there was money there were markets where all sorts of goods could be bought. These markets could not be held just anywhere. They had to be in fixed places protected by walls and towers, usually near a castle. Anyone who set up a stall in one and traded, as a burgher was no longer bound in serfdom to a landowner. People liked to say 'city air brings freedom', because burghers in the bigger towns answered to no one but the king.

But you mustn't imagine that life in a town in the Middle Ages was anything like it is today. Most towns were small, crooked mazes of tiny alleys and narrow houses with high, pointed gables. Merchants and craftsmen lived there with their families, crowded together in little space. When a merchant went on his travels he was usually accompanied by armed guards. This was because many knights in those days had forgotten all about chivalry and were little more than brigands. High up in their castles they sat, waiting for merchants to rob. However, the burghers didn't put up with this for long: they had money and they were able to hire soldiers. As a result there were frequent fights between burghers and robber knights, and quite often it was the burghers who won.

Craftsmen such as tailors, shoemakers, drapers, bakers, locksmiths, painters, joiners, stonemasons and master builders all belonged to groups or associations known as guilds. A guild such as that of the tailors was almost as hard to enter and had rules that were almost as strict as those of the knights. Not just anyone could become a master-tailor. First you had to serve your time as an apprentice. Then you became a journeyman and went on your travels in order to get to know other towns and other ways of working. Young men like these went on foot, and often spent years wandering through many countries before they returned home, or found a city which had a place for a master-tailor. Small towns didn't need many tailors, and the guilds made sure there were no more masters of any trade than there was work for them to do. A journeyman had to demonstrate his skill by completing a masterpiece (perhaps a fine coat) and only then would he be ceremoniously declared a Master and admitted to the guild.

Each guild had its own rules and entertainments, its banners and fine mottos, just like the knights. And of course their mottos, too, were not always respected. But at least they had them. A member of a guild was bound to support his fellow members and not steal their trade, nor must he cheat his own customers with poor goods. He was expected to treat his apprentices and journeymen well and do his best to uphold the good name of his trade and his town. He was, so to speak, one of God's craftsmen, just as a knight was a warrior fighting for God.

Indeed, while knights gave their lives in crusades to liberate Christ's tomb, burghers and craftsmen would often sacrifice their wealth, their strength and their well-being when it came to building a church in their town. The new church or cathedral had to be bigger, more beautiful and more magnificent than any building the neighbouring towns could boast of. The whole town shared this ambition and all the inhabitants devoted themselves to the project. The best-known master-builder was summoned to draw up the plans, stonemasons were engaged to cut stone and carve statues, painters to paint pictures for the altar and make windows that would shine like jewels within the church. But more important than whose idea it had been, or who had designed or built it, was the fact that the church was the work of the whole town, a communal offering to God. You only need look at one to see it. For these churches are no longer the massive fortresses that were still being built in Germany in Barbarossa's time, but glorious, high-vaulted halls with slim pillars and slender bell towers, and room inside for the whole town to gather when they came to hear the preachers. For by now new monastic orders had sprung up whose monks were less concerned with tilling the soil around their monasteries and copying manuscripts, but chose instead to roam the land as beggars, preaching repentance to the people and explaining the Holy Scriptures. Everyone flocked to the churches to hear them and wept over their sins, promising to mend their ways and live according to Christ's teachings of loving kindness.

But like the crusaders, who in the name of piety had carried out that dreadful massacre in Jerusalem, there were many citizens who failed to hear in those penitential sermons a call to mend their ways, and instead learnt to hate all those who didn't share their faith. Jews, above all, were their targets, and the more pious they felt themselves to be, the more they abused them. You must bear in mind that the Jews were the only tribe from antiquity left in Europe. The Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Gauls and the Goths had all either perished or merged with other peoples. Only the Jews, whose state had been repeatedly destroyed and who had endured all those terrible times when they had been persecuted and hounded from one country to the next, had survived. After two thousand years, they were still patiently awaiting the coming of their Saviour, the Messiah. Forbidden to own fields, they couldn't be peasants, let alone become knights. Nor were they allowed to practise any craft. The only occupation open to them was trade. So that is what they did. Even then they were only permitted to live in specified parts of the town and only allowed to wear certain clothes. Yet, in time, some of them were able to earn a lot of money which knights and burghers borrowed and were often unable to repay. This only made the Jews more hated and they were repeatedly attacked and robbed. Having neither the power nor the right to defend themselves, they were helpless, unless the king or a priest chose to take their side - but this was rarely the case.
Bad enough then to be a Jew, but worse still if you were someone who, having pored long over the Bible, began to doubt some aspect of its teaching. Such people were called heretics and the persecutions they suffered were terrible. Anyone perceived to be a heretic was publicly burned alive, just like the Christians in Nero's time. Whole cities were razed to combat heresy and entire regions laid waste. Crusades were waged against them, just as they were against Muslims. And all this was done by the very people who, for the God of mercy and his Good News, were building those magnificent cathedrals. Buildings which, with their soaring towers and great decorated porches, with their stained glass windows gleaming like jewels in the darkness and their thousands of statues, seemed to offer a glorious vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.

France had cities and churches before there were any in Germany. France was richer, and had had a less turbulent history. Moreover, the kings of France had been quick to find a use for the citizens of the new Third Estate. After about 1300 they rarely assigned land to the nobility, but kept it instead for themselves and paid burghers to manage it (just as Frederick II had done in Sicily).
As a result French kings held more and more land. And land in those days, as you know, meant serfs, soldiers and power. By 1300, the French kings were the most powerful sovereigns, for it was only now that the German king, Rudolf of Habsburg, was beginning to establish his power by bestowing land on his relatives. Besides which, the French did not only rule France, but southern Italy as well. It wasn't long before their power had become so great that, in 1309, they were able to force the pope to leave Rome and take up residence in France where they could keep a close eye on him. The popes lived in a great palace in Avignon surrounded by wonderful works of art, but they were, in effect, prisoners. And this is why, remembering the Babylonian captivity of the Jews (which lasted, as you know, from 597 to 538 вс), this period from 1305 to 1376 is known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Popes.

But the kings of France were still not satisfied. As you remember, a Norman family had conquered England in 1066, and they had been ruling England ever since. This made them nominally French and, as such, subjects of the kings of France, who could therefore claim sovereignty over England as well as France. However, when no heir was born to the French royal family, the kings of England claimed that, both as relatives and as vassals of the French kings, they should now rule France as well as England. The dispute that followed turned into a terrible struggle. It began in 1337 and lasted for more than a hundred years. What had started as a chivalrous contest between a few knights became a war in which great armies of soldiers were paid to fight each other. These were not members of a grand, communal order for whom battle was a noble pursuit, but ordinary Englishmen and Frenchmen, fighting one another for the independence of their lands. The English won more and more land for themselves, conquering ever greater parts of France - not least because the French king who was in power towards the end of this war was thick-witted and incompetent.


Jules Bastien-Lepage
Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices


But the French people did not want to be ruled by foreigners. And it was then that the miracle happened. A simple seventeen-year-old shepherdess called Joan of Arc, who felt herself called by God to the task, succeeded in persuading the French to put her at the head of an army, dressed in full armour, and the English were driven from the land. 'Only when the English are in England will there be peace,' she said. But the English took their revenge. They captured her and sentenced her to death for witchcraft. And in 1431 Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. But perhaps it isn't so surprising that they thought she was a witch. For doesn't it seem like magic that a simple, uneducated peasant girl, all on her own, armed with nothing but courage and a passionate conviction, should be able to wipe out the accumulated defeats of almost a century in just two years, and bring about the crowning of her king?

And yet this time of the Hundred Years War was also a time of unimaginable brilliance and excitement, a time when towns were expanding and proud knights no longer sat in grim seclusion in their lonely strongholds, but chose instead to inhabit the courts of rich and powerful kings and princes. In Flanders and Brabant (now Belgium), but, above all, in Italy, life was truly magnificent. Here there were prosperous towns, trading in precious cloth such as silks and brocades, and offering every conceivable comfort and luxury. Knights and noblemen feasted at court in splendid, richly embroidered robes. And when they danced in rings with their ladies, in great halls and in flower gardens, to the music of lutes and viols, I, too, should have liked to be there. The dresses worn by the ladies were even richer and more elaborate than the clothes of the men. And they had head-dresses that were tall and pointed like church steeples, to which long, fine veils were attached. In their pointed shoes and sumptuous robes glittering with thread-of-gold they looked like delicate and graceful dolls. How unhappy they must have been in the smoke-filled halls of those ancient fortresses! Now they lived in castles that were spacious and airy, with turrets and battlements and thousands of windows, in rooms hung with brightly coloured tapestries, where the conversation was elegant and refined. And when a nobleman led his lady into the banqueting hall, to the feast laid out in all its splendour, he would hold her hand lightly with just two fingers, spreading the others as widely as he could. By now, reading and writing was common in towns. It was a necessity for tradesmen and artisans, and many knights liked to address artful and elegant poems to their elegant ladies.

Nor was knowledge any longer the preserve of a handful of monks in their cells. Soon after 1200, students from countries far and wide were flocking in their thousands to the famous University of Paris, where they studied and argued a great deal over the opinions of Aristotle, and how these might or might not agree with what was written in the Bible.

This way of life, both at court and in the city, finally reached Germany, and in particular the court of the German emperor. His court, at that time, was in Prague. For after the death of Rudolf of Habsburg, other families of kings and emperors had been elected. And since 1310 it had been the Luxembourg family who ruled from their seat in Prague. But the fact was that by now this rule hardly included any German lands at all. Power was once more in the hands of individual princes who ruled independently in areas such as Bavaria, Swabia, Wtirttemberg and Austria. The only real difference between the German emperor and these princes was that he was the most powerful among them. The Luxembourgs' land was Bohemia, and Charles IV, a just sovereign and lover of splendour, had been ruling there from Prague since 1347. The knights at his court were no less noble than those of Flanders and the paintings in his palaces were just as fine as those at Avignon. In 1348 he, too, founded a university, in Prague. It was the German empire's first university.

Hardly less splendid than the court of Charles IV was that of his son-in-law in Vienna, Rudolf IV, known as 'the Founder'. As you can see, none of these rulers lived in lonely fortresses any more, nor did they set out across the world on adventurous military campaigns. Their castles were built in the centres of towns. This alone tells you how important towns had become. But it was only the beginning.

 

 
 
 
 
 

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