Archive for the ‘1200s’ Category

Saint Elizabeth (1207-1231) was a princess, the daughter of the king of Hungary. She lived in a castle on the top of a hill in the middle of Germany: she was married to the count of Thuringia. But after he died fighting in the Holy Land she was turned out of the castle and became a poor but holy woman in a plain, grey dress. She had never been so happy.

When she died the birds came and sang on the top of the church. People cut off pieces of her hair and graveclothes as holy relics. Many reported miracles done in her name after her death, especially at or near her tomb in Marburg.

Even when she was five she was religious. She would rather pray than play. She liked to pray laying face down on the ground with her arms stretched out. Even before she could read she would act as if she were reading the book of Psalms. Winning games made her uncomfortable and what she won she would give away.

She wanted to live as a poor virgin all her life, but her father, the king, wanted her to marry the count of Thuringia. She did so out of respect for him. She had sex and had children, but only as a duty not as a pleasure.

She would not eat the fine food that princesses ate in those days. She would push the food about on her plate or eat what the servants ate. When they were on the road that meant old black bread in hot water. When her husband was away she prayed all night.

She liked to pray the Our Father and Hail Mary. She liked the Te Deum.

With her own money she built a hospital to care for the sick. She sold her jewels to help feed the poor. She gave away clothing. She went to the funerals of the poor. Once she tore the linen veil from her face and used it to cover a poor, dead man before he was put into the ground. She was like Mother Theresa in our time, caring for the sick, the poor, the old and the dying.

After her husband died and she sank into poverty, her father, the king and her uncle, the bishop, offered to save her from her fate. But she said no: poverty is a virtue, the road to holiness. No one had ever seen anything like it: the daughter of the king living as a poor woman.

She prayed much and had visions of heaven. She once saw Jesus and, before she died, she saw her angel and the devil.

Many miracles were reported after her death when people visited her tomb or made a promise to God in her name. The dead were brought back to life (especially children pulled from rivers), the blind given sight and arms and legs made whole.

Feast day: November 17th.

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Kilwa (900s to 1700s), also called Quiloa or Kilwa Kisiwani, was the richest city in eastern Africa from 1000 to 1500. Today no one lives there. It is just some broken down buildings in a nearly forgotten corner of Africa.

Kilwa stood on an island on the coast of what is now south-eastern Tanzania. Then it was in the land of the Zanj. Only the old buildings remain. Even the book that once told its story, the Kilwa Chronicle, is lost (though parts of it appear elsewhere). But the society of Kilwa has lived on, becoming the pattern for Swahili-speaking Africa.

Kilwa was the first city in eastern Africa to have a domed building, the city’s great mosque. It also had its largest stone building, the palace of Husuni Kubwa with a hundred rooms.

Kilwa grew rich by trading the gold, iron and men of Africa for the riches of the east: the cloth and jewels of India, the porcelain of China and the spices of the Indies.

It was a beautiful city built of stone and coral. Ibn Battuta, the Marco Polo of the Arab world, arrived there in 1331. He was amazed by its beauty.

The people were black Muslims who spoke Swahili. But by the time the Portuguese arrived in 1500 half the people were Christians from India and Abyssinia.

The city was founded by Ali bin al Hasan. He came in the 900s on a ship from Shiraz (south-western Persia).

Kilwa was as far south as Arab traders would go. Like Timbuktu, Kilwa got rich by controlling the trade between the Arabs and its part of Africa.

Its glory days came to an end in 1500 when the Portuguese arrived. It was Cabral who first came, on the same voyage in which he discovered Brazil. Two years later Vasco da Gama arrived and asked for tribute. In 1505 Francisco de Almeida came and destroyed the city, taking it outright. He built Gereza, a fort that later became a prison.

Some years later the Portuguese lost Kilwa to the Arabs. Later it was ruled by Zanzibar. But the city never recovered: the Portuguese had taken control of trade with the east.

In the 1700s Kilwa did see something of its old wealth return by selling slaves to Brazil. But then in the early 1800s the British brought an end to even that. Kilwa died. There was no reason to go there any more.

You can still see the remains of the mosque, the Kubwa palace, the old Portuguese fort and some other buildings. They are falling apart with the wind and the rain and the years.

It is not a tourist attraction, though the curious do show up from time to time.

In 1981 UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site, one of the several hundred places in the world worth preserving – not that UNESCO has any money to save what is left of Kilwa.

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A parliament (1265- ) is the law-making part of government common in many democracies. It is especially common in countries that were once part of the British Empire (apart from America). Its prime minister rules the country day to day, though the king or president holds the final authority, which he exercises on rare occasion.

The parts of the system:

  • MPs – short for “members of parliament”. Each represents his own part of the country, called a constituency. MPs discuss and vote on laws.
  • constituency – the part of the country that an MP represents. It can cover part of a large city or several small towns. During an election the citizens of a constituency vote for who they want for MP.
  • prime minister – the MP who is the leader of parliament. The other MPs vote him into office. He puts forward laws for parliament to consider and leads the government from day to day. He chooses MPs to be ministers or heads of the departments or ministries of government: defence, health, transport, foreign affairs and so on.He can call a general election at any time, but must call one within five years of taking office. Each constituency votes for its own MP and the MPs in turn choose the next prime minister. If they liked the old prime minister they can vote him back in.
  • vote of no-confidence: a vote where the MPs can throw the prime minister out of office. If the prime minister loses, the government falls and a new election is held.
  • kings, queens and presidents: stand above parliament. He is the final authority. He can dissolve parliament and force new elections. Happens rarely. Kings and queens hold their position for life. It is something you are born into. Presidents are elected by the country as a whole to serve for some number of years.Kings and presidents often have other powers like declaring war or being able to step in and take power if parliament becomes too corrupt or broken.

Once a prime minister is selected he forms a government, choosing his ministers.

MPs are divided into parties, like Labour and Tory. Each party has different ideas of where to lead the country.

If a party gets more than half the seats in parliament, it can form a government on its own. Otherwise parties cut deals among themselves to get enough votes in parliament to form a coalition government, where several parties govern together.

Most coalition governments only last for a short time: sooner or later one party or other will disagree with the rest and walk out of the government causing it to fall and forcing new elections.

Parties that did not form the government are called the opposition.

In America there is no prime minister – the president has his powers. On the other hand, no one can force a government to fall or force elections – elections happen at set times no matter what happens.

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St Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most famous and beloved Christian saints. He founded the religious order of the Franciscans. He is known for his love of animals, especially birds. He called them his brothers.

St Francis was born Francesco Bernardone in Assisi, a small town in the mountains of Italy. He was named for the France his mother came from, where his father often went to sell cloth. She came from Provence, land of the troubadours.

His father was rich but not a noble. To win glory and title for the family and himself Francis fought in the endless war against Perugia, a nearby city. But instead of glory and title, Francis found himself a prisoner of war. Later he had a long illness. God began to speak to him in dreams.

It took him some time to understand the dreams. In one dream God told him to rebuild his church. So he started to rebuild San Damiano, a small, broken-down church in the country where he went to pray. Not what God meant.

Francis still sought glory in war — in vain. And the dreams kept coming. In time Francis turned from war and glory to prayer and helping the poor. Humility, not honour.

Instead of selling cloth, Francis gave away the family’s money to the poor. He even had them come to eat at the house. His father was outraged, but not even prison would stop Francis from his course.

Finally his father took him to see the bishop. Maybe the bishop could talk some sense into Francis. It did not work: Francis disowned his father and even gave him the clothes on his back.

Francis walked out to the church with nothing — no money, no family, no home, trusting only in God. He preached the poor and simple life of the gospels, more by example than words. “Always preach the gospel,” he said, “by words if necessary.”

He began to gather followers, even among the sons and daughters of the rich. They knew the emptiness of wealth and saw in Francis something true and real. One was St Claire.

Francis wrote a short rule for the new order and got the approval of the pope. The Franciscan order was born.

His order was hardly the first, but it was something new. Until then members of a religious order – called monks and nuns – lived apart from the world – in their own buildings, on their own land, mostly in the country. Francis and his followers lived like Jesus: not apart from the world  but with everyone else. You saw them every day in the streets. They were called friars or brothers.

Franciscans take three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. No money, no sex, no self-will.

The Dominican order founded by St Dominic about the same time was similar. The two orders renewed the Catholic Church, which at the time had grown powerful and corrupt. It is what God meant when he told Francis to rebuild his church.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Dominican brother, was not just a Christian saint and thinker but one of the chief philosophers of the West. He explained Christianity in terms of Aristotle, making Aristotle “the Philosopher” in the West till the time of Galileo over 300 years later.

By making Christianity and Greek science into one system, Aquinas laid the groundwork for the rise of Western science.

What Aquinas did was a rare thing. The Muslims failed to make peace with Aristotle and rational thought. When they reached this turn in the road they concluded that God is beyond reason or even contrary to reason. And even in the West today there is no peace between religion and science.

Aquinas’s system of thought is known as Thomism or scholasticism and his followers were called schoolmen in English. It was the last time all of Western thought fell under one system.

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is based on his thought. Even Shakespeare makes more sense once you know Thomism.

In the 1600s Aristotle’s physics was proved wrong and scholasticism fell, even though it had little to do with his physics. It lives on in certain Catholic circles.

In Aquinas’s lifetime the Church had not yet made its peace with Aristotle and though this was to happen through the system of Aquinas, it was not accepted till after his death.

The West had known about Aristotle’s books on logic all along. They had been translated into Latin by Boethius long ago. But in the late 1000s Aristotle’s science burst upon the West from Arab Spain.

Aquinas was friends with William of Moerbeke, a fellow Dominican who was translating Aristotle not from Arabic but from the original Greek.

Some were against Aristotle because he seemed to disprove Christianity, while others were for him just because he did. The genius of Aquinas was to use Aristotle to explain Christianity!

The pope asked Aquinas to write a commentary on Aristotle. He did, but his master work was not that but his “Summa Theologica.”

The Summa explains the nature of God, man, angels, Creation, Judgement Day, Christian virtues and the sacraments – all in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy, all in simple, clear Latin.

The Summa takes the form of a series of questions. For each question Aquinas looks at reasons for and against the Church’s answer. He uses Aristotle’s thinking to show how the Church is right.

The nature of truth: Aristotle said that we know the truth through facts and reason. Aquinas agreed but added one more thing: faith. Facts and reason help us get to through this world, but God needs to reveal to us other truths to help us get to heaven.

Faith and reason both come from God so both are true. Faith does not oppose reason but stands above it. God does not waste his time revealing what is plain or easy to prove, but what is beyond the power of our reason.

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William of Moerbeke

William of Moerbeke (about 1215-1286) or Guilelmus de Morbeka translated 49 Greek works into Latin, including all of Aristotle, commentaries on Aristotle, most of Archimedes as well as some of Proclus, Galen, Ptolemy and others. Some of these works would have been lost if it were not for him.

It was his Aristotle that Aquinas and Dante and most of the West read in the following centuries.

Moerbeke was so faithful to the original Greek that Aquinas never had to read Aristotle in the original; so faithful, in fact, that today we use his Latin to find errors in our Greek copies!

He came from the town of Moerbeke near Ghent in Flanders (now part of Belgium). Like his friend Aquinas, he was a brother of the Dominican order. He was priest to several popes, hearing their confessions.

Since he knew Greek and was trusted by popes, it is no surprise that he took part in the Council of Lyons in 1274, which attempted in vain to put the Catholic and Orthodox churches back together again.

It seems this was why he was made the Catholic bishop of Corinth in 1277. There is a town near Corinth between Mycenae and Argos named Merbaka, which still has a church built in his time. It seems the town was named after him.

Even so he may not have spent much time in Greece: we know that in the 1280s he was in Italy busy helping the pope.

Legend has it that Aquinas asked him to translate Aristotle into Latin, but we know he was already working on it when he met Aquinas.

In his day not all of Aristotle had been translated into Latin or translated well. Some of it had been translated not from the original Greek but from Arabic which in turn had been translated from Syrian! It was three steps removed from the original.

Moerbeke was the first to translate Aristotle’s “Politics” and “Poetics” and the 11th chapter of “Metaphysics” into Latin. He was the first to completely translate Aristotle’s two books on animals. He went back and improved what had been translated into Latin by others. Even what Boethius had translated 700 years before.

Moerbeke was not alone in translating Aristotle. Others were at it too. But two things set him apart and made his Aristotle the one people trusted centuries later:

  1. He always went back to the original Greek. When he did not have it, he would search for it.
  2. He translated the Greek word for word (de verbo ad verbum). He always turned a Greek word into the same Latin word whenever possible. This is why we can use his Latin to find errors in our Greek copies: we can work backwards from his Latin to the Greek copy he had, which was often older than anything we have now.

He translated Proclus thinking it was Aristotle. This had the unintended effect of helping the rise Neoplatonist ideas in the 1200s.

But his greatest influence was in helping Aquinas and others to read Aristotle in something like the original. This made Aristotle into the Philosopher in the West till the time of Galileo 400 years later and so helped the rise of science.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Byzantine empire


The Byzantine Empire (476-1453) never called itself that. That is a name made up by the French 400 years later. The Byzantines called themselves Romans: when Rome fell, in 476, the richer, eastern, Greek part of the Roman empire still stood. It did not fall for good till nearly a thousand years later in 1453. Its glory days were from 500 to 1000.

There is no real break between the Roman and Byzantine empires – they are just names. But because the Byzantine empire was Greek and Christian it is hard to see it as the same empire that Augustus had founded. And yet even Justinian, its most famous ruler, spoke mostly Latin and, unlike us, considered the loss of the west as only a passing thing.

At the heart of the empire stood the city of Constantinople. It was one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Constantine I had founded it in 330 as the “New Rome”. It became the seat of Roman power in the east.

Just as the law, religion and ways of Rome form the foundation of the West, so the Byzantine empire forms the foundation of eastern Europe and especially Russia. Russia is the daughter of the Byzantine empire and Moscow the third Rome.

The Western system of laws (except for the English-speaking world, which follows common law) is Byzantine. Justinian made Roman law into something that can apply to Christian society in his Corpus juris civilis.

The Byzantine empire was the universal state of the Christian world until two things happened:

  1. Charlemagne was made the ruler of the west in 800 by the pope.
  2. The Christian church broke in two in 1054 into Catholic and Orthodox churches.

From this point on the Byzantine empire was simply a Greek empire. Even its religion was no longer a universal faith.

In the 500s Justinian sent Belasarius to take back the west. He conquered quite a bit of it, but he left the cities of Italy in ruins. Most of what he conquered was soon lost.

The First Crusade was called in 1095 to save the empire: Romanus IV lost the battle of Manzikert to the Turks and was in danger of losing all of Anatolia and Constantinople itself. The Crusaders drove back the Turks before going on to the Holy Land to conquer kingdoms of their own.

The Fourth Crusade broke the empire’s back. The Crusaders took over Constantinople in 1204 and set up the Latin empire. It was short-lived – the Byzantines took back Constantinople in 1261. But from 1261 till 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, the empire was no longer an empire – just a kingdom centred on Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade also destroyed a great deal of Greek learning and literature.

Better dates for the Byzantine Empire would be from 395 to 1204. That is when it was an empire and when it had its own emperors. As late as 395 the western and eastern Roman Empire still had a common emperor.

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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the famous poet of Florence, Italy who wrote the “Divine Comedy”. It tells of a journey through the worlds of the afterlife: hell, purgatory and heaven. He is the greatest Italian poet of all time. So far.

Dante wrote works in both Latin and Italian, showing that Italian and not just Latin could be a language of high art. The Divine Comedy, in fact, is the first great work of art in the West that was written in neither Latin nor Greek. His use of Italian helped to shape the language.

Dante is led through hell and purgatory by Virgil and through heaven by Beatrice, the love of his life who died young. There Dante meets many famous people, all put in their proper places in the afterlife according to their sins or saintliness:

  • hell: devils, unbelievers, sinners, Homer, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Caesar, Ptolemy, Galen, Averroes, Cleopatra, Alexander, Nicholaus III, Odysseus, Muhammad, Brutus, Judas, Satan
  • purgatory: the repentant, Cato, Dante, Cain, Adrian V, Statius
  • heaven: angels, saints, Aquinas, Augustine, Francis, Dominic, Peter, James, John, Beatrice, Bernard, Mary, Christ

The sin which will put Dante in purgatory is his desire to be famous.

Note that Statius, the Latin poet of the first century, worshipped the Roman gods as far as we know, but Dante supposes that he converted to the Christian faith sometime before his death.

Although it is a work of fiction it is based on the best knowledge of his day. In fact, it beautifully presents in verse the same view of the world that Aquinas wrote about in his long books of philosophy.

According to Dante, hell is under the earth, purgatory is a great mountain in what we call the South Pacific, on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem, and heaven is the heavens from the Moon up to God Himself, who is beyond the stars, outside the universe, outside of space and time. As Dante confesses, much of heaven is beyond the power of language.

The southern island of Marotiri in French Polynesis - the closest thing to Dante's Mount Purgatory.

The southern island of Marotiri in French Polynesia – the closest thing to Dante’s Mount Purgatory.

At age 37 Dante lost everything: he was out of town when the party of the Black Guelphs took over Florence. As a White Guelph he could never return to Florence and spent the rest of life in Ravenna where he wrote the “Divine Comedy”.

Dante greatly admired Virgil, of whom he said, “Honour and light of the other poets, you are my master and my author, you are alone the one from whom I draw the beautiful style for which I am honoured.”

His house still stands in Florence.

Dante influenced the English poet Blake, among others.

Dante assumed that his readers knew about the history of Italy during the 1200s (especially the history of Florence) and about ancient writers, especially Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid and the Bible (as did most writers in the West from 1250 to 1650). If you have not read these, then read Dante with footnotes if you can. If you cannot, still read him!

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The Crusades (1095-1291) were wars Christians had fought against Muslims to take back the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem. All the gains made in the first hundred years were lost in the second hundred.

There were nine numbered Crusades altogether. The first five were called by the pope. Most Crusaders came from what is now Britain, Germany, Italy and especially France. The Byzantine Greeks, like the Muslims, called them all “Franks”, and did not think much of them.

In the late 1000s the Turks had taken over the Holy Land from the Arabs. Christians pilgrims could no longer freely come and go. They were thrown in prison, sold as slaves or killed. Even worse, in 1071 the Turks defeated the Byzantine Empire at Manzikert and were on the march to Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor desperately asked the pope for help.

In 1095, Pope Urban II called the First Crusade 

It was a huge success for the Crusaders. They took Jerusalem in 1099 in a terrible bloodbath, killing men, women and children. They also took Edessa, Tripoli and Antioch. These four cities each became the centre of a Crusader state. Christians ruled Jerusalem for 88 years (1099-1187). Some Crusader states lasted well into the 1200s.


But there was a fifth city that the Crusaders failed to take that was the key to all the rest: Damascus. Failing to take Damascus, each Crusader state fell in time.

In 1187, Saladin, a Kurd, led the Muslims to take back Jerusalem. The Christians never got control of Jerusalem after that. Later Crusades failed or scored only small successes.

In 1291 the last Crusader states fell.

Not all Crusades made it to the Holy Land:

  • 1204: the Fourth Crusade, led by Venice, burned Constantinople and set up a short-lived Latin Empire.
  • 1212: the Children’s Crusade ended with the children either lost at sea or sold as slaves in Egypt

What the First Crusade had done to slow Turkish advance into Christian lands, the Fourth Crusade had undone 109 years later. The Byzantine Empire was never more than a small kingdom after that. It also destroyed any chance of bringing the Catholic and Orthodox churches back together, a split that lasts to this day. Only the Turks stood to gain.

Book burnings:

  • 1109: over 100,000 books burned in Tripoli
  • 1204: hundreds of works by Ancient Greeks lost forever as the last surviving copies burn in Constantinople.

The Crusades were not considered to be a great event in the Muslim world at the time. It was nothing compared to the threat Egypt presented by going Shia under the Ismailis. No one thought to push the Crusaders into the sea till they began to threaten Mecca and Medina.

It was not seen as a crime against the Muslim world till the 1900s when Western armies returned. Some see Israel as a latter-day Crusader state. If it lasts as long as the Kingdom of Jerusalem it will fall in 2036.

Body count: 1.0 million. (The Reconquista of Spain, for comparison, killed 7 million).

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