Archive for the ‘1400s’ Category

Haiti was a land of the Tainos (Arawaks). But then one day in 1492 a white man named Columbus arrived from over the seas. He noticed they wore gold jewellery. He told them he would cut off the hands of any Taino over 13 who did not give him a certain amount of gold or cotton every three months. The Taino fled inland, but the Spanish followed, running them down with dogs and killing them, looking for the gold mines. They made girls into sex slaves. It got so bad that mothers were killing their own babies.

In two years half the Tainos were dead.  By 1555 they were all gone.

In 1505 Columbus’s son brought the first African slaves to the Americas, bringing them to Haiti. By 1519 there were already slave uprisings.

In 1697 France got Haiti from Spain and called it Saint-Domingue.

By 1789 Haiti produced three-fourths of all the sugar in the world, its black slaves producing more wealth than all of English-speaking North America. A third of slaves died within three years after arriving from Africa.

In the 1790s Toussaint L’Ouverture led a slave uprising that in time overthrew the French, making Haiti independent in 1804. The slaves were freed and the land divided among them. The 3,300 remaining French were killed and white was taken out of the flag, leaving red and blue.

For its loss France demanded payment of a crushing debt. France, Britain and America cut it off from overseas trade until it agreed to pay the debt. It took till 1947 to pay it off.

Like the Roman Empire, Haiti had no peaceful means for power to change hands. Often the government would be overthrown every few years.

From 1849 to 1913 America sent warships into Haitian waters 24
times to “protect American lives and property.”

Haiti was under American military rule from 1915 to 1934. Major General Smedley D. Butler said he hunted the Haitians “like pigs” and made Haiti “a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in.” American troops practised “indiscriminate killing of natives” while the American press called Haitians “a horde of naked niggers” in need of “energetic Anglo-Saxon influence”.

America rewrote Haiti’s laws so that Americans could buy up land. They sent 40% of Haiti’s income to American and French banks to pay back debts.

From 1957 t0 1986 Haiti was ruled by the Duvaliers: Papa Doc and Baby Doc. They ruled by terror through the paramilitary Tonton Macoutes. America backed them and opened factories there.

Since the fall of Baby Doc, Haiti has gone back and forth between military rule and democracy, with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a country priest, as the star democrat. America sent in troops in 1994 to restore Aristide to power, but it seems likely they were behind his overthrow in 1991 and 2004.

Democracy was last restored in 2006. The government is backed by a UN force but it is still weak. On top of that Haiti was hit by hurricanes and tropical storms in 2008 that killed over a thousand and by an earthquake in 2010 that has killed 110,000 at last count.

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shakespeareHere is the Lord’s Prayer in Early Modern English (from the Geneva Bible of 1587):

Our father which art in heauen,
halowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdome come.
Thy will be done
euen in earth, as it is in heauen.
Giue vs this day our dayly bread.
And forgiue vs our dettes,
as we also forgiue our detters.
And leade vs not into tentation,
but deliuer vs from euill:

Early Modern English (1474-1660) is English from about the time of Caxton in the late 1400s, when he printed the first book in English, to Milton in the middle 1600s. It is the English of Shakespeare and the Authorized King James Bible, of Hobbes, Bunyan,  Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and Donne. It was considerably different from the English of Chaucer in the late 1300s, yet it was easily understood up until the late 1800s.

It was when English had become a respectable language, like French. It was taking in huge numbers of Latin words. Shakespeare showed its beauty and power. Even so, it was not the giant world language it is now – only about 5 million people in a corner of Europe spoke it. English was just beginning to spread its wings.

It was the English that was brought to America. The American use of –ize instead of -ise and mad in the sense of angry, for example, go back to this time.

It was during this period that English spelling became more or less fixed. This started with Caxton in the late 1400s, who pretty much wrote words the way they sounded. Most of what makes English hard to spell comes from the Great Vowel Shift that came soon after in the 1500s: that was when the silent e became silent, as did the k in knife, the w in wrong, the t in listen, the l in half and so on. It is when words like food and good or sweat and meat stopped rhyming in spite of how they were spelled.

The most noticeable difference between our English and theirs are all those thous and -eths. But even in the early 1600s they were already falling out of use. They are more common, for instance, in the King James Bible, which preserves an older English from the middle 1500s, than they are in Shakespeare. By the 1600s -eth was probably said as -es regardless of how it was spelled.

Some notes:

  • My became mine before a vowel: “mine apple”.
  • Is could still sometimes take the place of has in the perfect tense: “He is come”.
  • Its was just coming into use in the 1600s: before then his and whereof were used instead: “the weight whereof was an 130 shekels.”
  • Ye was used instead you when it was the subject of a sentence: “But be ye doers of the word.”
  • Thou was the familiar form of “ye”, but it was falling out of use.
  • Instead of using do to make a question you could just put the main verb first: “Have ye three apples?”

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I have written quite a bit about white people lately. Here is the overview:

White people (1502- ) are those light-skinned people who come from Europe, the Middle East and parts nearby. Over the past 500 years they have settled in Australia, South Africa, North and South America.

Some say that Muslim and Latin American whites are not white, but if you are going to divide the world into five or so races, there is no physical reason to set them apart – only ones of history and religion.

Even so, in English when people say “white” they mainly mean the whites in North America and Britain. I do too.

Who counts as “white” in America has changed: the Irish and the Jews were not considered to be “white” at first. The same is true now for Latinos. About 40% of Americans who are part African pass for white.

On the world stage, whites are on top, but only since about 1800.

Northern Europe had been a backward corner of the world through most of history. As late as the 1400s Timbuktu, a black city in Africa, and Tenochtitlan, a brown city in Mexico, each had far more people than London, a white city in Europe.

Egypt and China, not Europe, have been the most advanced parts of the world through most of history. China still was as late as 1700 and likely will be again by 2030. Just look at who is studying engineering now.

Many whites think they are on top because they are just better than everyone else. Either because of their race, their way of life or their laws and customs.

Not quite.

Whites got on top because they had guns and ocean-going ships and industry first. Japan has shown these things are not “white”, so whites got them first only through an accident of history.

Whites, except for their power, are the same as everyone else. God did not make them special. God is not smiling on them. Hardly.

Starting in the 1600s in America they came with their guns and pushed the red man off his land and then with their wonderful ships (they were a wonder), they brought black men over the seas in chains to work that land. It is not what Jesus would have done, but it is what they did.

Deep down they knew it was wrong. So to live with themselves they had to believe a lie: whites are better than everyone else. A lie most of them still believe to this day.

Racism is not just some bad habit they fell into. It is built into their sense of who they are.

White American racism was open and naked down to the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. They have since changed. But it seems their words have changed far more than their hearts. They still think they are better than blacks, but their excuses are now a bit more subtle and carefully worded – not so much to hide their racism from the world but from themselves.

– Abagond, 2008. 

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Standard English

Standard English (1450- ), also known as proper English or good English, is the English you learn at school and see in books, the kind you hear on the evening news, like on CNN or the BBC. It is the kind you see in The New York Times and The Economist.

Few people speak it natively, so it is probably not what you speak at home or with your friends. If you ever had the experience at school of something “sounding right” but being told it was bad English, then Standard English is not your native language. Even in England only one person in six speaks it natively.

Each country has a slightly different form of Standard English. But the differences are so slight that most people cannot tell which country a given piece of writing came from.

Once you learn the Standard English of your own country, it is easy to understand that of any other country. For example, most Americans in Jamaica cannot understand the English they hear in the streets, but they have no trouble understanding the evening news there.

There are dozens of kinds of English. Standard English is just one of them. It is not better than any other form of English except for two things:

  1. It is understood all over the world wherever English is spoken.
  2. It will not make you sound like you lack education or intelligence, which almost any other form of English will when used in the wrong circles.

Standard English started in the middle 1400s in London. That was when:

  • The government made all its clerks write in the same kind of English no matter what part of England they came from.
  • Caxton began to print books in English.

Caxton wanted to sell as many books as possible, so he used the English of the well-to-do of London. It was the same sort of English the government was using. Standard English was born.

Here is Caxton as an old man in London in 1490:

And certainly our language now used varies far from that which was used and spoken when I was born.

All I changed was the spelling, nothing else. It still makes sense 500 years later. So, as much as English had changed since the 1420s when Caxton was a boy, Standard English has changed little in the hundreds of years since then.

The main changes since the 1400s:

  • The word “its” was added in the early 1600s, taking the place of all those whereofs.
  • The loss of “thou“, “didst” and so on.
  • The spelling became fixed in the middle 1600s.
  • A huge number of Latin and Greek words were added in the late 1600s and again in the late 1900s.
  • The grammar was partly modelled on Latin in the 1700s.

Standard English spread through the middle-class in the 1700s and then, with the rise of public education in the 1800s, to society as a whole.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Simonetta Vespucci (1453-1476), “la bella Simonetta”, was the most beautiful woman in Florence, Italy in her day. She was so beautiful that men were still painting her more than 20 years after her death. She is the woman you keep seeing over and over again in Botticelli’s paintings, like the “Birth of Venus”.

Botticelli painted her as the Virgin Mary, Venus and Athena. Piero di Cosimo painted her as Cleopatra and Procris. Poliziano and Lorenzo the Magnificent wrote about her in verse – as did Gabriele d’Annunzio in our own age. Many other poets and painters honoured her as well with their works. You can see her today on some of the money in Europe.

She had brown eyes, white skin and long, flowing dark yellow hair. She had what in those days was considered to be a perfect figure.

In Botticelli’s paintings she looks a bit sad, but also like she is in a dream.

Lorenzo the Magnificent read her look differently: that she was not just beautiful on the outside but had a beautiful soul too: she was serious, never had an unjust feeling, was not proud or stuck on herself and had an excellent mind. She walked and danced with grace, a sign of the inner balance of her soul.

She was the perfect Renaissance woman.

She was born in either Genoa or Portovenere, the place where they say Venus arrived in Italy. At 15 she married a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America is named. Her husband brought her to Florence, the city ruled by the Medicis. Because her father-in-law was an important man there, the Medicis soon came to know her.

Two Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano, fell in love with her. Lorenzo was too busy with affairs of state, but Giuliano pursued her.

At the La Giostra games in 1475 Giuliano rode into battle under a flag with her picture on it and the French words “La Sans Pareille” – the woman without parallel. Botticelli had made the flag. At the games she was named the “Queen of Beauty”.

Some say that Giuliano won her heart that day and they became lovers. Others say that she refused him.

A year later, at the age of 23, she became very sick and was coughing up blood: she had tuberculosis.

There is a strange story that Giuliano tried to keep her alive as a vampire: better that than to see her die. In that story she becomes a vampire and hides in the tower overlooking the main square. When she is cornered she jumps to her death.

In any case she died that spring. At her funeral thousands followed her body to its grave.

It seems that Botticelli had fallen in love with her too: after he first saw her, she was the only woman he ever painted, even after her death. He never married and was laid to rest at her feet.


– Abagond, 2007.

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The Portuguese empire (1415-1999) was the first and the last of the empires of western Europe. It sold black pepper from the Spice Islands and black men from Africa. It helped to spread the Catholic faith, especially to Africa and Asia, and made Portuguese a language spoken by more people than French. The empire gave birth to Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and other countries.

At one time or other Portugal ruled parts or all of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Indonesia, East Timor, Bahrain, Barbados, Nagasaki in Japan, Tanzania, Kenya, Yemen, Morocco, Uruguay, Sri Lanka, Goa in India and Macao in China, among others.

From 1000 to 1300 the Portuguese Christians took over what is now Portugal from the Moors. But in a sense they never stopped: in the 1400s they kept on going, down the coast of Africa. By 1498 they had reached India, by 1571, Japan. They had ports and outposts all along the coasts of Africa and Asia, from Lisbon to Nagasaki. The empire was at its height – not in land, but in power, trade and wealth.

Treaty of Tordesillas: The groundwork for this was laid in 1494, two years after Columbus discovered the Americas. The pope divided the world outside Europe in half between Portugal and Spain. In effect Portugal got Brazil and all of Africa and Asia except the Philippines.

The agreement held long enough among European powers to shape both empires. Portuguese power in its half of the world was not challenged till the 1600s by the Dutch. In 1500 the Portuguese had the best ships in the world, but by 1600 it was the Dutch.

The Dutch fought the Portuguese everywhere, even in Brazil. Portugal managed to hold onto Brazil, but lost Ceylon and the Spice Islands (Sri Lanka and Indonesia). Worse than mere land, they lost control of trade from the East. The glory days of the empire were over.

In the 1700s Brazil became the jewel of the empire. Brazil had sugar, gold, diamonds, cacao and tobacco. Black slaves worked the land. With the growth of Brazil inland, the empire reached its height in terms of land.

Extensão máxima do Império Português no século XVII.

The early 1800s brought the wars of Napoleon. The king fled to Brazil. Rio, not Lisbon, was the seat of the empire for a while. But after the wars Portugal was no longer strong enough to hold onto Brazil. It became independent in 1825.

This was a huge shock. To make up for its loss, Portugal turned its attention to its possessions in Africa, especially Angola and Mozambique.

In the late 1900s the empire came to an end.

In 1974 Salazar fell from power in Portugal and nearly all of the remaining countries of the empire were freed: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome & Principe and East Timor. Some of these sank into wars of succession, particularly Angola and Mozambique. Indonesia took over East Timor, killing a third of its people.

But even then Portugal still had Macao near Hong Kong. That was given back to China in 1999, the last bit of the empire to go.

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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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Black Sheep Turks

The Black Sheep Turks, also known as the Kara Koyunlu or Qara Qoyunlu, are Turkmens who live in a region centred on Tabriz, living in both Iran and Turkey. They speak the same language as the people in Turkmenistan on the other side of the Caspian sea.

Most are Sunni Muslims. They write their language in Roman letters.

They are cousins of the Ottoman Turks, the Turks in Turkey, but their language is different. This makes them stick out. In 1958 Turkey passed laws to stamp out their language, to make them forget about being Turkmens. But the Black Sheep Turks have not forgotten. They still remain.

The Black Sheep Turks once had their own country, back in the 1400s. They ruled Tabriz and Mosul and, for a time, even Baghdad (from 1409 to 1469). They supported the arts. Tabriz in those days was famous for its miniature painting.

They had two great rulers:

  • Kara Yusuf, who ruled from 1390 to 1400 and from 1403 to 1420.
  • Jahan Shah, son of Kara Yusuf, who ruled from 1438 to 1455.

Kara Yusuf won their freedom when he took over Tabriz in 1390 and made it their capital.

The year 1400 brought Tamerlane, who set out from Samarkand to take over the world. He crushed the Black Sheep Turks along with everyone else. Kara Yusuf went to Egypt to ask for help, but was thrown in prison instead. Tamerlane ruled the land. It was all over, it seemed. But then on his way to China in 1405 Tamerlane died suddenly and his empire, built on terror and destruction, quickly fell apart.

One of Tamerlane’s sons, Shah Rokh, got Persia and helped Jahan Shah to overthrow his brother and become the ruler of the Black Sheep Turks in 1438.

After Shah Rokh’s death in 1447 Jahan Shah extended his rule east into Persia. His armies got as far as Herat, Shah Rokh’s capital in what is now western Afghanistan. Jahan Shah also overthrew his brother Esfahan in Baghdad and took over what is now southern Iraq and Kuwait.

The Black Sheep Turks were now at the height of their power, but Jahan Shah was hated. His own sons rose up against him. So did the Shiite Arabs south of Baghdad, led by a holy man who said the Mahdi was coming to rule the world and bring peace. In time they would take Basra and Najaf, cities south of Baghdad.

But neither his sons nor the Shiites did him in: it was his own pride. He overreached himself.

In 1467 Jahan Shah marched west on Diyar Bakr, the capital of the White Sheep Turks. His army was defeated and he was killed. Over the next two years the White Sheep Turks took over the lands of the Black Sheep Turks, dividing them with the Persians.

The Black Sheep Turks have been ruled by foreigners ever since.

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The image “https://i0.wp.com/www.bau.pt/weblog/botticelli-venus-768.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a Renaissance painter from Florence. He is famous for two paintings: “The Birth of Venus” (part of it pictured here) and the “Primavera”. Both hang in the Uffizi in Florence.

Although he was famous in his own day, he was soon outdone by Leonardo and Raphael. By 1500, when he was 55, his work already seemed old-fashioned. He was forgotten for centuries till the late 1800s when Pater, Ruskin and the pre-Raphaelites rediscovered him. He has influenced not just the pre-Raphaelites but also the Art Nouveau style of the early 1900s.

He painted for the powerful Medici family and the churches of Florence. In 1481 and 1482 he went to Rome to help paint the Sistine Chapel for the pope.

A true son of the Renaissance, he painted not just Christian themes – including many Madonnas and angels – but Greek and Roman themes too. He was one of the first.

“Primavera” means spring. The three women you see dancing in the painting are the three months of spring. The painting is set in the Garden of the Hesperides

The “Birth of Venus” was the first painting in the Christian West of a naked woman. It is based on “Venus Pudica”, a statue from ancient times – and yet his Venus is very much like his Virgin Marys.

The woman Botticelli painted as Venus is believed to be Simonetta Vespucci. You see her in the “Primavera”, “Venus and Mars” and some other paintings.

Simonetta was a beauty of her day and perhaps a lover of one of the Medicis. She is a cousin by marriage of Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America is named. She died at 23. When Botticelli finished the “Birth of Venus”, she had been dead for nine years. He asked to be laid to rest at her feet when he died. And so he was.

Botticelli’s real name was Allessandro di Mariano Filipepi. He did poorly in school, so his father sent him to a goldsmith to learn a trade. Later, however, Botticelli was sent to Fra Lippi to learn painting.

Botticelli was influenced by the philosophy of the Renaissance Neoplatonists Ficino and Poliziano. Love and Beauty and all that.

Botticelli took his art theory from Leon Battista Alberti. Like Alberti, he wanted to bring back the lost glories of Greek and Roman art.

Although the people in his paintings seem natural they are not. The neck of his Venus is too long, for example. But Botticelli was not interested in making painting “true to life”.

To Botticelli, painter and poet were brothers, not painter and scientist. People did not see this quality in him until the invention of photography changed the way they looked at art.

Botticelli was working on drawings for Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, a book he loved. He never finished but we have 92 of his drawings.

Botticelli could make 50 to 100 florins (100 to 200 crowns) a painting. His best years were from 1475 to 1495.

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The florin of Florence, 3.5g of gold. Used all over Europe by 1300.

The florin of Florence, 3.5g of gold, used all over Europe by 1300, what Grimm fairy tales call a piece of gold.

Leonardo da Vinci mentions money and prices in his notebooks, almost in passing. He tells how much he paid gravediggers, for instance, and how much it costs to have your fortune told.

Leonardo counted money in lire, soldi and dinari:

  • 1 lire = 20 soldi
  • 1 soldo = 12 dinari

It is one soldo, two soldi.

Like the English pound, shilling and pence, these come from the Roman system of of libra, solidus and denarius. But the money in Italy lost its value far more quickly than in England so that by Leonardo’s time the soldi had pretty much the same value as Shakespeare’s penny.

The coins that Leonardo mentions (with their rough value in metric pennies, which have 0.5 grams of silver):

  • ducat (120)
  • florin (120)
  • Rhenish florin (120)
  • scudo (110)
  • grossoni (40)
  • lire (20)
  • carlino (4-8?)
  • soldo (1)
  • dinari (0.083)

Ducats and florins were two crowns each ($26 in current money) , while a lire was a third of a crown.

The ducat was the gold coin of Venice, just as the florin was the gold coin of Florence. Both had 3.5 grams of gold and were accepted all over Europe. They are called “pieces of gold” in the Grimm stories.

The soldo and lire are silver coins. I put six lire to a florin, but in practice it was not that fixed. You might get anywhere between four to seven lire for a florin, depending on the going rate between silver and gold.

Leonardo generally got paid in ducats and florins. His income went up and down a lot, but in the long run he made about 50 to 100 ducats a year. That is equal to about a painting a year.

At the end of his life Leonardo worked for the king of France, who paid him 400 ducats a year. Compare that to Michelangelo, who got between 200 to 450 ducats for his sculptures.

One ducat was spending money for Leonardo, but for one of his students it was ten days’ pay.

In 1499, just before the fall of Milan, Leonardo had 600 ducats in the bank. In his will he gave his brother 400 ducats.

Some prices from his notebooks (in soldi):

    225 a metre of velvet
    140 bed
    140 ring
    120 to bury someone - bier, gravediggers, priests, the works
    100 lined doublet
     45 crockery
     40 cloak
     40 jerkin (up to 120)
     40 pair of hose (up to 120)
     30 for canvas
     23 a metre of cloth (for a shirt)
     22 gardener
     21 sword and knife
     20 anise comfits
     20 cap
     20 glasses
     20 lock
     18 for paper
     16 for gravediggers to bury someone
     13 shirt
     13 jasper ring
     11 sparkling stone
     11 what a student of his could make in a day
     11 to the barber
      6 have your fortune told
      5 pair of shoes (up to 14)
      4 a dozen laces
      3 rent a room for a day
      3 melon
      1 salad

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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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Alisher Navoi (1441-1501) or Mir Ali Shir Nava’i was one of the first great poets to write in any Turkish tongue. Hundreds of years later his verses and stories and songs are still read and sung and loved among the Turks, especially the Uzbeks, who claim him as a native son. His words are beautiful, both as words and in what they teach us about life.

Navoi came from Herat, then the capital of Khorasan, now the main city in the Afghan west. When his old schoolmate, Husayn Bayqarah became the king, he made Navoi his prime minister. Bayqarah was a great lover of the arts and made Herat into a Turkish Florence.

Navoi wrote in Persian under the pen name Fani and in Turkish under the name of Navoi, which means “The Weeper”. He wrote both prose and verse. He also wrote in Hindi and Arabic.

His best loved and best known work is the love story of Farhad and Shirin. Even then it was an old story. He told it in 12,000 lines of verse and told it better than anyone. It is part of his book “Khamsa”, which means “The Five”, because it contains five romances in verse: “Farhad and Shirin”, “Layli and Majnun”, “The Wall of Alexander the Great”, “Excitement” and “The Seven Wanderers”. These were the first romances written in any Turkish language.

Navoi wrote four divans or books of verse, one for each stage of life: childhood, youth, middle age and old age.

He also wrote books about religion, philosophy, language, Turkish verse and the lives of Turkish poets. Of these his most famous book is “The Trial of Two Languages” where he argues why the Turkish language is better than Persian.

Before Navoi all the great poets, Persian or Turk, wrote in Persian. People thought of Turkish as a good language for soldiers and herdsmen, but not for a poet. Navoi proved them wrong: by his verse he showed them how beautiful and wonderful Turkish can be.

Navoi wrote in Chagatay Turkish. Chatagay was the old, eastern Turkish that Tamerlane spoke. It is now a dead language, its nearest living relation being Uzbek.

The Soviets painted Navoi as a great man of learning, which he certainly was, but they left out his religious side. He was a Sufi of the Naqshbandi dervish order. Many of the great Persian poets were Sufis. Sufis are Muslim mystics who try to experience God directly through certain practices. Navoi studied under Jami, a great Persian poet, to learn how to become both a poet and a Sufi.

As the first great Turkish writer he had a profound effect on Turkish letters. Among his followers and admirers are Babur, the first Mogul prince, Mahmur, Ogohiy, Muqimiy, Furqat, Zavqiy, Nodirabegim, Uvaysiy, Mahzuna and Fuzuli. (Here I mainly follow the Uzbek spellings).

And of course, he affected more than just writers: he affects all of his readers. Like Homer and the Greeks or Virgil and the Romans, Navoi has shaped the mind and heart of Turks everywhere.

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Tamerlane (1336-1405) was the last of the great Mongol conquerors. When he died at the height of his power in 1405 he ruled the lands between the Mediterranean and Tibet. The seat of his power was his beloved Samarkand, where his body now rests.

The Persians called him Timur the Lame behind his back. In English this became Tamerlane or Tamburlaine.

Tamerlane was a Mongol by blood, a Turk in manner and speech and a Muslim by faith. He was of low birth but somehow married a princess of the house of Genghis Khan, one of his proudest achievements. He saw himself as a latter-day Genghis Khan, perfecting the Mongol art of war.

His army of mounted archers was part Mongol, part Turk. He often laid waste to cities killing tens of thousands, as he did in Delhi and Baghdad. And yet he was a lover of the arts and helped to build up Samarkand making it into a beautiful city of blue and gold buildings.

Starting with next to nothing, he managed to take over Transoxania (roughly present day Uzbekistan) by 1366. By 1380 he had Khwarezm to the south-west (roughly Turkmenistan) as well.

In the 1380s he took present day Iran and Afghanistan. In those days it was divided into little kingdoms, which made it easy work for Tamerlane. In the 1390s he moved on to take what is now Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Pakistan, north-west India and Iraq.

In 1401 he took Damascus and broke the back of Mamluk power in Egypt, from which it never fully recovered.

In 1402 he crushed the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Ankara and took their sultan, Bayezid, prisoner. Bayezid remained Tamerlane’s prisoner and killed himself in the end. His two sons fought over what was left of the Ottoman empire.

Tamerlane twice sent his army to Moscow and twice defeated the khan of the Golden Horde. At his death he was preparing to march on China.

On his deathbed he had the lands of present day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, western Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, north-west India, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Syria and eastern Turkey.

Body count: 14 million.

By defeating the Persians, the Ottomans and the Arabs, Tamerlane came very close to making Samarkand the centre of the Muslim world and making it over in his image.

After Tamerlane died, the western lands of the empire were soon lost. The east held. Its three great cities were Samarkand, Bukhara and Herat. During the hundred years after his death it saw a golden age of art, architecture, science and letters for both Persians and Turks.

After a hundred years the east broke apart into pieces from in-fighting. One of these pieces, ruled by Babur, Tamerlane’s great-great-great grandson, grew into the Mogul empire.

– Abagond, 2006.

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Aldus Manutius

Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) is a hero of mine. He founded the Aldine Press in Venice during the High Renaissance. He printed the great works of the Greeks and Romans in books so beautiful that they are still sought after today and yet at the time were cheap enough for a craftsman to buy.

The Aldine Press printed not just the Greeks and Romans, but also the great Italian and Renaissance writers, like Dante, Petrarch and Erasmus. In addition it printed books about religion, the latest overseas discoveries and other books of learning. It printed books in Greek, Latin and Italian.

His trademark is the dolphin and anchor.

Manutius printed his books not in the thick, heavy, hard-to-read black letter type of Gutenberg and the Germans, but in a clear, easy-to-read Roman type – what most books are printed in today. He based his Roman type on the letters found on Roman buildings and in Petrarch’s own handwriting. It was believed that this was the way Cicero wrote, but the style only goes back to the time of Charlemagne.

Manutius is the one who came up with italics. We use italics to draw attention to words, but he used it to print whole books, like his Virgil. It was designed to be graceful and yet take up less space than regular print. This allowed him to make his books smaller and therefore cheaper and more useful.

Where Gutenberg printed large Bibles for churches. Manutius printed books that were small enough and cheap enough for a craftsman to buy and take anywhere. They could fit in your bag or even your pocket.

Notice the change that took place between Gutenberg and Manutius: where Gutenberg used the printing press to make something cheaper and faster (huge church Bibles), Manutius used it to make something new, something we take for granted today (books that are small, cheap and easy to read).

By doing this Manutius increased the rate at which knowledge and new ideas spread. And, because of the sort of books he printed, his press helped to drive the Renaissance itself.

Manutius not only wanted his books to be of the most use to the most people, he also made sure his books were beautiful.

Manutius was a Greek scholar turned printer. He loved the Greeks and wanted to make sure they saw print. These books were his great love and he spared no pains to make sure that what came out of his press was the best. Not just in physical beauty, but also in the scholarship that went into them.

His editors were not just Greek scholars like himself, they even spoke Greek among themselves and with him to do their work.

The Aldine Press was the first to print many of these works. In doing this, Manutius has helped to preserve them for the ages.

Sometime after his death his brother-in-law took over the press and its reputation began to suffer. Later, however, his son and then his grandson brought back its former glory. The press was in operation for over a hundred years, from 1494 to 1597.

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printing press

The printing press is an invention that can copy books without anyone writing them out by hand. It uses ink on movable type which is pressed on paper to make a copy of a page. Johannes Gutenberg made the first working printing press in the 1450s in Germany.

Movable type is made up of thousands of letters made out of metal called type. Type can be put in any order to create any page of writing. The type is locked into a wood frame, ink is spread on it and then it is pressed against paper to copy the page. Putting together the type for one page can take longer than writing it out by hand, but once you have it together, the press can turn out hundreds of copies an hour.

You repeat this process for all the other pages of a book.

Printing with wood blocks had been known for hundreds of years – it seems to have started in Korea. But making wood blocks for a whole book was slow, mistakes were hard to fix and the blocks wore out too quickly. This sort of printing did not cut the cost of making books by much.

Movable type first appeared in China in 1041, but it did not catch on in China the way it did in Europe. Perhaps because a movable type of Latin letters was much easier to work with than one of Chinese characters.

Gutenberg was not the only one trying to build a working printing press in the 1440s and 1450s. He was one of many, but he was the first to succeed.

Gutenberg was a goldsmith by trade. That matters because the hard part of making a working printing press was getting the metal of the type just right: if the metal was too soft, the type would wear out too quickly; if it was too hard, it would make holes in the paper. To get his printing press to work, Gutenberg also had to make changes to the paper and ink he used. The sort of paper and ink used to copy books out by hand did not produce clear letters in a printing press.

Gutenberg produced huge church Bibles. They looked just like the old huge church Bibles except that they were made by his new invention. Even the letters were made to look as if they were handwritten.

His first Bible came out in 1456. In Latin. Because the Bible is a long book, it was an excellent test for a printing press. He printed only large church Bibles, about 150 of them.

Before Gutenberg a huge church Bible cost about 160 crowns ($1500). That was about four years’ pay for a labourer. Gutenberg cut the cost down to a fourth of that, 40 crowns. Now, with all the advances made in printing since then, you can get the same sort of Bible for 5 crowns.

The printing press made possible not just cheap books, but new forms of reading material. Among others:

  • newspapers starting in the 1600s
  • magazines starting in the 1800s
  • junk mail starting in the 1900s

With the printing press a new medium was born: print. It gave the written word a power and presence it never had before.

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