Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Archive for March, 2011

Siege Map - Eastern Med

Siege Map - Constantinople

The images coming out of Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami are awful in both the modern and original senses of the word; they inspire both horror and a biblical, fire and brimstone sort of awe.  It is amazing how quickly disaster struck, rocking Tokyo, buckling roads, carrying cars away in surges of seawater, and wiping entire towns off the map.  With no warning, thousands died and thousands more lost everything.

Such disasters are thankfully rare in places like Japan or England or the United States.  But sudden death and destruction were a regular part of life in medieval Europe.  It was a blessed year when a village was not struck by plague, famine, or war.  Between 1350 and 1700, plague was a regular visitor to Europe.  Large cities that were open to trade suffered repeatedly.  For instance, Augburg in Germany was hit by the plague ten separate times between 1626 and 1650.  In smaller, more isolated towns, it was not uncommon for the plague to strike once every ten years or so, and each outbreak killed children, left behind dozens of widows and widowers, destroyed entire families, and sometimes erased whole neighborhoods.  Even where the plague struck less frequently, fear of it was pervasive.  And when they were not worrying about plague, medieval men and women were concerned with famine.  Sudden dips in temperature or rain at the wrong time meant crop failures, hunger, and starvation.  And there was little help when times were bad; lords took more than they gave, and local priests were often little better off than their congregations.  Child mortality at the time generally hovered around 25%, but when food was scarce, the rate skyrocketed, reaching up to 50%.  (By contrast, the worst rate in the world today is 20.9%, in Chad.)

Endemic violence, brigandage, and war added to the pervasive sense of insecurity.  In many places, law was only weakly enforced and brigands dominated the countryside.  Passing armies were even worse.  At the first sight of approaching troops, villagers frequently destroyed bridges, barricaded themselves in their homes, or took refuge in nearby forests.  Those who fled had their homes pillaged, but at least they were spared assault, rape, or murder, those favorite pastimes of medieval armies.  This, then, was the world of the Middle Ages.  Sudden death – whether due to starvation, plague, or war – was a regular occurrence.  Fresh disasters followed one upon the other.

Our ancestors dealt with these many traumas in two main ways.  First, they turned to religion, which offered at least one source of stability in a very uncertain world.  The Church also provided the comforting rituals that helped people to deal with repeated loss.  The result was a sense of faith that seems to have been more powerful than is common today, and which helps to explain the readiness of thousands of men to leave their homes and families for the First Crusade.

The second way that people dealt with uncertainty was through a very different approach to family and individuality.  Because individual lives were so fragile and uncertain, emphasis was not put on individual success and achievement, as it is today, but rather on the success and longevity of the family over time.  Individuality was downplayed.  The most compelling example of this medieval mentality comes from Arthur Imhof’s study of the Vältes family in Germany.  The Vältes farm in the north-German town of Leimbach was managed by someone name Johannes Hoos for six hundred consecutive years.  The individuals changed, but the role and the name remained the same, even if fathers sometimes had to name several sons Johannes, just to ensure that one lived on to inherit the farm.  Just as each Johannes Hoos took only temporary ownership of the farm before passing it on to the next generation, he only took temporary possession of his name before it too was passed on.  These individuals did not have to decide who to be or what to do; instead they adopted a role that was stable across generations.  Likewise, in navigating their social world, they married, raised their family, made friends, and ran their farm all with an eye not towards personal gratification, but rather towards the long-term prosperity and stability of the role they embodied.

The Middle Ages were a very different time, when decisions that we see as fundamental to self-becoming – what occupation to practice; what politics to support; what religion to practice – were usually not open to choice at all.  Or, if choice was possible, as in the case of who to marry, it was a limited choice that privileged family security and stability over individual happiness.  This medieval mindset – highly religious and family oriented – was the result of living in a world wherein disaster could strike at any time, wherein sudden death was an expected part of life.

When the United States brought down Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, George W. Bush hoped that a newly democratic Iraq might serve as a model for other Middle Eastern states. Of course, this did not stop the United States from continuing its strategic alliance with decidedly non-democratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The United States – and the rest of the world – is dependent on Middle Eastern oil, so the spread of democracy took a back seat to stability and security in the region. The ongoing sectarian conflicts in Iraq did not help matters. And when in January 2006, Hamas won a decisive majority in free elections within Palestine, many began to wonder: is supporting democracy in the Middle East really a good idea?

In the last three months, this question has taken on tremendous importance. Popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt brought thousands into the streets to demand democratic government. Against all odds, they drove out authoritarian leaders who had ruled for decades. Now, the revolutionary fervor has spread to Libya, where a civil war seems to be underway as Gaddafi desperately tries to hold on to power. Large protest movements are under way in Yemen and Bahrain. In Iran, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, where they have been met by police and tear gas. In the West, the reactions to this wave of protest have been mixed. We rejoice at revolution and the brave attempts of these people to gain democracy and civil liberties. At the same time, many worry that democracy will only lead to anti-western extremism. Some have even voiced fears that Islam is by nature extremist and exclusionary, and that regimes that embrace it will always be intolerant.

History tells us that this is not so. My novel Eagle begins in 1148, during the Second Crusade – a time when the Muslim world was much more tolerant than the Christian West. Indeed, the concept of “holy war,” in its classic sense, was brought to the Middle East by the Crusaders. It is true that in the 11th century, the invading Seljuk Turks had plundered and pillaged Christians in the Middle East, but they had done the same to the local Arabs and Jews. Their conquests were driven by the desire for land and money, not by religious fervor. Even under the Seljuk princes, pilgrims from the West were allowed to enter Jerusalem to pray, and thousands of Eastern Christians lived in the Holy City. The Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt employed Christian soldiers in their armies. Jews served as scribes at court and physicians to Muslim rulers. Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike shared a common culture. Muslim leaders built mosques and madrasas, but they allowed people of different faiths a degree of autonomy.

The Crusaders were different. The First Crusade (1096-1099) was called for by Pope Urban II, and it was from the start a religious movement that transcended political divisions. Some of those who took up the cross were no doubt motivated by greed or wanderlust, but many more were motivated by faith. Even before the armies left, religious fervor inspired thousands of peasants and petty nobles to set out for the Holy Land on the doomed People’s Crusade. Thousands more knights and soldiers joined the armies of the crusading princes. The original goal of the First Crusade was to free pilgrims and Eastern Christians from persecution by the Turks. Shortly after joining forces at Constantinople, the four leading princes – Raymond IV of Toulouse, Bohemond of Taranto, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Hugh of Vermandois – added a second goal: the conquest of Jerusalem. It took the Crusader armies two years and several battles before they finally reached Jerusalem on June 6, 1099. After a siege that lasted over a month, they managed to enter the city, using siege towers built with wood taken from the ships of a contingent of Genoese sailors. Once inside the Holy City, the Crusaders slaughtered Muslims and Jews indiscriminately, including several hundred prisoners who had been promised protection in return for their surrender. When the Muslims first took Jerusalem in 638, they had respected the Christian churches. The Crusaders showed no such restraint. They placed a cross atop the Dome of the Rock and christened it the Temple of Solomon. The Al-Aqsa mosque became a royal stable. Jews and Muslims were forbidden to settle in Jerusalem.

The concept of jihad (which can mean both an internal struggle to live a righteous life and an external struggle against the enemies of Islam) had existed before the Crusades, but it was the Crusaders who introduced the Muslim world to a new, more aggressive type of Holy War. The Crusaders were able to conquer the Holy Land because religious fervor motivated their troops and allowed their leaders to overcome significant political differences. The Muslims, by contrast, were divided into half a dozen emirates, none of which could stand alone against the Christian invaders. Time and again, local rulers were happy to make peace with the Franks, or even to ally with them against other Muslims. It was the Muslim leader Nur ad-Din, the Emir of Damascus and Aleppo, who seized on the idea of holy war against the Franks as a justification for expanding his rule over other Muslims and as means of encouraging other rulers to join him in the fight against the Crusaders. Saladin also stressed the religious imperative to drive out the Franks. Together, they helped to transform the concept of jihad into what we think of today as holy war. Yet even under Saladin, medieval Islam was remarkably tolerant for the time, particularly in regard to Jews.

This tolerance was not exceptional. Under Islamic law, non-Muslims were given a degree of communal autonomy and allowed to practice their religion. Their personal safety and property were guaranteed in return for paying tribute and acknowledging Muslim rule. This tolerance helped to produce some of the most diverse, cosmopolitan cultures in history in places like Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo, and Salonika. There were, to be sure, Islamic states that enforced a stricter form of Islam, and there were times when Muslims persecuted Christians. But these were exceptions rather than the rule. This was in sharp contrast to the medieval West, where non-Christians had less protection under law, and periodic pogroms and inquisitions were turned against Jews, Muslims, and “heretical” Christians alike.

Of course, this is not to say that we should long for a return to states based on the model of medieval Islamic regimes. These societies were undemocratic and extremely patriarchal. And some of their issues remain with us. For centuries, Sharia actually afforded women more protection than western law – for instance, married women were allowed to own property in their own right – but this is no longer true. And while Islamic law offers non-Muslim minorities protection and autonomy, it also excludes them from politics and too often fails to provide the protection it promises. This is why states such as Turkey have rejected the government imposition of Sharia as undemocratic.

However, the failure of regimes like that of Saladin to live up to modern standards should not obscure the fact that, compared with the West at the time, the medieval Islam world was tolerant and culturally progressive. Far from tolerance and Islam being antithetical, tolerance of other faiths is in fact a fundamental part of Islam. This does not mean that Islamic regimes will always be tolerant, any more than Christian regimes have always been so. Extremism is dangerous, whether Christian or Muslim. But extremism is not inherent to Islam. It is a response to specific economic and political issues. It is misguided to picture all devout Muslims as fundamentalist jihadists, just as it is wrong to picture all Christians as bloodthirsty Crusaders (whether on horseback or in tanks). Such essentialist arguments ignore very real issues such as the status of Israel and Palestine, and western support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Dismissing Islam as fundamentally intolerant and anti-democratic is thus problematic on a number of levels: it ignores historical reality; it compromises western ideals; and it angers the people who have fought bravely for their freedom. Worst of all, such a dismissal has repeatedly been used as an excuse for ignoring real grievances and for supporting regimes that repress and impoverish their people. This in turn perpetuates the conditions that produce the extremism which critics of Islam point to as the justification for supporting authoritarian regimes in the first place.

The current wave of revolutions in the Middle East present an opportunity to break this cycle, but only if the West is willing to engage the governments that emerge from revolution on the very real political issues that concern them, starting with the Israel-Palestine conflict. If Richard the Lionheart and Saladin could reach a compromise that allowed Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike to live in the Holy Land and worship in Jerusalem, then surely we can do the same.

John, one of the two main characters of Eagle, is an Englishman.  To be more precise, he is a Yorkshireman from the West Riding town of Tatewic (now known as Todwick).  He was born in 1132, sixty-six years after Battle of Hastings and the crowning of William as king of England, yet the Conquest cast its long shadow over his life.  John is a fictional character, but his personal and family history reflect the all too real experience of northern England after the Norman Conquest.

The typical story of the Conquest focus on two figures: Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, as he is known in France).  It is a familiar tale to anyone with even a passing interest in English history.  The Anglo-Saxon Harold was crowned king of England on January 6, 1066, but his reign would be short.  In September of 1066, he headed north to fend off an invasion led by King Harold Hardrada of Norway.  The invading fleet, some 300 ships strong, sailed into the Humber in early September and disembarked unopposed.  The Scandinavian army conquered York, but was then routed by King Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25.  Harold had little time to celebrate, for William, Duke of Normandy, had invaded southern England.  Harold hurried south and met William’s army near Hastings on October 14, 1066.  William’s victory was total.  Harold was killed, and William was crowned king of England on Christmas day, 1066.

This is the textbook story of the Conquest.  It is true, but it underplays or simply ignores two important facts: the lack of unity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that William conquered and the length of time it took to consolidate Norman rule.  England was not a unified nation-state in 1066.  In particular, the North was a region apart, with a unique dialect incomprehensible to men from the south, patterns of landholding that more closely reflected Welsh or Scottish practice than the manorial system of southern England, and strong separatist tendencies.  The North encompassed the present counties of Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland in the east, along with Lancashire and the southern parts of Cumberland and Westmoreland in the west.  It was geographically isolated form the rest of England, cut off from the South by the Humber in the east, the swamps along the lower Ouse River, the Pennine Mountains, and the peat bogs along the Mersey River in the west.  The few roads north were very bad.  The resulting isolation is reflected in the Domesday Book – the great Norman land survey of 1086 – which stops at the Tees River, south of Northumbria.

This is the region that the fictional John, the hero of Eagle, is from.  The North did not share the South’s manorial system, in which bonded peasants worked on manors.  Instead, land was organized into shires and sokes, where groups of free peasants held land in return for relatively light communal labor and renders of grain and livestock.  Taxes were low compared with the rest of England – the result of the political compromise through which the kings of Wessex persuaded the North to submit to southern rule.  Politically, the North was fiercely independent, even separatist.  Northumbria had been its own kingdom until being conquered by the Danes in the ninth century, after which the Danes divided it, ruling Yorkshire and Northumbria as separate kingdoms.  It was not until 954 that the king of Wessex integrated the North into Anglo-Saxon England, and even after that date, governance of the North was left to local men and the king’s authority was weak.  The men of York welcomed the invading Danish under Cnut, who ruled as king of England until 1035.  The Anglo-Saxon kings returned to power in 1042, and in 1065, the North revolted, driving out Tostig, the West Saxon earl who had been imposed upon them by King Edward.  Edward was forced to negotiate with the rebellious north, allowing them to install an earl of their own choosing and to abolish the additional taxes imposed by Tostig.  In 1066, William may have been crowned king of all England, but his power was tenuous at best in the North, as events would prove.  The men of Northumbria and Yorkshire distrusted men from the South and were jealous of their autonomy and privileges.

In 1067, the North revolted again, cutting off the head of William’s appointed earl, Copsig.  Undaunted, William installed a new earl and raised taxes.  Again, the North revolted, and this time William’s appointed earl joined the rebellion.  William rode north with an army, and the rebellious northerners disappeared into the woods.  William built a castle in York and in December of 1068, appointed a Norman, Robert de Comines, as earl of Northumbria.  Robert went north, killing and plundering along the way, but when he arrived at Durham, he and his men were surprised and slaughtered by the townspeople.  The northerners raised an army and marched on York.  They were besieging the castle when William arrived and routed them.  The rebel army was defeated again shortly after Easter, but they regrouped, biding their time until King Swein of Denmark arrived with a fleet of 240 ships in the fall of 1069.  The northerners joined Swein and marched on York, where they massacred the Norman garrison.  Again, however, their success was short-lived.  William marched north, forcing the Danes to retreat to their ships and make peace.  He then turned his wrath upon Yorkshire, determined to assure that the North would never again rebel against him.  The devastation he inflicted is what has become known as the Harrowing (or Harrying) of the North.

William’s army marched up and down Yorkshire, hunting down rebels in the hills and killing any peasants they found.  Those who escaped the sword fared no better.  William’s soldiers burned villages and the grain from the previous harvest.  They destroyed plows and slaughtered livestock.  They left the people of Yorkshire with nothing.  As the monk Orderic Vitalis (1075-1142) wrote of the Harrowing: “The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies.  He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land…  To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty.  He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes.  More than 100,000 people perished of hunger.”  While this figure may be exaggerated, there is no overestimating the suffering that William caused.  To survive, peasants sold themselves into slavery or joined bands of outlaws, plundering the few villages that had escaped William’s troops.  Bodies littered the roads, and wolves came down from the hills to feast upon the dead.  Sixteen years later, when the Domesday Book was written, the countryside of Yorkshire was still studded with empty villages.  Those peasants who had survived did so at a cost.  Formerly free peasants, they were now villeins, tied to the land they worked.  They owed more labor and higher rents to their lords.  At the same time, most of the native nobility was killed and replaced by Norman lords.  Those who survived became subtenants, an underclass looked down upon by their Norman conquerors.  In 1080, the nobles of Northumbria suffered the same fate.  After a brief rebellion, Northumbria was ravaged by William’s brother Odo.

In the wake of such horrific suffering, reconciliation between the Normans and the people of the North would be a long time coming.  The Harrowing and subsequent social dislocation of peasants and thanes alike left a bitter legacy.  It had achieved its purpose – eliminating any potential for rebellion – but it left the North a lawless land, roamed by outlaws and wolves, prey to invasions from Scotland, and only loosely controlled by the Norman kings.  It was not until the reign of Henry I that Norman rule of the North began to be consolidated.  In 1100, he married Maud of Scotland.  This marriage has been seen as a sign of rapprochement between the Anglo-Saxons and Normans, because Maud was the sister of Edgar the Atheling, the last male member of the royal house of Wessex.  However, Maud was also the daughter of the King of Scotland, and it was this relationship that was more important to Henry.  His marriage to Maud inaugurated a long period of peace with Scotland, giving Henry a chance to consolidate his rule in the North.  Between 1100 and 1135, he installed Normans loyal to him as barons throughout Yorkshire and Northumbria.  These men occupied castles and forts, and gradually brought law and order to the North.

Although the nobles that Henry installed were sometimes given vacant lands, they also replaced local nobles – both the Normans installed by William and the few Saxons who had held onto their lands.  Sometimes lands were seized.  Other times, inheritance was diverted so that lands passed to Henry’s men.  A few Saxons took advantage of this situation, sometimes betraying neighbors in order to ingratiate themselves to Henry and the new Norman elite.  This process accelerated during the anarchy that reigned during the rule of Henry’s successor, King Stephen.  For most of Stephen’s reign (1135-1154), England was riven by civil war between his adherents and those of another claimant to the throne, Henry’s daughter and heir, Empress Matilda.  Royal authority over Yorkshire faded.  In 1138, King Stephen appointed William le Gros as Earl of Yorkshire and effectively ceded all control of the shire to him.  William was more interested in expanding his own lands than protecting law and order.  He set about adding to his holdings through strategic marriages, diverted inheritances, and outright war with competing nobles.  Lesser nobles followed his lead.  William’s authority was particularly weak in the West Riding, where alliances, treachery, and warfare between nobles large and small were common during The Anarchy.  Subtenants, such as John’s brother in Eagle, took advantage of the chaos to expand their holdings, often at the expense of their neighbors.

This is the situation that provides the background to John’s story in Eagle.  The North was slower than many other parts of England to adjust to Norman rule.  Memories of the Harrowing persisted.  The peasants of the North were still resentful of their lowered status, increased taxes, and foreign, French-speaking lords.  The Saxon nobles that remained were reduced to subtenants, many of them eager to find a way regain what they had lost.  The Anarchy gave some of them an opportunity to do so.  This background of conquest and anarchy would define the course of John’s early life and eventually drive him to join the Second Crusade to the Holy Land…

If you want to learn more about the Harrowing of the North and the impact of Norman rule on the North, I recommend William Kapelle’s The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and Its Transformation, 1000-1135 (1979) and Paul Dalton’s Conquest, Anarchy and Lordship: Yorkshire, 1066-1154 (1994).  For a more general look at the impact of the Norman Conquest, see David Douglas’s William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (1964) and Robert Bartlett’s England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225 (2000).



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