Fri 24 May 2013
I talk Holy War, the Lionheart, the Crusades, and the clash of religions with Richard Lee of the Historical Novel Society:
Fri 24 May 2013
I talk Holy War, the Lionheart, the Crusades, and the clash of religions with Richard Lee of the Historical Novel Society:
Mon 13 May 2013
First, some shameless self-promotion: Holy War is out on 23 May (order your copy now!). In this, the final volume of the Saladin Trilogy, Richard the Lionheart makes his long-awaited appearance in the Holy Land, where he does battle with the forces of Saladin. Richard provides great fodder for fiction, and writing his character was some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a novelist. In many ways, he was the perfect example of the knight-king. He was brave. He was hailed by even his enemies as a peerless warrior. He had a keen eye for battlefield tactics. And he seems to have been able to motivate his troops like few others. During his crusade, he subdued Sicily, conquered Cyprus, successfully completed the siege of Acre, and despite being outnumbered, won victories over Saladin at Arsuf and Jaffa.
Oh, and one more thing: he failed. Yes, he re-established the Latins in the Holy Land, allowing them to hold out for another one hundred years, but that was not the goal of his crusade. Richard came to take back Jerusalem, and he did not succeed. For while he bested Saladin in battle, he could not match the Saracen king’s ability to hold his army together. Richard’s outsized personality drove away his French and German allies, and his lack of foresight – he left behind a toxic situation in England – necessitated his return. So despite never losing a battle in the Holy Land, he was forced to make peace, a peace that he found so distasteful he refused to put his seal to it.
Of course, his rather mixed results on crusade have done nothing to dent Richard’s legend as perhaps England’s greatest king. He has that great moniker – Coeur de Lion… Lionheart – with all the romance and chivalry that it invokes. His statue occupies one of the choicer spots in London, the Old Palace Yard, where he looms over the entrance to Westminster Palace. He has been the hero of many a tale, from the late Middle Ages to our day.
The opinion of historians has been more mixed, so much so that John Gillingham, the renowned historian of the Angevins, titled the first chapter of his biography of Richard “The Best of Kings, the Worst of Kings.” Richard has been hailed as a great warrior and paragon of knightly virtue, whose crusade secured the Holy Land for a hundred years and who in Europe successfully defended English lands from the French. He has been castigated, in the words of Sir Steven Runciman, as “a bad son, a bad husband, and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier.” Critics have taken him to task for his high taxes, for failing to provide England an heir, and for wasting time, money, and lives on a crusade that accomplished nothing of lasting good for England. So which is it? Is Richard the best of English kings or the worst?
But wait! Before determining his relative greatness, we must deal with the English part of the equation. For despite the fact that Richard has become something of an embodiment of English virtue, he was really rather French. Yes, he was born in Oxford and raised in England until around the age of eight. And yes, he was crowned king at Westminster. But that’s about all there was about him that was English. Richard spent his formative years in France. He spoke French. (He might have known English, but there is no record of his having spoken it.) As a king, he spent less than six months in England. (He spent more time in the Holy Land!) Of course, there was a good reason for this. Richard’s English territories were secure, so his presence there was not needed as it was in France or Outremer. That said, he really did not seem to care much for England. Accustomed to the sunny climate of Aquitaine, he is said to have complained that England was always cold and raining. Indeed, he treated it much as later kings would treat the colonies in the Americas: as a source of revenue for wars elsewhere. To fund his crusade, he levied heavy taxes and sold offices and royal lands. He is even said to have declared, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.” He was not buried in England, but rather piecemeal in France – his body in his family’s ancestral lands of Anjou; his heart in Rouen, the seat of his Norman dukedom; and his guts in Châlus, where he died. His heart, then, literally belonged to France. Richard may have been King of England, but in language, culture, and attitude he was more French than English.
But was he a good king? By modern standards, he seems a rather nasty piece of work. He twice made war on his father and hounded him to death. His coronation was marred by an anti-Jewish pogrom that he played a key role in provoking. He conducted war through rape and pillage – most notably in Cyprus. He executed over three thousand Saracen prisoners of war at Acre. He was unfaithful to his wife. But of course, it is not fair to judge him by today’s comparatively lofty ethical standards. Richard was hardly alone in promoting anti-Jewish violence, and at least he did put laws on the books to limit it (even if those laws were hardly enforced). Rape and pillage were a part of war. Even executing prisoners was far from unprecedented. Being unfaithful to his wife was almost expected in a king of his age (though his failure to produce an heir was rather more disappointing for contemporaries).
How does Richard stand up to contemporary judgment? It depends on who was doing the judging. Accounts of Richard come almost exclusively from two sources: nobles and clerics. One might think his Crusade would win him the favour of the Church, but at least in England, not so much. The Church tended to judge kings mainly on one criterion: did they leave the Church’s vast wealth alone? Richard did not. He taxed the Church heavily to fund both his Crusade and his ransom. Accordingly he received low marks from many clerical chroniclers.
His nobles – or at least the troubadours and poets they employed – viewed him in a different light. They were born and raised to fight, and what they valued above all was a king who was an effective warrior. They wanted someone who could lead them to victory and in doing so protect their holdings. Richard was really good at this. He won his first battle at age 16. His youthful exploits earned him the name of Lionheart even before he became king. Once on the throne, he kept his vassals in line, and protected his realm from King Philip of France. And his crusade is a chronicle of one victory after another.
But what about those who have left no records: the common people? For the people in his French territories, Richard’s reign meant near constant war. For the people of England, it meant heavy taxes. It also meant a rise in brigandry: many of the men he had freed from prison to go on crusade became outlaws upon their return. And it meant years of civil war, for which Richard must bear much of the blame. When leaving for his crusade, Richard approached choosing a regent as a chance to collect money from the highest bidder, which is perhaps why he chose two: Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham, and William de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. Two regents is typically one too many, and so it proved in this case. William de Mandeville promptly died, to be replaced by the chancellor William Longchamp, who rather swiftly removed Puiset from his post. Longchamp, a native of Normandy, was a poor choice, who quickly alienated the English.
Richard might have done better to choose his heir as one of the regents. That was not possible, however, because in another error of judgment, he left England without having chosen an official heir. Later, while on Sicily, he selected his cousin Arthur of Brittany, but it was too late. Richard’s brother John had already set himself up as an alternative to the unpopular Longchamp. The result was four years of chaos and unrest until Richard’s eventual return, by which time John had already lost a sizeable part of the English crown’s French possessions. Yes, John was a famously bad ruler, but much of this mess must be laid at the feet of Richard.
Richard made matters worse by getting captured while returning from his crusade. Again, he had only himself to blame. His captor was a fellow crusader: Leopold, Duke of Austria. At Acre, Richard had cast Leopold’s standard down from the wall and refused to give him an equal part of the spoils. Leopold also accused Richard of conspiring in the death of his cousin, Conrad of Montferrat. Richard certainly wanted Conrad dead. The barons of the Holy Land had been named him King of Jerusalem instead of Richard’s candidate, Guy de Lusignan. A few days later, Conrad was murdered by assassins. We will never know if Richard was responsible, but it wouldn’t have been out of character. While Richard sat in prison, the chaos in England and his French territories intensified. His eventual ransom came at a huge cost: 65,000 pounds of silver, or two to three times the annual income of the English crown. On his return, Richard poured all his money and energy into war with King Philip of France. He again won some great victories. Again, the common people probably did not care.
That said, the lot of the common people was not exactly great under the other English kings of Richard’s era. His father Henry II also spent most of his time and the kingdom’s wealth on wars in France. Indeed, this would be an ongoing obsession of English kings. England may have been a bit chaotic when Richard was on crusade, but it never reached the destructive level of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. In terms of taxes, Richard’s were more onerous than those of his father, but less than those of his successor John.
In terms of daily governance, then, he was not the best of kings, but he was far from the worst. He was certainly a great warrior, and in his day and age, that was a lot of what made a good king. But while he was almost unbeatable in the field, he proved his own worst enemy by bungling his choice of regent and hair, and alienating fellow rulers like Philip of France and Leopold of Austria. He also failed in one of a king’s most important tasks: producing an heir. Richard was capable (he birthed at least one bastard), but he delayed his marriage and then seems to have been less than interested in his wife.
How great, then was he? Calling Richard the greatest English king is a bit much. His politics were too clumsy for that and his rule was marred by the troubles during his prolonged absence on crusade. And it must never be forgotten just how French this English king was. That said, he was probably the greatest warrior to ever be king of England. In my humble opinion, he is also the most enjoyable of all English kings to fictionalize. And perhaps that more than anything explains why he remains such a legendary figure.
Tue 12 Feb 2013
One of the more surreal aspects of being a writer is receiving fan mail (or fan email, to be more precise). It’s not something I thought much about before I published my first novel. I write because I love it. I love digging into history and bringing the past to life. I feel privileged – ridiculously lucky, really – to be paid to do it… all the more so since I would keep writing even if I were not paid.
The writing process can be intensely private. For months, I’m locked inside my own head, only coming out to consult history books or ancient documents. During the day, I live with my characters in Constantinople or the Holy Land or, lately, Rothom and Westchester. And when I finish a book, I move right on to the next one. The publication schedule lags about a year behind my writing pace, so by the time one of my books hits the shelves, I’m usually putting the finishing touches on draft one of my next novel.
So when someone writes me to tell me they liked one of my books (or not), I feel somewhat like a fish that has been caught in a net and yanked from the water. I am immensely pleased, of course. I feel honored that my writing could inspire someone to write to me. But it’s also a bit disorienting. Here I am, swimming in the waters of 11th century Normandy and England, and along come an email about the fall of Constantinople (Siege) or the Crusades (Eagle or Kingdom). It’s a strange feeling. I often blink in surprise as I think: yes, I did write that, didn’t I. Then I smile and write a note of thanks, which is truly heartfelt.
Occasionally, I receive a message that inspires a bit longer of a response. Recently, a reader wrote to me about Eagle concerning the image of Arabs as portrayed in the West and “Neo-Orientalism.” Since one of my goals in writing the Saladin Trilogy was to challenge popular stereotypes of the Middle East (and of Christian crusaders), I thought I’d post her letters (edited a bit for brevity), and my responses here:
Message to me:
I am working on my MPhil dissertation these days. I am working on the Arab image in Tariq Ali’s “The book of Saladin” with reference to what he calls the Orientalist’s exotica… In Mr Ali’s book I came across the fact that he is over turning the Stereotypes related to the Arab’s and portraying instead the ‘barbarian’ western invaders. Keeping this idea in mind i was looking for a book that portrays the same idea and I came across your book “Eagle”, I read it, liked it… You have mentioned in your historical note that the Islamic Orient at that time was much more advanced than the west. If we keep this in mind can we safely say that the Overturning of the Oriental and Occidental stereotypes is an upcoming feature of Neo-Orientalism? Plus is it safe to say that in doing so, you have abrogated the Western seat of power and appropriated the same dynamics of power to the East? And do you consider yourself a Neo-Orientalist?
Waiting anxiously for your reply
First off, I’m glad you enjoyed “Eagle.” I’m also glad you’re working on Tariq Ali’s “The Book of Saladin.” It is a wonderful book.
If by Neo-Orientalist you mean someone who would like to overturn established tropes and stereotypes regarding the East and West and replace them with a more nuanced and accurate picture, then sure, I am a Neo-Orientalist. While I do believe that it is important to overturn these stereotypes, I don’t see myself as “appropriating the same dynamics of power to the East.” Indeed, I don’t believe that power can be transferred by the mere construction or deconstruction of what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies.” If you have not read Said’s “Orientalism” — which seems to have strongly influenced Tariq Ali’s ideas — then you should. Said points out that the practice of imaginative geography (the way that exotic, distant places are imagined in terms of local experiences and concerns) takes “place between all cultures, certainly, and between all men.” That is to say that people in the East have their own set of stereotypes and misconceptions of the West, based more on their own history, politics, and concerns than on reality. But these sorts of ideas alone do not generate any sort of power dynamic. Indeed, the West’s imaginative geography of the East only became Orientalism, in Said’s view, when it was applied in a context of imperialism. That is: imaginative geography allied to political, military, and economic dominance is what produced Orientalism. So overturning the myths of Orientalism will not be enough to dissolve western power or to grant power to “orientalized” peoples. That must happen at the level of politics and economics, though, hopefully, cultural changes can help to spur political and economic change.
That said, the best that I hope for from my books is greater understanding between the West and the East. Understanding is the first step to overcoming fear and prejudice, and if people in the West can overcome their fears of the East, and the Middle East in particular, then perhaps it will free our leaders to make more enlightened decisions. I hope so, anyway.
All the best.
Thank you so much for your reply, it has made me rethink my idea of the appropriation of power to the East. I just have one more question, do you believe that the twain (East and West) can meet? Can East and West be friends on, lets say, more than individual levels? Are nations of Johns and Yusufs possible?
I’m glad to have been of help.
I do think that the East and West can be friends, although I think that the East (a rather all-encompassing term for a rather heterogeneous group of nations) first needs to address its own internal divisions. Remember that for most of its history, the West has itself been riven by internal conflict. If you had asked a European as late as 1944 if all of Europe could coexist in harmony, they would have been deeply skeptical. The current period of peace and cooperation amongst European nations (disagreements over monetary policy aside) is truly remarkable and I think offers hope for the rest of the world. If India and Pakistan, China and Japan, Iran and Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan, can find a way to cooperate and set aside their difference, then I think that will be a first and perhaps necessary step towards greater harmony between East and West.
And now, it’s back to medieval England!
Thu 29 Mar 2012
Sat 4 Jun 2011
In Cairo, Coptic Christians recently ended a two-week sit-in, held to protest the rising sectarian violence in that country. Since the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, there have been attacks on churches, several of which have been closed, and street fights have erupted between Copts and Muslims. The approximately eight million Egyptian Christians – out of a population of eighty million – are understandably nervous about their future in majority Muslim Egypt. All of this raises the question: just who are the Copts and what are they doing in Egypt?
In the West, the story of Christianity with which most people are familiar goes something like this: in its first several hundred years, Christianity consolidated around the Catholic Church in Rome, which did its best to root out any heretical tendencies. In 1054, the Great Schism split the Church between Catholic and Orthodox branches. In 1517, Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses launched the Reformation, which further divided the Church between Protestants and Catholics.
If the Copts (and the Syriac Christians) are missing from this familiar story, it’s because describing the history of Christianity as the history of the Catholic Church and it’s schisms is inaccurate. The Orthodox, Syriac, and Coptic churches did not split off from the Catholic Church. It is more accurate to speak of a parting of the ways, for these churches are just as old as the church centered in Rome (and in most cases their theology is older).
In the early days of Christianity, all bishops were equal, but over time five bishops, or patriarchs as they were dubbed, acquired authority over the other bishops in their diocese. The Patriarch of Rome was the first to exercise such authority, followed by the Patriarchs of Antioch and of Alexandria. The First Council of Nicea in 325 AD officially recognized the special status of these three patriarchs. In 381 AD, the First Council of Constantinople added that city to the list of those with special authority. The Bishop of Jerusalem joined the list of patriarchs in 431 AD at the Council of Ephesus.
None of the five patriarchs – or the Pentarchy, as they have come to be called – had any authority over the others, although Rome was considered the first amongst equals. Other than Jerusalem, all of the patriarchates would go on to found their own Church. Rome, of course, gave birth to the Catholic Church. It was largely the pope’s attempt to spread his authority that would lead the other patriarchs to part ways with Rome. As mentioned above, Constantinople went its own way in 1053, forming the Orthodox Church. (For more on this, see my blog “Schism and Union.”)
The Coptic and Syriac Churches date their independent existence back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Both Antioch and Alexandria rejected the council’s declaration that Christ is in two natures, fully human and fully divine, arguing instead that Christ is of one nature, both human and divine. This might seem like a question of semantics, but it was serious stuff, enough to cause a rift between the patriarchs, with Rome and Constantinople on one side, and Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria on the other.
The Antioch Patriarchate would become the Syriac Orthodox Church, or the Jacobites as they were frequently called in the Crusader era. The Syriac Church still exists, although it is now headquartered in Damascus, and the majority of Syriac Christians live in India. The Syriacs employ the oldest liturgy of any Christian church, using a dialect of Aramaic, the same language that Jesus spoke.
It was the Patriarchate of Alexandria that would become the Coptic Orthodox Church, headed by the Coptic Pope (who was actually called pope before the pope in Rome). They were called Copts because the original Christians in Egypt spoke Coptic, a late Egyptian language used from the first century AD through around the seventeenth century, when it finally gave way completely to Arabic. (Coptic is still the liturgical language of the Coptic Church.)
The transition to Arabic in Egypt was mirrored by the slow transition from Christianity to Islam. As of 639 AD, when Egypt was absorbed into the Arab-Muslim empire, the vast majority of Egyptians were Coptic Christians. Many of them welcomed their new Muslim rulers, because they received better treatment from them than from the Byzantines, who had persecuted the Copts as heretics. Later rulers would be less kind, though, and the Copts slowly converted. Still, Muslims were not a majority in Egypt until perhaps as late as the 12th century. This fact helps to explain the Crusaders obsession with Egypt, since during the many invasions led by King Amalric, the kingdom of the Nile was almost half-Christian — much more Christian, in fact, than the Holy Land. Even after Copts became a minority in the rest of Egypt, they remained influential in Alexandria, which was administrated by Copts long after the Muslim conquest.
Today, the eight million Copts that remain in Egypt are thus the remnant of what was once a vast majority. These are the people who are currently being persecuted, their churches vandalized and desecrated, their place in Egypt questioned. They are understandably upset by such questions. For far from being outsiders, the Copts are part of a religion and culture that harkens back to pre-Muslim Egypt. They are, in a sense, more Egyptian than the Muslim Egyptians who persecute them. And, given that their liturgy is considerably older than that of the Catholic Church, one might also argue that they are in some ways more Christian than Catholics themselves. Egyptian but not Muslim; Christian but not Catholic; the inheritors of a religion and culture with a history that dates back nearly 2000 years… these are the Copts.
Mon 11 Apr 2011
One of the most distinctive features of Islam is salat, the prayer ritual, which all Muslims are expected to perform five times each day. Movies and news broadcasts have made us familiar with muezzins chanting the call to prayer from minarets and with Muslim worshipers kneeling and prostrating themselves as they pray. But most of us do not know much about Islamic prayer beyond that. Nor, for that matter, do we know an awful lot about the origins and practice of early Christian prayer. As a result, Islamic prayer seems more exotic and strange to us than it really is.
Let’s take a closer look at salat. Starting at age ten, faithful Muslims are expected to pray five times a day: at dawn (fajr), noon (dhuhr), in the afternoon (asr), at sunset (maghrib), and at nightfall (isha’a). They are called to pray by the muezzin, who chants the adhan, which translates from Arabic as:
God is great. God is great. God is great. God is great.
I bear witness that there is no God but Allah.
I bear witness that there is no God but Allah.
I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of God.
I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of God.
Make haste towards worship. Make haste towards worship.
Rise up for salvation. Rise up for salvation.
Prayer is better than sleep. Prayer is better than sleep.
God is great. God is great.
There is no God but Allah.
Before praying, Muslims perform a ritual ablution, washing the hands, mouth, nose, arms, face, ears, forehead, hair and feet three times each, in that order. They then locate qibla, the direction of Mecca, which is the direction in which they must pray. Prayer itself is performed in units called rak’ah, which include a series of motions and accompanying words, to be spoken in Arabic. Each individual begins the rak’ah standing. After pronouncing that “God is great,” the worshiper pronounces the opening of the Koran, which translates as:
In the name of the single God, most Gracious, most Merciful,
Praise be to the one God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of worlds,
Most Gracious, most Merciful,
Master of the day of judgment,
You alone we worship and You alone we ask for aid,
Show us the straight way,
The way of those upon whom you have bestowed your grace, those who do not feel your wrath and who do not go astray.
The worshiper next moves to the bowing position, with palms on his or her knees, and says in Arabic, “Glory to the Lord, the most Magnificent, the most Praiseworthy.” Then, standing again: “Allah listen to him who praises him.” At this point, the worshiper prostrates his or herself, with hands and knees on the ground and bare forehead touching the earth. The worshiper sits back on his or her heals and says, “Oh Allah forgive me; have mercy upon me.” Another prostration. Then, sitting again: “Greeting to you, O Prophet, and the mercy and blessings of Allah. Peace be unto us, and unto the righteous servants of Allah. And I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah. And I bear witness that Mohammed is His servant and messenger.” Then, the worshiper stands. That is a rak’ah, the basic unit of Islamic prayer. Depending on the time of day, prayer consists of from two to four rak’ah. After the final rak’ah, before standing, the worshiper looks right and says, “Peace be upon you.” He or she looks left and repeats the phrase. Prayer is then over.
Much about this might seem strange, even superstitious: having to pray five times a day; the muezzin’s ululating call; the ritual washing; facing Mecca; the requirement to pray in Arabic; and the bowing and prostration during prayer. However, when we compare the way Muslims and Christians prayed in the Middle Ages (and today), we see that there is no aspect of Muslim prayer that does not have its corollary in Christian practice.
Five prayers a day may seem like a lot, but according to the canonical hours, which had been established by the fourth century and which were codified by Saint Benedict in his famous Rule, monks and regular canons were expected to pray at least seven times a day: matins or nocturnes, which took place between midnight and dawn and which were sometimes divided into two or three separate prayer sessions; lauds and prime, both in the early morning hours; terce, sext, and none, around 9am, noon, and 3pm, respectively; vespers at sunset; and compline just before bed. Rather than a muezzin, Christians used bells to call the faithful to pray. In these prayers, the chanting and reading – combined with standing, sitting, or kneeling at the appropriate times – was similar to, if slightly more complex than, the Islamic rak’ah. And while the burden of prayer was lighter for the laity, every faithful Christian was supposed to say morning and evening prayers. Each morning and evening, the faithful repeated the Confession of Faith and the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, while making the sign of the cross. Like Muslims, Christians too were expected to face a particular direction: east. And at mass, priests, monks, and laypeople alike came together to take part in a ceremony whose opening was and is not so different from that of Muslim prayer:
I will go to the altar of God.
To God, the joy of my youth.
Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight against an unholy people, rescue me from the wicked and deceitful man.
For Thou, O God, art my strength, why hast Thou forsaken me? And why do I go
about in sadness, while the enemy harasses me.
Send forth Thy light and Thy truth: for they have led me and brought me to Thy holy hll and They dwelling place.
And I will go to the altar of God, to God, the joy of my youth.
I shall yet praise Thee upon the harp, O God, my God. Why are thou sad, my soul, and why art thou downcast?
Trust in God, for I shall yet praise Him, my Savior, and my God.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
I will go to the altar of God.
To God, the joy of my youth.
Our help is in the Name of the Lord.
Who made heaven and earth.
Even the ritual ablution before Islamic prayer has its echoes in Christianity. Priests washed their hands just before and after communion. (They still do after the offertory.) In monasteries, Saint Benedict’s Rule held that each Saturday, the cook for the previous week was to wash the entire community’s feet before worship. And, of course, immersion or anointing with water was and is a fundamental part of the ceremony of baptism.
Thus, medieval Christians – and many Christians still today – prayed in ways very similar to Muslims. The five daily prayers of faithful Muslims had their mirror in the canonical hours. The muezzin and bells served and still serve the same purpose. Muslims prayed in Arabic and faced Mecca; Christians prayed in Latin and faced east. Both involved ritual washing in their rituals. And the prayer rituals of both involved liturgies combined with particular motions: just as Muslims stood, bowed, and prostrated themselves, Christians stood, sat, kneeled, and occasionally also prostrated themselves. It is odd, then, that Islamic prayer has come to seem so strange to people in the West, since it is basically a mirror image of medieval Christian practices, most of which are still with us today. To a medieval Christian, accustomed to praying in a specific direction in a language he did not understand, Islamic prayer would have not seemed so odd. Our hypothetical Christian might have thought it wrong that Muslims faced Mecca instead of facing east, but he certainly would have understood the necessity of facing a particular direction. He might have initially though the muezzin’s chant odd, but in a Europe where time was regulated by bells, its necessity would not have been lost upon him.
So the next time you see footage of Muslim’s praying, do not think of it as a sign of radicalism or some exotic ritual. Instead, look past the differences and remember: Islamic prayer and Christian prayer are mirrors of one another.
Sun 13 Mar 2011
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.
Tue 8 Mar 2011
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.
Thu 3 Mar 2011
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).
Mon 28 Jun 2010
In Siege, the emperor Constantine pushes through the Union of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, hoping to receive aid from the West. However, his push for union only divides his people, inciting the Greek monk Gennadius to do whatever it takes to keep union from occurring.
While the role of Gennadius is somewhat exaggerated in Siege, there can be no doubt that he was a stubborn foe of union. There can also be no doubt that the struggles over union played a key role in the fall of the city. Successive emperors pressed hard for union, gambling that the aid it brought would offset the dissension it bred. But their gamble did not pay off. Despite the Pope’s call to arms, very little help came from the West. The Union served only to embitter and divide the people of the empire.
The Union was an attempt to bridge a divide between Rome and Constantinople that had been centuries in the making. The schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches had its roots in politics, theology, and culture. The origins of the break can be traced to 395 AD and the death of Theodosius, the last emperor of a unified Roman Empire. After Theodosius, Rome split permanently into two empires, one ruled from Rome and the other from Constantinople. The two quickly grew apart. Latin remained the dominant language in the West while Greek eventually became the language of the East. In the West, Rome was overrun by Germanic tribes, who had a huge impact on the development of Christianity there. As Roman political power faltered, the Church increasingly took over a political role, and the Pope emerged as the most powerful secular ruler in the West. In the East, the empire continued to thrive. Constantinople was a powerful, affluent city. The Patriarch remained a religious figure, more concerned with the purity of doctrine than with the political and logistic troubles that occupied the Pope.
The theological differences that divide the two churches seem arcane enough, but to theologians they were important. The origin of the split revolves around a portion of the Nicene Creed known as the filioque doctrine (filioque is Latin for “and the son”). The original creed, agreed upon in 381 AD at the Council of Constantinople, read as follows: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-Giver, Who proceed from the father. With the Father and the Son, He is worshipped and glorified.” In 589 AD, the Third Council of Toledo, amended the Nicene Creed to read: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-Giver, Who proceeds from the father and the Son. With the Father and the Son, He is worshipped and glorified.” This new version of the Creed eventually spread to all the western churches. It was rejected in the East, most notably by Patriarch Photius, who in 867 AD excommunicated the Pope for supporting the filioque doctrine. Nevertheless, the doctrine continued to gain support in the West, and in 1014 AD, it was proclaimed as official Church doctrine.
The filioque doctrine helped to justify the split of the Church and to prevent reconciliation of East and West, but the immediate cause of the schism revolved around Church politics. As their temporal power grew, successive Popes became more aggressive in their claim to universal jurisdiction over the Church. The Patriarch in Constantinople, on the other hand, argued that the Pope was merely one bishop amongst others, and that the Church should continued to be ruled by the heads of the five major patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem (although in effect, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, which were now in Muslim hands, had little say in the matter). According to the Patriarchs a council of bishops was needed to determine important doctrinal issues. In particular, the Patriarchs rejected Pope Benedict VIII unilateral alteration of the Nicene Creed in 1014 by the insertion of the filioque doctrine.
There were also an increasing number of liturgical and practical differences between the Western and Eastern churches, and as the name of the Orthodox Church implies, the eastern branch of the church generally maintained the traditional position in opposition to innovations stemming from Rome. Important points of difference included the western introduction of unleavened bread into the Eucharist, the western practice of celibacy amongst priests (parish priest can be married in the eastern faith), and the eastern rejection of the worship of icons.
Matters came to a head in 1054, when Pope Leo IX sent Roman legates to Constantinople to deny Patriarch Cerularius the title of Ecumenical Patriarch (i.e. a universal religious leader on par with the Pope) and to insist that he recognize the Pope as the head of all the Church. Cerularius refused and was promptly excommunicated by the head of the Roman delegation. Not to be out done, he responded by excommunicating all of the delegates. The schism between the Western and Eastern Churches had begun. Greek anger over the Latin sack of Constantinople in 1204 only heightened the divide. There were numerous attempts at reconciliation, including official declaration of Union in 1274 and 1439. This second declaration of Union is the one that Constantine finally had enacted in December of 1452, just before the Turkish siege of Constantinople started. The Union officially accepted the western doctrines of filioque and the supremacy of the Pope. If the people of Constantinople had managed to fight off the Turks and hold the city, then it is possible that this union could have held, and the Western and Eastern churches would be one, even today. But the city fell and with it all possibility of union. In 1484, the union celebrated in 1452 was officially repudiated. The schism became permanent, leading to the separate Catholic and Orthodox churches that we know today.
In the early drafts of Siege, I delved a bit more into these theological and political issues. So to conclude, I’ll leave you with a scene from one of these early drafts…
Dinner that night was a small affair, held in the Pope’s private dining room around a table that accommodated only ten guests. The room was decorated on three sides with frescos depicting the deaths of saints, and the paintings seemed to come alive under the flickering candlelight. The fourth side of the room was lined with arched windows looking out on the lights of Rome, burning bright in the cold, clear February sky.
The Pope sat at the head of the table with his guests of honor—Sofia and Filelfo—to his right and left. The rest of the guests were cardinals and bishops, and other than Bessarion, who sat to her right, Sofia did not recognize any of them. The meal itself was elaborate. The table was set with silver, gold, and crystal—a sharp contrast to the plain wooden dishes that served the Byzantine court—and the menu proceeded with course after course, each accompanied by its own wine.
Seated between the Pope and Bessarion, Sofia could not help but join in their theological debates, even if all she could think about was whether or not the Pope would call the Synaxis’s bluff. They discussed the filioque, the main point of theological disagreement between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Pope defended the filioque, an addition to the Nicene Creed made in the year 589, which stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. Bessarion represented the Greek Orthodox position, arguing that the Holy Spirit proceeded only from the Father. Sofia mostly kept silent, marveling that men could argue so passionately over a few words. When she said as much to Pope Nicholas, he smiled.
“Not just words, Sofia,” he replied. “It is souls that are at stake. If the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father and not the Son, then the Son is clearly less than the Father. What then becomes of the Trinity?”
“There is no Trinity in your doctrine either,” Bessarion countered. “For if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, then there would have to be two sources of divinity.”
“Not at all. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one divine principle.”
“But how can two be one?” Bessarion asked. “There can be only one God, one divine.”
“I do not mean to advocate two sources of the Spirit,” the Pope explained. “But how can the Spirit proceed from the Father without the Son? Take the ewe and the lamb.”
“The what?” Sofia asked, not sure that she had heard correctly.
“The ewe and the lamb,” Nicholas repeated. “Milk originates in the ewe, but it proceeds to the lamb. Without the lamb, the milk would not flow. Both ewe and lamb are necessary: one to produce, the other to receive. Now, the Holy Spirit is the milk that flows from God to Christ, and through him to all mankind.”
“I see,” Sofia said, although she was not sure that she did. She understood the first part of the analogy well enough, but if the Spirit flowed through Christ to all mankind, then did that mean that the milk likewise flowed from the lamb to men? Clearly, that made no sense, unless perhaps one considered eating the lamb to be partaking of the milk. Somehow, Sofia did not think that Nicholas was suggesting they eat the Son of God. Or perhaps that was the purpose of the Eucharist?
Bessarion was expounding upon a similar idea. “Lambs do not produce milk,” he pointed out. “Nor can the Son produce the Spirit. God only is the origin of the Spirit and the Son. Christ is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.”
“Begotten, proceeds, what is the difference?” Sofia asked.
“The difference, my dear, is beyond the understanding of men.”
Nicholas seized on this, thumping the table excitedly for emphasis. “If the difference cannot be understood, then how can the filioque be denied? Could the Father not beget the Son by sending the Spirit through him?”
“Yes, but the Spirit proceeding from the Father through the Son is not the same at all as it proceeding directly from the Son,” Bessarion pointed out.
“Ah, but you admit that the Spirit comes from the Son!”
“I admit no such thing!”
The two men laughed and then happily continued their debate, moving on to discuss Aquinas’s theory of spiration. As the evening dragged on with no mention of union, and fatigue from the long day of traveling caught up to her, Sofia’s mind drifted away from the conversation. She found herself thinking of Longo. She wondered what he was doing now; no doubt sailing back to Genoa with his young betrothed. She wondered what he thought of her after last night, and at the same time, wondered why she should care so much. She had never paid much attention to men. She had little reason to do so. Most of the men she knew were pigheaded fools who looked at her only as potential property.
Why then this fixation with Longo? She would probably never see him again. Yet, she couldn’t help but think of him—his worn, handsome face; his strong, confident presence. She wondered if this was what falling in love was like. But how could she be in love with a man that she barely knew?
Sofia was brought back into the present by a sharp dig in the side from Bessarion. To her embarrassment, she realized that Pope Nicholas had just asked her a question, which she had ignored completely. “I fear you were somewhere else for a while, Princess,” Nicholas said, smiling. “Perhaps you were contemplating the beautiful logic of Aquinas.”
Sofia blushed. “Something very like, yes your Eminence,” she murmured.
“A great thinker indeed, though not without his faults,” Nicholas continued. “After all, God does not always obey the dictates of logic. Nor do men. Take, for instance, the Synaxis in Constantinople.” The Synaxis at last, Sofia thought. The blush faded from her face and all thoughts of Longo from her mind. They had reached the crucial point. “I could grant the demands of their letter—a letter, I might add, written without the consent of the Patriarch of Constantinople—but I fear that even that might not appease them. They are men ruled more by pride than reason, fueled by hatred rather than religion. And if they still refuse union, then I will have humbled the Church for nothing and perhaps ruined any chance of ever achieving a true union.” Assent echoed quietly down the table. Only Bessarion kept quiet.
“What you say is true,” Sofia replied. “The Synaxis might still reject union, even if you accept all their demands. But if they do, they will not only be contradicting themselves, they will also be defying the Emperor. Agree to some of the demands of the Synaxis and the Emperor will be free to force the Union through, even if he has to remove every bishop in the Synaxis. And the bishops would not be able to truly complain, for after all, they have already agreed to union on these terms by signing the letter.”
“If only I could be as sure as you are, Princess, that Emperor Constantine would indeed enforce the Union even over the complaints of his clergy,” Nicholas replied.
“If Leontarsis were not ill, I am certain that he would be here to pledge the Emperor’s word,” Sofia replied. “But, since he is not, I will pledge it myself as ambassador of Constantinople.”
“I have spoken with Leontarsis,” Filelfo said, speaking up. “In his absence, I feel confident in guaranteeing the Emperor’s support of the Union for him.” He gave Sofia a meaningful glance, and she offered a silent prayer of thanks for Leontarsis’s absence. He would have promised no such thing.
“Very well then,” Nicholas said. “I believe that the matter is more or less settled. When the details are sorted out, I shall hold an audience at which I shall issue a decree recognizing the desires of the eastern bishops and looking forward to the true union of the Catholic Church in short time. I do hope that Leontarsis will be well enough to attend that meeting.” Nicholas smiled and even winked. Clearly, the true reason for Leontarsis’s absence was not a mystery to him. “In the meantime, let us begin dessert, and there is a question that I have for you, Princess, concerning our friend Aquinas…”
Sofia smiled. Now that union had been secured, she would gladly discuss Aquinas, or any other philosopher for that matter. Perhaps she could not fight to defend Constantinople, but Sofia knew that she had done much more than that here in Rome. Helena would be proud of her she knew, and the Synaxis would be furious. In the back of her mind, Sofia could not help but wonder what Longo would think.