Sunday 4 November 2018

Great Famine of 1315–17

The Great Famine of 1315–1317 was the first of a series of large-scale crises that struck Europe early in the 14th century. Most of Europe (extending east to Russia and south to Italy) was affected. The famine caused millions of deaths over an extended number of years and marked a clear end to the period of growth and prosperity from the 11th to the 13th centuries.

Death sits astride a manticore whose long tail ends in a ball of flame (Hell).

The Great Famine started with bad weather in spring 1315. Crop failures lasted through 1316 until the summer harvest in 1317, and Europe did not fully recover until 1322. The period was marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death, and even cannibalism and infanticide. The crisis had consequences for the Church, state, European society, and for future calamities to follow in the 14th century.

Andrei Rublev's Trinity

During the Medieval Warm Period (the period prior to 1300), the population of Europe exploded compared to prior eras, reaching levels that were not matched again in some places until the nineteenth century. The onset of the Great Famine coincided with the end of the Medieval Warm Period. It may have been precipitated by a volcanic event, perhaps that of Mount Tarawera, New Zealand, which lasted about five years.

Mount Tarawera, New Zealand

In the spring of 1315, unusually heavy rain began in much of Europe. The French, under Louis X, tried to invade Flanders, but in the low country of the Netherlands, the fields were soaked and the army became so bogged down that they were forced to retreat, burning their provisions where they left them, unable to carry them away.

Louis X of France camping in Flanders

A number of documented incidents show the extent of the Great Famine. Edward II of England stopped at St Albans on 10 August 1315 and had difficulty finding bread for himself and his entourage; it was a rare occasion in which the King of England was unable to eat. In the spring of 1316, it continued to rain on a European population deprived of energy and reserves to sustain itself.

Edward II of England

The height of the famine was reached in 1317, as the wet weather continued. Finally, in that summer, the weather returned to its normal patterns. Historians debate the toll, but it is estimated that 10–25% of the population of many cities and towns died. Though the Black Death (1347–1351) would kill more people, it often swept through an area in a matter of months, whereas the Great Famine lingered for years, prolonging the suffering of the populace.

Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims

The Great Famine coincided with and greatly influenced the Bruce campaign in Ireland, the attempt of Edward de Bruce, a younger brother of Robert the Bruce of Scotland, to make himself High King of Ireland. The famine hit Ireland hard in 1317 and struck most of the country, making it difficult for Edward de Bruce to provide food to most of his men. He never regained momentum and was defeated and killed in the Battle of Faughart in 1318. That ended the last organized effort in many centuries to end English rule in Ireland.

Robert the Bruce of Scotland

Sunday 21 October 2018


Saladin (1137 – 4 March 1193) or Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, was the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. A Sunni Muslim of Kurdish ethnicity, Saladin led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant. At the height of his power, his sultanate included Egypt, Syria, Upper Mesopotamia, the Hejaz, Yemen and other parts of North Africa.

Equestrian statue of Saladin in the Citadel, Damascus, Syria

Saladin was originally sent to Fatimid Egypt in 1164 accompanying his uncle Shirkuh, a general of the Zengid army, on orders of their lord Nur ad-Din, an atabeg of the Seljuks, to consolidate Shawar amid his ongoing power struggle for vizier to the teenage Fatimid caliph al-Adid. With Shawar reinstated as vizier, he engaged in a power struggle with Shirkuh, which saw the former realigning himself with Crusader king Amalric.

Amalric, King of Jerusalem

Saladin climbed the ranks of the Fatimid government by virtue of his military successes against Crusader assaults against its territory and his personal closeness to al-Adid. With Shawar assassinated in 1169 and Shirkuh's natural death later that year, al-Adid appointed Saladin vizier, a rare nomination of a Sunni Muslim to such an important position in the Isma'ili Shia caliphate.

Portrait of Saladin

During his tenure as vizier, Saladin began to undermine the Fatimid establishment and, following al-Adid's death in 1171, he abolished the Fatimid Caliphate and realigned the country's allegiance with the Sunni, Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate. In the following years, he led forays against the Crusader in Palestine, commissioned the successful conquest of Yemen, and staved off pro-Fatimid rebellions in Upper Egypt.

Crusaders in 12th Century

Not long after Nur ad-Din's death in 1174, Saladin launched his conquest of Syria, peacefully entering Damascus at the request of its governor. By mid-1175, Saladin had conquered Hama and Homs, inviting the animosity of other Zengid lords, the official rulers of Syria's various regions. Soon after, he defeated the Zengid army at the Battle of the Horns of Hama and was thereafter proclaimed the "Sultan of Egypt and Syria" by the Abbasid caliph al-Mustadi. 

Burial Place of Nur as-Din in Damascus

Saladin made further conquests in northern Syria and Jazira, escaping two attempts on his life by the "Assassins", before returning to Egypt in 1177 to address issues there. By 1182, Saladin had completed the conquest of Muslim Syria after capturing Aleppo, but ultimately failed to take over the Zengid stronghold of Mosul.

Citadel of Aleppo, Syria

Under Saladin's command, the Ayyubid army defeated the Crusaders at the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187, and thereafter wrested control of Palestine – including the city of Jerusalem – from the Crusaders, who had conquered the area 88 years earlier. Although the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem continued to exist until the late 13th century, its defeat at Hattin marked a turning point in its conflict with the Muslim powers of the region.

Modern interpretation of Saladin accepting the surrender of Guy of Lusignan

Saladin died in Damascus in 1193, having given away much of his personal wealth to his subjects. He is buried in a mausoleum adjacent to the Umayyad Mosque. Saladin has become a prominent figure in Muslim, Arab, Turkish and Kurdish culture, and he has often been described as being the most famous Kurd in history.

Saladin's tomb, near Umayyad Mosque

Saturday 29 September 2018

Byzantine–Bulgarian Wars - Battle of Pliska

The Battle of Pliska was a series of battles between troops, gathered from all parts of the Byzantine Empire, led by the Emperor Nicephorus I Genik, and Bulgaria, governed by Khan Krum. The Byzantines plundered and burned the Bulgar capital Pliska which gave time for the Bulgarians to block passes in the Balkan Mountains that served as exits out of Bulgaria. The final battle took place on 26 July 811, in some of the passes in the eastern part of the Balkans.

Ruins of Pliska

When Nicephorus I became emperor in 802, he planned to reincorporate Bulgar-held territory back into the empire. In 807 he launched a campaign but only reached Odrin and achieved nothing because of a conspiracy in his capital. That attempted attack, however, gave reason for the Bulgar Khan Krum to undertake military operations against the Byzantine Empire. 

Nikephoros I, depicted in the 12th century Chronicle

In 803 a Bulgar army penetrated the Struma Valley and defeated the Byzantines. The Bulgar troops captured roughly 332 to 348 kilograms of gold and killed many enemy soldiers including all strategoi and most of the commanders. In 809 the Khan personally besieged the strong fortress of Serdica and seized the city, killing the whole garrison of 6,000.

A 14th century depiction of Krum

In 811, the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I organised a large campaign to conquer Bulgaria once and for all. He gathered an enormous army from the Anatolian and European themata, and the imperial bodyguard (the tagmata). The conquest was supposed to be easy, and most of the high-ranking officials and aristocrats accompanied him, including his son Stauracius and his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe. The whole army consisted of around 80,000 soldiers.

A coin minted for Staurakios

The Byzantine army gathered in May, and by 10 July had set up camp at the fortress of Marcelae (present-day Karnobat) near the Bulgarian frontier. On 20 July Emperor Nicephorus divided the army into three columns, each marching by a different route towards Pliska. He met little resistance and after three days he reached the capital where the Byzantines met an army of 12,000 elite soldiers who guarded the stronghold.

Gate to the castle of Pliska

On 23 July the Byzantines quickly captured the defenseless capital of Bulgaria. The city was sacked and the countryside destroyed. Khan Krum attempted once more to negotiate for peace. Emperor Nicephorus, overconfident from his success, ignored him. The Byzantine soldiers looted and plundered; burnt down the unharvested fields, cut the tendons of the oxen, slaughtered sheep and pigs. The Emperor took over Krum's treasury, locked it and did not allow his troops to reach it.

Ruins of the royal palace of Pliska

While Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus and his army were busy plundering the Bulgarian capital, Krum mobilized his people to set traps and ambushes in the mountain passes. On 25 July his army entered the Varbica Pass but before they could retreat, the Bulgars blocked the valley entrance too. They were then attacked by Bulgars on from all sides. The emperor was slain in battle and according to tradition, Krum had the Emperor's head on a spike, then lined his skull with silver and used it as a drinking cup.

Khan Krum feasts while a servant brings the
skull of Nikephoros I fashioned into a drinking cup

Sunday 2 September 2018

Council of Nicaea

The First Council of Nicaea was a council of Christian bishops convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea (now İznik, Bursa province, Turkey) by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325. Constantine I organized the council along the lines of the Roman Senate and presided over it, but did not cast any official vote.

First Council of Nicaea, 325 AD

Council of Nicaea was the first effort to attain consensus in the Church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. Hosius of Corduba, who was probably one of the Papal legates, may have presided over its deliberations.

Eastern Orthodox icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea

It resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. With the creation of the creed, a precedent was established for subsequent local and regional councils of Bishops (Synods) to create statements of belief and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy—the intent being to define unity of beliefs for the whole of Christendom. The council was recommended by a synod led by Hosius of Córdoba in the Eastertide of 325.

An icon of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ,
 which is celebrated throughout Eastertide
In the summer of 325, the bishops of all provinces were summoned to Nicaea, a place reasonably accessible to many delegates, particularly those of Asia Minor, Georgia, Armenia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Thrace. This was the first general council in the history of the Church summoned by emperor Constantine I.

Constantine the Great

Constantine I had invited around 1,800 bishops of the Christian church in Council of Nicaea within the Roman Empire even from Britain, but a smaller and unknown number attended. Eusebius of Caesarea counted more than 250, Athanasius of Alexandria counted 318, and Eustathius of Antioch estimated "about 270" (all three were present at the council).
Eusebius of Caesarea

The council was formally opened 20 May, in the central structure of the imperial palace at Nicaea, with preliminary discussions of the Arian question. Emperor Constantine arrived nearly a month later on 14 June. One of the projects undertaken by the Council was the creation of a Creed, a declaration and summary of the Christian faith.

A fresco depicting the First Council of Nicaea

The long-term effects of the Council of Nicaea were significant. For the first time, representatives of many of the bishops of the Church convened to agree on a doctrinal statement. Also for the first time, the Emperor played a role, by calling together the bishops under his authority, and using the power of the state to give the council's orders effect. 

The Council of Nicaea

Saturday 25 August 2018

Visigothic Kingdom of Europe - Catholic Kingdom of Toledo

Visigothic King Liuvigild, was an effective military leader and consolidated Visigothic power in Spain. Liuvigild campaigned against the Romans in the south in the 570s and he took back Cordova after another revolt. By the end of his reign, Liuvigild had united the entire Iberian peninsula, including the Suebic Kingdom which he conquered in 585 during a Suebi civil war that ensued after the death of King Miro.

Church of Santa Maria de Lara

On becoming King of Visigoths, Liuvigild's son Reccared I (586–601) converted from Arian Kingdom to Chalcedonian Christianity. He then  then oversaw the Third Council of Toledo in 589, where he announced his faith in the Nicene creed and denounced Arian. He adopted the name Flavius, the family name of the Constantinian dynasty, and styled himself as the successor to the Roman emperors.

Conversion of Reccared to Chalcedonian Christianity, painted by Muñoz Degrain.

Reccared's son Liuva II became king in 601, but was deposed by the Visigothic noble Witteric (603–610), ending the short-lived dynasty. There were various Visigothic Kings between 610 and 631, and this period saw constant regicide. These Kings also worked on religious legislature, especially King Sisebut (612–621), who passed several harsh laws against Jews and forced many Jews to convert to Christianity.

Visigothic Noble Witteric

The Fourth council of Toledo, held during the brief reign of Sisinand in 633, excommunicated and exiled the king, replacing him with Chintila (636–639). The church councils were now the most powerful institution in the Visigothic state. A coup took place and Chintila was deposed in 639, and King Tulga took his place; he was also deposed in the third year of his reign and the council elected the noble Chindasuinth as king.

Painting of Chintila in the Museo del Prado.

The reigns of Visigothic King Chindasuinth and his son Recceswinth saw the compilation of the most important Visigothic law book, the Liber Iudiciorum (completed in 654).  The code included old laws by past kings, such as Alaric II in his Breviarium Alarici, and Leovigild, but many were also new laws. The code was based almost wholly on Roman law, with some influence of Germanic law in rare cases. Among the eliminated old laws were the harsh laws against Jews.

Visigothic King Chindasuinth

Visigothic King Chindasuinth(642–653) strengthened the monarchy at the expense of the nobility, he executed some 700 nobles, forced dignitaries to swear oaths, and in the seventh council of Toledo laid down his right to excommunicate clergy who acted against the government. His successor Reccesuinth (653–672) held another council of Toledo, which reduced sentences for treason and affirmed the power of the councils to elect kings.

Detail of a votive crown from Visigothic Spain

Following Reccesuinth, King Wamba (672–680) was elected king. He had to deal with initial revolts in Tarraconensis, and because of this, he felt a need to reform the army. He passed a law declaring all dukes, counts and other military leaders, as well as bishops, had to come to the aid of the kingdom once danger became known or risk harsh punishment. Wamba was eventually deposed in a bloodless coup.

The Election of Wamba as King, by Francisco de Paula Van Halen

Visigothic King Ervig (680–687) held further church councils of Toledo and repealed the previous harsh laws of earlier King Wamba, though he still made provisions for the army. Ervig had his son-in-law Egica made king. Despite a rebellion by the bishop of Toledo, the 16th council, held in 693, denounced the bishop's revolt.

Statue of King Wamba in Madrid 

The 17th council of Toledo in 694 passed harsh laws against the Jews, citing a conspiracy, and many were enslaved, especially those who had converted from Christianity. Egica also raised his son Wittiza as coruler in 698. Not much is known about his reign, but a period of civil war quickly ensued between his sons (Achila and Ardo) and King Roderic, who had seized Toledo. The Eighteenth Council of Toledo was the last of the councils of Toledo held in Visigothic Spain before the Moorish conquest in 711.

Remains of the basilica of Reccopolis.

Sunday 29 July 2018

Kenmu Restoration Period of Japan

The Kenmu Restoration (1333–1336) is the name given to both the three-year period of Japanese history between the Kamakura period and the Muromachi period, and the political events that took place in it. The restoration was an effort made by Emperor Go-Daigo to bring the Imperial House back into power, thus restoring a civilian government after almost a century and a half of military rule.

The Mahavira Hall of Eihō-ji

The Emperor's role had been usurped by the Minamoto and Hōjō families ever since Minamoto no Yoritomo had obtained from the Emperor the title of shōgun in 1192, ruling thereafter from Kamakura. He was the first shōgun  who ruled until his death in 1199 CE.

Grave of Yoritomo in Kamakura

For various reasons, the Kamakura shogunate decided to allow two contending imperial lines—known as the Southern Court or junior line, and the Northern Court or senior line—to alternate on the throne. The method worked for several successions until a member of the Southern Court ascended to the throne as Emperor Go-Daigo.

Emperor Go-Daigo

Emperor Go-Daigo wanted to overthrow the shogunate and openly defied Kamakura by naming his own son his heir. In 1331 the shogunate exiled Go-Daigo but loyalist forces, including Kusunoki Masashige, rebelled and came to his support. They were aided by, among others, future shōgun Ashikaga Takauji, a samurai who had turned against Kamakura when dispatched to put down Go-Daigo's rebellion.

Main hall of Tōji-in temple

When Emperor Go-Daigo ascended the throne in 1318, he immediately manifested his intention to rule without interference from the military in Kamakura. The Emperor reclaimed the property of some manors his family had previously lost control of, rewarding with them, among others, Buddhist temples like Tō-ji and Daitoku-ji in the hope to obtain their support.

Daitoku-ji Temple

Emperor Go-Daigo instead of giving rewards to his minor samurai, the warrior class, gave biggest of the rewards to Nitta Yoshisada, the man who had destroyed the Kamakura shogunate, and Ashikaga Takauji. In so doing, however, he failed to return control of the provinces to civilians. Samurai anger was made worse by the fact that Go-Daigo, wanting to build a palace for himself but having no funds, levied extra taxes from the samurai class. By the end of 1335 the Emperor and the nobility had lost all support of the warrior class.

Nitta Yoshisada in an image by Kikuchi Yōsai

Go-Daigo wanted to re-establish his rule in Kamakura and the east of the country, he sent his six-year-old son Prince Norinaga to Mutsu Province and nominated him Governor-General of the Mutsu and Dewa Provinces. In an reply to this move, General Ashikaga Takauji's younger brother Tadayoshi without an order from the Emperor escorted another of his sons, eleven-year-old Nariyoshi to Kamakura, where he installed him as Governor of the Kōzuke Province with himself as a deputy and de facto ruler.

Ashikaga Tadayoshi depicted in an Edo period print

Third son of Emperor Go-Daigo's, Prince Morinaga, was appointed sei-i taishōgun together with his brother Norinaga, a move that immediately aroused General Ashikaga Takauji's hostility. Takauji believed the military class had the right to rule. Prince Morinaga, with his prestige and his devotion to the civilian government cause, was Takauji's natural enemy and could count therefore on the support of his adversaries, among them Nitta Yoshisada, whom Takauji had offended.

Prince Moriyoshi's statue at Kamakura-gū in Kamakura

Kyoto by now was aware that Takauji had assumed wide powers without an imperial permission. By late 1335 several thousand of the emperor's men were ready to go to Kamakura, while a great army at the command of Kō no Moroyasu was rushing there to help it resist the attack. On November 17, 1335, Tadayoshi issued a message in his brother's name asking all samurai to join the Ashikaga and destroy Nitta Yoshisada, a high ranking samurai.

Main Hall of Hasedera in Kamakura

The war started with most samurai convinced that General Takauji was the man they needed to have their grievances redressed, and most peasants persuaded that they had been better off under the shogunate. The campaign was therefore enormously successful for the Ashikaga, with huge numbers of samurai rushing to join the two brothers. By February 23 of the following year Nitta Yoshisada and the Emperor had lost, and Kyoto itself had fallen. On February 25, 1336, Ashikaga Takauji entered the capital and the Kenmu Restoration ended.

Minatogawa Shrine, one of the shrines dedicated to individuals and events of the Kenmu Restoration.

Wednesday 11 July 2018

House of Plantagenet - Coronation of Richard II of England

Richard I (8 September 1157 – 6 April 1199) was King of England from 1189 until his death in 1199.  He was the third of five sons of King Henry II of England and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine.  He was known as Richard Cœur de Lion or Richard the Lionheart because of his reputation as a great military leader and warrior. He also ruled as Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Poitiers, Anjou, Maine, and Nantes, and was overlord of Brittany at various times during the same period.

Ruins of Dürnstein Castle

Richard was born in England, where he spent his childhood; before becoming king, however, he lived most of his adult life in the Duchy of Aquitaine, in the southwest of France. Following his accession, he spent very little time, perhaps as little as six months, in England. Most of his life as king was spent on Crusade, in captivity, or actively defending his lands in France. He remains one of the few kings of England remembered by his epithet, rather than regnal number, and is an enduring iconic figure both in England and in France.

19th-century portrait of Richard the Lionheart by Merry-Joseph Blondel

According to Ralph of Coggeshall, Henry the Young King instigated rebellion against Henry II; he wanted to reign independently over at least part of the territory his father had promised him, and to break away from his dependence on Henry II, who controlled the purse strings. He abandoned his father and left for the French court, seeking the protection of Louis VII; his younger brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, soon followed him, while the five-year-old John remained in England.

Henry the Young King, Junior King of England

When Henry II and Louis VII made a truce on 8 September 1174, its terms specifically excluded Richard. Abandoned by Louis and wary of facing his father's army in battle, Richard went to Henry II's court at Poitiers on 23 September and begged for forgiveness, weeping and falling at the feet of Henry, who gave Richard the kiss of peace. Richard was given control of two castles in Poitou and half the income of Aquitaine. Being an accomplice in the rebellion, Eleanor remained Henry II's prisoner until his death, partly as insurance for Richard's good behaviour.

A silver denier of Richard, as count of Poitou

After the conclusion of the war, the process of pacifying the provinces that had rebelled against Henry II began. In January 1175 Richard was dispatched to Aquitaine to punish the barons who had fought for him. Richard concentrated on putting down internal revolts by the nobles of Aquitaine, especially in the territory of Gascony. The increasing cruelty of his rule led to a major revolt there in 1179. Hoping to dethrone Richard, the rebels sought the help of his brothers Henry and Geoffrey. 

Henry II of England

In 1181–1182 Richard faced a revolt over the succession to the county of Angoulême. His opponents turned to Philip II of France for support, and the fighting spread through the Limousin and Périgord. The excessive cruelty of Richard's punitive campaigns aroused even more hostility. However, with support from his father and from the Young King, Richard the Lionheart eventually succeeded in bringing the Viscount Aimar V of Limoges and Count Elie of Périgord to terms.

A 19th-century portrait of Philip II of France by Louis-Félix Amiel

In exchange for Philip's help against his father, Richard promised to concede to him his rights to both Normandy and Anjou. Richard paid homage to Philip in November 1187. With news arriving of the Battle of Hattin, a crusader battle, he took the cross at Tours in the company of other French nobles. In 1188 Henry II planned to concede Aquitaine to his youngest son John. But Richard objected. Henry II bring Queen Eleanor out of prison. He sent her to Aquitaine and demanded that Richard give up his lands to his mother who would once again rule over those lands.

Battle of Hattin

In 1189, Richard attempted to take the throne of England for himself by joining Philip' of France expedition against his father. On 4 July 1189, the forces of Richard and Philip defeated Henry's army at Ballans. Henry, with John's consent, agreed to name Richard his heir apparent. Two days later Henry II died in Chinon, and Richard the Lionheart succeeded him as King of England, Duke of Normandy, and Count of Anjou. Richard I was officially invested as Duke of Normandy on 20 July 1189 and crowned king in Westminster Abbey on 3 September 1189.

Richard I being anointed during his coronation in Westminster Abbey
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