Holy Roman Empire and Feudalism

Italy around 1000, short after Otto II’s death in 983.

The distinctions between domains, benefices and allodial property remained fluid into the thirteenth century, because it was often not clear how individuals had acquired particular manors and other assets. The greater use of written documentation to record possession inevitably encouraged sharper distinctions and more coherent and exclusive concepts of personal property. Crucially, this occurred during the change from transpersonal kingship to enduring Empire. The exact nature of this process remains hotly debated.

The root problem is semantics: a wide variety of terms were used well before they were defined in legal treatises in the twelfth century. The process of definition undoubtedly changed their meaning and use, complicating the interpretation of earlier evidence. The situation for the Empire was exacerbated by the excessive romanticization of the Germanic past, which reached new heights under the Nazis. Writing in the 1930s, Theodor Mayer presented the Empire as a Personenverbandstaat, or a state formed by ties of personal allegiance. This term proved very influential, yet it rested on imposing quite narrow and often anachronistic definitions on earlier medieval terms. Mayer’s model suggested the early Empire was organized with the king as leader of free warriors bound in personal allegiance. Finally, anglophone historiography brings its own problems, because the term ‘feudalism’ has been overloaded with other anachronistic interpretations implying a conscious system. Variations were part of the reality, not aberrant discrepancies within an otherwise coherent system. Local arrangements were negotiated according to immediate needs. Renegotiation could involve exemptions and changes to the level of burdens associated with fief-holding.

Some viable generalizations can be made. Relations between monarch and fief-holders were always asymmetrical, based on reciprocity and constituting a form of vassalage that became more clearly defined as ‘feudal’ during the twelfth century. Both parties were free men until the emergence of the ministeriales as a new group of unfree vassals in the eleventh century. Throughout, relations involved questions of loyalty and trust, because they were mediated primarily through oral rather than written agreements. General rules were not fully codified until early modernity. The Carolingians and Ottonians used the term honores for both benefice and the function associated with it.

Vassalage could emerge from below as ‘commendation’ whereby a free man placed himself subordinate to a superior lord in return for ‘protection and guardianship’ (Schütz und Schirm). It could also come from being entrusted with a benefice to carry out a specific task. A sharper articulation of rights and responsibilities around the mid-twelfth century clarified this act as ‘enfeoffment’. The term ‘benefice’ was simultaneously displaced by ‘fief’ (feodum).

Vassalage always included rights for the subordinate, especially excluding ‘servile duties’ (opera servilia) like manual labour, which remained a characteristic of the unfree population. Instead, vassals were expected to serve in ‘word and deed’ (consilium et auxilium). The former encompassed constructive advice, while the latter was understood primarily as military service and was driven by the introduction of the armoured cavalryman as a distinguishing feature of Carolingian warfare. The necessary equipment exceeded the resources of most free men, requiring assets to be grouped as benefices to sustain an elite of armoured knights. Although Carolingian and Ottonian lords expected royal campaigns to secure plunder, all accepted that benefice-holding would cover most of the costs of service. This freed the king from having to pay his army. Service was not fixed, but a period of six weeks became customary. Longer campaigns, like Roman expeditions, were restricted to exceptional circumstances agreed in advance at an assembly. The distribution of rich benefices to the imperial church resulted in this providing a substantial part of most emperors’ forces: 15 bishops accompanied Otto II’s ill-fated Italian campaign in 981–2, while twelfth-century archbishops could bring up to 1,700 troops, with 200 to 400 being the average size of an episcopal contingent. Other duties could be expected, especially if these were tied to a particular benefice; for example, garrisoning castles or guarding frontier marches. Senior lords were also expected to attend the royal court, assist in passing judgements, uphold the law and provide advice. Failure to perform duties opened the culprit to charges of ‘felony’ (felonia), providing grounds for the king to escheat the fief.

Vassalage already extended to chains of three of more lords and vassals by 800. A Carolingian capitulary of 799 allowed the church to assign its property as benefices to lay subvassals to circumvent the canon law restriction on clergy serving as warriors. Longer hierarchies benefited the king by creating denser networks capable of mobilizing more men. The trend to hereditary possession was already obvious and could be deliberately granted as an inducement. For example, Charles II ‘the Bald’ allowed those accompanying his Roman expedition of 877 to bequeath their benefices to their heirs. Hereditary possession could aid the king by stabilizing arrangements and giving benefice-holders greater incentive to promote economic development.

The rituals of vassalage changed in line with the shift from benefice to fief, but always remained personal even after written codification. Homage (Latin homagium, German Huld) was the more solemn ceremony in which the vassal became the ‘man’ of his lord; hence the derivation of ‘homage’ from the Latin homo for man. Homage had to be performed in person and was often tied to land or services. Fealty (fidelitas) was an expression of personal allegiance, which could be sworn in person or by proxy. Both types involved personal oaths, which played a prominent part in medieval political culture. The vassal ‘commended’ himself by placing his hands inside those of his lord. The solemn oath accompanying this ‘joining hands’ was sworn on a holy object, such as the portable imperial cross accompanying the king on his royal progress. ‘Defiance’ meant literally renouncing fidelity. Those doing so lost entitlement to their lord’s protection and opened themselves to his punishment, including being deprived of their lands and offices.

Initially, the oath preceded investiture, which involved the lord handing the vassal an object symbolizing both the benefice and the vassal’s status in a wider hierarchy. The Ottonians introduced the practice of handing over a flag to senior lords, which ritual came to characterize duchies, margraviates, counties palatine and landgraviates collectively as ‘flag fiefs’ (Fahnenlehen). Other objects included sceptres, swords, lances, gloves and even twigs. The Salians’ problems with the papacy led investiture to precede the oath under the Staufers, while the whole process came to be considered enfeoffment.

In line with its personal character, vassalage ended in the event of Herren- und Mannfall. At the death of a lord (Herr), all vassals were required to seek renewal of service from his successor, while the death of a vassal (Mann) obliged his heirs to request a fresh enfeoffment. These requirements persisted after the Staufers formally accepted secular fiefs as hereditary. Hereditary fiefs meant that the king could not refuse to enfeoff a legitimate, able-bodied heir, but renewal was still required for the successor to exercise any rights or functions associated with the fief. Lordly families could choose one of their members as legitimate heir. This still required royal endorsement in the case of immediate imperial fiefs, creating additional opportunities for the king to intervene as arbiter of inheritance disputes.

Crown and Imperial Lands

Virtually any kind of property or right could be held as royal domains, fiefs or allodial possessions. Royal domains originally consisted of fairly extensive farmland worked largely by slave labour, as well as mills, fishponds and vast tracts of thinly populated forest reserved for hunting, notably the Dreieich Forest by Frankfurt and the Ardennes near Aachen. These possessions were not managed through centrally planned extraction. Most of the produce was perishable, bulky or both. It was difficult to transport across a kingdom that even an unencumbered rider required a month to cross. Much was consumed locally, just maintaining the producers and those who administered individual assets like palaces. Some produce might be concentrated regionally, for example to support a military campaign. However, the main purpose was to feed the royal entourage on its endless tours of the realm.

It seems likely that the Merovingian monarchy was already partially itinerant and while the Carolingians had favoured sites, they never stayed at them for long. Royal progresses were common in medieval Europe, but itinerant monarchy became a distinguishing feature of the Empire, persisting long after other European kings had largely settled down, and in stark contrast to the self-exclusion of the Chinese emperor in his Forbidden City. The ability to travel extensively distinguished the king from his lords, since he alone could freely move throughout the entire realm. Others would have to pay their way, unless they had strategically placed relations, and could find that prolonged absence weakened their local authority. The practice of royal progress continued well beyond the mid-thirteenth century, but gradually lost its significance as the formalization of elective monarchy by 1356 lessened each new king’s need to show himself to lords absent at his accession. The institutionalization of assemblies in the form of the Reichstag by the late fifteenth century also provided a convenient way to meet everyone at once, while the parallel move to territorially based imperial governance established a new focus in the capital of the imperial family’s hereditary lands.

The needs of itinerant monarchy dictated the extent and location of royal domains, which needed to be scattered to provide sustenance and accommodation along major routes and in areas of political and strategic significance. The Carolingians and Ottonians preferred travelling by river or lakes, given the lack of all-weather roads north of the Alps. Charlemagne had 25 major and 125 minor palaces sustained by 700 different royal estates. Most of these were on or close to the Rhine, Main, Danube, Saale and Elbe.

Aachen was the most important palace (palatium, Pfalz), used since the 760s as a winter residence because of its thermal springs. Other important sites included Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms, Strasbourg, Ingelheim and Frankfurt. Paderborn provided a base in Saxony, while Regensburg served the same purpose in Bavaria. Konstanz and Reichenau on an island in the same lake were key staging posts between Italy and Germany. These locations remained significant into the later Middle Ages. Subsequent royal lines added further sites around their own family properties. The Ottonians developed Magdeburg, Quedlinburg and Merseburg in the Elbe–Saale region. The Salians added Speyer near their own base on the Middle Rhine, but also Goslar in the rich mining region of the Harz in northern Germany. Chapels were already present in Carolingian palaces, but the Ottonians developed closer connections between royal residences and religious sites, favouring royal abbeys and major cathedrals.

Most palaces were unfortified, except those near frontiers. There was no standard design, but the royal apartments were in an imposing building containing a great hall and chapel, while stables, servants’ accommodation and storehouses completed the complex. Aachen became the model for Magdeburg and Goslar as the Ottonians and Salians stressed continuity with the Carolingians. The later Carolingians began fortifying palaces, and already allowed other lords to protect their own residences from the 870s, especially if these were in frontier areas or along rivers vulnerable to Viking raids. Fortifications generally consisted of wooded palisades, sometimes atop a hill (Motte). Henry IV broke tradition by embarking on extensive castle-building to assert tighter control over royal domains in the former Ottonian heartland of Saxony, which risked becoming a ‘distant’ region with the transition to Salian rule in 1024. Using new wealth and manpower from economic and demographic growth, Henry IV constructed at least eight stone castles perched on rocky crags. The most powerful was the Harzburg, built after 1067 on a high hill south-east of Goslar, only approachable along a narrow path. Unlike earlier fortifications that had been intended as refuges for the surrounding population, Henrician castles were only large enough to accommodate a royal garrison intended to dominate the surrounding area.

The Carolingians had already created a special jurisdiction called a Burgwerk surrounding fortifications, which allowed the commandant to draw the resources and labour required to construct and maintain defences. Similar rights were attached to palaces, but were also granted to bishops and abbots so they had the means to develop their churches. Henrician castles were held by the unfree vassals known as ministeriales. By the thirteenth century, castle commanders were called ‘castellans’ (Burgmänner) and were usually endowed with a fief sustaining themselves and their garrison of between 30 and 50 men. These developments promoted the emergence of knights as a distinct group of vassals who were considered the lower echelon of the nobles.

The transfer of fiefs to support castellans was just part of a wider redistribution of resources under revised relationships throughout the Middle Ages. The Carolingians had already endowed monasteries and abbeys with additional royal assets, and the Ottonians extended this to enhance the ability of crown vassals to meet demands for royal service (servitium regis). The practice peaked under the Salians, who added few palaces, preferring instead to stay with abbots and bishops. The difficulties created by repeated clashes with the papacy prompted the Staufers to promote imperial cities as alternative accommodation on crown domains.

Resources were earmarked as Tafelgüter, literally ‘table properties’, supplying food and other consumables to sustain the royal court when it stayed in the associated palace, abbey or city. A rare surviving list from 968 records just one day’s requirements: 1,000 pigs and sheep, 8 oxen, 10 barrels of wine, 1,000 bushels of grain, plus chickens, fish, eggs and vegetables. Information from the better-documented Staufer era indicates that an army of 4,800 troops needed 8,400 baggage attendants, 19,000 horses, mules and oxen pulling 500 wagons, together consuming 2.4 tons of food and 57 tons of fodder daily.

The royal prerogatives included the right to fodrum regis, obliging communities to supply fodder, and to Gistum (hospitality). Various other rights existed, though their terms are not always clear. Fodrum regis retained its original meaning north of the Alps, but by the late Middle Ages meant accommodating the king in Italy where a separate term (albergaria) emerged by the eleventh century to denote obligations to house royal servants and troops. Non-material services could also be required, as indicated by Henry V’s charter removing legal and fiscal obligations from Speyer’s inhabitants in 1111 in return for their performance of an annual mass to commemorate his father buried in the cathedral. Royal service was commuted into cash in Italy during the eleventh century in a process that had become general across the Empire by the thirteenth century. As we shall see, however, indirect control of the Empire through vassalage remained the most important means of governance into early modernity, while the role of royal domains was taken by more extensive hereditary possessions directly held by the ruling dynasty.


Csókakő Castle

Csókakő Castle – an artistic rendering as it looked during the late Middle Ages (Credit: Ferenc Tamas)

Towering above its surroundings, a fortress perched high above a village has a timeless appeal. It is a magnet to the eyes, allowing the imagination to wander back in time to the Middle Ages when chivalry and honor were seemingly all that mattered. It is as though warriors are still perched on the heights above, behind formidable walls, ready to defend to the death their lonely outpost. For the enemy, these same walls would have looked impregnable. They offered an almost insurmountable obstacle, but that was nothing compared to the topography. Sloping, precipitate hillsides were as much a part of an elevated castle as were its stone walls. By the time a besieging army attempted to scale nature’s heights, they would have despaired at the near impossible task of confronting the thick, stone walls ahead and above them.

Located in the Transdanubian region of western Hungary, high above an 1,100 person strong village bearing the same name, the medieval castle of Csókakő has stood the test of time. Its location bears as much responsibility for its security as the stone walls. The castle was constructed several hundred meters above the surrounding landscape on a rocky plateau that is part of the Vertes Mountains. The hillsides were nearly vertical on three sides of the castle’s strategic location. The lone approach was from the western side, but a defensive ditch guarded that direction. Natural geological processes that unfolded over millennia created this piece of highly defensible terrain. It is little wonder that the Hungarian nobility of the Middle Ages chose such a strategic setting to safe guard their existence.

The Ottoman victory at the battle of Mohacs, 1526, not only decided the fate of Hungary but also drastically transformed the battle environment and face of the combat in the western theater. After Mohacs, the Habsburgs, who had replaced the Hungarians as the Ottoman’s principal adversary, launched a large construction campaign of renovating old fortresses and building new ones based on the latest Italian designs. This was congruent with contemporary Western European experiences and pitched battles, and short decisive wars became very rare, whereas long wars of sieges and reliefs became the norm. Süleyman conducted seven large campaigns against Hungary between 1529 and 1566. Although the borders of the empire moved further west, none of the campaigns achieved the decisive victory that would have led to the stability and security the Ottomans required. This inconclusive state of events-in which fortresses changed hands, new ones were built, and the personnel strength of fortress garrisons ever increased – continued to dominate the Ottoman northwestern frontier until the end of the seventeenth century.

Because of the formidable terrain, Csókakő castle was a mighty symbol. Constructed in the late 13th century, it became one of the main political centers for Fejér County, second only to the royal coronation site at nearby Szekesfehervar. The castle was a critical part of a series of fortifications built to guard the road between the cities of Gyor and Komarom. Despite Csókakő castle’s supposedly impregnable location it fell to the Ottoman Turks during the 16th century. This was just the beginning of a chaotic period in the castle’s history. It was the scene of numerous battles over the next 140 odd years as it changed hands multiple times. For instance, in a battle that took place in the autumn of 1601, Hungarian forces under the command of Archduke Matthias emerged victorious. Less than a year later they had lost the castle. It was not until 1687 that the fortress was cleared of all Turkish forces. At this point the region was devoid of population and the castle began an afterlife as a ruin. After resettlement of the area the Austrian Habsburg’s had little interest in rebuilding the castle. They did not want to give any possibly rebellious Hungarian subjects a fortification that one day might be captured and used against them.

The County of Fejér – coat of arms

The coat of arms is a standing, triangular shield with a blue background.

An irregular green hill can be seen at the bottom of the shield and a castle stands on it. It is built of silver bricks. A spired bastion rises on either side of the castle. A drawn-up portcullis opens in the middle of the castle wall. In the middle a red topped tower rises above the castle wall. Two smaller triangular shields are put on the upper part of the shield. A gold bunch of grapes can be seen on the left shield. A gold vine leaf is joined to the bunch of grapes from the right. A gold handled, silver bladed knife can be seen to the left of the bunch of grapes. A silver stylized bird (a daw) can be seen on a gold twig on the left shield.

A stylized castle can be seen on the coat of arms which symbolizes the castle of Csókakő. The castle is divided into an older, upper castle and a later built lower castle in reality. Heraldry prohibits the representation of the space that is why only a civil-living quarters’ tower – which rises above the castle wall – symbolizes the upper castle.

On the right-hand side of the coat of arms the so-called – floating coat of arms – represents a stylized, silver daw. The castle and the village got its name after that daw.

On the right-hand side there is also the another coat of arms agrees with the original seal mark of the village or the rubber-soled seal mark from 1903. All in all it can be said that the coat of arms of Csókakő is a so-called information coat of arms since it tells us the name, the history and the geographical position of Csókakő.

Armies of the Battle on the Ice 1242

Imposing: This form the helmet of this knight comes from illustrations of the the so-called Crusader Bible, probably originated in France around in 1245. The elaborate helmet ornament was probably not worn in combat.

Well-Equipped: Only a small part of the Teutonic infantry is so well-armed like this spearman. In addition to the heavy chain mail, he wears a helmet with a mask visor, which is increasingly replaced by the pot helmet at this time. This foot soldier has a falchion, a single-edged sword that (presumably) was used by the infantry.

Top: Hermann von Dorpat’s army consists to a large extent of warriors that were not subject to the Teutonic Order, like this rider from Dorpat (Derpt). He has a Pot helmet, and his horse is protected by a quilted blanket.

Bottom: The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Gerhard von Malberg, resided in 1242 in the Holy Land. At this time the Brothers are arguing about whether the Order itself to focus on their own state or Outremer. Gerhard wears here another plate skirt of metal plates over his chain mail, which added to it his protection. The horse protective blanket was made of chain mesh which was a novelty in the middle of the 13th century.

Top right: The “Brothers of the Knighthood of Christ of Livonia” under the name “Sword Brothers”. The name refers to his white tunic with the red sword cross.

Middle left: In 1228 to protect the Bishopric of Culm from pagans, at the initiative of the Polish Duke Konrad of Masovia, the knight-monks became the Order of the “Brothers of the Knights Service of Christ in Prussia”, in short, “Brothers of Dobrin”. Konrad created the order especially because that Teutonic knights did not want to help him in the fight against the Prussians. But only a handful of knights from the Reich put on his white coat with the red sword and star. The brothers could never bring more than 35 knights and about 165 armed men into the field. In 1235, most Dobrins joined the Teutonic Order, the rest fell a little later battle.

Bottom right: This Crusader has strapped his boots with metal cleats to help moving over ice.

Top left: Scandinavian Legacy: The Heavy Druzhina cavalry evolved descendants of Viking immigrants who had settled in the Novgorod area. Therefore their equipment shows a strong Nordic influence.

Top right: The sword still expensive weapons in the Middle Ages, the infantry of both sides mostly armed with spears and axes, like this well-equipped warrior of the Novgorod militia. Instead of wearing expensive chain mail He has a so-called Gambeson, a textile armor of several layers of fabric (or sometimes leather).

Bottom: Few soldiers of the Novgorod militia are heavily armed like this warrior, his armor shows Asian, Western and Nordic influences.

Top: Alexander Nevskii’s army had only a small part which was cavalry. This Druzhina bodyguard clearly has oriental influences in his armour and weapons. The horses have a kind of “spikes” on their hoofs to easier negotiate ice.

Bottom right: Alexander Nevskii wears a magnificent ceremonial armor on this picture. Masked helmets are not unknown during the Middle Ages in Russia. They go back to both Nordic and, as in this case, to Asian influences. The scale armor is even more widespread than in Western Europe among the rich classes of the population.

Bottom left: Little is known about the equipment of the Novgorod militias. However, since sources always report that the onslaught of Teutonic Crusaders was stopped by a hail of arrows is assumed that bow and crossbowmen were in the Russian center.

Unable to compete with other Military Orders in Syria, the Teutonic Knights fought in Armenia instead. In 1210 nearly the whole order was killed, leaving just 20 knights. Hermann von Salza essentially refounded the order in 1226, aided by Emperor Friedrich II (‘‘Barbarossa’’). They were given lands in Sicily and eastern Europe, a transaction approved by the pope in the Golden Bull of Rimini (1223). They now wore white tunics, an honor granted over the strong objection of the rival Knights Templar. They fought in behalf of the Hungarian king in Transylvania before moving into Prussia, which the Knights in the Service of God in Prussia had failed to conquer. The first two Knights of the order settled in Prussia in 1229; the next year 20 more arrived, along with 200 sergeants. The Brethren thereafter acted as commanders and officers in larger armies of converted Prussians who served them as auxiliaries. In battle the Knights were the Panzer tip of a crusading invasion of the pagan lands of the Baltic. They ravaged and conquered Courland and Prussia and parts of Poland and western Russia, waging ruthless campaigns against ‘‘the northern Saracens.’’ They settled in conquered lands as the new aristocracy, enserfing native populations. Their own vassalage shifted among the Empire, the king of Poland, and distant but powerless popes. The legacy of the ‘‘Drang nach Osten’’ (‘‘Drive to the East’’) of the ‘‘Sword Brethren’’ was the Christianization and enfeoffment of Prussia by force of arms and merciless war with Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and Muscovy. The northern crusades, especially the long forest-ambush campaigns of the 14th century against animist Lithuanians, were among the most ferocious of the entire Middle Ages.

The military tools of the Brethren were advanced and powerful crossbows, mailed heavy cavalry, stone watchtowers and fortress fastnesses, huge torsion artillery (catapults and counterpoise trebuchets), and cogs that could carry 500 troops, which gave them mobile striking power along the Baltic coast. Their early opponents had almost none of these weapons. When Knights charged native infantry (‘‘Pruzzes’’) armed only with bows and axes, the panic and slaughter was terrible. The Brethren united with the Livonian Order, also comprised of German knights, from 1237 to 1525. To their new Ordensstaat (1238), the Sword Brothers brought German and Dutch colonists and peasants to secure the land, completing the most successful and brutal military colonization of the Middle Ages. Baltic cities within the Ordensstaat were permitted to join the Hanse, as did the Hochmeister.


On April 5, 1242. Alexander, intending to fight in a place of his own choosing, retreated in an attempt to draw the often over-confident Crusaders onto the frozen lake. Estimates on the number of troops in the opposing armies vary widely among scholars. A more conservative estimation has it that the crusader forces likely numbered around 2,600, including 800 Danish and German knights, 100 Teutonic knights, 300 Danes, 400 Germans and 1,000 Estonian infantry. The Russians fielded around 5,000 men: Alexander and his brother Andrei’s bodyguards (druzhina), totalling around 1,000, plus 2000 militia of Novgorod, 1400 Finno-Ugrian tribesman and 600 horse archers.

The Druzhina

The druzhina was the personal warrior retinue of a prince, similar in concept to the old Scandinavian hird; it has been calculated by modem Russian historians that by the late-12th century there were probably about 100 princes maintaining worthwhile retinues of this sort. As early as the 10th century some of the most powerful druzhina members also bad such retinues of their own, which they led in wartime under their prince’s banner, and by the close of the Kievan era, with so many minor ‘principalities’ in existence- some comprising no more than a village and a few acres of land- the retinues of many of the greater nobles (called boyars by the 11th century) were probably larger than those of some petty princes. Church dignitaries too often maintained their own substantial retinues. In exchange for their service members of the druzhinas were granted estates called pomestiia free of all obligations. This meant that if such a warrior should wish to leave the service of his prince or boyar he did not lose his land as a consequence, it becoming instead pan of the territory of whichever new prince or lord to whom he transferred his allegiance. These estates were therefore allodial rather than feudal.

The druzhina was divided into senior and junior retainers, the senior echelon comprising the boyars and state officers (usually one and the same).The juniors, comprising the grid, could be promoted to senior grade either when they had established their own retinues with which to serve the prince, or upon coming of age. However, by the second half of the 12th century the boyars, their power steadily growing, made personal appearances in the druzhina less and less often so that the princes instead came to rely more and more on those retainers who had in the past constituted the grid.

The Polk

The polk was a city militia supplied by a levy of every able-bodied freeman. It could only be called out by the Veche or city council, over which the prince had little or no authority, so that sometimes it failed to muster when needed or else disbanded before a campaign was complete. Politically as well as militarily each city constituted a risiach or 1,000-strong regiment under the command of an elected officer called a tysiatskyor ‘commander of 1,000’. This was divided into sotnias (‘hundreds’) under a sotsky for each ward of the city, which were in tum subdivided into ulitzi or ‘streets’ each under an ulitsky, probably the same as the desiatniky, ‘commander of 10’. However, since by the 12th century the largest of the cities could each raise militias of 3-5,000 men (including the contingents of surrounding districts and probably smaller dependent towns), the tisiach must be assumed to be an elite unit, but the balance of the levy was organised on the same decimal basis. In addition the smerdy, ie, land-holding upper-class peasants of the surrounding rural districts, were also called up to supplement the limited manpower of the cities, particularly in Novgorod, though they were poorly equipped, inexperienced and generally of low quality (‘simple villagers, unaccustomed to battle’ is how one prince described them in 1216); often, however, the rural districts supplied only horses and provisions, the towns and cities supplying the men. Militia service was performed principally on foot. However, most cities also financed very small detachments of cavalry under bagaturs (freelance professional soldiers of noble descent), usually comprising upper-class peasants and some impoverished boyars. They were employed mainly in the role of scouts.

The militias of the principality of Vladimir and its successors were the greatest in Russia during this period, with more towns and larger populations. The republican city of Novgorod, on the other hand, probably had the smallest pro-rata militia potential, and it was probably to help offset this that the Veche there appears to have maintained its own druzhina, the gridba.


Throughout this era considerable use was made of Turkic auxiliaries, often referred to by the Russians as svoi poganye, ‘our own pagans’, so as to differentiate them from the ‘Wild’ Turks of the steppes (though these too could be, and often were, employed during Russia’s endemic civil wars). These nomad mercenaries are also often referred to as Kazzaks or Kazaks, plausibly the same name as was applied to the later Cossacks; it loosely translates as nomad vagabond’ or ‘freebooter’. It has also been suggested that the term derives ultimately from ‘Khazar’.

Vladimir Monomakh, Prince of Kiev 1113-25, was to be first to hire large numbers of Turks since his grandfather St Vladimir’s day (973-1015), employing them extensively against the Cumans (who were called Polovtsy by the Russians) in the late-11th century when he was prince of Pereyaslavl. These seem to have been mainly Turks, Pechenegs and Berendei (Brodniki), many of whom were permanently settled in South Russia, particularly in Pereyaslavl and Cherginov. Following Vladimir’s victories over the Cumans in the first quarter of the 12th century most of the remaining Turk and Pecheneg tribes acknowledged the suzerainty of Kiev. (The Pechenegs are sometimes referred to in 12th and 13th century Russian sources as Kibitki, literally ‘heavy chariots’, a reference to their characteristic wagons). We also hear of Kaypichi, Kovuye and Turpeye tribesmen, who collectively became the Chernyeklobuki (in Turkish Karakalpaks, or ‘Black Caps’, first recorded in 1146), settled as frontier guards along the greater part of Kiev’s eastern frontier. The character of such Turkic allies inevitably underwent gradual change as they became more settled, inter-married and were supplemented by Russians, until eventually many became absorbed into the indigenous Russian population. Such, at least, appears to have been the fate of the ‘Irregulars’ introduced into Suzdal in the mid-12th century by Yuri Dolgoruki.

Some Cumans, though at first probably not many, were also allied to and settled in Russia, and it was the Cumans who supplied the bulk of Kiev’s Turkic mercenaries at the time of the first Mongol attack in 1223, though these were ‘Wild’ Turks rather than settled allies. The Cumans and Karakalpaks alike were smashed along with the Russians in the Mongol invasions (though interestingly as Late as 1325 there is record of a Cuman tribe called by the name Black Caps. The Pechenegs similarly make their final appearance in history in the 13th century as a minor Cuman horde.) The Cumans, in fact, were so heavily defeated in the invasion of 1223 that their control of the South Russian steppes was brought to an abrupt and bloody end; their demise as a major Central Asian power was underlined by a further- and final- defeat at the hands of the Mongols in 1239.

In addition to Turks we also read of Hungarian, Polish and German troops employed by or allied to various principalities. From the mid-12th century some cities also began to employ Lithuanian tribesmen under their own boyars, usually in bands of some 3-800 men at a time, though sometimes two or three boyars would join together and hire themselves out as a larger force of up to 2,000 men.


Knights of Christ by Jan van Eyck

So much for the ideals of chivalry. It is now time to come to the difficult question of their influence on the conduct of the war. Exponents of chivalric theory saw warfare as a series of equal engagements conducted in such a manner as to test and show the prowess of the individual knightly participants. As late as the sixteenth century it was normal to propose the settlement of wars by individual combat. Such schemes were never effective, although the elaborate plan to resolve the Sicilian dispute by a personal combat at Bordeaux between Charles of Anjou and Peter III of Aragon (1283) was not entirely insincere and came somewhere near to fruition. Similar proposals were sometimes made for contests between small teams representative of the two sides; thus marshal Boucicaut suggested during the siege of al-Mahdiya (1390) a combat of one, or 10, or 20, or 40 representatives of the king of Tunis and of the crusaders, who were to advance on each other from the two sides of a closed field. This view of warfare also entailed the elimination of any form of unjust advantage which might vitiate the verdict of battle as a test of military prowess. It was by some considered unfair to set ambushes or even to make use of side-roads in campaigning. A head-on clash was the most impartial trial, and during the English siege of Calais (1346–7) William of Hainault suggested that a truce should take effect for three days while a bridge was built which would conveniently enable the English and French armies to meet in battle.

The chivalric virtue of ‘courtesy’ implied kind treatment of knightly prisoners of war, and the well-known passage in which Froissart describes the Black Prince’s generosity towards the French nobles after Poitiers shows that this could be effective in practice:

That evening the prince of Wales gave a supper in his lodging to the French king, his son Philip, and the most part of the counts and barons that were prisoners. The prince seated king John, the lord James of Bourbon, the lord John d’Artois, the count of Tancarville, the count of Étampes, the count of Dammartin, the count of Joinville and the lord of Parthenay, at one high table … and other lords, knights, and squires, at other tables; and the prince always served the king … very humbly, and would not sit at the king’s table, although he requested him: he said he was not qualified to sit at the table with so great a prince as the king was. Then he said to the king: ‘Sir, for God’s sake, make no bad cheer, though your will was not accomplished this day; for, Sir, the king my father will certainly bestow on you as much honour and friendship as he can, and will agree with you so reasonably, that you shall ever after be friends. And, Sir, I think you ought to rejoice, though the battle be not as you wish, for you have this day gained the high renown of prowess, and have surpassed all others on your side, in valour. Sir, I say this not to mock you, for all our party, who saw every man’s deeds, agree in this, and give you the palm and chaplet.’

Therewith the Frenchmen whispered among themselves, that the prince had spoken nobly, and that most probably he would prove a noble man, if God preserved his life, to persevere in such good fortune.

The Black Prince’s courtesy was of course assisted by his fluency in French, which remained the first language of the English court, and was in a sense the international language of chivalry. Moreover, this generous treatment of fellow aristocrats in the hour of victory should not be taken as a typical occasion. The Black Prince and the English nobles would naturally have felt generous after gaining a decisive victory which put the French kingdom at their mercy and promised to win fortunes for many of them in ransom money; yet the very fact that many went to war to seek financial gain rather than glory was incompatible with chivalric ideals. Treatment of the non-noble classes was quite another matter. The Black Prince himself was responsible for the sack of Limoges in 1370, when the city was burnt and more than 3,000 of its people put to death. Infantry taken in battle were entitled to none of the consideration granted to the nobility and no ransom could be expected for them; they were often slaughtered rather than being suffered to become a burden on the victor’s food resources.

In so far as it affected warfare, then, the chivalrous outlook detracted from the efficient conduct of war; its emphasis was on the manner of accomplishment rather than the thing accomplished, on glory rather than ‘results’. To be chivalrous was to be unbusiness-like in the matter of achieving victory, and thus to be handicapped. We have seen that the French met defeat in the three great actions of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt at least in part because they employed the conventional chivalric mode of attack, the cavalry charge, against armies whose strength lay in a non-noble weapon, the longbow. Does it follow from this that the English won their victories because they were more sceptical of the noble mirage of chivalry and, specifically, were less inhibited by chivalric notions of warfare?

Certainly the English were unashamed to proclaim the unaristocratic longbow as their characteristic weapon. By Edward I’s Statute of Winchester (1285) it became an obligatory weapon for English foot-soldiers and Edward III made compulsory the holding of archery contests on holidays. The great folk hero of later medieval England, Robin Hood, was a renowned archer with the longbow, a man who could ‘slice the wand’ again and again from a range of many hundred yards:

I was com[p]ted the best archere

That was in mery Englonde.

If the English archery and tactical combination of archers with other arms suggest a professional approach to war which contrasts with French dilettantism, the explanation of this must be sought in the constant wars of the English with their Celtic neighbours, from whom, indeed, the use of the longbow had been learnt. Frequent campaigning in difficult terrain against the Welsh and Scots compelled the English to give much thought to strategy, tactics, weapons and the other problems of war; the consequences of military conservatism for them would have been expensive and humiliating and there was constant need for inventiveness. Throughout the 80 years of war the English had their eyes on the serious proposition of gaining the French kingdom rather than the pageantry of chivalric pomp: it is symbolic of this that Henry V, when he married Princess Catherine in June 1420, refused to hold any tournament but instead hurried off his knights to besiege Sens.

The French had indeed had opportunities to learn the dangers involved in launching knights against well-disciplined infantry—as witness their defeat by the Flemish in 1302 at Courtrai—but the lesson had not been learnt. In all the three major engagements the French cavalry was unleashed in a courageous but rash charge, and such tactics were not confined to their wars with the English. It was the French and Burgundian element which insisted on a headlong assault against the Turks at Nicopolis in 1396, despite the warnings of the king of Hungary who was accustomed to warfare against the Ottomans and refused to commit his own troops to mass suicide. Du Guesclin was able to show that successes could be won if only battle was not made the occasion of an undisciplined display of valour, but in opposition to him was a strong and respected tradition which reasserted itself at Agincourt. Such a tradition is exemplified by the reported refusal of the French to accept the services at Agincourt of 6,000 archers offered by the city of Paris: ‘what need have we of these shop-keepers?’ they proudly enquired, and it was suggested that the principles of knightly honour would be contravened if the French army thus came to outnumber the English. It is not altogether just to adopt Froissart, who was a native of Valenciennes in Hainault and spent several years at the English court, as the characteristic representative of the French chivalric attitude to war, yet nowhere outside his pages are these campaigns depicted in such chivalrous colours as a series of knightly deeds in which the nobles of the contending sides were joined by a common devotion to valorous and ‘courteous’ enterprise. For Froissart, who set out to describe feats of arms and wondrous deeds as an encouragement to valour, the bowmen who actually won the decisive battles were an insignificant rabble of boors. Yet Froissart’s stupid snobbery must not blind one to the nobler side of chivalry, the side that is seen in king Jean’s decision to return voluntarily to imprisonment in England when his hostage absconded.

A difficult question remains to be answered. Should the French reliance on cavalry and preference for bravery over tactics be ascribed to mere military conservatism, or is this anachronistic emphasis on the aristocratic arm symptomatic of a more profound difference between the two countries? Did the French suffer merely from bad generalship or was their exaggerated respect for the horse-soldier and contempt for the infantryman indicative of a more hierarchical society? Certainly the English governing class was more content to recruit assistance in war from the lower ranks, and co-operation in war would in turn tend to foster a stronger feeling of community. It may well be that for England, like Switzerland, an unusual reliance on infantry had consequences for social and political structure (more developed representative institutions, greater potential for revolt) that were not present in France. But if the question of differences in social structure is answerable, it is certainly not through sources such as those that have been under discussion. Froissart, and others mentioned here, give the chivalric, aristocratic viewpoint, mostly in literary form. The social realities cannot be measured in this way. Even military realities are more complex. The persistent myth that the three famous English victories demonstrated the superiority of longbow infantry over cavalry may be congenial to a particular brand of English national sentiment, but it is an oversimplification. For one thing, as has been seen, position and timing played even more determinant roles in the battles than weaponry. For another, the English archers, too, ‘remained firmly grounded in a military context that was dominated by horseback-riding aristocrats’. Chivalric accounts, with their natural interest in glamourising the role of cavalry, do not tell us much about the close co-operation between mounted and foot soldiery that is in evidence on both sides and over a long period. Finally the subsequent history of warfare should make us wary of exaggerating the significance of these battles. The appearance of the longbow was quickly met by better protective armour and more flexible tactics, and the role of the cavalry as shock troops capable of breaking formations persisted long into the era of gunpowder. The French military revival of the mid-fifteenth century, is a reminder of how rapidly the balance of fortunes could change.

A case could be made for the statement that the war was embarked on in a spirit of chivalry on both sides and that this view of warfare prevailed for a whole generation—until the Peace of Brétigny or perhaps the death of Edward III (1377) —to perish thereafter except in its disastrous revival by the French at Agincourt. King Edward, the founder of the Order of the Garter, was the very soul of chivalry and would have been puzzled at the argument that the English waged war less chivalrously because they relied to a greater extent on archery. For Froissart the great days of knightly feats of arms ended with this phase of the war, and when he returned to England in 1395 he found that there were Englishmen who shared his point of view and asked:

What has become of the great ventures [entreprises], the valiant men, the fine battles and the fine conquests? Where are the knights of England now, to accomplish such things? In those days the English were feared, and spoken of everywhere. Since good King Edward’s death things have gone from bad to worse … and now King Richard of Bordeaux only seeks rest and pleasures.

It must be remembered, of course, that the sentimental Froissart was then an elderly man who would easily fall prey to nostalgia.

By the time that Richard II ruled England (1377–99) the French had begun to reflect on the causes of their defeats. Honoré Bouvet’s Arbre des Batailles (issued in 1387) is a practical handbook on war, not a treatise on chivalry and honour; it advocates defensive tactics in battle and suggests that the French should make more use of their peasantry, who are accustomed to a rigorous life. By the middle of the following century such views were commonplace, and similar warnings against indisciplined impetuosity and advice in favour of reliance on infantry and defensive warfare are to be found in Jean Juvénal des Ursins’ ‘Remonstrances’ (1453) and Jean de Buell’s Le Juvencel. The latter work (c.1466) went directly against chivalric doctrine by forbidding any form of fraternisation with the enemy: the author makes his hero reject a suggestion from the enemy commander that 12 knights from each side should pick out a convenient and impartial site for battle, on the ground that ‘there is a common saying, and it is thought to be a very old one, that one should never do anything on the enemy’s initiative’.

In the 1370s an anonymous author presented to Charles V of France a weighty book of advice in the form of a dialogue entitled Somnium Viridarii or Dream in the Pleasuregarden (better known under its French title as Le songe du vergier, quiparle de la disputacion du clerc et du chevalier). The cleric who is a participant in this dialogue remarks sarcastically that ‘The knights of our day have foot-battles and cavalry engagements painted on the walls of their rooms, so that through their eyes they may take delight in imaginary battles, which they would not dare to witness as members of an army, or even to be present at in person’. This suggestion that there was now a strong vicarious element in chivalry, that its reality was a thing of the past, contains much truth. Every such ideal must look back to a golden past that can never have existed in reality, but it is particularly true of chivalry that the less of it there was the more it was talked about and the more strenuous were the attempts to revive it. Characteristic of this late, formalised, self-conscious chivalry is the highly organised and pedantic pageantry of heraldry, with its learned glorification of noble descent, and such chivalric foundations as Edward III’s Order of the Garter (c.1348) and Philip the Good of Burgundy’s Order of the Golden Fleece (1430). The Golden Fleece was inaugurated by Duke Philip

from the great love we bear to the noble order of chivalry, whose honour and prosperity are our only concern, to the end that the true Catholic Faith, the Faith of Holy Church, our Mother, as well as the peace and welfare of the realm may be defended, preserved and maintained to the glory and praise of Almighty God our Creator and Saviour, in honour of His glorious Mother, the Virgin Mary, and of our Lord, St Andrew, Apostle and Martyr, and for the furtherance of virtue and good manners.

Membership of this order was restricted to 24 (later 30) noble knights. Four officers and a chancellor, secretary and treasurer served under the master and sovereign, who was always the reigning duke. Naturally France was most prolific of these orders. Among the French foundations may be mentioned King Jean’s Order of the Star (1352), whose 300 members took an oath never to flee in battie (and which ceased to exist after only one year when more than a quarter of the knights were killed in a single engagement), and Boucicaut’s Order of the White Lady, founded in 1398 for the defence of ladies and maidens in distress.

William Caxton, in the epilogue to his translation of Lull’s Order of Chivalry, expressed his conviction that chivalry was decadent in his day:

O ye Knights of England, where is the custom and usage of noble chivalry that was used in those days? What do ye now but go to the baths and play at dice? And some not well advised, use not honest and good rule, against all order of knighthood. Leave this, leave it! and read the noble volumes of Saint Graal, of Launcelot, of Galahad, of Tristram, of Perseforest, of Perceval, of Gawain, and many more. There shall ye see manhood, courtesy, and gendeness. And look in latter days at the noble acts since the Conquest, as in King Richard’s days Coeur de Lion, Edward the First and Third and his noble sons, Sir Robert Knolles, Sir John Hawkwood, Sir John Chandos and Sir Walter Manny; read Froissart, and also behold that victorious and noble King Harry the Fifth and the captains under him, his noble brethren, the Earls of Salisbury, Montagu, and many others whose names shine gloriously by their virtuous noblesse and acts that they did in the honour of the order of chivalry. Alas! What do ye but sleep and take ease, and are all disordered from chivalry?

Not all Caxton’s heroes, it will be noted, came from the distant past. It has already been suggested that attempts were made in their own lifetime to raise on to a chivalric pedestal such figures as marshal Boucicaut (1366–1421) and Jacques de Lalaing (1421–53), the latter of whom was denied a knightly end in that he was killed by a cannon ball. In the following century the same treatment was accorded to Bayard, the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche who met his death from arquebus fire in Lombardy in 1524. In Bayard’s day the emperor Maximilian strove hard to revive chivalry, writing a verse autobiography (1517) in which his adventures in the tourney and chase were recounted in the tradition of chivalrous literature, and assisting in the preparation of Der Weiszönig, a similar work on his father Frederick III and himself. Throughout the sixteenth century, jousting, though it had lost much of its utility as a form of military training, remained the aristocradc sportpar excellence. King Henry II of France was killed jousting in 1559 and in the half century after this the English court fêted its queen in the annual accession-day tilts.

The brief account given here of the splendours and miseries of chivalric warfare has no claim to constitute a description of the phenomenon ‘Chivalry’. Almost nothing has been said of chivalry and ‘courtoisie’ as literary genres—or one should perhaps say as a literary Zeitgeist witnessing to a Zeitgeist general among the classes of society who read or were read to. Th e Adventures of Don Quixote, that ‘light and mir ror of all knightly chivalry’ (1604–14), bears witness to the fact that the valour of knights and their ‘courtesy’ to ladies remained the favourite topic of Europe’s fiction readers long after the armoured knight had ceased to be the characteristic figure of the battlefield. Don Quixote, it will be remembered, ‘filled his mind with all that he read in his books, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, torments and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that to his mind no history in the world was more authentic’. And so it came about that Don Quixote repaired his ancestor’s rusty armour and fitted it with a pasteboard visor because ‘he thought it fit and proper, both in order to increase his renown and to serve the state, to turn knight errant and travel through the world with horse and armour in search of adventures, following in every way the practice of the knights errant he had read of, redressing all manner of wrongs and exposing himself to changes and dangers, by the overcoming of which he might win eternal honour and renown’.

Don Quixate is not merely a satire on chivalry but also the great prose poem of the sunset of chivalry. In Elizabeth I’s England, Cervantes’ contemporary Edmund Spenser was writing in his Faerie Queen of another ‘gentle knight’, ‘for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt’. As in architecture there was no clear break between the last of ‘true’ Gothic and the beginning of the Gothic revival, so in literature there was no interruption between this prolongation of medieval romance and the Romantic revival of medieval taste as witnessed in the ballad collections of Bishop Percy and J. G. Herder and the European popularity of Macpherson’s Ossian and Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Even today international law enshrines the chivalric notion of warfare in the clauses of the Geneva Convention which govern the treatment of prisoners of war. The terms of these provide that ‘other ranks’ who are captured may be forced to work for the imprisoning power, but it is illegal to compel officers to work; they are the heirs of the nobles who dined with the Black Prince after Poitiers.

Merovingian Gaul and Germany, 500-751

Merovingian nobleman, V – VII century

6th or 7th century Merovingian

In 589 a group of the leading aristocrats of the kingdom of the Frankish king Childebert II (575-96), led by Duke Rauching, plotted Childebert’s assassination. They had long been opposed to Childebert’s mother Queen Brunhild (d. 613) and her supporters, and, even though Childebert was now an adult (he was probably nineteen), Brunhild was gaining in authority. But they were found out. Rauching, who may have had royal ambitions, was killed at once on Childebert’s orders at the king’s palace (probably at Reims), and his huge wealth was confiscated. His closest supporters, Ursio and Berthefried, had already mobilized an army, and they fled to a hill-top church in the wooded Woëvre region above Verdun, which overlooked Ursio’s estate-centre, and which had been a fortification in pre-Roman times. The king’s army besieged the church and Ursio was killed; Berthefried fled to Verdun cathedral, where he sought sanctuary, but he was killed there anyway, to the great distress of the local bishop.

This narrative, like almost all our evidence from sixth-century Gaul, is known to us because of the extensive writings of Gregory, bishop of Tours. Gregory, an active political bishop of Roman senatorial background, had been appointed in 573 by Brunhild and her husband Sigibert I (561-75), and there is no doubt of his support for the queen’s party. He detested Rauching for his sadism, and he retells the deaths of the conspirators with verve: Rauching tripped at the door of the king’s private room and cut about the head with swords, his naked body then thrown out of the window, Ursio overwhelmed by his enemies outside the church, Berthefried hit by tiles from the partly dismantled cathedral roof. Gregory’s partisanship goes with his narrative gifts to make him one of the most interesting and illuminating authors in this book, but we cannot avoid seeing sixth-century Gaul pretty much exclusively through his eyes. It is over-optimistic to take him on trust, and, in the last decade or so, the careful literary structuring of Gregory’s work has become widely accepted. But as we saw in Chapter 1, even if we do not believe everything he says, the density of his descriptions allows us to learn from the assumptions he makes. Whatever the accuracy of his account of this conspiracy, we can at least conclude that it was plausible to picture certain things: that a royal court could be riven by factions; that queen-mothers could have considerable political power (note that Gregory ascribes no political protagonism to Childebert’s wife Faileuba); that major aristocrats could be very rich, and could have what amounted to private armies, but that their political ambition was concentrated on royal courts; that such men did not base themselves on private fortifications, unlike in the world of castles of the central Middle Ages – for Ursio’s last stand was notably makeshift in Gregory’s account; and that people might expect sanctuary to be respected, even if this did not always happen. All these conclusions are amply borne out slightly later, by sources from seventh-century Francia; they made up some of the basic parameters of Merovingian political practice. This conspiracy was traditionally read by historians as a deliberate attempt to limit royal power; there is no evidence for that. But the image of the Merovingian political world as one in which kings consistently faced over-mighty subjects who had both character and resources would not be a false one. These points will be developed in this chapter. I shall give a political narrative first, and then set out some of the basic structures and patterns of political action of the Merovingian period as a whole.

The Merovingian dynasty ruled the Franks for two hundred and fifty years until 751; its hegemony was the work of Clovis (481-511). Clovis, son of a late Roman warlord and Frankish king based at Tournai, Childeric I, conquered the rival Frankish kings who had occupied separate sections of northern Gaul, and the surviving non-Frankish warlords of the north; he also established hegemony over the Alemans in the upper Rhine valley, and, as we saw in Chapter 4, in 507 conquered Visigothic Aquitaine as well. Clovis thus reunited three-quarters of Gaul after the confusions of the fifth century. He also converted to Catholicism, the first major ‘barbarian’ king to do so (perhaps after a brief period as an Arian), and his example, given his military success, would mark future choices in the other Romano-Germanic kingdoms too. By 550 or so, Frankish rule was fully established in the Burgundian kingdom and over the south German tribes who were crystallizing as the Bavarians; a looser Frankish hegemony was recognized in northern Italy, in central Germany, east to Thuringia, in Brittany (the only part of Gaul never fully conquered by the Franks), and maybe even in Kent. The core Frankish lands were always in the north of Gaul, and the major royal centres stretched from Paris and Orléans, through Reims and Metz, to Cologne: these were not exactly capitals in an administrative sense, but they were places where kings could frequently be found, and around which they moved their courts and administrators, from palace to palace, along the Oise valley near Paris or the Moselle near Metz. The kings seldom went to the south of Gaul; from these northern ‘royal landscapes’, the richer and more Roman south was ruled through networks of dukes, counts and bishops. Frankish hegemony east of the Rhine is less well documented, and was certainly less tight: the dukes of Bavaria and Thuringia usually had considerable freedom of action. But it existed nonetheless, and for a century the kings saw their eastern border as roughly that between modern Germany and the Czech Republic. The Merovingian Franks were thus both the people who created the political centrality of the Paris to Cologne region for the first time, a centrality it has never lost since, and the first people to rule on both sides of the Rhine frontier of the Roman empire. East of the Rhine was a simpler society, and it lacked the basic Roman infrastructure of roads and cities, or Latin as a language, but slowly, between 500 and 800, some of the contrasts between Gaul and Germany receded, and briefly, in the Carolingian period, they would have similar histories.

Clovis put his own family, called by 640 at the latest the Merovingians after his shadowy grandfather Merovech, firmly into the centre of politics: after 530 or so no one is documented claiming the Frankish kingship who did not also claim Merovingian parentage, until the Carolingian coup in 751. It is worth stressing how unusual this was: the Gothic and Lombard kingdoms never had dynasties that lasted more than three or four generations (usually less); only the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and, outside the Germanic world, those of the Welsh and Irish, were as committed to the legitimacy of single ruling families, and these were all tiny polities. Early on, the Merovingians associated kingship with wearing uncut hair; this became a family privilege, and hair-cutting was an at least temporary ritual of deposition. The Merovingians also saw ruling as a sufficiently family affair for the Frankish lands at the king’s death to be regularly divided between his sons; they did this first at Clovis’s death in 511, again at the death of his last surviving son Chlotar I in 561, and again at the death of Dagobert I in 639, whose father Chlotar II had reunited the kingdoms by force in 613. All in all, there were only twenty-two years of Frankish unity between 511 and 679, when the by now weakened family was reduced to a single line. The political history of the period can easily be reduced to rivalries, and perennial wars, between competing Merovingians. This would make for dull reading; what follows focuses on some of the major figures.

The half-century after Clovis was marked by fighting between his sons, but also by external conquests; this was the period in which the Franks gained serious international recognition, particularly from the eastern Roman empire, for the first time, and it must have been the period in which people in Gaul and Germany realized that Merovingian rule was there to stay. The king who best encapsulates that is Theudebert I (533-48), king of the north-eastern Frankish kingdom based on the Rhineland, which held hegemony over central and southern Germany from there. It was probably Theudebert who set up the powerful Franco-Burgundian Agilolfing family as dukes of Bavaria, to act both as the core of a developing Bavarian identity, and as a long-standing sign of Frankish overlordship; and it was certainly Theudebert who took advantage of the Gothic war in Italy and intervened there systematically, for the first time but not the last. The Constantinopolitan historian Agathias in the 560s claimed he was even planning to attack the eastern capital, that is, that he was part of a line of ‘barbarian’ invaders going back to Alaric and Attila. Theudebert’s international pretensions were also expressed by minting gold coins with his name and portrait on: these are the first ‘barbarian’ coins to claim this imperial prerogative, and the east Romans were greatly offended. It is interesting that, although Theudebert ruled the sector of the Frankish lands where civilian Roman traditions were weakest, the idiom of his rule was so often expressed in Roman terms; the stories Gregory tells about him are frequently expressed in terms of his fiscal policies – a tax remission for Clermont, an unpopular decision to tax the Franks themselves, a large loan to Verdun to kick-start the city’s commerce after a time of trouble. But the openness of the Franks to Roman traditions and imagery was there from the start; bishops wrote admonitory letters to kings from the beginning of Clovis’s reign onwards, councils of bishops were regularly held in the north of Gaul after 511, and the kings in 566 welcomed the Italian poet Venantius Fortunatus to their courts to write them all impeccably Roman praise-poems, which he did for kings, queens, aristocrats and bishops (including Gregory of Tours) for three decades.

The next generation of Merovingian kings is the best documented, for their rule forms the core of Gregory’s work. Chilperic (561-84) and his infant son Chlotar II (584-629) in the north-west, Sigibert I and his son Childebert II in the north-east (Theudebert’s former kingdom), and Guntram (561-93) in Burgundy make up an agonistic set, with Chilperic portrayed as the worst of these kings and Guntram as the best (Sigibert and Childebert, even though they were Gregory’s most direct patrons, are less clearly characterized). Gregory disliked Chilperic because he saw him as tyrannous, hostile to the church, and the fomenter of civil war; Chilperic had the smallest kingdom with the fewest external boundaries, which partly explains the fact that he fought his brothers, and he also conquered Tours and backed Gregory’s local rivals. Guntram’s virtues are, conversely, particularly stressed by Gregory after 584; he was then the only adult Merovingian king left alive, and he acted as patron to his two young nephews (the wars between them notably quietened down after a treaty in 587), alongside their queen-regent mothers, Brunhild for Childebert and Fredegund, Gregory’s other main enemy, for Chlotar. Gregory knew both kings well; his accounts of his meetings with Guntram are affectionate, but he was very formal and wary with Chilperic, who threatened him (Gregory threatened back). But what is really most striking about the kings is their similarity: they were all prone to violent anger (leading to injustice and cruelty) and equally violent repentance; they constantly sparred, taking city-territories from each other like chess pieces. And they cooperated when they had to, including against a claimant to the throne, Gundovald, who said he was Guntram’s brother and who gained quite a lot of support from aristocrats who were on the losing sides in court faction-fighting, in 583-5.

The swirl of war and faction is encapsulated in the Rauching conspiracy of 589 which we started with, and this shows us the importance of the detail of court politics. By now it is clear that the royal courts, and their ruling kings and queens, were the foci for the rivalry of powerful aristocrats, who constantly sought office, at court or as the dukes (army leaders with a regional remit) of each kingdom. Kings when adult could dominate these factions, and had no scruples about killing losers, often in unpleasant ways. Queens-regent for younger kings often had a more difficult time of it, and both Brunhild and Fredegund had periods of considerable marginality when their sons were small. They were not respected as much as kings, and when they resorted to violence to make their point they were often met not so much by fear as by resentment; every powerful queen had at least one hostile chronicler. Royal wives during their husbands’ lifetimes had less power; for one thing, Merovingian kings frequently had several wives and concubines at once, who manoeuvred for the succession of their own sons. But the importance of Merovingian legitimacy was by now so great that royal mothers were allowed a substantial political space, even when their children were grown; nor did their social origins matter (Brunhild was a princess, but a Visigoth; Fredegund was of non-aristocratic birth). Brunhild built on this after Gregory’s Histories end in 591, for she remained influential throughout Childebert’s life, and then was regent for his two young sons after his death in 596, particularly Theuderic II in Burgundy, and even, briefly, for her great-grandson in 613. If Guntram dominated politics in 584-93, Brunhild did in 593-613: on and off, perhaps, but sometimes in effective control of virtually the whole Frankish world.

By 613, the seventy-year-old Brunhild had made too many enemies, particularly in the north-eastern kingdom, now known as Austrasia, which she had just taken back by force. Chlotar II, who had hitherto been confined to relatively few city-territories in Neustria, the north-west, got an aristocratic coalition together and overthrew Brunhild. He had her torn to pieces by a horse in public, in an act clearly designed to mark a new beginning, and he and his son Dagobert I (623-39) ruled a more or less unitary kingdom for a generation. Chlotar maintained the three courts of the previous period, however, as the foci for aristocratic politics, particularly Neustria and Austrasia (Burgundy tended to go with Neustria). These courts sometimes had sub-kings (as Dagobert was in Austrasia in 623-9, before his father’s death), but they also now each had a single aristocratic leader, a maior domus, ‘leader of the household’ (‘mayor of the palace’ is the traditional English translation). Aristocratic rivalries began to concentrate on obtaining the position of maior, or else on using that position to overthrow rivals, as with the confrontation between the maior Flaochad of Burgundy and the patricius Willibad in 643, a small war in which they both died; the events were written up dramatically in Gregory’s continuator, called by modern historians Fredegar, around 660. These rivalries became sharper after 639, when Dagobert was succeeded by children, Sigibert III (632-56) in Austrasia and Clovis II (639-57) in Neustria; both of the latter were succeeded by children too. It became ever more important to be a maior under these circumstances, and there was also often a clash between the maior and the queen-regent, who remained a powerful force in this period. The classic example of this is the stand-off between Balthild, regent for her and Clovis II’s sons in 657-65, and the Neustrian maior Ebroin (659-80, with interruptions); this is well documented above all because Balthild was forced into a monastery at Chelles near Paris in 664-5, and a saint’s life was written about her. By now, in fact, saints’ lives are our major sources for high politics, for many saints were aristocratic (see below, Chapter 8); this also means that the continuing violence of politics, already stressed by Gregory, was even more emphasized by writers for moralistic purposes.

The seventh century was a turning point for Merovingian royal power: by the early eighth, real authority was in the hands of maiores, who were after 687 almost all from a single Austrasian family, the Arnulfings-Pippinids, descended from two of the major Austrasian supporters of Chlotar II, Arnulf bishop of Metz and Pippin (I) of Landen. Historians have therefore devoted considerable attention to determining when it was that the Merovingians began to lose control: was it in 639, with the death of Dagobert? Or was it earlier, or later? An older generation of historians thought that Chlotar II marked the moment of change, arguing that he gave away too much to gain aristocratic support; he does seem, indeed, to have restricted his own taxation powers substantially, as we shall see, even if it is no longer thought that he also conceded local judicial power to the aristocracy. But Chlotar and Dagobert’s centrality is by now rarely doubted, and more recent historians have gone the other way, arguing that even late seventh-century kings like Childeric II (662-75) and Childebert III (694-711) had a good deal of power, at least once they gained adulthood, and that the royal courts never lost the importance for aristocratic politics that they had unarguably had a century earlier. This may indeed have been the case, in particular for Childeric II. But royal hegemony was not as automatic as it had been. Fredegar tells us with some gusto of Chlotar II’s killing of Godin, son of the Burgundian maior Warnachar, around 626, even after Godin had been persuaded to do a pilgrimage around the holy places of Gaul to swear loyalty, and the Liber Historiae Francorum is keen to recount the death by torture of the maior Grimoald, son of Pippin of Landen, on Clovis II’s orders in 657. But when Childeric had an aristocrat called Bodilo bound and beaten in 674, small beer for an earlier king, this was regarded as illegal behaviour, and Bodilo himself apparently had the king and queen killed in 675, precipitating a major crisis.

It seems to me that the late seventh century does indeed mark a considerable diminution of a specifically royal centrality. Perhaps the turning point was less Dagobert’s death than those of his sons, for the dominance of maiores over the courts became routinized once it was clearly going to last for another generation, and renewed royal protagonism under Childeric II would be more resented. It was, anyway, after the death of Dagobert’s sons that maiores began for the first time not only to control kings but to choose them. Grimoald, as maior of Austrasia (641-57), exiled Sigibert III’s son Dagobert to Ireland, and had his own son Childebert made king instead (656-62?); Childebert was Sigibert’s adopted son, so Merovingian paternity was theoretically maintained. This odd and ill-documented affair ended badly for Grimoald, who was killed as a direct result, although Childebert somehow seems to have lasted a few years more. Later, at Childeric II’s death, Ebroin did the same, temporarily inventing a king in Austrasia to keep his hand in during that political crisis, before switching his support to the new Neustrian king Theuderic III (so says, at least, the saint’s life of his bitter enemy and victim, Leudegar bishop of Autun). Seen from this standpoint, Childeric II’s politics seem even more atypical by now. Kings still had a role as a rallying point for aristocratic factions, and their courts remained central to aristocratic political aspirations, but maiores and political bishops had become the major protagonists. Ebroin dominated his time, but he was always a controversial figure, and he did not establish a stable regime for himself. Pippin II in Austrasia was cannier; he was Grimoald’s nephew, and his family was eclipsed for two decades, but it remained very rich and influential around Liege on the Meuse, and by the late 670s he was maior in Austrasia again. In 687 the Austrasians defeated the Neustrians at the battle of Tertry, and Pippin became maior for all the Frankish lands. Pippin II lived to 714, and the civil disturbances of the thirty years after 656 ended at Tertry, although Neustria and Austrasia remained separate. That did not change until a briefer civil war, in 715-19, which pitched Pippin’s probably illegitimate son Charles (Martel) against his widow Plectrude, with Neustrian anti-Pippinids as a third force contending with them both. Charles defeated them all, and established himself as sole maior (717-41), with a firmly Austrasian base. The Neustrian court was abolished; Charles Martel became the only focus of rule, and his heirs, the Carolingians, would remain so for a long time. Charles’s victory in 719 thus changed the political scene much more completely than Pippin II did in 687, perhaps even more completely than Chlotar II had done in 613.

Another respect in which the later seventh century saw a real involution of Merovingian authority was its geographical scale. The wide hegemony of the sixth-century kings was still there under Dagobert I, who fought a war in 631-4 against Samo, a king who for a time united the Wends, Sclavenian tribes (see Chapter 20), in or around what is now the Czech Republic. Dagobert called Thuringians, Bavarians and even Lombards from Italy to fight for him there; he also legislated for the peoples east of the Rhine, and appointed bishops there too. But at his death Radulf duke of Thuringia revolted and established autonomy; and across the next generation both Bavaria and Alemannia slipped out of effective Frankish control. More striking still was Aquitaine: this was part of the core Frankish lands, and had in the sixth century been divided between the northern kings, but Dagobert in 629 briefly made his half-brother Charibert II (629-32) king of part of Aquitaine, and by the 650s it had a separate duke. In the political crisis of 675, Duke Lupus seems to have claimed royal status, and in the eighth century Duke Eudo (d. 735) was clearly an autonomous ally of Charles Martel; full-scale war was needed in the 760s to bring this large and rich region fully back into the Frankish fold. War was in fact in general needed to establish Carolingian control over the whole area of traditional Frankish hegemony in the eighth century; the peripheral principalities were keener on Merovingian legitimism than on Charles’s new political structure, and Charles found several quasi-autonomous princes even in his core lands whom he had to subdue by force, as well as, further south in Provence, the patricius Antenor and then the dux Maurontus, whom Charles fought in the 730s. Charles had a large central territory in Neustria, Austrasia and northern Burgundy which still looked to the court, and which he could draw on for the continuous border wars that marked his rule and that of his successors, but it was not until his sons took over Alemannia in 746 and then Aquitaine, and until his grandson Charlemagne took over Bavaria in 788-94, that Dagobert’s hegemony was re-established, in rather more solid form by now. This geographical retreat is a marker of the fact that the instability of the post-Dagobert generations did indeed do harm to Frankish authority.


Negoro-no Komizucha. Komizucha was a sohei, a warrior-monk, shown here in battle armed not with the samurai’s weapons, but instead with just a massive club—even so he seems to be holding his own against a fusillade of spears, swords, and arrows.


Sohei warrior monks, Japan c. 900 Some Buddhist monks in Japan chose to follow both a martial and religious lifestyle, with many devoted to the practice of Zen Buddhism. Warrior monks had a role in some of the most turbulent periods in Japanese military history, including the Gempei War in the 12th century. Some Sohei orders grew very powerful, and were able to field armies, especially during the Japanese civil wars of the 16th century.

The monks of the various Japanese Buddhist temple communities, including Nara and Mount Hiei. The term warrior monk comes from the translation of Sohei, so meaning a Buddhist priest or monk and hei meaning soldier or warrior. The monks tended to be belligerent to the point of foolhardiness and the Nara and Miidera monks were heavily suppressed after allying with the “wrong” side during the Gempei War (1180-85).

Monastic forces consisted of a hard core of trained warriors but the bulk of armies were made up of less well-trained and/or motivated members of the temple communities. Their overall effectiveness has probably been overrated under other rules systems. One well known tactic was to place their portable shrine, containing the kami (or spirit) of the temple, in front of the battle line and dare all comers to try and take it!

Armed forces known as sohei (warrior-monks) mounted a potent challenge to aristocrats and warriors throughout the feudal era. The term akuso, meaning evil monks, found in diaries of Heian period courtiers, summarizes the general view of these soldiers that represented powerful temples. While warriors and aristocrats struggled for control of feudal Japan, from the sidelines the sohei fought to unseat both of these forces and instead obtain both land and wealth for the benefit of powerful religious institutions.

The origins of the bands of warrior-monks and the language used to identify these figures can be confusing. For example, the title warrior-monk (the more common English translation of the term sohei) carries varied connotations in different periods, and sohei were not always part of the monastic order at the temples they served. Further, sohei were well armed and skilled in the use of weapons, despite Buddhist precepts prohibiting monks from engaging in such pursuits. In addition, civil codes that limited weapons possession among priests, acolytes, and other clerics had little effect on the many sohei who functioned in institutions not subject to such restrictions. Another common misconception about warrior-monks also relates to terminology. Some scholars have conflated the roles of sohei and yamabushi (mountain ascetics), since both of these religious figures dwelt in mountains and are sometimes identified in medieval sources as similar figures. Despite the apparent similarity to the word bushi, which is also used to designate samurai, the “bushi” in yamabushi is written with a different character than the “bushi” for warrior. The term yamabushi distinguishes ascetics who engaged in mountain pilgrimages and sustained meditation as part of their spiritual practice. However, many powerful temples were located on mountains, and while yamabushi also occupied such territory, they were usually benign figures devoted to solitary religious practice. At the same time, the legions of warrior-monks enlisted by religious institutions were only occasionally referred to as yamabushi in contemporary sources, simply because the temples they served were in mountainous locations.

Temples and other religious institutions were motivated to deploy units of warrior-monks to defend land acquired during the redistributions and lapses in administration practices on provincial estates that occurred in the 10th and 11th centuries. Young warriors employed by private estates as militiamen confused matters by shaving their heads and were often mistaken for sohei in practice and in historical accounts. In some cases, the warrior-monks (including those private soldiers who appeared to be monks, but often were not) became so powerful that they posed a threat to the imperial court and the shogunate. Warrior monks serving Enryakuji, Kofukuji, and Miidera, all temples located near Kyoto or the old capital, Nara, were particularly notorious.

With the burning of Enryakuji by Oda Nobunaga in 1571, the power of the sohei diminished significantly. Efforts mounted by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the weapons prohibitions instituted in the late Momoyama and early Edo periods finalized the suppression of these warriors.


During the eleventh and twelfth centuries Latin Christendom – the area that employed the Latin rite and looked to Rome for ecclesiastical and spiritual leadership – had grown phenomenally. Around 900 it had comprised little more than the Carolingian empire (present-day France, Germany and northern Italy) and the British Isles, and had been under frequent attack by non-Christian peoples from the surrounding territories, Vikings, Muslims and Hungarians. But by 1100 this defensive phase had given way to one of pronounced expansion. The slow reduction of Muslim territory in Spain was now under way. From the former Carolingian dominions, Norman knights had wrested Sicily from the Muslims, while monks and secular clerics carried the Christian faith into the territories of their Scandinavian, Slavic and Hungarian neighbours. Instrumental in the success of Latin Christians’ campaigns of conquest were the heavily-armed and mailed horseman – the knight (miles) – and the crossbow (arbalista); physically symbolic of their newly-implanted domination was the castle. The twelfth century was also an era of economic growth. Internal colonization of waste land was matched by external, as knights and settlers, both burghers and agriculturists, pushed forward into new lands beyond the frontiers of Christian rule, transporting with them to regions as far afield as the Iberian peninsula and the Baltic the legal and tenurial institutions to which they were accustomed at home. Enterprising Western merchants, notably those of Venice, Genoa and Pisa, devised new techniques of credit and investment to support commercial ventures that took them to the furthest shores of the Mediterranean.

The most spectacular instance of Latin expansion was the movement now known as the First Crusade, by which a motley force of ‘Franks’ – knights from France, the western borderlands of Germany, and Norman-ruled southern Italy – wrested from Muslim hands in 1098–9 a narrow strip of the Syrian–Palestinian coastline, including the Holy City of Jerusalem, and established a small and vulnerable network of Latin states. These newly-founded polities – the kingdom of Jerusalem, the principality of Antioch, and the counties of Edessa and Tripoli – became an integral part of the Latin world, and their fate a matter of vital concern to Christians throughout Western Europe. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the assertion of Western dominance over the Mediterranean sea-lanes by Venetians, Pisans and Genoese – and to a lesser extent by the men of other ports like Marseilles and Barcelona – served to underpin the survival of these distant Latin outposts in Syria and Palestine.

What gave some structural unity to the extensive tract that comprised Latin Christendom was above all the Latin Church, presided over by the pope. Between the Gregorian Reform of the late eleventh century and the pontificate of Innocent III (1198–1216), the prestige and influence of the papacy grew enormously. Widespread and mounting support within the ranks of the laity combined with the allegiance of the clergy, the labours of three generations of canon lawyers, and increasingly frequent recourse to letters, legates and councils, to turn papal authority into a reality that impinged alike on the ambitions of kings and on the lives of ordinary Christians. Already in the first half of the twelfth century the papal Curia was on the way to becoming the supreme juridical body in Latin Christendom. It was the nascent Reformed Papacy that had reaped the credit for the stupendous triumph of the First Crusade, launched by Pope Urban II in 1095; just over a hundred years later (1199) Innocent III registered his authority over the Church by introducing, in support of the crusade, universal taxation of ecclesiastical revenues.

An especial boost to the power of the papacy and the cohesion of Latin Christendom was the rise, around the beginning of the twelfth century, of international religious orders which looked to Rome for guidance and direction. The Cistercian monks, founded in 1098, and the Premonstratensian canons, who emerged in c.1115, were active in the settlement and exploitation of new lands in Eastern Europe; from their ranks, too, came many of the bishops who presided over the newly-founded dioceses. The military orders, of whom the earliest to emerge were the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers of St John, were warrior monks, whose primary duty was the protection and care of Christians and the defence of Christian territory. They were intimately associated with the crusading movement, and their headquarters were in the Holy Land; but gifts and bequests furnished them with property and income in virtually every part of the Latin world. The later twelfth century witnessed the appearance of other military orders, notably the Teutonic Knights (1198), who in 1226 were granted a foothold in Poland in return for defending the country against the heathen Prussians. In the early thirteenth century the mendicant orders, or friars, were founded by St Francis (d. 1226) and St Dominic (d. 1221), with the support of Innocent III. The Franciscans and Dominicans, whose members were dedicated to poverty and preaching, were well placed to spread the Gospel not merely within Latin Christendom but beyond its frontiers; in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, St Francis in person attempted to expound the Christian message to the Egyptian Sultan. Friars are also found at a relatively early date acting as agents of the papacy, and from 1234 were employed as crusade preachers. It was no accident that in 1245 the first papal emissaries to the pagan Mongols would be chosen from their ranks.

Enemies and coreligionists

Confronting expansionist Latin Christendom were two types of opponent. In northern Europe the pagan territories into which Western knights and peasants advanced belonged to polytheists – Slavs (‘Wends’) or Baltic races like the Prussians, Livonians and Estonians. The rhetoric and (such as it was) the machinery of crusade were extended to these theatres during the twelfth century. The Baltic Crusade began in earnest in 1199; and from the late 1230s the German Drang nach Osten in the Baltic was spearheaded by the Teutonic Knights. In these regions the enemy was characterized by looser forms of political organization and by a lower level of economic and technological development. By the early thirteenth century the balance was shifting, as native princes copied the methods and borrowed the weaponry of their Latin opponents. Frequently they secured their future by accepting baptism for themselves and their subjects and ranging themselves alongside their erstwhile opponents in the work of crusade and evangelism. Their admission to the family of Latin Christian rulers was accompanied by the adoption of Latin as the language of faith and government. Their policies came to mirror those practised in Christian states of longer standing, like Hungary, whose kings were enhancing their military power and potential revenues by encouraging the immigration of substantial numbers of French knights and clerics and French and German artisans.

In the south, in the Mediterranean region, Latin Christians faced an adversary of an altogether different calibre. This was the world of Islam, a faith still more uncompromising in its monotheism than was Christianity. The days of government by a universal Caliphate were long past, and its former territories, stretching from Morocco to northern India, were divided among a plethora of rulers of different dynasties and races – Arabs, Berbers, Persians, Kurds and Turks. Some of these states attained a considerable size, like the empire of the Seljük Turks, which embraced Persia, Iraq and Anatolia (Rūm) for a few decades prior to its disintegration in the early twelfth century; the branch of the dynasty that ruled Anatolia was still an important power in the early thirteenth. The fiction of a single Islamic polity was maintained. The majority of Muslim princes acknowledged the ʿAbbasid Caliph at Baghdad as the source of their authority, seeking from him diplomas that granted them the status of his lieutenants and naming him, in return, on the coinage and in the public Friday prayers. The long-established exception to this, of course, was the Shīʿa. But in fact there had been no major Shīʿī polity since 1171. Even the leaders of the Ismāʿīlī Shīʿīs who held out in the mountainous regions of northern Persia and of Syria, the so-called Assassins, abandoned their religious claims early in the thirteenth century, adopted ‘Orthodox’ (Sunnī) Islam and entered into friendly relations with the ʿAbbasids (although this was widely taken to be an example of the Ismāʿīlī practice of taqiyya, ‘dissimulation’).5 On the other hand, a significant cleavage loomed early in the thirteenth century, with the growth of tension between the caliph and the powerful rulers of Khwārazm (the Khwārazmshāhs), who had overthrown the last Seljük Sultan of Persia in 1194; and in c.1216 the quarrel peaked when the Khwārazmshāh ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Muḥammad proclaimed the deposition of the ʿAbbasids, setting up a rival caliph and mounting an abortive expedition against Baghdad.

Yet for all this the Islamic world (Dār al-Islām), unlike the northern European pagans, was still characterized by a unity which more or less paralleled that of Latin Christendom. It possessed a cultural cohesion which was reinforced by the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, bringing together Muslims from territories as diverse as Morocco, Anatolia and present-day Afghanistan. It also boasted a higher standard of economic development. No city in Western Europe could as yet compete with Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo or Baghdad in wealth; even places like Acre and Tyre, in Latin-held Palestine, which were worth considerable sums to their rulers on account of the great volume of trade that passed through them, were not comparable. Access to such wealth enabled the Muslims to inflict major reverses on the Latin cause in the Near East, as demonstrated in the overthrow of the county of Edessa in 1144 or in the decisive defeat of the Frankish army at Hattin in 1187 by Saladin (Salāh al-Dīn Yūsuf), which was followed by the loss of Jerusalem. Although the Third Crusade had secured a new lease of life for the beleaguered Latin states of Jerusalem, Antioch and Tripoli by 1192, its achievements did not include the recovery of the Holy City; and relations with Saladin’s dynasty, the Ayyubids of Egypt and Syria, were henceforward marked by a series of truces. The most notorious of these truces was that made in 1229 – in the course of a crusade which apparently did not strike a single blow against the Muslims – between the Emperor Frederick II and the Egyptian Sultan al-Kāmil. By the terms of this agreement, the city of Jerusalem (for a mere fifteen years, as it transpired) largely passed back into Frankish hands.

There was one further point of contrast between the Muslims and the pagans of northern Europe. The Muslims, who possessed their own revealed religion and sacred scriptures, proved far more impervious to Christian missionary endeavours than did the Latins’ weaker opponents in the Baltic. Muslim slaves in Latin Syria and Palestine, prisoners of war with little hope of repatriation to their own communities, might seek baptism; not so Muslim princes. From time to time rumours would spread of the imminent conversion of some Muslim ruler, perhaps one born of a Christian mother. The outcome was always disappointing, as in 1234, when the Seljük Sultan of Rūm corresponded on the subject with the Pope in the hope of Latin military assistance against his Ayyubid neighbours, or in 1239–40, when the alleged willingness of the Ayyubid prince of Hamā to embrace the rival faith occasioned great excitement in the ranks of a crusading army but proved to be merely a ploy directed against his kinsmen. Yet the Catholic hierarchy did not abandon the hope that baptism might turn enemies into allies.

To the Muslims, successive attacks by European crusaders and the stubborn resistance of the Latin settlements on the Syro-Palestinian coast represented little more than a localized malaise alongside reverses on Islam’s eastern frontier from the third decade of the twelfth century to the middle of the thirteenth. During the 1120s, a semi-nomadic people of (probably) Mongolian stock, the Khitan, in flight from northern China, established an empire in Central Asia. The new power, known as the Qara-(‘Black’) Khitan, asserted its paramountcy over several Muslim princes, and when in 1141 the Great Seljük Sultan Sanjar moved to the aid of his coreligionists he suffered a crushing defeat in Transoxiana. This was the first occasion on which a significant proportion of the Dār al-Islām (that is, discounting Sicily and parts of Spain) had passed back under the dominion of the infidel. In time the Qara-Khitan would come to seem like the harbinger of much more formidable eastern conquerors, the Mongols, who subjugated Islamic Central Asia, Persia, Iraq and Anatolia in a series of invasions from the 1220s onwards.

For Latin Christians, on the other hand, the Muslims, prior to the 1240s, were the most dangerous enemy that they had to face. Admittedly, relations between Frankish knights and Muslim lords in Syria were on occasions cordial. Muslim warriors like the Turks might command a grudging admiration; stories circulated that endowed Saladin with the characteristics of a Frankish knight. Following his crusade, the Emperor Frederick maintained friendly relations with Cairo right down to his death, addressing to the scholars at the Sultan’s court questions on mathematics and scientific subjects. But generally speaking there was little understanding of the faith of Islam – indeed its nature was greatly distorted – and no real awareness of sectarian differences among Muslims before the thirteenth century. What mattered above all was that pagans were wrong and Christians were right, as the ‘Song of Roland’ put it, and in the last analysis the most appropriate medium of dialogue was the sword. Islam’s territories might be wealthier than the lands of Christendom; its culture, steeped in the learning of Classical Antiquity, might seem superior. Yet there could be no doubt of the debased nature of the Muslims, who insulted Christ by polluting the Holy Places and persecuting His people. There was a growing conviction, moreover, that the final demise of Islam – and with it the Last Things – were close at hand. This is often associated with the labyrinthine Biblical exegesis of the Calabrian hermit Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202), which may have had no impact on wider currents of thought until the second half of the thirteenth century. But even Pope Innocent III, who did not view Joachim’s speculations with favour, appears to have endorsed the belief that Islam would collapse within a matter of decades, a conviction shared also within eastern Christian churches. And when Gregory IX issued the first bull authorizing the missionary friars to preach to pagan nations in 1235, he chose to begin with the evocative phrase Cum hora undecima (‘Since the eleventh hour …’).

During the eleventh century the very term Christianitas, which had originally denoted the Christian faith, was acquiring a new territorial significance, as ‘Christendom’ came to mean the lands occupied by Christians and the society they comprised. But its content increasingly hinged on the use of the Latin rite and the recognition of the primacy of Rome; there was less and less room for variant (or, as they would have been seen, deviant) practices, and in the peripheral regions of the Catholic world immigrant clerics refashioned indigenous Christian usage to bring it into line with the metropolitan tradition. With Christians outside Latin territory who belonged to traditions altogether different from their own, the relations of Western Christians were somewhat diverse. Those with the Greek Orthodox hierarchy were the most problematic of all. Despite the so-called ‘schism’ of 1054, the Greeks and the Latins, as distinct from the separated churches of the east, still constituted, juridically speaking, a single entity. It is therefore more accurate to speak of Latin and Greek ‘forms’ and ‘usages’ than of different churches; but, as within Western Europe, the Latin hierarchy was increasingly disposed to be impatient of such variation. Moreover, crusading activities in the Near East had served to embitter relations between Greek and Latin. In Antioch, a formerly Byzantine city that should have been restored to the emperor in 1098, the Greek patriarch was replaced by a Westerner: thereafter a succession of Greek patriarchs promulgated their claims in exile at Constantinople. On the Latin side, resentment and jealousy of the magnificence of Constantinople and suspicion of a multi-faceted imperial foreign policy combined with differences in language, creed, liturgy and practice to nurture the view of the Greeks as ‘false’ Christians, decadent, treacherous and less than wholehearted in their devotion to the war on Christ’s behalf.

As the power of the Byzantine empire atrophied from the late twelfth century onwards, Western rulers began to encroach upon its territories. In 1191, during the Third Crusade, Richard I of England wrested Cyprus from a rebel Greek governor. The island became a Latin possession, and remained so until its conquest by the Ottomans in 1571; from 1197 its Frankish ruler wore a crown which had been conferred on him by the Western Emperor. In 1204 the Fourth Crusade, diverted from its official goal, went on to sack Constantinople itself, and most of Byzantine Greece in turn passed into the hands of Latin lords and knights. Those territories not appropriated by Venice, which had played a prominent role in the crusade, recognized the nominal suzerainty of a Latin emperor at Constantinople; the region became known to the Latins as ‘Romania’. Only a rump of the once great Byzantine polity – the despotate of Epirus in the west and the empires of Nicaea and Trebizond in Anatolia – held out under Greek rulers. In time it became apparent that Nicaea was more than a match for the feeble Latin empire, though the Nicaean Emperor did not recover Constantinople until 1261. Well before that, the popes had begun to negotiate with the Nicaean government for the recognition of papal primacy.

In time, the Latins likewise encroached upon other lands that belonged to the Greek Orthodox world. In 1217 the ruler of Serbia accepted the Latin rite and Roman primacy in return for coronation by a papal legate. Just prior to the Fourth Crusade, the Vlach ruler of Bulgaria, a kingdom which had received its Christianity from Constantinople some centuries earlier, had made the same exchange. But he subsequently repudiated the union and allied with Nicaea, so that from 1238 the papacy tried to induce the Hungarian king Béla IV to lead a crusade against him. It is hard to gauge the impact of the fall of Byzantium upon the Orthodox Rus′; the account of the Fourth Crusade in the Novgorod Chronicle is remarkably free of polemic. But during the early thirteenth century Western expansionism was bringing the Rus′ into conflict with the Latins on their own account. To the south, the Hungarian kingdom intervened in the disputes among rival candidates for the principality of Galicia (Halych); in the Baltic, aggression by Swedes, Danes and Germans provoked the opposition of the rulers of Novgorod. Competition for fisheries, furs, the products of the forest, and the tribute of Finnish tribes exacerbated a growing consciousness of the same differences in rite and practice that we noticed in Latin–Byzantine relations. Russian strongpoints were seized, like Iur′ev, which under German occupation became Dorpat (1224). Rus′ resistance to the Western advance in territories of mutual interest would in time provoke the wrath of Pope Gregory IX and the authorization of a crusade against them in 1237. Even prior to this the papacy had manifested a concern to bring the Rus′ into the Catholic fold. When they were suddenly attacked and defeated by a new power in the southern steppes in 1223, Pope Honorius III appears to have hoped that the reverse would dispose them to welcome closer links with Rome.

The Greek Orthodox, of course, were only one Christian group among many in the eastern Mediterranean. Latin-ruled Syria and Palestine contained not only an Orthodox population but also large numbers of Jacobite (Monophysite) Christians. Although the situation of these eastern Christians was clearly preferable to that of the Muslim majority of the subject population, they were still in some sense second-class citizens. The Franks’ occupation of Jerusalem had also brought them into closer contact than hitherto with Christians of other churches who made the pilgrimage to the Holy City, such as the Egyptian Copts and the Ethiopians. More importantly, it had introduced them to the far-flung world of Nestorian Christianity, which was centred on Iraq and had put down roots in Central Asia, present-day Mongolia and China in the eighth century; though the West did not really become aware of the Nestorian world and its geographical extent until the time of the Fifth Crusade (1218–21).

Down to the early thirteenth century, however, the Latin hierarchy was generally content to leave to eastern Christians the task of converting their pagan neighbours. And there were breakthroughs in relations with these separated churches. The Maronite Christians of the Lebanon entered into union with Rome in 1182, and in 1198 the prince of Lesser Armenia (Cilicia), a region that had close relations with Frankish Antioch, accepted a crown from the pope and brought his people, theoretically at least, into the Roman obedience. Some Christian groups, like the Georgians and Armenians, had not been subject to Muslim government, and here a shared tradition of warfare undoubtedly helped to foster respect on the part of the Latins. Mutual esteem increased, perhaps, with distance. It was natural that the Syrian Franks should entertain harmonious relations with the remote kingdom of Georgia, which during the twelfth century was engaged in its own conspicuously successful struggle with Muslim powers in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and that popes discussed with successive Georgian monarchs their participation in the war in Syria. In 1220 Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, who was with the army of the Fifth Crusade in the Nile delta, pinned greater hope on Georgian intervention than on reinforcements from the West. To judge at least from their historical writing, the Monophysites of the Coptic Church in Egypt felt no marked affinity with the Franks who tried to conquer their country and liberate them from Muslim rule, either in the Fifth Crusade (1218–21) or in the Seventh (1249–50), headed by Louis IX of France (St Louis). But as regards other eastern Christians the prospects seemed more promising. In 1237 Philip, Dominican prior of the Holy Land, reported enthusiastically to Pope Gregory IX that the Jacobite patriarch and the head of the Nestorian communities, the catholicus, were ready to repudiate past errors and acknowledge papal primacy. Both prelates had in fact made only personal professions of faith; there was no question of entering corporately into union with Rome. For Philip, however, only the Greeks now remained obstinately outside the Catholic fold.

Grand Prince and Khan Part I

Despite the long-standing influence of Byzantium on Russia, Andrei Bogoliubskii was the first Russian ruler to assume the authority of a Byzantine autocrat. Here at last, it seems, was a potential grand prince who could make Kievan Rus work as a state. He would not pander to the people; nor did he respect the conventions of family inheritance — indeed, he recognized its inefficiency. He lavished gifts on the Church, but insisted on the last word even on some clerical issues (and dismissed a bishop who disagreed with him). Yet the Church inspired his autocratic impulses and justified them. It sang his praises, compared him to King Solomon, said that he interceded with heaven in the interests of the Russian land. A cabal of disgruntled retainers led by a princely relative assassinated him in 1175. His enemies rejoiced at the deed, but the Church pictured him as a martyr.

Andrei’s brother Vsevolod III – known as ‘Big Nest’ because he had so many children – succeeded him and eventually challenged Roman of Volhynia for the throne of the grand prince. He gained possession of it in 1205, but his rivals would not concede and he proved unable to establish his authority over all Russia. For the remaining seven years of his life Vsevolod concentrated his attentions on his vast northern patrimony, which stretched from the Neva to the Volga. But he shared his brother’s political philosophy and practised it insofar as he was able. When investing his son Constantine with a cross and a sword symbolizing his right to rule in Novgorod, Vsevolod told him, ‘God has given thee the seniority over all thy brothers, and Novgorod the Great [now] possesses the seniority [and right] to rule over all the Russian lands.’

After Vsevolod died in 1212, however, even his own sons fell out with one another. Prince Vsevolod Rostislavich took over in Novgorod. In 1221 the people there rejected him and asked Prince Iurii of Vladimir to send them a Suzdalian prince instead. Fifteen years later, just such a prince was sent there. He bore the famous name of Alexander, and tried to emulate his namesake.

Fourteen years later civil war erupted yet again in the south, and over the next five years Kiev changed hands seven times. Well might the Novgorod chronicler bewail ‘the accursed, ever-destructive devil who wishes no good to the human race [who] raised up sedition among the princes of Rus’ so that men might not live in peace … The evil one rejoices in the shedding of Christian blood.’

Kievan Russia was at the point of collapse. The descendants of Riurik had become so numerous that serious genealogical skills would have been needed to establish where sovereignty and precedence should lie, but by the early thirteenth century it hardly seemed to matter. The state was collapsing amid the almost constant war for the possession of Kiev, when a series of hammer blows shattered it beyond hope of recovery This coup de grâce was delivered by a new enemy: the Mongols.

In 1222 Mongols had routed a poorly co-ordinated force of Russians and Pechenegs on the river Kalka. But they were only a reconnaissance party, which soon turned back. Ten years later, however, they returned, this time in full force, commanded by Baty, grandson of the dreaded Chingiz Khan. Ironically, they came at a time when Prince Alexander of Novgorod was demonstrating that there was still fight left in the Russians. He defeated a Swedish army on the river Neva in 1240 (which is why he is known as Alexander Nevskii), and then destroyed a force of Teutonic Knights in a battle on the ice of Lake Peipus near the Baltic. These victories were to be trumpeted by Russian propagandists in many a dark day over the following centuries, but even Alexander had no answer to the Mongols. And when they returned this time they came intent on subduing all Russia.

They were terrifyingly efficient, and killing aroused few qualms in them. Indeed, they used terror deliberately to weaken their enemies’ will to resist. Their original purpose in moving west had been to claim large tracts of grassland on which to feed their herds. A spell of global warming had struck their grazing grounds, which had suffered from a succession of droughts. This had spurred them to go out in search of fresh pastures for their horses, which represented food and drink as well as mobility to them. But they killed and terrorized for booty too, and for regular income in the form of tribute. The Russians were no match for them.

From this point on, however, we should refer to the Mongols as Tatars, for, although the Tatars were not Mongols but Turkic-speaking tribes who followed Chingiz Khan and his successors, they came to represent Mongol power to the Russians. The Tatars sacked Riazan in 1237, Vladimir and Suzdal in 1238, and Pereiaslav and Chernigov in 1239. In 1240 they took Kiev itself. Then they put Russia’s princes to the rack, demanding their submission.

In 1243 Iaroslav of Vladimir submitted; in 1245 Prince Daniil Romanovich of Volhynia followed suit. Baty Khan confirmed both in office. When Grand Prince Mikhail Vsevolodovich of Kiev demurred, in 1246, they executed him. From then on the Khan was in control. The internecine fighting between the princes continued, but the Tatars learned to manage and manipulate it. They also enforced the taking of a census and the regular payment of considerable taxes. Beyond that they were content to govern at a distance, allowing the princes to administer their new subjects on their behalf. They only demanded that the princes visit their capital, Sarai on the Volga, to obtain confirmation of their appointments from the Khan, that they leave hostages as sureties for their good behaviour, and that they obey orders. Any infraction met with swift retribution, any protest with harsh reprisal. Otherwise the Russians were left alone.

Kievan Rus was destroyed; no Russian principality — not even Novgorod, which the Tatars had not reached — remained sovereign, and the Tatars were to make vicious punitive raids thereafter on various parts of the Russian land. The destruction and the loss of life was considerable; the sense of shame deep. Yet the impression nourished by Cold War historians that the Mongols ‘orientalized’ Russia is exaggerated. Apart from lending Russia a few institutions like the yam, or postal service (which is not peculiar to the Orient), and words for money, treasury and customs duties, their influence was chiefly psychological. Russia recovered demo-graphically, the economy eventually revived; the Church was virtually unaffected; and relations with Byzantium were not interrupted. And the seeds of the next, more successful, imperial Russia had already been sown.

The political system of Kievan Rus had crumbled, never to be revived. The ultimate authority for the Russian lands was now the Tatar khan and his court at Sarai on the Volga. Yet over the course of the next two and a half centuries a new centre of authority was to emerge, more viable than the last — and in Moscow, a fortified settlement hardly heard of in the year 1200. It was the consequence of many causes, of both long-term trends and actions by individuals. To the extent that some recognizable elements of the old Russia were involved in creating the new entity it can be termed a reincarnation, but new factors also came into play, and the Tatars themselves unwittingly contributed towards it.

Some important trends noticeable in the late Kievan period continued. The drift of population northward, which had already given Vladimir preeminence among the principalities, resumed after an interval. So did the extension of agriculture, especially towards the east. This increased food production and hence human fertility. A rising birth rate evidently compensated for the increase of mortality due to war, and, although outbreaks of bubonic plague were to cause setbacks, the population soon resumed its healthy tendency to expansion. The territorial extent of the hunting-and-gathering economy also spread steadily eastwards and towards the northeast, bringing in more wealth in furs to sell. By the later 1300s it was also bringing more people of different ethnicity into the Russian orbit, including Maris and Mordvs, strengthening a colonial tendency which had begun long before when Russians and Riurik’s Viking band had first encountered Finnic fisher-folk in the neighbourhood of Novgorod. But it was Moscow, rather than Vladimir or Novgorod, that proved best able to capitalize on these changes. This was chiefly because of its advantageous location commanding the portages, and hence the commerce, that passed between rivers in the basin of the mid and upper Volga, between the smaller rivers Kostroma and Sokhma, the Sukhna and the Vaga.

The Russian princes, particularly of the north-central regions, benefited from these accretions of wealth, but so did the Tatars, who used the princes to collect taxes for them. Immediately following the conquest the Khan had sent in officials, called baskaks, to control each prince and each domain. The baskak ensured the payment of taxes and supervised a census, begun in 1257, to establish a systematic basis for revenue collection. The baskak also supervised the maintenance of order and ensured that the prince toed the correct political line. Quite soon, however, the Khan began to delegate some of these functions to co-operative Russians. So it was that Alexander Nevskii, hero of wars against the Teutonic Knights and Sweden, and grand prince of Vladimir from 1252 to 1263, came to impose the Tatars’ census on Novgorod, where he had begun his career. After a time all the baskak’s functions were transferred to the Grand Prince, and, as the Khan’s chief tax agent, the Grand Prince came to exercise a substantial advantage over rival rulers of the Russian lands. In this way a servile practice was transformed into a means of accreting power.

The imposition of Tatar power eventually contributed to a more effective Russian unity. It also stimulated institutional development, both directly (insofar as the princes’ courts borrowed some Tatar practices) and indirectly. The role of the Church in particular was much enhanced — not only as a source of spiritual solace and welfare, of literacy and political wisdom, but as an economic organizer. The Church became steadily wealthier as pious notables, merchants and landowners showered it with assets to ensure forgiveness for their sins and places in the world to come, and the assets were put to profitable use; and it developed a new dimension, helping to organize the territorial expansion into the interior which was already under way, and promoting further colonization. Its principal agency for this was the monastic movement, which was to make a considerable contribution to the territorial and economic development of the new Russia. So, by salvaging something from the ruins of Kievan Russia, and developing new agencies, Russians were eventually able to exploit more favourable ecological and demographic trends and to start rebuilding.

There were obstacles, of course. For a century and a half the Tatars continued to exploit Russia, creaming off its assets, and they regularly meddled in its affairs thereafter, diverting its energies. There were new outbreaks of fraternal strife among the Russian princes, most seriously between Tver and Moscow, and a new power, pagan Lithuania, emerged to the west and began to expand vigorously not only to the south but also eastward, threatening central Russia. Faced with these circumstances, Russians reacted in various ways: by migrating to avoid the challenges (though often confronting new ones in so doing), by exploiting the situations to their best advantage, but on occasion by confronting them. The chief actors in this bleak period were the princes.

They negotiated the best terms they could for themselves and their people with the Khan. They met him, his officials and each other at the periodic conferences he convened at Sarai, so that even their intrigues against each other were supervised. In personality the princes, though always represented as God-fearing, were mostly unattractive. They were arrogant and servile by turns according to the context in which they acted out their schizophrenic roles; cruel, and perforce sly. They could hardly have been much different, for theirs was a hard age and they faced cruel circumstances. Ivan I emerges as something of a hero among them, devious and grasping though he was, because his modest achievements proved to be a foundation stone of a new and successful political structure.

Prelates also played significant political roles. When the princes met at Sarai, metropolitans went with them to safeguard the Church’s interest, and at least one bishop was entrusted by the Khan with a mission to Constantinople. 3 Churchmen helped to guide the long-term destiny of Russia by their decisions. Metropolitan Petr of Kiev, for example, noticing that the location of power in Russia was moving northward, decided to move his seat of operations from Kiev to Moscow at the invitation of its prince. It was an interesting decision, for at the time Moscow was subordinate to the Grand Principality of Vladimir, even though it had potential to become the strategic centre of the Russian lands. Petr was to develop the see of Moscow into the premier seat of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Buried in the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Assumption, which became the traditional resting place for Russian primates, he was to be venerated as one of Russia’s more significant political saints. For Russians, faith and politics were never to be far apart.

Another saint of the age, though more obviously spiritual, was hardly less important for Russia’s development. This was the charismatic hermit Sergius, who blessed Russia’s champion Dmitrii of the Don before he led his warriors to Russia’s first famous victory over the Tatars, at Kulikovo in 1380. But Sergius accomplished something much more significant for Russia in the long run: he inspired the boom in monastic development. The age also produced Russia’s finest painter, Andrei Rublev, and Stephen of Novgorod, who wrote a cheerful account of a pilgrimage to Constantinople.

Such people contributed in their different ways towards Russia’s revival. But so did the collectivity of souls who for their own individual reasons moved in directions that turned out to be historically significant. And, ironically, the same rapacious Tatars who plundered, disrupted and lorded it over Russia also contributed unwittingly to Russia’s reincarnation by introducing more effective methods of exercising economic and fiscal authority. The Tatars never interfered in the religion of their tributaries. Soon after the conquest they had confirmed the status of the Orthodox Church and confirmed its rights. This policy was not to change when, in the early 1300s, the Tatars abandoned Buddhism for Islam. Indeed, becoming part of the Muslim world expanded the range of Russians’ commercial connections — to the Arabian peninsula and through central Asia to India and China. Yet the old links with western Europe were not severed. The markets for the gleaming glutton pelts, Russian sable and fox furs grew, and prices rose. So, although the conquest disrupted the Russian economy, in the longer term it afforded some compensation.

The old connection with Christian Constantinople, on the other hand, lost some of its former commercial importance. The imperial city had become a pale image of its former glory after the crusaders sacked it in 1204. Exchanges still took place, but for the most part they involved churchmen rather than merchants, and, instead of Russians shopping in Constantinople for superior art and technology, Greeks came to Russia holding begging bowls in outstretched hands. When the great dome of St Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, collapsed in 1346, it was the Russian grand prince Simeon the Proud, the son of Ivan I, who contributed most for the repairs. And this was only one of the grand princes’ many charitable disbursements. The mentors had become the supplicants.

Three princes Mstislav (before the battle at Kalka-river).


The Battle of Kalka River on May 31, 1223, was the disastrous first encounter of Russian armies with the Mongols. When the Mongol generals JEBE and SÜBE’ETEI BA’ATUR rode north through the Der bend Pass, they crushed the QIPCHAQS (Polovtsi) under Gyurgi (George), son of Könchek. The defeated Qipchaqs, led by Köten (Kotian), appealed to Köten’s Russian son-in-law Mstislav the Daring (d. 1228) of Halych (Galich). The princes of southern Russia (modern Ukraine) met at Kiev, where they assented to the Qipchaq request.

Commanded by Mstislav the Old of Kiev (d. 1223) and Mstislav of Chernihiv (Chernigov, d. 1223), the Russians advanced down the west bank of the Dniepr to rendezvous with the Qipchaqs and other Russian contingents. Mongol envoys arrived to dissuade the Russians from hostilities, but they were killed. On Tuesday, May 23, 1223, the Russian vanguard crossed the Dniepr in boats and clashed with Mongol scouts, who fled leaving their livestock behind. Not realizing this was a ruse, the Russians and Qipchaqs seized the livestock and pursued the Mongols for eight days to the river Kalka (north of Mariupol’), where the Mongols were camped on the other side of the river.

Mstislav the Daring, without telling his commanders, ordered young Daniel of Halych (d. 1264) and the Russian-Qipchaq vanguard over the Kalka, and the Mongols again fell back in a feigned retreat. When the Mongols suddenly turned and showered the enemy with arrows, the vanguard broke and streamed back over the river, where the Qipchaqs, riding in headlong flight, disorganized the main force’s unready lines. The other princes fled back to the Dniepr, but Mstislav the Old had set a stockade on a stony hill above the Kalka, where he and his two sons-in-law fought for three days, until they came out under a safe conduct offer from the Mongols. The three, however, were crushed to death under boards as the Mongols feasted on top of them. In their pursuit to the Dniepr, the Mongols caught and killed Mstislav of Chernihiv and six other princes. Mstislav the Daring, however, crossed the Dniepr and cut loose the boats to end the pursuit. The Mongols sacked Novhorod-Sivers’kyy (Novgorod-Severskii) before riding back to Mongolia.

Further reading: George A. Perfecky, trans., The Galician-Volynian Chronicle (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1973).