The Bloodless Crusader



Frederick II may have taken the Mongols up on their offer to let him be the Khan’s Falconer.

_.._IICManager_Upload_IMG_NewYork_201409262041Federico Sito

Frederick II (1194–1250; ruled 1220–50), who also ruled Sicily (an island south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea), was one of the most fascinating figures of the medieval period. Frederick II presided over his court with a dazzling intellectual brilliance but, like Frederick I, he ignored German affairs. After the death of Frederick II in 1250, Germany found itself in a political struggle with the papacy, or office of the pope, that lasted for centuries.

Frederick II (1194-1250) was a king who fought his entire life against the Roman church. He was one of the last Western sovereigns who was brave enough to defy papal hegemony. Twice he was expelled from the Roman church. Frederick II was also one of the most exotic men of his time. He spoke six languages fluently – not only German, French and Italian, but Latin, Greek and Arabic. He was a poet and philosopher who studied Arabic science and culture. He understood natural science, mathematics, physics, geometry, astronomy and medicine.

By birth Frederick was half-German and half-Norman, but brought up in his mother’s realm of Sicily with its half-Arab, half-Greek culture, and inheriting his father’s empire in Germany, he united elements of Islam and Christianity. H.G. Wells wrote that, “Frederick II came to an Islamic point of view of Christianity and to a Christian one of Islam.”

The Sicily of his childhood was stamped by influences from the entire Mediterranean area. In it met Cordoba, Rome, Byzantium, Jerusalem, Egypt. When he was four years old he became king of Sicily, at the age of eighteen he became king of Germany. In 1220 he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. A contemporary illustration shows Frederick II with his sword girded on, in the right hand the royal sceptre, on the left fist a falcon, both looking up to the sun.

He avoided setting out on a Crusade either against the Muslims in Palestine or the Gnostic Cathars in southern France. As he repeatedly refused to go to war, Pope Gregory IX expelled him from the church in 1227.

Frederick II did not see much sense in fighting against the Cathars or Muslims. He was an ally of the Cathars and frequently met messengers of this Gnostic Christian community to support their revolt against the Catholic church and the French kingdom.

There was even less reason to fight against his Arab Muslim brothers. He is said to have been initiated into the Sufi mysticism of Islam. He was also in contact with the notorious Ismaili Muslim sect, commonly known in the West as the Assassins. In 1228 he sent a messenger to the Assassin’s fortress of Alamut in Syria. According to Humbert Fink:

“Frederick’s meeting with the Assassins is probably to be considered from the point of view that he was searching the acquaintance of those personalities in the Oriental world who had a position similar to the one he had in his area, sick with the eternal hostilities of the pope. There are no details concerning possible meetings between him and Hassan Sabbath. But undoubtedly there was a connection between Frederick and the Assassins. And only this circumstance is strange enough as the life of a Christian – even the life of a sovereign – was in big danger if he took the risk to come close to the Assassins. But Frederick had to fear nothing. He was respected in the Orient even by the Assassins.”

In 1228 Frederick II decided to make a Crusade to Palestine. He did it his way. It was the only historical Crusade without bloodshed. He met in Cairo with the Egyptian Sultan Malik al-Kamil. They talked about poetry and philosophy, and played chess. Frederick II gave to the Sultan one of his beloved falcons and received in exchange an elephant. They arranged an armistice and agreed that the holy sites Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth should belong to Frederick II. The treaty was signed on 18 February 1229 – a bloodless victory that accomplished more, with an excommunicate pen, than forty years of legal crusading had ever done.

When he crowned himself king of Jerusalem he was deeply fascinated by the marvellous octagonal Al Aksa mosque that united in it Christian and Islamic elements. Astonished he went through the interior and studied the mosaics. He criticised the local Muslim muezzin for failing, out of respect for the new ruler of the city, to give the customary calls to prayer: “My chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem,” he said, “was to hear the call to prayer, and the cries of praise to God during the night.”

Inspired by the Islamic architecture of Jerusalem, Frederick II returned to Europe and ordered the construction of the Castel del Monte. Built between 1240 and 1250, the Castel del Monte is an edifice in which everything refers to the figure Eight. It is octagonal, at each corner there is an octagonal tower, in each of the two floors there are eight rooms. Also the interior court is octagonal, in its centre there is an octagonal well. Place of devotion. Place of attention. Place of Power. Frederick II used the eternally recurring figure Eight in its horizontal shape as an emblem of eternity. A symbol of balance and of justice. Castel del Monte symbolised the meeting of East and West.

“Frederick,” wrote Humbert Fink, “was the only Western sovereign and monarch who did not approach the East and the Arabs with the sword but with the art of persuasion and empathy attempted what up to now always had cost flows of blood.”

The influence of Frederick II

The Muslim cultural influence in Sicily continued for centuries. Frederick II of Sicily (1272–1337), who later became Holy Roman Emperor, dressed in Muslim fashions and kept a harem (a group of women, usually relatives including multiple wives, who lived in a secluded part of the house).

After the death of Saladin, competing Ayyubid interests often meant that expediency was put before jihad, most notably when the Ayyubid ruler of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil, gave Jerusalem to Frederick II of Sicily in AH 626/1229 CE.

Al-Kamil Muhammad (d. 1238) assumed in 1218 the Ayyubid sultanate, although not all of the other Ayyubids acquiesced. Al-Kamil’s dealings with the Crusaders over the course of his reign were tightly interwoven with his relations with his relatives. Al-Kamil’s lifting of the Crusader occupation of Damietta (1219–1221), for example, was accomplished with the assistance of his brothers al-Malik al-Ashraf Musa in the Jazira and al-Malik al-Mu‘azzam ‘Isa in Syria.

In 1227, when the armies of Emperor Frederick II threatened Egypt, al-Kamil was engaged in a power struggle with al-Mu‘azzam, and he therefore offered Jerusalem to Frederick to avoid an invasion of Egypt. The emperor refused. Al-Kamil’s position was subsequently strengthened by Al-Mu‘azzam’s death in late 1227, but al-Kamil continued negotiations with Frederick after he arrived in Acre in 1228. These negotiations led to the establishment of a limited truce, signed in February 1129, that restored an unfortified Jerusalem to the Franks for ten years, five months, and forty days. Both the emperor and the sultan were severely criticized by their respective co-religionists for this agreement.

Arab scholars and administrators were a key part of his court, and Arabic was one of the four official Sicilian languages. It was at Frederick’s University of Naples that St. Thomas Aquinas was first exposed to Arabic translations of classical Greek texts.

Thomas Aquinas

Born of nobility in the Italian town of Aquino—hence his name, Aquinas—Thomas was the youngest son of a count who descended from the Normans. His father had once fought in the armies of Emperor Frederick II, who like many another Holy Roman emperor was in conflict with the reigning pope. [1] Hoping to ensure their good standing with the church, his parents placed the five-year-old Thomas in the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, founded by St. Benedict.

Things did not quite work out as planned: the emperor’s conflict with the pope led to the latter excommunicating Frederick, or expelling him from the church, in 1239, when Thomas was fourteen. As a result, Frederick threatened Monte Cassino, and Thomas had to change schools. He moved to Naples in southern Italy, where he enrolled in what was to become that city’s university.

The university system of Europe was in its earliest days at that time, and a number of new ideas were in the air. Most of these “new” concepts were actually old ones, inherited from the ancient Greeks and translated by Arab thinkers such as Averroës. The latter’s writings had a great impact on the school at Naples, not only because it was relatively close to the Arab world, but also because Frederick (who had founded the school in 1224) encouraged the introduction of Islamic as well as Christian ideas there.

[1] One factor in this process was the increasingly awkward relationship between Holy Roman emperors and the papacy. After all, of eleven emperors and emperor-elects who ruled between 1056 and 1245 only two––Lothar III (1125–37) and Henry VI (1190–7)––were not excommunicated at some stage of their reign, while popes even declared Henry IV (1056–1106) and Frederick II (1194/7–1250) deposed, in 1076 and 1245 respectively.


Late Medieval China


A Chinese cavalryman c. 1260 is shown firing on a Mongolian warrior. The huo qiang or fire lance, which may date back to the 10th century. It was essentially a hollow tube made from thick layers of I paper, inside which was put a charge of gunpowder and shrapnel pieces. When the huo qiang was lit, it blasted out a jet of flame and projectiles, the flames having an endurance of several seconds and reaching out to a range of 9ft (3m). In a sense, here was the earliest hand-held flamethrower.

Under both the Tang and Song (Sung) Dynasties (960-1279), China experienced widespread economic growth, which in turn gave birth to a Chinese golden age. This success was based upon the development of the agricultural potential of southern China, most significantly in the production of rice in the Yangtze (pinyin, Chang) River Valley. The future of China would now be determined by the link between the bureaucratic north and the agricultural south. To solidify this crucial relationship, the government constructed the Grand Canal, a magnificent civil engineering project that was, in its time, the largest human-made waterway in the world. The canal increased transportation throughout the country, both accelerating trade and creating a sense of unity. The maintenance and protection of the Grand Canal became a major focus of the Chinese military. In times of conflict, this waterway allowed the emperor to move troops swiftly to any trouble spot.

With China’s great economic success came a softening of Chinese society, widespread political corruption, and a series of weak and incompetent emperors who eventually sapped the energy of the empire. In particular, the effectiveness of both the bureaucracy and the military was decreased, helping to create the conditions for the Mongol conquests at the beginning of the thirteenth century. These nomadic warriors first entered China at the invitation of the declining Song Dynasty. The emperor hoped that they would engage and destroy the Jürcheds and the Jin (Chin), two northern nomadic tribes that threatened to invade China. In 1234 the Jin were defeated by a Sino-Mongolian military alliance, but then, in direct violation of that agreement, the Song attempted to occupy the newly conquered land and extend their empire into the northern territories. This action shattered the alliance and set in motion the Mongol conquest of China and the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

The Mongols would have a significant impact upon Chinese history. They established their capital at Beijing and abolished the bureaucracy based upon Confucianism and the examination system. These actions were taken specifically to negate the influence of the scholar gentry. The Mongols eventually adopted many aspects of Chinese culture and aggressively promoted its literature and art. Despite this openness, the Mongols were never able to find a solution to the Sino-Mongolian ethnic rivalry. Most of the intellectuals from the gentry class considered the Mongols to be uncouth barbarians. This ethnocentricity was exacerbated by the gentry’s resentment of the abolition of the state examination system, which blocked the gentry from gaining access to the highest levels of political power.

After the death of Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the Yuan Dynasty fell into a period of decline. There were essentially four reasons that this took place. First, the southern region was occupied by a large number of activists who had remained loyal to the Song Dynasty. As the Yuan declined, many of these disenchanted groups were emboldened to take political action that eventually resulted in an empire-wide revolt. Second, Yuan military prestige also suffered a severe blow from two disastrous military expeditions against Japan in 1274 and 1280. Third, Yuan military failures were founded in the general weakness of the post-Kublai Khan government that was beset by deep-seated corruption within the political bureaucracy. By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Mongol government was far too weak to maintain its control over all of China. Fourth, the increase in peasant uprisings and the rise of secret revolutionary societies resulted in a series of disastrous insurrections that finally forced the Mongols to withdraw to their ancestral homeland.


Military Achievement

After he had secured the eastern border, the Tang emperor returned his attention toward the west. From 736 to 755 a series of successful campaigns extended the borders of the empire to the Pamir range, bringing the Tang to the frontier of Islamic civilization and placing these two great eighth century powers on a collision course. This Sino-Islamic crisis reached a flash point at the Battle of Talas River (751), a bloody confrontation that lasted for five days. The armies of Islam ultimately defeated the Chinese forces, ending Tang westward expansion.

This defeat marked the beginning of the Tang Dynasty’s decline. Decades of military campaigns had taken a toll on Chinese society, and the losses in both revenue and productivity were significant. These problems led to widespread civil unrest, which devastated Chinese society. For more than one hundred years, the emperors and their bureaucracies had failed to return the empire to a state of normalcy, and by 884 the Tang Dynasty was shattered.

With the final collapse of the Tang Empire in 907, China fell into a chaotic intermediate period referred to as the time of the Five Dynasties (907-960). None of the dynasties was able to unify China, and order was finally restored in 960, with the establishment of the Song. Most historians refer to the Song as the world’s first modern state, and its emperors were traditionally antimilitary. The government, in constant fear of an armed takeover, made strong efforts to limit the army’s power. The Song created a military model that placed their generals under the control of the civilian bureaucracy, resulting in the military’s lowered prestige and appeal for the aristocratic class. In time, the military came to be dominated by the lower echelons of Song society, and by the middle of the eleventh century enlisted men were receiving one-tenth of their former wages. This lowered pay caused great economic hardship, and mutinies became commonplace.

The Song government was faced with significant financial difficulties. The population of China had reached 140 million, and vast amounts of money had been set aside for the construction of large-scale irrigation projects. The empire had to import the vast majority of its cavalry horses, which also cost a considerable amount of money. China’s underfinanced military was grossly ill-equipped to meet the security challenges of the nomadic horsemen of central Asia. The Song bureaucracy responded to this problem by adopting a military philosophy based upon the concept of strategic defense. Money was allocated for the construction of massive fortifications that would frustrate the light horse cavalry tactics of the nomadic armies. The military theory that all defensive structures are eventually neutralized by an opposition force came to pass in the last years of the Song Dynasty. When the Song-Mongol military alliance broke down, the aggressive Mongol warriors quickly defeated the demoralized forces of the emperor and established the Yuan Dynasty. Between 1200 and 1405 the Mongols conquered Tibet, Russia, Iraq, Asia Minor, and southern and eastern Europe.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan Dynasty began to decline. Years of famine gave rise to peasant unrest, and a secret religious sect known as the White Lotus spread anti-Yuan propaganda concerning the reestablishment of the Song Dynasty. In turn, the White Lotus also supported a peasant rebel organization known as the Red Turban movement. Fighting broke out between the Yuan forces in the south and the rebel armies. The success of these armies was primarily due to the fact that the Yuan had failed to keep the system of defensive walls under repair. The Yuan’s nomadic heritage and military success were based upon swift cavalry movements, and a defensive mindset was totally alien to them. Eventually, the Mongols were able to defeat the rebel armies, but they were never able to regain complete political control of southern China.

From 1351 to 1368 the Mongols were involved in a series of military campaigns against Chinese forces in the south, in which they suffered a series of disastrous setbacks. The Mongols decided to abandon much of their territory and returned to their ancient homelands in the north. This strategic withdrawal marked the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644).

The new Ming emperor and his intellectual elite modeled themselves after the Song Dynasty. Like the Song the Ming adopted an isolationist policy that kept the government’s focus on protecting the homeland.


Devil’s Dyke – What was it for?

The Dyke was constructed in the 5th or 6th centuries – perhaps by the Saxon kings of the East Angles in order to defend their newly established lands from attack by the Britons. It would certainly have helped provide control over the movement of people through this important communications corridor. Perhaps traders could pass over or through the wall upon payment of tolls.

Who Built the Defensive Dykes?

Who built these stop lines is a question for which there is no simple answer. It is likely that people from the delimited estate constructed the smaller dykes that were boundary markers (like Aelfrith’s Dyke and Bica’s Dyke), probably under the direction of the estate owner, but it is far less certain who ordered the construction of those earthworks that had a military purpose. It is not just that we do not know their names; we do not know what type of people built them or at least ordered them to be constructed. The actual workers could have been local farmers sick of being raided, paid workers following the orders of a king, conscripted labourers, or slaves under the control of a warlord.

It is tempting to link dykes with the rise of kings and certain kingdoms. It is fairly certain Offa ordered the construction of the earthwork that bears his name and equally Aelfrith, Bica, Lawa and Eliseg (if Clawdd Lesg is named after him) may have ordered the building of earthworks to which their names are attached. Without precise techniques for dating dykes, attempts to connect other dykes with individual kings are foolhardy. Geographical location suggests that a Mercian king possibly ordered the building of Wat’s Dyke, an East Anglian king those in Cambridgeshire and a king of Wessex possibly ordered Wansdyke, but connecting other dykes with kingdoms, let alone individual kings, is highly speculative.

It is possible that the earthworks can tell us where shadowy lost kingdoms were once located and scholars have linked dykes like the Swaledale Dykes, Tor Dike in Yorkshire and the Giant’s Hedge in Cornwall with suspected lost British kingdoms. Unfortunately, these theories usually assume that a later administrative region was once a kingdom, then fit that hypothetical realm to a nearby, possibly unrelated, earthwork. The larger dykes certainly looked planned by an authority with wide-ranging powers (as we have noted, the larger dykes were more likely to have marker banks, ankle-breakers and revetments), but most early medieval dykes are small, simple structures built by 100 men in a single season. The vague descriptive names of many dykes, as well as the supernatural monikers, all suggest that the original builders were soon forgotten; the ‘rough dyke’ names of some confirm the idea they were hurriedly built. Perhaps kings did not order the construction of the majority of the earthworks and it is likely that small agricultural communities built them to defend themselves against the predatory warlords whose descendants probably became kings. The analysis in this book of the size of labour force needed to build these dykes suggests that most were not the grandiose gestures of a king.

As Paolo Squatriti has rightly pointed out, dykes are exercises in earth moving, that is, they were a typical farmer’s solution to a problem, as peasants were always digging the earth, for example for drainage, to get at root crops, to make hedgerows to control cattle, to terrace land for ploughing, to remove tree stumps, to dig out large stones, or to bury the dead. Digging the earth was probably not the natural action of an early medieval war leader. We can only ponder what the role of women was in the growth of dykes. They seem to be excluded from active roles in warfare, except as a victim who was robbed, murdered, raped or abducted into slavery. Perhaps they encouraged men to build the dykes to protect their communities and even worked on them, helping to move the earth themselves. Their male relatives may have even been inspired to build them to protect women in their communities, or alternatively went on raids to capture females. It has been suggested that women kept alive feuds and vendettas with songs and stories; if they were primarily victims it is perhaps unsurprising that they might want to remind others of wrongs suffered by their group in the hope that compensation or at least retribution would be sought.

Evidence for Beacons

When raiding was a problem in the early medieval period people often built beacons to warn of attack. We know the Vikings and their enemies used systems of beacons to warn of the arrival of raiders and the Romans used scouts (exploratores and areani) to warn of attack. If dykes were not manned (though they may have been patrolled) as archaeology suggests, there must have been a signalling system to alert people to danger so that they could assemble at the dyke. Can we find signs of beacon sites in the period ad400–850? Can we find evidence for a prominent location with good lines of sight at a reasonable number of early medieval dykes?

Hill postulated that beacons were used both to lay out Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke as well as to warn of Welsh raiders, but attempts to locate them through excavation have proved fruitless. No charcoal deposits have been found on the top of hills he thought to be signal points. As these dykes are very long, Hill could easily have selected the wrong location to excavate and if a warning beacon was never set alight there would be little evidence of it in the archaeological record. A substantial watch tower, especially if the foundations were sunk into the ground, would leave archaeological evidence, but more flimsy structures could leave no trace. A roving scout using flags or a horn would certainly leave no evidence. If the fires from burning barns gave abundant evidence of a raid in progress, perhaps beacon fires were not needed (obviously, if the raid occurred at night it would be these fires that warned people of attack and flags would be useless). Even so, we should find a prominent hill or similar landmark near every dyke that gives good views towards the area the earthwork faced if they were designed to combat raids and a warning was needed to gather defenders.

Development near some dykes, like Faeseten Dyke in Kent, makes it impossible to tell if there are any good candidates for a nearby signal point, while at Heronbridge and some of the East Anglian dykes the flat landscape means there are unsurprisingly no obvious candidates we can identify. Significantly, at most other dykes there are obvious sites for possible beacon sites or signal points. Despite housing developments (and forestry on Ockham Common) obscuring much of Fullinga Dyke in Surrey, St George’s Hill near the north end gives good views, while the hill on which a semaphore tower was built in 1822 at Ockham Common just to the east of the dyke (at TQ089585) is a clear candidate for a signal point. This is assuming that Fullinga Dyke was more than just a border marker, however. Bolster Bank in Cornwall defines a peninsula dominated by a hill tellingly called St Agnes Beacon (at SW710504), which affords superb views across the Bristol Channel and inland. While lines of sight from Tor Dike in Yorkshire down the steep valley to the south are obscured, the high hills that flank the valley on either side would make excellent signal points. An observer on the Swaledale Dykes cannot see anyone approaching from the east until they are quite close, but people on the adjacent hills can. Similarly, the views northwards from Grey Ditch in Derbyshire are rather poor, but Lose Hill (SK153853), 2.5 miles (4km) to the north, commands spectacular panoramic views over a vast area and the hill of Crungoed (SO185711) to the north of Pen y Clawdd dyke in Powys is an excellent candidate for a signal station.

To the north of the dykes in south Wales are the Brecon Beacons, which are so named because of the fires erected on them to warn of English raiders. An observer stationed on the hills near Black Dyke and the Bardon’s Mill dykes in Northumberland (like Catton Beacon at NY822592 and Bell Crags at NY772729 where there is actually a fire watch tower today) could have given warning of imminent attack. At Lanreath, near the middle of the Giant’s Hedge in Cornwall, a bulge in the course of the dyke encompasses a hill that gives superb prospects to the north. Today, the River Severn forms a rather formidable barrier across a gap in Offa’s Dyke between Rhos and Buttington, but before modern flood defences rivers meandered across their floodplains, so it would have been much easier to ford. There are two large hills on the eastern side (Breidden Hill at SJ295144 and Middleton Hill at SJ305133), which give commanding views, so a few watchmen with a beacon fire stationed on the hills could easily warn of any attempt to ford the river by raiders.

For some dykes the evidence is less circumstantial. The views forward from some sections of East and West Wansdyke are hardly panoramic, but the two hill forts incorporated into West Wansdyke (Maes Knoll and Stantonbury), or the Downs just to the north of East Wansdyke (Barbury Hill at SU156761 or Cherhill at SU048694 in particular) overlook large areas. There is evidence of beacon sites across Wessex used to warn of Viking raids (Elizabethans reused many of the sites for Armada beacons), which may have originated in warning systems related to early medieval dykes. To the north of Wansdyke, the late Saxon fort on Silbury Hill or even the burh at Avebury could have replaced an older early-warning system for people living near East Wansdyke. They could give advance warning of attackers approaching from the north and then hopefully the locals would have a chance to man the dyke.

The hill of Glastonbury Tor overlooks Ponter’s Ball and evidence for early medieval occupation at the site possibly suggests that it was a signal point. Hills obscure the views to the south of the nearby New Ditch, but 1.2 miles (2km) west of that earthwork is the Iron-Age hill fort of Dundon Hill, in the south-east corner of which is a mound called Dundon Beacon that overlays the Iron-Age ramparts. It may be a windmill mound (though that would be better placed on the western side of the hill to face the prevailing winds), or an aborted attempt to build a motte and bailey castle, but the name suggests that the mound was built as a beacon, perhaps working in conjunction with the earthwork. Dundon Beacon overlooks land to the south of the dyke so if watchmen were stationed there and at Glastonbury Tor, it would be almost impossible to cross the area unobserved. Near Bar Dyke and Broomhead Dyke in Yorkshire are two hills surmounted by what are assumed to be Norman fortifications (Bailey Hill at SK312726 and Castle Hill at SK271923), but both could be possible older beacon sites.

As briefly mentioned earlier, along the coast to the north of Dane’s Dyke was a line of at least five signal stations, which were probably the last Roman military structures built in Britain. While today many of these sites are no longer inter-visible, they were built on cliff tops subject to erosion, so it is likely that sites that would have connected the chain have long since fallen into the sea. There is evidence of post-Roman occupation at the Filey station and excavations at the Goldsborough signal station found bodies of people who seemed to have died violent deaths dating to just after the end of Roman rule in Britain. Flamborough Head itself would have been an ideal site for a signal station, as later use of the headland clearly shows. Three beacons were erected there in 1588, while in 1674 a lighthouse (the first post-Roman British lighthouse) was built at Flamborough and in 1796 a flag station was built there. While there is no surviving evidence of a Roman or early medieval signal station at Flamborough, quarrying and erosion could have destroyed such evidence. Nevertheless, the Roman signal stations to the north could easily have given early medieval people enough warning of seaborne raiders (Picts or Angles), so that they could gather behind the safety of the earthwork.

This topographical, archaeological and place-name evidence from so many dykes, though not conclusive, certainly suggests people were using hills (sometimes even artificially heightening them) to watch for enemy attacks. We do not know if beacon fires, flags or perhaps mounted messengers (or a combination) were used, but warnings were probably sent to locals. They could then man the earthworks that blocked routeways where they hoped to see off attackers. It is just unfortunate that we do not have the written sources to tell us how many times the earthworks were effective in preventing plunder-greedy warriors raiding their victims.


Though it would be highly speculative to try to match specific dykes to individual entries in Anglo-Saxon or Welsh chronicles, we can suggest how raiding and counter-raiding measures fitted into processes like the Anglo-Saxon conquest or the rise of kingdoms. Laycock has suggested that dykes are a symptom of the breakdown of Roman rule across Britain and its Balkanization into small British and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It could be that it was incessant raiding that caused this fragmentation of the Roman diocese of Britain.

Raiding and the coming together of people to build dykes to combat raids could respectively destroy and build new identities; dykes could have been crucial in the formation of kingdoms and raiding. If a raid led to the ambush and murder of a king, it would lead to a kingdom’s destruction. Booty from raids may have helped warlords to become established kings and the concentration of dykes around the border of Mercia could mark a reaction to the growth of that kingdom. Those earthworks around the heartland of Powys may have helped to maintain the power of their kings. The dykes that subdivided East Anglia (like Launditch and Bichamditch) suggest that region was once disunited, though the later written sources give us no hint of that division. The very act of building, maintaining and occasionally fighting at the Cambridgeshire Dykes, probably against Mercia, may have helped to create cohesion amongst those divided communities, which eventually led to the growth of the East Anglian kingdom. The building of the earthworks on the western border of Kent may have helped to reinforce the power of Kentish kings. As already discussed, the act of building and using dykes in Cornwall to counter West Saxon raids probably helped to unite the Cornish and maintain their identity in the face of growing Anglicization. Once kingdoms coalesced and kings gained control of large areas, they would probably try to stop localized raiding (the law codes certainly suggest an attempt to replace reciprocal violence with fines) and the rulers would try to focus energies against external threats. The incessant raids of the immediate post-Roman period may have died down by the ninth century, possibly thanks to the dykes, though they were soon replaced by the incursions of the Vikings. We should note that kingdoms could also form without any need to build dykes, such as the Scottish kingdom of Argyll, as well as the East Saxon and South Saxon kingdoms.

The theory that the fifth to ninth centuries consisted of widespread raiding complements the various theories about the nature of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England (the Adventus Saxonum) and possibly also the Scottish takeover of Pictish territory. Broadly speaking, these movements have variously been characterized as mass invasions, coups by a small group of invading warriors and cultural changes that involved the movement of very few people. Let’s look at these theories in turn.

If the Anglo-Saxon invasion involved the replacement of the native population with Germanic incomers, aggressive raiding would help to explain how they could drive out the far more numerous indigenous population. The same logic could be applied to the Scottish takeover of the lands of the Picts. In recent years, such invasionist theories have been less fashionable and the Anglo-Saxon takeover of lowland Britain has often been characterized as a coup by some Germanic warriors. The arrival of a small class of hardened Germanic fighters that had a culture of aggressive and persistent raiding is consistent with the theory that the Adventus Saxonum was a takeover by a small elite group of warriors, with very little change in the composition of the majority of the population.

The theory that the Anglo-Saxon invasion was merely a cultural change does not, on its own, explain why the native Britons adopted new Germanic modes of dress, language and religion (nor why the Picts adopted Scottish customs). The theory lacks a driver or catalyst for such changes; people are unlikely to adopt a new language, culture and style of dress on a mere whim. Perhaps raiding was the driving force for these changes. It would certainly explain how a small group of warriors could cause such widespread cultural and linguistic changes. Raiding by small groups of aggressive Germanic incomers could have destroyed the indigenous culture and eliminated the native elite. In the Roman period, across Cornwall and much of Wales native settlements do not seem archaeologically particularly ‘Roman’; after ad400, although there is evidence of site continuity, building plans change from round to rectangular, Latin inscriptions appear and there is evidence of Christianity. Perhaps the educated Romanized Christian elite (priests, lawyers and teachers, for example) from the lowlands fleeing raiding Anglo-Saxons arrived in western Britain, as was recorded by Gildas, Bede and the Life of St Wilfred. Those left behind in eastern Britain would perhaps want to adopt the cultural identity of the most hostile raiders (their mode of dress and language) in the hope they would be spared from attack.

Not only can these three different models for the respective Anglo-Saxon or Scottish takeovers of England and Scotland (population replacement, an elite warrior takeover and cultural change) complement the idea of widespread raiding, they are not mutually exclusive. While the evidence for violence from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries is rare, this does not preclude victims of raids being less likely to be carefully buried in organized cemeteries, or violence being rare but unpredictable and sporadic. The Anglo-Saxon settlement was probably a complex process, so that at different times and in different areas any of these three theories could best describe the process.

The outbreaks of sporadic raiding may have also helped with the spread of Christianity, which characterized the early medieval period. The Christian Church tried to control violence (for example, St Patrick’s letter to Coroticus, Adomnáin laws and wergilds in law codes) and while there are records of attacks on monasteries (as in the 645 reference in the Annales Cambriae), these were newsworthy to chroniclers possibly because they were shocking and rare. A society constantly plagued by uncontrolled violence is unlikely to grow economically or culturally. The prohibitions around attacking monasteries and churches would make invasions less catastrophic. Christianity, by creating rules around violence and places where killing was considered taboo, provided a brake on the more destructive elements of early medieval society, which made it attractive for kings to adopt and promote this new religion.


Like most human phenomena, the rash of early medieval dyke building and the raids that they were designed to halt probably had a beginning, a peak, a decline and then an end. With so few contemporary documents and so little unambiguous dating evidence from the dykes, we can only make very tentative conclusions about chronology. Sadly, we have more evidence for later reuses of dykes than for their original functions and the end of dyke building is probably easier to date than the origins, due to the lack of written evidence from the beginning of this period. For these reasons, the framework is discussed in reverse chronological order.

The early medieval dykes soon faded from memory from the ninth century onwards. Later people often reuse earthworks in very different ways to how their builders envisioned. Modern walkers use some early medieval dykes as footpaths (Offa’s Dyke and the Devil’s Ditch). Fieldwork has clearly demonstrated that farmers often use sections of dykes as field boundaries and this has probably gone on for centuries. The medieval scribes who wrote charters often use dykes as landmarks when describing estates. Early medieval people reused dykes as places to bury the dead. Perhaps after their abandonment they occupied a liminal area outside the control of kings and God where the condemned were executed; this would explain why so many are named after the Devil or pagan gods. There is little evidence that they were used (or reused) as meeting places, but equally we cannot be certain they were not.

As has already been speculated, the establishment of more stable kingdoms as well as the raids of the Vikings probably changed warfare forever. New raids came initially from abroad or were a part of wars between large stable kingdoms rather than by local warlords. These changes ended the use of dykes as military structures. When dykes were first built, warlords were raiding neighbouring areas to steal cattle. These warlords gradually set themselves up as kings, who then used raiding to force weaker neighbours to give tribute and/or submit to their overlordship. Gradually these evolved into more stable kingdoms, where rulers extracted surplus production from the land through large agricultural estates rather than raiding.

When the Vikings arrived, raiding resumed, but their raids were unpredictable. The first account of an Anglo-Saxon murdered by a Viking was at Portland in Dorset in 789, hardly the nearest British landfall from Scandinavia. Without obvious land routes to block, people ceased to excavate dykes across routeways. Early medieval rulers did not have the ability to mobilize enough manpower to guard an extended frontier, so they decided to construct points where their troops could hold up or sally forth from if the raiding force looked weaker than anticipated. These strongpoints are the burhs of the ninth century. Those dykes that already existed probably then became a nuisance to traders travelling along the routes that the earthworks blocked, so they were punctured where roads passed through the dykes. There does seem to be evidence that the Vikings carried on digging dykes like that at Reading, but they designed theirs to protect raiding parties rather than oppose them.

The radiocarbon and Optically Stimulated Luminescence dates suggest early medieval dyke construction peaked across the very late sixth and the first half of the seventh century. As Offa ruled 757–96, his dyke was probably constructed during the dying days of early medieval dyke building. The massive scale of his dyke and the labour involved could have outweighed any benefit it may have had in deterring Welsh raids. Perhaps this king (whose coinage and whose letters to Charlemagne demonstrate that he wished to be seen as a quasi-imperial ruler) made a massive and grandiose version of a common practical type of earthwork as a demonstration of his power. With better dating techniques, in the future we might discover that the larger earthworks are later in date and reflect the rise of kingdoms, even if this was probably not the original intention of the builders of most earthworks. Dyke building may have helped to create clearly defined kingdoms, but such stability may have signalled the end of the need for the shorter dykes to counter localized raiding.

The origin of early medieval dyke building in particular is more problematic. As this study found no early medieval dykes in the Highlands of Scotland, all the early medieval dykes were probably located in areas that at some point had been part of the Roman province of Britain. Presumably, the imperial authorities would not have allowed locals to build earthworks that blocked the Roman road network, so the dykes must post-date the end of Roman rule in Britain, say 400. If people could not predict the direction from which Viking attacks would come, presumably the same would be true of the early Anglo-Saxon raids from across the North Sea, or other seaborne raids from the north or west (the Irish, Scots or Picts). There is evidence that Iron-Age hill forts like Cadbury in Somerset were reoccupied in the immediate post-Roman period and perhaps these functioned in much the same way as burhs later did, as strongpoints against seaborne raiders (Cadbury was rebuilt as a burh). However, we should be cautious in assuming that every hill fort was reoccupied for military reasons; their association with the pre-Roman elite could also have been a draw.

Once the raiders from across the seas had established themselves in Britain and local people knew the direction their raids would take along known land routeways, dykes coupled with signal points would then have been the best form of defence. There is a great deal of debate as to when the Anglo-Saxons firmly established themselves in Britain, but from Bede onwards most historians have given a mid-fifth century date and we know from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the Viking raids on Britain started in earnest in the ninth century. This gives a date range of roughly 450–850 for dykes to work against overland Anglo-Saxon raiding (though the British could have raided each other prior to this) and this is in fact a close match for the archaeological dates of early medieval dykes. Pre-Viking raiding logically peaked in this time bracket. The transition from refurbished hill forts to dykes then to burhs can be summarized in the diagram included here. Note that this diagram is partly based on (and indebted to) one made by Stuart Brookes and first publicly shown at a 2007 conference at University College London.

There are at least three possible inspirations for early medieval dyke building. Dykes may have been initially inspired by prehistoric earthworks; there are interestingly no prehistoric or early medieval dykes in Devon, while in Norfolk early medieval people seem to have reused the widespread pre-Roman earthworks. The fact that the Anglo-Saxons gave the name Grim (a god associated with war) to many prehistoric earthworks suggests they thought such dykes had a military purpose. The second possible inspiration (and the one most likely to have inspired the Britons) was the northern frontiers of Roman Britain. Roman signal towers, in particular those on the Yorkshire coast, may have inspired the signalling sites that I have postulated were associated with many early medieval dykes. The third possible source of inspiration for early medieval dyke building (and the structures most likely to have inspired Anglo-Saxon dyke builders) was the numerous dykes found in Jutland just prior to the Anglo-Saxons settling in Britain.

Raiding and Dykes

Offa’s Dyke


As we lack detailed written descriptions of raiding in early medieval sources, let us examine periods of incessant small-scale military forays from other periods and places. By understanding how raiding worked, it may be possible to see how early medieval dykes functioned as a deterrent. Obviously, we have no records from prehistoric societies, but archaeologists have speculated that cattle raids plagued Bronze-Age British society, usually in the autumn when the harvest had been gathered in. Unsurprisingly, there is evidence of raiding from the Viking period from sources like the Orkneyinga Saga; interestingly Viking raiders usually went elsewhere when they faced fortifications, suggesting that dykes would have acted as a deterrent. In the later medieval period, there is evidence that rulers avoided decisive pitched battles and that raiding enriched one side while destroying the other side in a conflict. The raids that characterized life on the Anglo-Welsh and Anglo-Scottish borders in the later medieval period are well attested in written records, as well as in physical remains, like the Pele towers.

The incessant raiding in nineteenth-century East Africa was slightly ritualized, though forays in search of women, cattle and slaves could destroy kingdoms. In World War I, the British Army started systematically raiding enemy trenches, which lead to retaliatory raids along the Western Front. The objective of these raids was to demoralize the enemy, gather intelligence and ensure that all the attackers returned safely to their own lines. Halsall’s anthropological study of warfare in societies with a similar technology to early medieval Britain in Sudan, South America, New Guinea and the Maoris of New Zealand suggests that there was a great deal of raiding that involved the theft of goods rather than mass invasions to steal land. Even though these raids were often ritualized, in certain locations they could lead to a large number of fatalities. These studies confirm that raiding has often been an integral part of war. It was sometimes ritualized, usually involved the theft of animals or people, raiders often retreated if they encountered resistance and raids could demoralize or devastate the community under attack.

What these studies of other periods and places suggest is that raiding is often carried out by nomadic societies against more settled agrarian communities (for example, Berber raids on the Roman Empire, Mongol raids on China and Tuareg raids on their neighbours to the south). As well as the largest early medieval dykes, a great many earlier hill forts lay along the Anglo-Welsh border. This is possibly because this is the interface between higher land to the west (which supported a more pastoral economy) and the lowlands (mainly arable society) to the east. The dykes of the Anglo-Welsh border and southern Wales were probably designed to prevent attacks by highland raiders on settled communities to the south and east.


While it is dangerous to assume that dykes from other countries or even British dykes from different periods fulfilled similar purposes, a study of a phenomenon that treats it in isolation is flawed. It is impossible to go into the same level of detail, especially with foreign dykes, as was undertaken on early medieval dykes, so only those directly relevant are discussed.

Earlier and Later British Walls and Dykes

As we obviously have no written records, we are probably even less likely to understand the purposes of prehistoric dykes than those of an early medieval date. Witness Sauer’s study of Aves Ditch that contains fifteen pages discussing the issue, with numerous comparisons with other earthworks, but can only tentatively conclude that it was possibly a tribal boundary. Even then, he adds a question mark to the statement. Some earthworks may have been trackways or cattle droveways; others probably demarked land divisions, or were at the edge of wasteland to delimit a group’s cultivated territory; some look like they fulfilled a defensive role, while many appear to be territorial boundary markers. It is perhaps significant that while there are few finds from excavations of prehistoric dykes, they have produced some contemporary pottery sherds and metal objects; certainly more than early medieval dykes. Pottery finds from early medieval dykes are invariably prehistoric or Roman pottery sherds sealed under the bank, or residual material incorporated into it. As already mentioned, the pollen evidence does suggest that prehistoric dykes cut through more intensively cultivated areas. If the early medieval dykes were built in thinly inhabited contested borderlands that would explain the lack of contemporary pottery finds.

Like many early medieval dykes, prehistoric cross dykes are short (sometimes 100m or less in length) and tend to bisect ridges, usually with a single bank and a single ditch, making them difficult to distinguish from some early medieval route-blocking dykes. Perhaps the cross-ridge or cross-valley dykes are prehistoric dykes that fulfilled similar purposes to early medieval dykes in preventing cattle raids.

The Roman frontier works of northern Britain were highly visible features in the medieval landscape, so may have been an inspiration to early medieval dyke builders. Gildas and Bede mention them (though they misdate them to the end of Roman rule). These frontier works may have possibly been an inspiration to early medieval dyke builders, though they probably had little idea of how the Roman frontier works functioned. Roman writers described them as dividing the Romans from the barbarians to keep the latter out, but it is likely that they also controlled trade with the tribes to the north. The blocking of minor gateways in the late second century and early fourth probably represents an attempt to funnel trade through the more important crossing points. It is unlikely there was enough trade to make this the Romans’ primary stimulus for building the walls and forts, even if this role occupied much of a garrison’s time during periods of peace.

There are some obvious differences with the early medieval dykes. Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall have features not found on early medieval dykes: forts; gateways; a wall or palisade; and clear evidence of a resident garrison. Early medieval dykes are rarely contiguous with administrative boundaries like county or parish boundaries, suggesting that they were not located at borders. Similarly, the Romans set their frontier works back from the frontiers, though they also built signal stations and forts garrisoned with scouts in front of them to give advance warning of attack. Roman frontiers were not sharply defined lines on the ground, but zones. The walls, if properly manned, certainly could stop small groups of people crossing into Roman Britain and they do command good views to the north, but they do not seem designed to repel large-scale attacks. The wall was not wide enough to use as a fighting platform, therefore mobile troops would have to destroy any attackers held up at the frontier. The frontier works probably functioned in a manner closer to the Berlin Wall than the Maginot Line. The Romans would gather troops from the forts on or around the walls and engage large-scale invasion forces in open country, where the superior discipline, cavalry and heavy projectile weapons of their more mobile troops would be used to devastating effect. Perhaps some early medieval dykes worked in a comparable way.

While Romans walls may have influenced early medieval dykes, the latter in turn could have influenced later earthworks. As we have already discussed, the end of dykes probably coincided with the rise of the burh and the arrival of Viking raiders, whom the burh walls were designed to keep out (internal dykes are not much good at stopping seaborne raiders). The Vikings did build some dykes in England, but these were short features designed to defend a tongue of land, like the one on Danby Rigg in the North Yorkshire Moors, or the bank between the Thames and the Kennet recorded by Asser. Prior to the rise of the burh, the only earthworks of a comparable design to the dykes in early medieval Britain were the ramparts of hill forts. In the early medieval period in lowland Scotland these were often new constructions, while in lowland Britain they were reoccupied Iron-Age structures. Like the burhs, both Iron-Age and early medieval hill forts have palisades and gateways, of which archaeologists have found abundant evidence. This adds credence to the supposition that early medieval dykes did not originally have palisades or gateways, as the numerous excavations of these earthworks would surely have uncovered some evidence of them.


British dykes are not unique. There are similar prehistoric and medieval earthworks across Europe, with examples in Ukraine, Hungary, Apulia in Italy, Sweden (Götavirke) and Spain (the 2.5-mile/4km long El Muro near Teverga) and Romania. The nearest is a series of long south-facing earthworks in Ireland, which match in scale some in Britain; they run from Bundoran on the west coast to near Armagh, effectively dividing Ulster from the south. The largest are the Dane’s Cast, Black Pig’s Dyke and the Dorsey, but differentiating among them, especially the first two, is difficult as locals use the two names interchangeably and all three lie on a similar alignment.

Contact between Ireland and northern Britain may have influenced dyke building on either side of the Irish Sea in the early medieval period. Earthworks found across areas traditionally thought of as the Anglo-Saxon homelands (Denmark and northern Germany) may also have provided the inspiration for Anglo-Saxon dyke builders (and raiders). One European earthwork that British archaeologists have drawn parallels with since Pitt Rivers took a (borrowed) spade to it over a century ago is the Danevirke. This south-facing earthwork runs for 18.6 miles (30km) along the base of Jutland, blocking access into Denmark from Germany. It was built in at least seven phases and though the Royal Frankish Annals attribute it to King Godfred in 808, dendrochronology suggests that the earliest phases of building occurred shortly after 737. Interestingly, the Royal Frankish Annals also claim that it ran from sea to sea, a statement that is as inaccurate as Asser’s assertion that Offa’s Dyke performed the same feat, as the ends of the Danevirke lie on rivers. Even with a twelfth-century rebuild that clad the front in stone, the evidence for a wooden palisade in the earlier phases is obvious, suggesting that if the British dykes had been furnished with one, we would have found evidence of it by now. The Danevirke had a main gateway where the Hærvej, or army road that runs along the spine of Jutland from Germany, crossed the earthwork. The road is also called the Cattle Road, the Oxen Road, the King’s Road and the Main Road, suggesting that cattle under the control or protection of the king (possibly as tribute) walked along it in and out of Denmark. Though the references are frustratingly terse, early medieval battles were fought at the earthwork; the Danish army used to muster along the earthwork during times of international uncertainty up to the nineteenth century.

To the north of the Danevirke, there are at least twenty-eight earthworks in Jutland, many of which cut routeways, as well as six tree barriers built across narrow belts of sea. The most elaborate is the Olgerdiget: this was a 7.5-mile (12km) long stockade made up of large poles, though a 1.2-mile section (2km) has a ditch (1.6m deep by 4m wide) with a bank that is dated to 219 by dendrochronology. It was not garrisoned, but possibly patrolled with defenders mobilized in time of war, and seems to mark the dividing line between the Jutes and the Angles. This means that the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes had a history of building dykes before they gained control of England. Interestingly, this study found no records of dykes in Brittany, a place where so many other aspects of British culture were imported in the fifth and sixth centuries. This suggests that the building of a dyke to combat raiding was initiated in early medieval Britain by Germanic incomers (Anglo-Saxons), rather than being a part of native British culture, though of course prehistoric British dykes might also have been an inspiration. Unfortunately, like their British counterparts, few contemporary sources survive describing many of these European earthworks, so it is difficult to ascertain their original purpose. Even when records do survive (both inscriptions and texts), such as those associated with the 87-mile (140km) long dyke that the Bulgars built in Thrace against the Byzantine Empire, which clearly suggest that it had a military purpose, scholars claim it was purely symbolic. Other scholars (myself included) are less convinced that we should ignore such clear primary evidence. Earthworks were replaced by forts that had a clear military function as the main type of Bulgarian defence, which possibly parallels the change from dykes to burhs or forts that King Alfred built in ninth-century England.

Asian Dykes

With the Great Wall of China, there survives documentary evidence which tells why the Chinese built it and how (this study used evidence from China to calculate the labour needed to build linear earthworks). The earliest walls were anonymous, practical structures built when the Chinese Empire was weak or their diplomacy particularly unsuccessful to counter raiding by nomads to the north. Many of the dykes of southern Wales, like Tor Clawdd and Bedd Eiddil, seem to block access to the coastal plains from the mountains (where people lived a more pastoral and possibly nomadic lifestyle), while Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke possibly fulfilled the same purpose of keeping Welsh raiders out of Mercia. Perhaps Offa’s Dyke represents a breakdown of diplomacy with the Welsh during his reign; relations had been much closer when the earlier Mercian King Penda was a close ally of the Welsh King Cadwallon. Alternatively, like the later Chinese walls, whose remains we see today on tourist posters and which were often symbolic rather than anti-raiding defences, Offa’s Dyke merely reflected Offa’s imperial pretensions. These two very different functions, though not mutually exclusive if these structures were multi-functional, do highlight the danger of cherry-picking analogous examples from other countries or periods.


Linear earthworks in other countries and periods have controlled trade and delimited territory, but often were designed to protect areas from raiders. While it is possible to make analogies with early medieval British dykes, we should be cautious, as people can build similar structures in response to dissimilar circumstances. Such comparisons do suggest that gateways and palisades would leave obvious traces on early medieval dykes in Britain and therefore we can possibly dismiss the suggestion that they were ever created.

Feudalism in England

The Norman conquest of England introduced feudalism to these islands with several modifications, some apparently intended to improve on the system operating in Normandy, others as the result of the adoption of existing Saxon instruments of government. Of the 5,000 or so knights who formed the expeditionary force, only about half were Normans and the remainder were Frenchmen, Bretons, Aquitanians, and Flemings serving as mercenaries or seeking their fortunes. William’s own tenants refused to follow him as such, since feudal service was not obligatory outside the realm, and only the promise of conquered lands induced them to set out. As no prior feudal obligation to his own men existed, and as eventually all the important English landowners were dispossessed, William was able to make a fresh start and introduce a more or less uniform system over the whole country, and to modify such Continental customs as he found dangerous. Since the loyalty of his men was at first assured because their future depended on his holding his new kingdom successfully, he could impose on them any conditions he thought necessary. Private wars between his barons, limited in Normandy, were forbidden in England, and quarrels between them had to be brought to his courts. Private warfare was not successfully suppressed in France until the reign of St Louis (1226–70). William partitioned out the land to something under 200 great lords, many of them his tenants-in-chief in Normandy, in return for the services of a stipulated number of knights, often apparently in fives or multiples of five. The Church was granted land in return for the service of some 780 knights, allocated to abbeys, cathedrals, monasteries, and churches, exactly as if they were lay land-holders. The quotas were larger than the equivalent ones in Normandy and were entirely at the disposal of the king, unlike the custom of the Duchy, where only a fraction of the knights enfeofed on an estate was due to the duke and even fewer to the over-lord, the king of France. The Bayeux Inquest of 1133 shows that of the knights owing military service to the Bishop of Bayeux only one-sixth owed service to the duke and only one-twelfth to the king of France. Varying periods of service by half-armed knights, common in Normandy and elsewhere, were apparently unknown in England. The King himself kept the largest single group of estates in his own hands, and he placed his most trusted lieutenants in the key positions; his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux, for example, at Dover, the main Channel port, and William fitz-Osbern at Hereford to guard the Welsh Marches.

The tenants-in-chief each received many manors scattered up and down the land. There seem to have been three reasons for this; firstly, because the country was only conquered piecemeal; secondly, because the only estates confiscated at first were those of Saxons who had fought at Hastings or been slow to submit, and it was only after the great revolt of 1069 that wholesale confiscation of Saxon lands took place; thirdly, because in some cases one Norman might be given the lands held by a single Saxon before the Conquest, and these might not necessarily have been all in one shire. Geoffrey Alselin held the entire lands of the thegn Toki, son of Outi, scattered all over the Danelaw. These lands were held by Geoffrey for the same dues paid by Toki to King Edward, as well as for military service. In a very few cases Saxon land-holders were allowed to buy back their land, in others they became sub-tenants under a Norman lord. In the case of some of the most important baronial castles the bulk of the estates of its lord were grouped round it to form a castellaria for its support, although other estates belonging to its lord might be scattered all over England. An example of this is the ‘honour’ of Henry de Ferrars for the maintenance of Tutbury Castle on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, with 114 estates in Derbyshire and eight in Staffordshire, and lands more scattered and less numerous in twelve other shires. The fiefs of great continental barons were also scattered, though in this case by the accidents of their acquisition over a very long period rather than by any plan imposed by their sovereigns. The estate of a Norman was usually called his ‘fee’, that is, the land with which he was enfeofed, and if an important one held by a tenant-in-chief it was called his ‘honour.’ Although normally referred to as ‘Normans’ many of the new settlers of all ranks were French, Flemish, or Breton.

Apparently no system was laid down as to how the tenantsin- chief were to produce their servicium debitum. Some hired knights, when the king required them, from the many landless younger sons seeking their fortunes and hoping to win a knight’s fee of their own in return for services. Others kept knights permanently in their households to escort them from manor to manor in their travels between England and Normandy and to guard their castles. As the land settled down and the danger of an English rising receded, the necessity for keeping large numbers of household knights grew less, and the great majority of lords granted parts of their estates to lesser barons or to individual knights in return for their military service. Even as late as 1166, the Cartae Baronum shows some honours with insufficient enfeofed knights to complete their quotas, indicating that household knights or pure mercenaries must have been employed to make up the required numbers. Church magnates must have found it particularly irksome to have rough knights permanently quartered in their halls, but equally they were unwilling to lose control of land by enfeofment. Originally these grants of land were apparently not hereditary; the earliest three charters confirming enfeofment of this sort, all of the reign of William I, stipulate that the grant is for one life only, although one is to the son of the previous holder and this particular holding is known to have become hereditary in this family at a later date. By the reign of Henry I the knight’s fee normally descended to the heir without question.

The sub-vassal holding several knight’s fees in the honour of a great tenant-in-chief stood in a similar relation to his lord as the lord did to the king. He helped to administer the honour, filling the baron’s subordinate offices as steward, marshal, butler, or constable, as the great barons did at the royal court, advising in the honour-court, and leading his own servicium debitum to join that of his lord when summoned to do so. It was probably from this class, as well as from minor tenants-in-chief, that the officer known in the fourteenth century as the ‘banneret’ was originally drawn.

The annual period of military service for knights in France, Normandy, and northern Italy, recorded in many documents, was 40 days in peace or war. In England, however, only one document mentions the length of service for knights, and this is a grant made about 1140 by none other than the King’s Marshal, John fitz-Gilbert, of a fief in return for knight’s service for two months in time of war and 40 days in time of peace, and the wording suggests that this was customary. Since it is not normally stated, the period of service may have been so well known as not to need stating and this particular grant may therefore refer to an exceptional period. However, the period served by the pre-Conquest fyrd was certainly also two months, and if this was continued after the Conquest the period of service by knights could very well have been made to conform with it. Castle guard, another knightly service, at Richmond Castle, Yorkshire, is also recorded as being for two months. Later in the twelfth century the period was probably reduced to the 40 days customary elsewhere, as sergeants and infantry of the shire are both recorded as serving for this period by the end of the century. In France, but apparently not in England, the tenant of a fraction of a knight’s fee sometimes served for the same fraction of 40 days; the holder of half a fee would serve for 20 days.

In 1086, late in his reign, William 1 ordered an oath of personal fealty to himself to be taken at Salisbury, by, or on behalf of, all landholders of any account, regardless of who their overlord might be. He realised that the normal oath of fealty of a sub-vassal to his lord, which excluded his duty to the king, was insufficient to prevent the sub-vassal from following his lord if the latter revolted. It is unlikely that a knight of that period, still a fairly insignificant person socially, would have been considered of sufficient importance to be called to the oath taking, and probably only the larger sub-vassals were summoned.

This personal oath to the king was repeated on a number of later occasions, most important of which was the oath of 1166 when Henry II ordered a survey to be made of the state of the knighthood of the kingdom, so that all those knights who had not yet done homage to him might do so before a certain date. He asked his tenants-in-chief how many knights each had enfeofed on his estates at the time of the death of Henry I, how many were enfeofed at the time of writing, and how many more had to be provided to fulfil their servicium debitum. The answers to this survey were recorded in the Cartae Baronum. One result of this was an increased assessment of the quotas in 1168. In fact, in many cases many more knights had been enfeofed than were due. As early as 1135 the Bishop of Durham had enfeofed 64 knights although his servicium debitum was only ten; however, this may have been because of the need to defend the frontier from Scottish raids.

Alongside knight’s tenure was also tenure by sergeanty (insergentaria): tenure by some specified service less than knight’s service and very often rendered personally to the lord. It might be a purely civilian service such as keeping a hawk or hound for the king, providing the table-cloths for a specific animal feast, or providing the king with a meal of roast pork when he hunted in Wychwood; on the other hand it might be military service such as carrying the king’s banner on campaign in Wales, or leading the forces of the hundred in which the man lived. Some tenants in sergeanty did actually owe the service of a knight to the army but this was exceptional. The characteristic of the service is that it differs from sergeant to sergeant and, therefore, unlike knight’s service, must be fully described in any grant. Where the service was military it was normally for 40 days at the expense of the sergeant, although shorter periods are also recorded. One sergeant was to provide an infantryman for service in Wales supplied with a side of bacon; when this was eaten he was free to go home. Some sergeants had to provide horsemen, others footmen, and the supplying of bowmen and crossbowmen is also recorded. In 1213 John’s summons of the army to Dover included the servientes and implied that they were to serve mounted, but the sergeants of the French demesne recorded in the Prisia Servientum of 1202–3 were infantry. Sergeants from fairly early times were able to serve by proxy and by the thirteenth century they had very often commuted their service for a money payment.

The medieval chronicler frequently described the lower ranks of the army as sergeants (servientes) but this includes many more than the tenants in sergeanty. These would be present in the army without doubt; the military sergeants fulfilling their tenurial obligations, the others serving because of the personal obligation of all freemen to do so. The towns and ecclesiastical tenants of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem are described by John of Ibelin as owing the service of 5,025 sergeants in time of great need and within the realm. In some cases these may have been lightly armed horsemen and horsebowmen. William of Tyre, writing about 1170–80. refers to lightly armed horse.

As far as mounted sergeants are concerned, it is normally assumed that they were less well armed than the knights, and it is true that they are occasionally encountered on campaign carrying out reconnaissances, a traditional light cavalry role, and in later documents the service of two sergeants is frequently equated with that of one knight. Fees in sergeanty were occasionally changed to half a knight’s fee, and knight’s fees were sometimes commuted for the service of two sergeants. For instance, the muster rolls for the campaign in Wales in 1245 show that the services of two sergeants might be accepted in place of those of a knight. Nevertheless, chroniclers describe sergeants as taking part with the knights in cavalry actions, and they must therefore have been similarly equipped.

The servientes armorum (sergeants-at-arms) were raised, apparently by Philip Augustus, to act as a body-guard against the Assassins on the Third Crusade. They were later copied by most European kings and can normally be identified in medieval paintings by the maces they carry. Although originally a guard, their constant presence around the king meant that he inevitably used them as messengers to deliver his orders, and also to carry them out. At a time when few people could read, the royal arms on their mace was their means of identification and thus the weapon itself became the sign of their royal authority. By the fourteenth century the French royal sergeants’ maces were silver mounted and had the royal arms enamelled on them.

As well as these Norman innovations, William I also used Saxon institutions of government which were more highly developed than those on the Continent; the writ – the king’s formal letter of instructions – the shire- and hundred-courts, and the excellent Saxon coinage, as well as the annual tax, the Danegeld. Norman barons were given office as sheriffs, and until the revolt of 1069 many Englishmen were employed in high office; like Earl Morcar of Northumbria. The most important English institution William used was the prefeudal military organization, comprising the right to call upon the service of every freeman in time of war, the selective service by which those who stayed at home equipped and paid the man who served on their behalf, and the summons of the force by a writ to the sheriff. This force, later known as the shire levy, together with similar levies from the towns, augmented the feudal army and could be used against over-powerful tenants-in-chief even if they had called out their sub-vassals against the king.

Although William had forbidden his barons to fight each other, they were violent men unused to such restraint, and his own reign and those of his sons were disturbed by numerous baronial wars and revolts. Saxon thegns and freemen fought for the king alongside his loyal feudatories in the baronial revolts, such as that of Eustace of Boulogne in 1067 and of the Earls of Hereford and East Anglia in 1075. As early as 1068 Englishmen were fighting against the forces of Harold’s sons, and the commander of the forces of Somerset on that occasion was Eadnoth, who had been one of King Edward’s household officers. In the following year the men of London, Salisbury, and Winchester were employed in putting down a revolt in Somerset and Dorset. The chronicler Ordericus Vitalis again and again describes Englishmen fighting for the king against rebels. The continuation of pre-Conquest military institutions is shown for instance by the Domesday Book, which in several places refers to military service owed by ordinary sub-tenants at the time of King Edward’s death and still owed at the time of the survey. There are a number of references to the duty of serving by land and sea which suggests a survival of the Saxon ship-fyrd obligation. The right to collect fyrdwite, the fine for failure to serve in the fyrd, is mentioned in post-Conquest documents. A number of small land-holders holding by sergeanty are recorded as doing so in return for leading the local forces or carrying the banner of their hundred. The large numbers of Englishmen summoned for service in 1094 were infantry and were almost certainly representatives of the select fyrd, since they each had 10 s. which the king took from them and which, it has been suggested, was their subsistence money mentioned in the Berkshire passage in Domesday. Englishmen, as distinct from Anglo-Normans, certainly served in France in the campaign of 1078 against Fulk of Anjou, when Ordericus speaks of ‘Normannos et Anglos’ and also records the name of one, Toki, son of Wigot of Wallingford, present at the siege of Gerberoi. The presence of men of the fyrd in France is explained by the early twelfth-century Leis Willelmi which lay down that freemen are obliged to serve beyond the seas. The disappearance of select service is unrecorded but the basis of fyrd service, the obligation of all freemen to serve the king in time of war, remained to be incorporated in the Assize of Arms of 1186. The development of the Anglo-Norman feudal army of later periods was greatly influenced by the incorporation of the Saxon military system.

Although a somewhat similar organization existed on the Continent, the arrière-ban, which could be summoned in time of war, William cannot have failed to have been impressed by the quality of the Saxon select fyrd at Hastings. In France the arrière-ban seems to have been called out only very occasionally, and, untrained and probably poorly armed, seems to have been of little use against cavalry. The king of France was forced to rely on the men of his own demesne lands and such vassals as remained loyal when a revolt broke out.

What evidence there is shows that the English continued to fight as infantrymen and, in fact, their methods influenced the Normans, since at Tinchebrai (1106) the Normans dismounted to fight, and at the Standard (1138) the north countrymen and the Norman knights stood shoulder to shoulder on foot, almost like Harold’s army at Hastings.

Feudalism in Germany

In Germany feudalism was established later than in France. The Norsemen only attacked the area of the lower Rhine, and the period of their raids was relatively short. The greater danger came from the Magyars and Slavs along the eastern borders. Although their raids influenced the development of serfdom and the growth of feudalism even before the reforms of Henry the Fowler (919–36), it was not until the civil wars of the reign of Henry IV (1056–1106), the baronial revolts of the twelfth century, and the weakening of the crown by the Investiture Contest that the power of the nobility was greatly strengthened and many of the freemen peasantry were depressed into servility. The traditional German war leader, the duke (Herzog), had survived from tribal times, and his power, together with that of the great church magnates, prevented complete chaos from breaking out, even under weak kings like Ludwig the Child (899–911) and Conrad I (911–18). Although Charlemagne had suppressed the original tribal dukes and replaced them by his own Frankish officials, by the time of Henry the Fowler they had once more become identified with the racial origins of their dukedoms, Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, and Saxony. The tribal origin of the great dukedoms prevented feudalism becoming as rigid as it did, for instance, in France. The dukes recognized that they held their offices of the king but did not admit to holding their lands from him. Within their dukedoms they coined money, called assemblies, administered justice, and controlled the church, as in Merovingian times.

The nobility always included many who regarded their lands as being allods which they might divide up into fiefs as they liked, without asking leave of the king. These were at first called ‘sun fiefs’ (Sonnenlehen) since they were held free of any earthly overlord, and later ‘banner fiefs’ (Fahnlehen) because investiture was by the gift of a banner. At first only the duchies were of this rank, later margravates, and finally all princely fiefs were conferred in this way. Investiture by means of a banner is illustrated in the manuscript of the Sachsenspiegel of about 1360, as well as investiture by means of a glove, also referred to in the Chanson de Roland. The Sachsenspiegel also illustrates the act of doing homage both singly and in groups, and the subsequent oath on saintly relics (Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, M. 32).

French-style feudalism, the union of benefice or fief with vassalage and the adoption of the principle of commendation and homage, came later and was always more common in the lands nearest to France. The growth of feudalism was everywhere checked by the existence of the royal officials, dukes, counts, and hundred-men. Otto the Great (936–73) had incorporated into the military hierarchy the bishops and the abbots appointed by the Crown. The Concordat of Worms of 1122 confirmed this by making the princes of the Church princes of Germany with the Pope’s approval. The Church magnates were expected to serve in the army in person, and their forces were one of the mainstays of the king. The feudatories, as opposed to the dukes, were forbidden to wage private wars, and were not allowed to coin money. They had only simple jurisdiction within their lands. Under Otto 1 even the dukes were not immune from the king’s justice. The feudal anarchy prevailing in France was considered to be a scandal and the attempt of Henry II to introduce the ‘Peace of God’ was thought to be an unjust reflection on public law.

Fiefs did not become hereditary until the eleventh century, and although counties had become hereditary by the time of Henry II (1002–24) even the greatest duchies were not absolutely hereditary until the reign of Henry IV. Knights and knighthood were apparently unknown until the twelfth century. The first recorded instance of knighthood being conferred in the German lands is the knighting of the Hungarian king by Conrad III in 1146, possibly in imitation of French practice seen on the Second Crusade.

Very many freemen survived in Germany without dependance on any lord, vassals without fiefs were common until the eleventh century, and the Heerban, the levy of all freemen to defend the realm, survived as a fighting force much later than elsewhere. At Bouvines (1214) there were many Saxon freemen fighting on foot. These freemen (Frîgebur) who were particularly common in Saxony and Bavaria and rather less so in Swabia and Franconia, had the same wergild as a knight (Ritter), acted as jurors as in England, and formed the Heerban.

The main feature distinguishing German feudalism from that of other lands is the ministerialis, the unfree knight. Although in England and France vassals could be sold, given away, or bequeathed by the will of their overlords, they remained free in law, and noble; the ministeriales did not. They appear to have derived from a superior class of serf who rendered service rather than labour, and in Carolingian times they are found as managers and stewards of estates. Originally their service was essentially non-military, and in 789 Charlemagne ruled that a ministerialis who rendered genuine military service was by the very fact made free. As time went on they developed into court officials at both royal and noble courts, because their employment meant that land was not lost by enfeofment, and because of the unreliability of vassals. A serf had the habit of obedience, a free vassal had not. By the twelfth century when the class was fully formed, they are found regularly performing military duties, and their status had become hereditary in fact, if not in law. The Italian expeditions greatly increased the military use of ministeriales since the German feudatories were reluctant to serve so far from home. Among south German contingents sent on these campaigns the proportion of vassals decreased from 71 per cent in the period 1096–1146 to 3 per cent in 1191–1240. The balance were ministeriales. They made up the majority of the army of Conrad III on the Second Crusade. Their term of service is unknown but it may have been longer than that of knights, which was six weeks without pay with a further period of service on demand after an interval of six weeks.

Under Henry IV (1056–1106) almost all the court officials were ministeriales. They were cordially detested for their coarse manners, pride, and petty tyranny. In the twelfth century they began to receive knighthood and to assume titles like nobles from the lands granted to them, and by the end of the century the two classes, the free and unfree nobility, were virtually indistinguishable. In Italy they sometimes held great administrative offices, like Markward of Anweiler who was regent of Sicily and, at the time of his enfranchisement in 1197, was made Duke of Ravenna and Marquis of Ancona.

Society took much longer to stratify in Germany than it did, for instance, in France, partly because of the position of ministeriales bridging all ranks, and partly because of the large number of freemen peasants which prevented the growth of the contempt for the peasantry typical of France. Few of the smaller barons had any vassals, their place being taken by ministeriales, and those that did had rarely enfeofed them. The barons lived on their estates in unfortified manor houses made possible by the peaceful condition of the countryside. Castles were usually only held by royal officials and were often provisioned and garrisoned at the expense of the king. During the reign of Henry IV, on the other hand, many unlicensed castles were built by rebellious barons or self-seeking ministeriales. The long minority of this king and his subsequent quarrel with the Pope over investiture of bishops weakened the royal power, encouraged the centrifugal force of feudalism, and lost him the support of the church so laboriously built up, as a counterweight to the baronage, by Conrad II (1024–39). This king had done what he could to undermine the growing power of the great barons by recognizing the hereditary nature of fiefs held by sub-vassals in Germany and legalising it in Italy. This gained him the sympathy and support of the sub-vassals and weakened the grip on them of the tenants-in-chief, but at the same time encouraged the fragmentation of Germany.

In the late eleventh century Benzo of Alba suggested that Henry IV should replace feudal military service by a tax similar to scutage, and employ a mercenary army. The same suggestion was made after the battle of Bouvines in 1214 but mercenaries never seem to have played a major part in German armies until late in the Middle Ages. Instead, kings like Henry V (1106–25) and Frederick 1 of Hohenstaufen (1152–90) relied on their great personal wealth and family connections to provide themselves with vassals and allies. The fall of Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, in 1181, weakened the traditional power of the ancient dukedoms and allowed the emergence of many small feudal states. The fall of the Hohenstaufen family in the thirteenth century prevented a strong kingship from growing up, as in France and England. The centrifugal forces of feudalism took over. Vassals became independent of their overlords, and the condition of Germany began to resemble that of France under the later Carolingians.


The ‘Feudal System’ in England, as it is taught in schools, seems fairly simple and consistent, the result of the imposition by a small conquering minority of a system already developed beyond these shores, and modified even as it was imposed. But even in England it was extremely complex, developing fairly rapidly from the hour of its introduction, modified by the adoption of Saxon law and custom and by changing conditions within the kingdom, and even now still open to re-interpretation in many of its features. On the Continent, however, it differed greatly from country to country depending on the circumstances under which it developed. In those areas which have been studied, custom and feudal law varied widely and it would be quite impractical to try to cover the whole of Europe except in the most general terms. Outside northern France and those lands where feudalism was deliberately imported, England, Sicily and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, many variations are found. Almost everywhere else, even in France south of the Loire, some allodial land remained, that is land held free of any overlord, and the frequency and complexities of vassalage varied from place to place. For instance, in parts of the south of France vassalage was established by a simple oath of fealty, a promise not to harm the lord or his interests in any way, without any question of homage; that is, without the ceremony of clasping hands and the statement of willingness by the vassal and acceptance by the lord. In northern Italy homage disappeared by the twelfth century and vassalage was established by an oath of fealty only. The special class of unfree knights, called ministeriales, found in Germany and the Low Countries, did not perform homage since they were already regarded as the property of their lord.

In Russia, Scandinavia, Castile and León, a few feudal customs were found but the system never developed fully in these lands. Even feudal terminology was not uniform all over Europe. For instance, the word vavassor refers in France to a sub-vassal of lowly rank, sometimes serving with incomplete armour; in northern Italy a sub-vassal of the crown; while in England it could imply a freeman owing military service, not necessarily a vassal at all. In northern Italy, the power and organization of the great mercantile cities and the tradition of urban life going back to Roman times always outshone feudalism which is an institution based essentially on land and rural communities. The wealth of the cities over-shadowed that of the feudatories. The Italian nobility, many of whom were heavily engaged in trade, tended to live in the towns, sometimes in fortified houses like those of many-towered San Gimignano. Similarly in Germany, relatively free from the devastation of the Norsemen, and with a series of strong kings able to assert themselves and to prevent the chaos which rent France during the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire, a rather different social system developed.

In general, the essence of the system, as we have seen, was protection in exchange for service. Even as late as the four-teenth century the exchange of services between knight and peasant, inherent in the earliest stages of feudalism, was still recognized. The peasant in Piers Plowman says that he will work and sweat for the knight who in turn will protect him and Holy Church from evildoers, and protect the land from vermin large and small. In France, the cradle of feudalism, one can add to this the phrase ‘no land without a lord, no lord without a fief.’

All land was regarded as belonging to the king under God. The greater nobles, the tenants-in-chief, held their land, now beginning to be called a fief rather than a benefice, in return for auxilium and consilium; the duty of serving the king with a stipulated number of knights (servicium debitum), and the duty of assisting the king with their advice in all matters on which the king required it. The tenants-in-chief in turn granted part of their fief to sub-tenants who helped to make up the quota of knights owed by them to the king, by personal military service and, if their tenement was large, by providing an additional fixed number of knights. The lord in return must protect his vassal, which on the Continent might mean going to war on his behalf, and defend him in the courts of law, even in the royal courts. He must also advise him and maintain him, which usually entailed the granting of a fief. Many vassals are recorded in France holding very small fiefs and owing military service less than knight’s service, that is, not fully armed. The vassal without a fief still existed in the twelfth century and was maintained in his lord’s household but was becoming increasingly rare. The centrifugal force of feudalism was so great in France under the very weak kings that the dukes and counts managed to force many originally royal vassals to do homage to them instead. By the eleventh century the dukes of Burgundy were able to prevent the building of castles on allods within their sphere of influence, and the allod had to be converted into a fief held of the duke before permission was granted.

The land remained the possession of the overlord, to whom the payment of a ‘relief’ was due before the heir could take possession. If the tenant died without heirs or failed in his feudal duty, the fief returned to the grantor who could either retain it or grant it to another vassal. The overlord had the right of ‘wardship’, that is, the right to administer the fief and enjoy its profits during the minority of the heir or heiress, and the right to dispose of him or her in marriage. Similarly, he could dispose of the widow of a tenant in marriage. Two clauses in Magna Carta (1215) seek to prevent the abuse of the estates of minors, while another prevents a widow from being forced to remarry against her will. In the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the heiress of a great feudatory was allowed to choose from three suitable candidates for her hand selected by the king. In parts of France wardship was replaced by a system in which a close kinsman of the heir was appointed baillie and did homage and was invested with the fief during the minority. In Germany very high reliefs, fixed arbitrarily, were normal for important fiefs, but for smaller ones relief often consisted of a horse and arms, a practice going back to the return of the gifts made by his lord in the man’s lifetime, during the era of the war-bands of early times. By the late twelfth century, relief was fixed in France at one year’s revenue of the fief. In England, Magna Carta fixed relief for an earl at 100 l. and for a knight at 100 s., and less for those who held less land.

Originally, the lord had the right to an arbitrary tax from his vassals whenever he wished, but this was gradually reduced to the three customary ‘aids’ which could be demanded at the knighting of the lord’s eldest son, the wedding of his eldest daughter for the first time, and to pay his own ransom if he was captured in war. Even these aids were not universal in Italy and the German lands. A similar tax from the unfree was called tallage.

The tenants and sub-tenants had a duty to the peasants on their land to administer justice in the local courts, and to defend them from raiders, robbers, and enemies human and animal, in return for agricultural labour on the lord’s own demesne lands, carriage of his goods, and payments of food and produce. The right to administer justice developed from the power of a man to judge his own slaves, from the need to keep order among a lord’s dependants, and from simple usurpation of royal rights as the Carolingian Empire broke up. Medieval justice, resting largely upon fines, was profitable to those who administered it. To those judged, justice of any sort is better than no justice at all.

Many offices, such as those of duke, count, and in Germany of some bishops, were held as fiefs, but alongside these were many very minor offices and even duties which were held in this way; for instance the mayor of a town, the constable of a castle, or the right to tolls of a certain bridge or ferry.

The money fief or fief-rente was a device by which homage was rendered and stipulated military service was supplied in exchange, not for a fief, but for an annual fixed payment, sometimes secured on a particular tax or custom due. The best known example is the agreement with the Count of Flanders to supply troops to the Norman kings which lasted, with interruptions, until the death of Henry I or even later. This type of vassalage in return for an annuity was much more common later and was found particularly useful by Edward III and his Low Country allies.

Sicily between Byzantium and the Islamic World

The Hariri Ship, the first known picture of an Arab sailing vessel.

Map of the Arab–Byzantine naval conflict in the Mediterranean, 7th–11th centuries.

Map of southern Italy in the 10th century. Byzantine provinces (themes) in yellow, Lombard principalities in other colours.

Afterwards, the Saracens who had sailed from Rome came to Sicily, where they occupied the aforementioned city and slaughtered many of the population who had taken refuge in fortifications or in the mountains and, taking with them lots of booty or bronze, they returned to Alexandria.

Vita of Pope Adeodatus II

During the Byzantine centuries, Greek and Latin travelers to and from Sicily were examples and, indeed, agents of the complex web of connections between the Latin and Greek Christian worlds as they overlapped on Sicily. From the seventh century onward, Sicily also began to be drawn into the Islamicate world, as represented primarily by the political center of Qayrawān and the many seaports of Aghlabid Ifrīqiya (modern Tunisia) and Egypt. Long before Sicily became a Muslim province in the ninth century, in fact, considerable travel and communication were conducted between the island and the dār al-Islām, making the island increasingly important as a zone of interaction between Muslims and Christians, both Greek and Latin. Although, as in the sixth and seventh centuries, economic movements cannot be quantitatively reconstructed from the remaining data, by the eighth century, there is clear evidence of semiregular ship travel between the shores of Sicily and Aghlabid Ifrīqiya. While most of this traffic was of a military nature—with regular raids on Sicily’s southern shores starting in the seventh century of the common era—evidence also points to both diplomatic and, perhaps, even commercial transactions occurring between Sicily and Muslim North Africa while the island remained under the administrative control of Constantinople.

The introduction of Muslim powers into the western Mediterranean thus expanded the communication networks in which Sicily participated, in effect broadening the island’s place in the region rather than constricting or isolating it. New networks were opened while preexisting ones were maintained, even if altered. It is true that the relative amount of travel along each of the routes shifted and rebalanced over time, as Sicily conceptually drew closer to Muslim Africa and drifted farther from the Greek eastern Mediterranean. As the central Mediterranean Sea became populated with more and more Muslim-sailed ships, the waters around Sicily came to be linked more closely with northern Africa. At times we see ships from the Christian world encountering difficulties when sailing into hostile waters, but these voyages did not cease. The island, at the nexus of these three worlds, continued for some time to be a place of interaction and connection between Muslims and Christians, even if a preponderance of these interactions, as they appear in the sources, were hostile. Even violent interaction—and especially regularly recurring violent contact, such as that which took place during the nearly annual Muslim raids against Sicily—is a type of exchange that requires travel and the infrastructure of travel, and that connects peoples and spaces, drawing them closer together in terms of communications.

Even while communications with Muslim North Africa were increasing, Sicily remained in contact with the Greek East and with the Latin West. That is, the entry of Muslim polities into Sicilian affairs caused a relatively slow shift southward—rather than a break—of the communication networks of the island, concurrent with the persistence of many of the connections between Constantinople, Sicily, and Rome. The traditional periodization of Sicily’s history draws a firm line between the Greek Byzantine era and the Muslim period, with historians of Byzantium and the Middle East divvying up their examinations of the island. If, instead, we look across these centuries, at the transition period itself, our view of Sicily’s history and role within Mediterranean systems is very different. By placing the conquest of Sicily by Muslim forces in the middle of our examination rather than at the beginning or the end, we see that Muslim North Africa’s involvement with Sicily transformed the island’s communication networks rather than simply replacing one set of networks with another. Viewed across the period of the conquest, from the start of Muslim involvement in Sicily in the seventh century through the ninth–century conquest and into the tenth century, as Byzantine forces continued to try to retake Muslim Sicily—and by examining a variety of sources in Greek, Arabic, and Latin—political control did not necessarily determine the extent and range of the communications that defined Sicily’s regional affinities and its place within those local systems. Sicily was and remained broadly interconnected within the Mediterranean system, with Muslims and Latins as well as Greek Christians, even as the shapes and meanings of these connections shifted.

At the same time that military engagement was the most often recorded type of interaction between Sicily and Africa, the sources also allow glimpses of less martial communications between Greek Christians and Muslims. At times, those interactions took place because of or in the midst of battle, and at other times they could arise from diplomatic exchanges aimed at the stabilization of political and military tensions. Just as Byzantine Sicily was the site of diplomatic negotiations and the transfer of information between Greek and Latin Christian officials, so too did diplomats and envoys travel between Greek Sicily and Islamic North Africa, carrying both news and negotiations for peace. For example, the semiannual military incursions from Ifrīqiya were several times halted by truces that were officially concluded between embassies traveling between Syracuse and Qayrawān. Likewise, economic connections between the two may also have developed at this time. Because direct evidence for trade between Sicily and Ifrīqiya at this time is scarce, we can only assume the existence of economic connections that might be implied in the source record. Ships sailing back and forth within the Sicilian Strait between Ifrīqiyan ports and those of Sicily could have easily made the trip without meriting record in textual sources, and there are some suggestions that Sicily’s economic conditions were attracting the attention of Qayrawān. The Arabic chronicles, although written much later than the events they describe, detail the raids on Sicily carried out from Ifrīqiya and list all of the items gathered from the island, which suggests that the Aghlabid emīrate was taking an increasingly economic interest in the island of Sicily. Even if these lists of valuable items reflect a nostalgic image of a lost island of wealth, they demonstrate that the memory of Sicily’s conquest was tied closely to the perceived value of the products to be gained there. While the collection of war spoils was a regular part of this type of military strike, and a common way to reward soldiers for their service, it is the prolonged interest paid to the details of this booty by the later chroniclers that merits our attention. On the other hand, the products mentioned were exclusively high-value items—bejeweled icons and human slaves, for example—rather than more mundane trade items such as grain or textiles, which may also have proved attractive. At any rate, the Arabic chroniclers’ focus on these spoils indicates that they associated the conquest (and, therefore, also the loss) of Sicily with the annexation of an opulent and prosperous society.

The precise reasons that in the ninth century these regular raids for the collection of booty turned into an outright conquest of Sicily are not perfectly clear. The sustained interest that North African Muslims had taken in Sicily for many years suggests that the conquest was not simply the result of a sudden revival of jihād ideology or a desire to expand Islamic rule into Italy. Likewise, the conquest of Sicily should not be understood as part of the same process that brought North Africa and Iberia into the Islamic world, although those conquests do provide a background for this one. The conquest of Sicily was a major undertaking that occurred more than a century after the conclusion of the initial period of Muslim expansion into the Mediterranean region, and it arose from unique impulses relating to the nature of the Byzantine-Muslim frontier in the central Mediterranean. As with the later Norman Latin takeover of Sicily, outright military conquest followed many years of involvement in the island’s affairs. Sicily had been slowly entering the orbit of North Africa for several centuries prior to the ninth-century takeover. Then, as the boundary line between Byzantine and Muslim territory in the Mediterranean became more porous, the balance of power tipped far enough in Muslim favor that the outright military conquest of Sicily appeared to be advantageous for the Aghlabid administration of Ifrīqiya.

Indeed, it is the permeability of the Sicilian borderland itself that created the shift in relative power between Muslim and Christian authorities in the region. Much work has been done on the relationship between the Byzantines and the Muslims along the eastern frontier between Anatolia and Syria, and on the importance of that border zone for the health and wholeness of the Byzantine Empire. Far less has been written about the western frontier, partly because the Muslim-Greek battles that took place in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean were closer to the heartlands of both civilizations, and partly because that region produced the preponderance of sources about the Muslim-Christian conflict. But Sicily operated within the Byzantine Empire of the sixth through tenth centuries as an equally important frontier for Constantinople: one that both connected and separated the Greek world from the Latin Christian world and, as we will see here, one that did likewise with the Muslim world. Sicily was not simply a point on the dividing line between polities or religiopolitical civilizations; it also connected cultures in a zone of contact and conflict. The paradigm for discussing the relationships between Byzantines and Muslims has also tended to be that of conflict—both rhetorical and militarized. But some more recent work has also located shared traditions and a high degree of continuity between the Roman past and both the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages. Likewise, the three cultures that overlapped in the border region of Sicily and southern Italy indeed did so with violence and war, but also with shared reliance on the Roman tradition and through diplomacy, trade, and interpersonal interactions in the midst of warfare.

During the centuries of Byzantine control, Sicily was a region where fluidity of communications made it possible for Greeks, Muslims, and Latins to contest their control over a coveted locale while also maintaining the diplomatic and economic ties that were important to all of the parties involved. That is, this boundary zone between the Latin, Greek, and Muslim worlds was a disputed area, but one where various parties could meet, rather than a solid line of demarcation between Christians and Muslims. Sicily was often considered—by both Constantinople and local powers in Italy—an extension of Constantinople’s authority and, at the same time, was an important venue for managing relationships between local Muslim powers and the Greek Byzantine world. These multifaceted relationships along the Sicilian borderland will here be viewed by means of military, political, diplomatic, and economic communications between Byzantine Sicily and Muslim North Africa, along with the consequent population transfers that wrought demographic changes in the region, which would themselves also help shape future communication networks on and around the island.