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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Enemies and coreligionists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Prince and Khan Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Grand Prince and Khan Part II

The Tatars had jolted Russians out of their old mould, and by denying them access to the steppe they forced their energies into other directions. What happened as a result is not a question specifically addressed in the chronicles of the time. Yet an enterprising historian at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, A. A. Gorskii, devised an ingenious method for tracing changes in the relative importance of Russia’s cities which throws light on the problem. He counted the number of times each one is mentioned in the chronicles of each region of Russia over a lengthy period. He found that some place names cease to be referred to, others are mentioned with increasing frequency, and that new place names appear. If frequency of reference reflects importance, then these records indicate the rise and decline of cities and regions over time. In the chronicles of north-eastern Russia, for example, the city of Pereiaslav-Zalesskii is the most mentioned in the first half of the thirteenth century, but in the second half Moscow eclipses it, as does its parent city, Vladimir. Gorskii also found that Kiev is mentioned 44 times in the period 1200 to 1250 in the chronicles of the north-east, and that Halych is the second most frequently mentioned southern city. However, by 1300 Novgorod leads, and it holds its lead into the 1300s. A count of fortified settlements in the century after 1250 has shown that the principality of Chernigov had most, followed by Smolensk in the west, and then Kiev. However, the walls of Volyn and of Suzdal enclosed the largest areas, suggesting a greater concentration of population. Some of the detail may be confusing, but the general trend is clear: whereas the most populous and important cities had been in the south, they were now in the north. The political configuration confirms this finding. The four strongest principalities in the early thirteenth century had been Chernigov, Halych-Volynia, Smolensk and Vladimir-Suzdal. By the early 1300s the first three had ceased to exist, but a new state was being formed on the territory of the fourth.

The rising star was the Principality of Vladimir-Moscow. Yet by no means all parts of the first Russia were to cohere around it. One result of the Tatar impact was to send several old Russian centres in the south and west into a different orbit. They were to become part of the rising power of Lithuania. In time the influence of western neighbours on their language and culture caused them to diverge from the remaining Russians. Ultimately their peoples were to become those we know today as Ukrainians and Belorussians. However, despite these substantial losses of territory and population, and the attrition of Tatar rule, Russians were to make a good recovery demographically and go on to settle an area quite out of proportion to their numbers. How this came about is a question that fascinated one of Russia’s most interesting, and neglected, historians, Matvei Liubavskii, and it is related to the problem of why first Vladimir and then Moscow became the political centre of Russia.

Liubavskii noticed that the migration was confined to the forest zone. The colonizers avoided the Tatars’ stomping ground, the steppe. He also noticed that settlements were unevenly distributed, scattered, bounded by marshes and impenetrable tracts of forests, Russia’s natural frontiers. The great spread and dispersed character of Russian settlement helps to explain the lack of political cohesion in the old Russia and the failure to create an integrated state. Thanks to the Tatars and the northward movement of population, a new concentration of population allowed a more integrated state to be constructed. However, this did not explain why the principalities of the north-east should have become the fastest-growing sector in all Russia, or why Moscow, a neophyte among Russian cities, in a region that was relatively poor in natural resources and with little transit trade, should become the country’s capital, rather than Novgorod, Russia’s oldest city.

Liubavskii explained this in terms of Novgorod’s lack of an agricultural hinterland. This made it difficult for the city to secure food supplies for a large army, and this precluded its attaining pre-eminence in Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, had come to command a strategic central sector of Russia’s great network of rivers and portages, and developed an adequate agriculture and food supply. It was part of the Grand Principality of Vladimir, ‘a complex of … valuable territories, which were the source of great military and financial resources’. This strength derived in large measure from population growth, and from the extension of colonization, organized by the princes, boyars (their elite retainers) and clergy. But it also owed something to the aggression of its princes, who had to fight for a share of the commercial resources which more prosperous cities like Tver, Novgorod and Pskov already enjoyed, and to a new form of monastic development, which, as we shall see, was a reaction to the invasion.

The political coherence of Russia depended on the princes, especially on the grand prince of Vladimir-Moscow. By the fourteenth century the Tatars had relaxed their grip sufficiently to allow the princes to pursue policies that were rather less subservient. The first hint of change came when Ivan I was the leading Russian prince.

Historians customarily picture Ivan as cruel, sly and hypocritical, even though the chronicles yield virtually nothing about his character or personality except that his nickname (coined by an unappreciative brother) was Kalita — ‘Money-Bag’. This suggests that he was a good money manager, ungenerous, perhaps, and greedy. Inferences from actions, difficult though these sometimes are to reconstruct, suggest that he was also a canny strategist and a tough negotiator. His chief concern was unheroic: to maintain and, if possible, enlarge his heritage. He seized his opportunities, but only when it seemed safe to do so. Otherwise he prudently observed convention, kept the Church on his side, and never offended the Khan. The complexity and dangers of his predicament hardly allowed him to play the hero. Ivan is remembered as a significant historical figure in Russian history because he stumbled on opportunities. He happened to live at a juncture when he could exploit the Tatar khan’s dependence on his services and establish Moscow as the pre-eminent centre for the Russians.

A grandson of Alexander Nevskii, Ivan was born around 1288 and came to prominence in his forties, when he was enthroned as grand prince of Vladimir as well as prince of Moscow. Vladimir, to the east of Moscow, had been founded in 1108 on the river Kliazma, a tributary to the Volga. He reigned for only nine years. Yet one of his more significant achievements belonged to the period before he became grand prince. In 1325 he persuaded the Metropolitan of Kiev, Petr, to move permanently to Moscow. As an extra inducement he built the Cathedral of the Dormition, one of the four famous cathedral churches enclosed along with the palace within the walls of Moscow’s castle, the Kremlin. The expense was justified as well as affordable, for the new church added religious lustre to the place, and by extension to the Grand Prince. To have the head of the Russian Church based in his own city rather than Kiev was a great coup. It gave Moscow spiritual preeminence in Russia, and lent its prince particular prestige and clout.

Though their titles suggested authority, every Russian ruler of the time was a Tatar underling and had to accept regular humiliation. On the death of his predecessor a prince had to apply to the Khan at Sarai for permission to rule his inheritance. If his appointment was approved by the grant of a yarlyk, the Khan’s men would take the prince to his capital, enthrone him, and monitor his activities thereafter. Ivan took good care to please the Khan. When, therefore, Prince Dmitrii of Tver murdered his brother, Grand Duke Iurii, in a revenge killing in 1326, Ivan no doubt expected to be made grand prince. He was to be disappointed.

The Khan eventually executed Dmitrii for the murder, but then made Dmitrii’s brother, Aleksandr, grand prince. Aleksandr was evidently in the Khan’s good graces too. 10 Ivan had no alternative but to acquiesce, and wait. Then, in 1327, an anti-Tatar uprising erupted in Tver. Many Tatars were lynched, and Ivan rushed off to Sarai with the news. Uzbek Khan responded by entrusting him with a Tatar army 50,000 strong, telling him to punish Tver. He also authorized him to rule the western districts of the grand principality. But he did not appoint him grand prince. Instead he chose Aleksandr of Suzdal, who ruled the eastern districts, including Vladimir. Aleksandr is said to have carried off the cathedral bell from Vladimir and reinstalled it in the cathedral of his own city, Suzdal, but, according to one (presumably pro-Muscovite) chronicler, it refused to ring there. This was a way of suggesting that Aleksandr’s appointment lacked divine sanction. However, after Aleksandr’s death, in 1331, Ivan was finally confirmed as grand prince of Vladimir ‘and All Russia’.

The Khan’s reluctance to appoint him earlier had not been based on favouritism or whim. Nor was his preference for the princes of Tver and Suzdal. The decision reflected a sober appreciation of the fact that the Principality of Moscow had come to command more resources than any other principality. It had become altogether too mighty. That was why the policy-makers at Sarai had promoted Tver, Moscow’s rival. But then Tver had rebelled. So another counter-weight to Moscow had to be found. This explains the division of Tver’s territories between Ivan and Aleksandr. By 1331, however, the Khan’s priorities had changed. A grand prince of Vladimir ‘and all Russia’ was needed now to guard the Khan’s western territories, which were threatened not only by Sweden, but also by the fast-rising Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Its ruler, Olgerd, had been expanding vigorously towards the south and west, vying with Moscow for control of Novgorod, and threatening Smolensk and Pskov. Suddenly Sarai saw a strong Moscow as an asset rather than a danger.

Ivan recognized his chance and seized it. Some years previously his brother the grand prince lurii had taken responsibility for the collection of tribute for the Tatars from all north-eastern Russia. Now the indispensable Ivan turned the Khan’s rising dependence on him to good account by having the baskaks removed and charging all the princes with collection under his supervision. In practice this made the Grand Prince governor of all the princes. Nevertheless, Ivan was far from confident that his patrimony would remain intact or that his descendants would inherit it. This much is evident from his several wills.

In one of them, made within a year of his death and witnessed by three priests, he declares himself to be ‘the sinful, poor slave of God’ and bequeaths his patrimony, Moscow, to his three sons. He proceeds to specify every property precisely, and in stating which towns and villages each son should have, he mentions that he has already given the eldest, Semen, ‘four golden chains, three golden belts … a golden plate set with a pearl and precious stones … my red fur coat with pearls and my gold cap’. Yet he is by no means certain that his wishes will be honoured, that the Tatars will not intervene. ‘If for my sins the Tatars should covet any of these … [properties] then you, my sons and my princess, should divide … [those that remain] among yourselves.’ Nor, anxious though he is that memory of him and of his ancestors should not be extinguished, is he confident that his work, his patrimony, will be perpetuated. Yet his tomb and those of his descendants in the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Archangel still witness to the fact that it was.

The reign of Ivan ‘Money-Bag’ marks a watershed not only for Tatar rule in Russia, which was never again to be as firm and assured as it had been in the first quarter of the century, but for Moscow as the centre of Russian political life. By the end of the century the Grand Principality had come to be regarded as the patrimony of the princes of Moscow. This was the foundation on which the new Russia was to rise.

The metropolitans had played a vital role in developing Moscow’s political role, and none more so than Metropolitan Petr. The future saint’s hagiog-rapher assures us that Petr ‘foresaw the future glory of Moscow’ even ‘while it was yet poor’. Yet when Ivan pressed him to move there he seems to have implicitly insisted on a condition: ‘If thou wilt build a temple here worthy of the Mother of God,’ he told Ivan, ‘then thou shalt be more glorious than all the other princes, and thy posterity shall become great.’ The Cathedral of the Dormition was started, Petr duly arrived, and the continuing close co-operation between the grand princes and metropolitans of Moscow did much to ensure the fulfilment of Petr’s prophecy.

Circumstances encouraged metropolitan and grand prince to cooperate. Olgerd of Lithuania was fast absorbing western and southern Russia into his domains, and was pressing for a separate Lithuanian Church hierarchy, headed by its own metropolitan. The Lithuanian advance posed many churchmen with a choice of allegiance. Those who distrusted the Lithuanians, who had so recently been pagans and who were open to Catholic influences from the German and Polish Churches, opted for Russia. So did the Patriarch of Constantinople, who was becoming dependent on Muscovite subsidies. These factors and the steadfastness of Petr’s successors as metropolitan of Moscow – particularly Aleksei who was subsequently canonized – were to help Moscow beat off several challenges to its ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and to steady society when it was ravaged by the Black Death.

Aleksei’s family had served the father of Ivan I, so he had connections at the Grand Prince’s court and was familiar with affairs of state. Even so, his responsibilities as metropolitan were daunting. He had to start by going to Constantinople to negotiate with the Patriarch to secure his see; he had to guard it against inroads by the Lithuanians; and then he had to make his mark with the Khan (he earned a reputation as a healer in the process). Finally installed in Moscow, with an ecclesiastical jurisdiction more extensive than the Grand Prince’s political jurisdiction, he had to rescue the incapable Ivan II – the weakest of ‘Money-Bag’s’ sons, but the only one to survive the plague — from the consequences of his ineptitude. Things might very easily have descended into civil war. It was thanks largely to the adroit Aleksei that they did not. He made peace between fractious princely families; calmed anti-Muscovite Tver; advised on policy towards the Tatars; and acted as mentor to Ivan’s son and successor, Dmitrii, and as regent during the boy’s minority. In short, Metropolitan Aleksei held the Russian centre together and guided it through a period of crisis. He also prepared the way for a dramatic change in relations between the Russians and the Tatars, for in 1378 young Dmitrii – now of age – led a Russian army to victory over the Tatars on the river Vozha; two years later he trounced them again at the famous battle of Kulikovo.

These victories did not end Russia’s subjection, but they showed that the Tatars could be defeated, and hence that the subjection need not last. They also showed that Russian princes could sink their differences in a common front against the enemy, for warriors had come from all over northern Russia like eagles’ to Dmitrii’s aid. By the time of his death, in 1389, Dmitrii had also doubled the territory of the Grand Principality. The new circumstances also made it more probable that his descendants would succeed him. Yet a venerable monk named Sergius, who attended his funeral, was to do as much as Dmitrii to enlarge the Russian land.


On September 8, 1380, Rus forces led by Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich fought and defeated a mixed (including Tatar, Alan, Circassian, Genoese, and Rus) army led by the Emir Mamai on Kulikovo Pole (Snipe’s Field) at the Nepryadva River, a tributary of the Don. As a result of the victory, Dmitry received the sobriquet “Donskoy.” Estimates of numbers who fought in the battle vary widely. According to Rus chronicles, between 150,000 and 400,000 fought on Dmitry’s side. One late chronicle places the number fighting on Mamai’s side at 900,030. Historians have tended to downgrade these numbers, with estimates ranging from 30,000 to 240,000 for Dmitry and 200,000 to 300,000 for Mamai.

The circumstances of the battle involved politics within the Qipchaq Khanate. Mamai attempted to oust Khan Tokhtamish, who had established himself in Sarai in 1378. In order to raise revenue, Mamai intended to require tribute payments from the Rus princes. Dmitry organized the Rus princes to resist Mamai and, in effect, to support Tokhtamish. As part of his strategy, Mamai had attempted to coordinate his forces with those of Jagailo, the grand duke of Lithuania, but the battle occurred before the Lithuanian forces arrived. After fighting most of the day, Mamai’s forces left the field, presumably because he was defeated, although some historians think he intended to conserve his army to confront Tokhtamish. Dmitry’s forces remained at the scene of the battle for several days, and on the way back to Rus were set upon by the Lithuania forces under Jagailo, which, too late to join up with Mamai’s army, nonetheless managed to wreak havoc on the Rus troops.

Although the numbers involved in the battle were immense, and although the battle led to the weakening of Mamai’s army and its eventual defeat by Tokhtamish, the battle did not change the vassal status of the Rus princes toward the Qipchaq khan. A cycle of literary works, including Zadonshchinai (Battle beyond the Don) and Skazanie o Mamaevom poboishche (Tale of the Rout of Mamai), devoted to ever-more elaborate embroidering of the bravery of the Rus forces, has created a legendary aura about the battle.

A Brief History of WMDs before 1900

This is a Mongol style siege but not the siege of Kaffa [Caffa] from the early 14th century Jami al-Tawarikh  (Compendium of Chronicles) by Rashid ad-Din.  Edinburgh University Library

Transmission from Kaffa. (Wheelis, 2002)

In terms of referring to nuclear, chemical-and by inference, biological-weapons, the term “weapons of mass destruction” first came into use in 1956 when it was used in a speech by Soviet Red Army Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov. In fact, it was this speech that highlighted for U. S. policy makers the real or perceived threat from the Soviet Union, particularly in terms of the latter’s presumed arsenal of chemical and biological weaponry. As such, Zhukov’s speech invigorated United States Cold War research into WMD, including biological weaponry. During the Cold War, the United States-and, to a much greater extent, the Soviet Union-amassed large chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. The threat posed by these stockpiles has diminished greatly since the crumbling of the Berlin wall.

Regional threats posed by state-funded militaries from chemical and biological weapons also have declined. By the end of 2003, the U. S. government had admitted that there was little evidence that Iraq had possessed large chemical or biological weapon stockpiles after the mid-1990s. This has since led both the United States and British governments to begin inquiries into the faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq that was in large part the basis for justifying Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. Other regional threats, however, still remain. Among these, states such as Syria and North Korea are suspected of possessing chemical and biological weapons. Their bellicose posture regarding their immediate neighbors and regional rivals, as well as their possession of long-range delivery systems (such as Scud missiles), make these threats impossible to ignore. By contrast, Libyan leader Mohamar Qaddafi stated in early 2004 that he would renounce the possession of WMD, which demonstrates how quickly the threat of weapons of mass destruction seems to rise and fall on the global agenda.

The historical record shows that mass poisonings and the occasional plot to spread disease among armies and civilian populations go back many centuries. Still, chemical and biological warfare (CBW)-sometimes referred to in military parlance as “bugs and gas”-is essentially a modern phenomenon. It is modern in the sense that the science and industry required to produce these types of WMD have only existed since the early 1900s. However, there may indeed have been designs to use chemical or biological agents as a means of warfare (or possibly terrorism) before the Industrial Revolution. Before the late nineteenth century (the time of Louis Pasteur and many developments in chemistry), however, the requisite scientific knowledge and engineering capacity were insufficient to bring any such ideas to fruition. Obviously, this is no longer the case.

Many books and articles that discuss CBW often introduce the subject by bringing up past examples of chemical or biological warfare. In an excellent introduction to chemical weapons, a short book published by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army discusses a case of CW (chemical warfare) from China’s early history: In the Zuochuan, it is written that in the sixth century to about the fifth century B. C. E., “An official of the noble princes of the Xia, came from the Jin to attack the [forces of] Qin, and poisoned the Jing River, killing more than a division of men.” Another case is cited: “In the year 1000 [ C. E.], there was one named Tangfu, who made poi- son fire grenades and gave them to the Chao court of the Song dynasty. The poisonous smoke ball, containing arsenic oxide (As 2 O 3 ) and a type of poison derived from crotonaldehyde, looked a bit like a precursor to a chemical gas grenade. After alighting, this weapon would issue forth smoke to poison the enemy and thus weaken their ability to fight.”

These same authors also point out that this is a far cry from what one expects in modern times, for back then chemical warfare “was just in its infancy, and not only were its methods crude but its utility in actually killing people was limited. Because of this, chemical weapons were regarded as a method to generally assist in conducting warfare, and at the time did not draw any particular attention. Coming into the recent era, as the developments in technology continued, chemical weapons then really began to demonstrate their real menace.”

Another premodern military tactic that is often described as a form of BW (biological warfare) is the siege of Kaffa (1346 C. E.), in modern Feodosia, Ukraine. During a campaign by Mongol forces to defeat a heavily defended city of mostly Genoese merchants, bubonic plague struck the area: “The Tartars died as soon as the signs of disease appeared on their bodies: swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating humors, followed by a putrid fever. The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. . . .” We note here that “stench” was considered in the pre-germ theory era to be responsible for disease. Thus, miasmas, “noxious effluvia,” or “corrupt vapors” (febres pestilentiales) were synonymous with the spread of deadly epidemics-plague (causative organism: Yersinia pestis) being among the most notorious.

The suggestion later made by historians that the Mongols were in fact able to spread bubonic plague by hurling disease-ridden corpses over the fortress walls is an intriguing one. During the fourteenth century, however, a germ theory of disease did not exist. How would the people of that era have known exactly how the disease could spread? What they could not have known is that bubonic plague is spread by fleas, which collect the bacteria Yersinia pestis (the causative organism of plague) through feeding upon infected rats. Fleas do not linger near the body once the temperature of the host (be it rodent or human) cools following death, making it rather unlikely that the cadavers would have done much to spread the plague. In the end, it was not the use of projectile cadavers, but more likely the exceptionally large rat population around the Black Sea that led to a pandemic throughout the region (and indeed much of Europe). One could probably conclude, however, that the Mongols did have the intent to spread disease among their enemy, and at least in this respect they conducted an early form of BW.

Sixth Century B. C. Assyrians reportedly used ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) to poison their enemy’s water wells

431-404 B. C. Spartan armies use sulfur and toxic arsenic smoke during Peloponnesian War

Fourth Century B. C. Chinese engineers use arsenic against underground sappers.

Circa 200 B. C. Officers in Hannibal’s army adulterate the wine of African rebels with mandrake, which contains belladonna alkaloids causing hallucinations.

187 B. C. Ambraciots (Greece) employ irritating smoke against Roman soldiers

7th Century C. E. The Byzantine architect, Callinicus (“Kallinikos”), reportedly invents the first liquid incendiary-“Greek Fire.”

Circa 1040 Scottish king poisons wine using a belladonna-like (“sleepy nightshade”) herb and gives to Norwegian enemies as “provisions” under pretense of surrender. Scots then slaughter the incapacitated Norwegians.

1347 Mongolians lay siege to Kaffa (in modern Ukraine) and throw corpses over city walls to spread bubonic plague. May have contributed to Black Death, which killed approximately 50 million people through the fourteenth century.

1672 Bishop of Münster attempted the use of atropine-like drug in grenades in siege against city of Groningen. Attack backfires.

1767 British plot to supply cloths from a smallpox hospital ward to American Indian tribes in hopes of spreading disease. Unknown if this strategy was ultimately successful.

1855 Sir Lyon Playfair suggests using cyanide-containing chemicals against Russian troops during Crimean War, but this tactic never found approval by the British High Command.

29 July 1899 First Hague Convention signed, prohibiting “the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.”(Mauroni, p. 81)


The Mongol siege of the Crimean city of Kaffa in 1346 is often cited as one of the first recorded incidents of biological warfare-and perhaps even the cause of the spread of bubonic plague to Europe.

The city of Kaffa (or Caffa, now Feodosija, Ukraine), established in 1266 by agreement between the Mongols on the Black Sea and the Genoese, was an important trading hub between Genoa and the Far East. In 1289, the city fell under the suzerainty of the Khan (Toqtai) of the Golden Horde. The relationship between the Genoese and the Khan, however, was an uneasy one. Kaffa was first besieged in 1308 after the reported displeasure of Khan Toqtai over Genoese trading in Turkic slaves. (The sale of these slaves to the Marmelake Sultanate in Egypt reportedly upset the Khan by depriving him of an important source of foot soldiers for his own army.) The Genoese set fire to Kaffa and fled. After Toqtai’s death, Khan Uzbeg allowed the Genoese to rebuild their trading colony in 1312.

In 1343, after a brawl between Christian locals and Muslims in the Italian enclave of Tana inflamed the ire of Khan Janibeg, the Italians fled from Tana to Kaffa, bringing the Khan’s army to the gates of Kaffa behind them to besiege the city. In February 1344, the Italians managed to break the siege after killing 15,000 of the Khan’s Tartars and destroying their siege machines. Janibeg renewed the siege the following year, but the residents of Kaffa were able to maintain their position because they retained access by sea to supplies. In 1346, the Khan’s army besieging Kaffa suffered a natural outbreak of plague. The Tartars catapulted the plague-infected corpses of their dead comrades over the city walls. According to one historical account, the Tartars’ tactic finally broke the 3-year stalemate; the Genoese were crippled by the plague and fled Kaffa by sea-taking the disease to Europe with them.

The most contemporaneous account of the siege was written by Gabriele de’ Mussi, a notary of the town of Piacenza, north of Genoa. There is some debate as to whether de’Mussi witnessed the events at Kaffa. Written in 1348 or 1349, the account de- scribes the “mysterious illness “that struck the Tartar army besieging Kaffa. De’ Mussi recounts how the Tartars, desperate from the devastation of the disease on their army, thought to kill the inhabitants of Kaffa with the stench of their diseased dead. According to the de’ Mussi account, the people of Kaffa had no hope once the air and water had been contaminated, and only one in 1,000 was able to flee the city. Those that did flee took the plague with them as they left.

De’ Mussi’s account suggests that not only did the Tartars deliberately hurl their diseased dead over the city walls of Kaffa with the intent to kill their enemies, but those escaping Kaffa brought the disease into the ports of Europe. The disease was most likely brought within the walls of Kaffa through flea-infested rodents from the Tartar camps, or possibly through the transmission of the disease from direct contact with infectious body fluids from the Tartar dead.

Most scholars believe that the Genoans brought the plague with them to Naples, from where it then spread throughout Europe. Others have recently suggested that although the use of plague corpses against Kaffa was a true act of biological warfare, the siege had no significant impact on the spread of the Black Death through Europe. As Wheelis suggests, Kaffa was certainly not the only Tartar port that could have transmitted plague into European ports. Wheelis further argues that the rate and pattern of plague transmission suggests that it took 1 year to spread the plague into different European ports.

Though Kaffa may not have been the precise source of the Black Death that spread into Europe, the use of infected cadavers against its besieged inhabitants remains one of the most important instances of the intentional use of disease in warfare.

References McGovern, Thomas W., and Arthur M. Friedlander, “Plague,” in Russ Zajtchuck and Ronald F. Bellamy, eds., Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare (Washington, DC: Borden Institute, 1997), pp. 479-502. Watts, Sheldon, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). Wheelis, Mark, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa,”Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 8, no. 9, September 2002, http://www. cdc. gov/ncidod/EID/ vol8no9/01-0536. htm.


Emperor Sigismund, aged approximately 65.

Sigismund of Luxembourg (15 February 1368 in Nuremberg – 9 December 1437 in Znaim, Moravia) was Prince-elector of Brandenburg from 1378 until 1388 and from 1411 until 1415, King of Hungary and Croatia from 1387, King of Germany from 1411, King of Bohemia from 1419, King of Italy from 1431, and Holy Roman Emperor for four years from 1433 until 1437, the last male member of the House of Luxembourg. Sigismund von Luxembourg was the leader of the last West European Crusade – the Crusade of Nicopolis of 1396 to liberate Bulgaria and save Constantinople from the Turks. Afterwards, he founded the Dragon Order to fight the Turks. He was regarded as highly educated, spoke several languages (among them; French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin) and was an outgoing person who also took pleasure in the tournament. Sigismund was one of the driving forces behind the Council of Constance that ended the Papal Schism, but which in the end also led to the Hussite Wars that dominated the later period of Sigismund’s life.


During the period of internal wars in Hungary, relations between the kingdom and its neighbours changed profoundly and irreversibly. Ottoman expansion reached Hungary in 1389 and the kingdom was soon compelled to adopt a defensive policy to counter this threat. From this time until the catastrophe of Mohács, Hungary lived, almost without interruption, under the constant menace of Ottoman raids and invasions, which, besides straining her economic and military forces to the limit, also led to internal conflicts. Proud of their ancestors’ warlike traditions, the nobility found the necessity of a defensive policy unacceptable. They demanded the same offensive attitude towards the Ottoman empire as had for so long prevailed towards others. The failures that were bound to follow were invariably blamed on those who happened to be in power.

In early 1389, Lazarus, prince of Serbia, confirmed his allegiance to Sigismund, but he was killed in June at the battle of Kosovo, and his son Stephen Lazarević soon became an Ottoman vassal. In early 1390 Turkish troops devastated the region of Timişoara, in 1391 they did the same in Srem, and thereafter their incursions became regular occurrences. Sigismund took the threat seriously from the very first moment. As early as the autumn of 1389 he led an expedition to Serbia, taking Čestin and Borač by siege, and he repeated the action in 1390 and 1391. In 1392 he pushed forward as far as Ždrelo, but Sultan Bayezid, who arrived there in person, refused to give battle. In 1393 the barons led a campaign along the southern frontiers, and Sigismund was also there in August 1394. In early 1395 he mounted an expedition against Moldavia and forced its prince to submit, but this success proved only temporary and Moldavia soon shifted back under the influence of Poland. By this time Wallachia had passed temporarily under the suzerainty of the Ottomans, who raided Transylvania for the first time in 1394. Mircea cel Bătrîn, prince of Wallachia, who had hitherto opposed Hungary with Polish support, asked Sigismund for help in order to regain his land. On 7 March 1395, in Braşov, he agreed to be a vassal of Hungary. However, on 17 May the Hungarian army sent to Wallachia was defeated and its commander, Stephen Losonci, killed. In July Sigismund himself invaded the province, restored Mircea to his throne and recovered from the Ottomans the castle of Minor Nicopolis on the Danube.

These wars were exhausting and yielded only meagre results. Consequently, Sigismund decided to settle the Turkish problem once and for all. He set about organising a major enterprise with the ambitious aim of driving the Ottomans out of Europe. In 1395 his envoys made a tour of the courts of Europe and an embassy may also have been sent to the Mamluk sultan of Egypt. As a result of these efforts the Pope declared the planned expedition a crusade, and by the summer of 1396 an army of considerable size had assembled. Alongside the Hungarians and their Wallachian auxiliaries, the core of the army was made up of Frenchmen, with John of Nevers, heir to Burgundy, at their head, though knights also came from Germany, Bohemia, Italy and even England. In August the army, led by Sigismund, invaded Bulgaria along the Danube and laid siege to Nicopolis. Bayezid, leading the counter-attack in person, marched to relieve the beleaguered castle, and it was there that a European army faced the Ottomans for the first time. The battle, which for a long time was to determine the nature of Hungaro-Ottoman relations, took place on 25 September 1396. The crusader army was virtually destroyed, allegedly as a consequence of the ill-considered actions of the French knights. As for Hungarian casualties, several barons were killed, Palatine Jolsvai captured, and Sigismund himself barely escaped with his life, fleeing on a ship to Constantinople and returning by sea to Dalmatia in January 1397.

The catastrophe of Nicopolis demonstrated that the Ottoman empire represented a power against which Hungary was unable to wage an offensive war, even with support from abroad. The hope that Ottoman attacks might be stopped through a single determined effort vanished. From this point on priority was given to defence rather than to offensive campaigns. The kingdom had to learn how to live with the constant menace of Turkish incursions.

The Ottomans did not try to conquer Hungary for a long time. In contrast to the Balkan states, which were easily crushed, the kingdom was to remain a rival of the empire right up to the end of the fifteenth century. For the time being it was not Hungary’s existence that was threatened but the supremacy that it had been able to impose upon its southern neighbours. However meagre the palpable results of Louis the Great’s wars had been, they had demonstrated that Bosnia, Serbia and Wallachia belonged to Hungary’s sphere of influence. The Ottoman conquest caused Hungary to lose this position: instead of launching offensive campaigns, the kingdom was forced now to defend itself. Nor should the humiliating effect of the Turkish incursions be underestimated. Hungary, which had not suffered a major external attack since the Mongol invasion, now found herself exposed to plundering raids by the Ottomans year after year.


The immediate consequence of the defeat of Nicopolis was a revolt by the Lackfi. The former palatine, who had been deprived of office since 1392, contacted Ladislaus of Naples and was joined in his conspiracy by his nephew, Stephen Lackfi junior, and by a grandson of Ban Mikcs. But that was all the support he could muster. The rest of the league remained faithful to the king, who was therefore able quickly to put down the revolt after his return. The two Lackfi were enticed to the royal court and killed there in February 1397, and the enormous wealth of their family and of their supporters was confiscated.

From this time on Sigismund became increasingly determined to rule alone. The barons of the league were slowly but steadily pushed aside. Only Kanizsai and Detricus Bebek, the new palatine, remained in office after 1398. Their place was taken by hitherto unknown persons, partly from the household, partly from abroad. Immediately after the suppression of the revolt the king took into his service Count Hermann of Cilli (Celje) from Styria, who was to remain his closest confidant (before even Stibor) until his death in 1435. Cilli was given, as hereditary grants, first the town of Varaždin in 1397, then the district of Zagorje in 1399. From this time on, he and his successors gave themselves the title ‘count of Cilli and Zagorje’ and were the greatest landowners in Slavonia. Cilli’s staunch ally was Eberhard, a cleric who probably came from the Rhine region and who in 1397 was appointed bishop of Zagreb. He summoned to Hungary his nephews, lords of Alben in Germany, and persuaded the king to invest them with large estates. It was in 1398 that Filippo Scolari, who was the Buda representative of the trading house Bardi of Florence, was engaged by Sigismund. He was a count of the chamber for the time being, but was later to make an astonishing career under the name of Pipo of Ozora.

Sigismund’s endeavour to enlarge his independence manifested itself no less in his reforming activities. In October 1397, in response to the disaster of Nicopolis, he convoked a diet to meet at Timişoara with the intention of organising effective defence against the Ottomans. Forty-five of the 70 articles that were accepted simply reiterated the Golden Bull and Louis’s decree of 1351, but the remaining 25 contained important innovations. Whilst being willing to confirm in principle the nobility’s freedom from compulsory mobilisation for an offensive war, he suspended this privilege in view of ‘the great necessity of this kingdom’. He promised that ‘once the present wars are over’, that is, after the Ottoman threat had passed, the nobles would regain their ancient liberties. But for the time being he required them to take up arms ‘in person’, whenever he called them, and to make war on the frontiers, or even beyond, under his leadership or (in his absence) that of the palatine. Those not complying with royal orders would be liable to a fine of one florin per tenant if they had any, and of three marks, equalling twelve florins, per head if they did not. He also ordered that all the landowners ‘must equip, as a soldier should be, one archer from every 20 peasant tenants and lead him to war.’6 With a view to enforcing the edict as smoothly as possible Sigismund ordered a general census of landowners and their tenants in every county. This is the first such attempt that we know of in medieval Hungary, though unfortunately only the roll from the county of Ung has survived. Troops were being raised from landowners according to the number of their tenants as early as 1398. Known as militia portalis, these troops would constitute an important part of the army in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The nobility received little in return for these encroachments upon their liberties. Sigismund agreed not to grant ‘promotions’ of daughters in cases where there was a male heir within the fifth degree of kinship. In another article, he promised that he would remove all ‘foreigners’ from their offices, but stipulated that exception should be made for Stibor, Eberhard and Maternus, bishop of Transylvania. These were, of course, the very persons against whom the protests underlying this article had been aimed in the first place.

The burden of war had also to be borne by the Church. Albeit ‘only for the time of the war against the heathens’, the king seized half of all ecclesiastical revenues, the tithe included, promising that the money would be spent solely on the defence of the kingdom.7 Finally, referring to the fact that he had often been forced to yield to extortion in the past, Sigismund had himself invested with the authority to recover all estates that had been given – whether as a hereditary grant or as a mortgage – to persons who had done nothing to merit them; but he would issue special letters patent to his adherents to exempt them from this provision.

Although the decree of Timişoara had been prompted by the Ottoman threat, the ultimate insolubility of that problem soon discouraged Sigismund. With growing intensity, his attention was drawn to the affairs of the Luxembourg dynasty. His brother, Wenceslas, had no children and Sigismund could expect one day to succeed him in Bohemia and Germany. In his struggle with baronial leagues Wenceslas frequently turned to his brother for help, and Sigismund did in fact devote much of his time to Bohemian affairs. He went there in person in 1393 and 1396, while in 1397 he took the field against Procop, his old enemy. He left for Moravia at the end of 1399 and having spent nearly a year abroad, only returned in December 1400. In the meantime, the crisis in Hungary had come to maturity.


On 28 April 1401 the barons, led by Archbishop Kanizsai and Palatine Bebek, arrested the king in the castle of Buda. They demanded that he should get rid of his foreign counsellors once and for all. Sigismund refused to yield, preferring captivity, and the government was assumed by the prelates and barons in the name of the Holy Crown, which was now regarded as vacant. Kanizsai took the title of its ‘chancellor’, while the council issued orders under the ‘seal of the Holy Crown’. Various plans were put in motion with a view to filling the throne: Ladislaus of Naples, Wladislas II of Poland and William of Austria emerged successively as possible candidates. However, the barons were unable to come to an agreement, and Sigismund’s captivity did not last for long. It was Nicholas Garai, the king’s faithful supporter, who secured his release on 31 August 1401. Garai brought the king to his castle of Siklós and handed over his own son and brother as hostages. Through Garai’s mediation a compromise was finally agreed upon at Pápa on 29 October, as a result of which Sigismund was restored to his throne. In return he granted immunity to the rebels, and promised to remove his foreign followers with the exception of Stibor, a promise that he was determined to break as soon as possible.

Thus it was Sigismund who won the first battle, and Wenceslas, observing events from a distance, was of the opinion that his brother was ‘more powerful than ever before’.8 Acting as if his captivity had never occurred, Sigismund began immediately to reinforce his authority. Not only did he refuse to remove his foreign supporters, but, adding insult to injury, he also became betrothed to the daughter of Hermann of Cilli, Barbara, whom he married in 1405. Since Cilli’s other daughter, Anne, was Garai’s wife, the three families became linked to one another by affinity. Before returning to Bohemia in January 1402, Sigismund took some important security measures, bestowing the most important royal castles upon his adherents. In September he paid a short visit to Pressburg in order to sign a treaty with Albert IV of Austria, who was an old friend. Sigismund designated him as governor of Hungary during the period of his own absence, and made the assembled barons and nobles promise that in the event of his dying without a male heir they would accept Albert as king. He removed Detricus Bebek from the office of palatine, putting Garai in his place, thus disposing of his last enemy, with the exception of Kanizsai, who still held the dignity of arch-chancellor.

These measures prompted the leaders of the opposition to take a decisive step. They offered the crown to Ladislaus of Naples, who had already sent troops to Dalmatia in 1402. At about Christmas 1402 they made a solemn oath of allegiance to him at the tomb of Saint Ladislaus in Oradea, and at the beginning of 1403 the revolt broke out. This time the rebels had a real chance of victory. They were led, as in 1401, by Kanizsai and Bebek, but their movement was much stronger than before, for they were joined by the archbishop of Kalocsa, the bishops of Eger, Oradea, Transylvania and Győr, Emeric Bebek, prior of Vrana, son of Detricus, and by nearly all the magnates, with the exception of Garai and some of his kinsmen. The provincial nobility rallied to the revolt in great numbers, and the general feeling of discontent even drove some of the king’s former supporters into opposition. The rebels of the eastern counties were led by the two voivodes of Transylvania, Nicholas Csáki and Nicholas Marcali, both of them the king’s own creations.

Against the rebels Sigismund could rely on his barons, his household and the towns, which all remained faithful to him. The most important castles, such as Buda, Visegrád, Pressburg and others were securely held by his foreign captains. Yet his throne was saved by the swift and determined action of Stibor, Garai, John Maróti, Peter Perényi and several other barons who promptly mobilised their contingents and within weeks dispersed the enemy, who had been gathering in rather too leisurely a fashion. At the end of July Sigismund himself arrived from Bohemia, and by the time the army of the eastern provinces crossed the Tisza he had reached Pest. He surrounded Esztergom, Kanizsai’s residence, then had the Holy Crown brought from Visegrád and set upon his head in a public ceremony, making palpable that he was the real lord of the kingdom. King Ladislaus had arrived at Zadar in the company of Angelo Acciajuoli, legate of Boniface IX, on 19 July and was crowned there by Kanizsai on 5 August, but this was too late. He left for Italy as early as November, after appointing one of his supporters, Hrvoje, as duke of Split and bestowing upon him the government of Dalmatia. Sigismund’s authority was never fully restored in this province, a fact that was to bring about its permanent loss by Hungary.

The barons could do nothing but surrender. The first to lay down their arms were Csáki and Marcali, who on 8 October mediated an agreement with the other rebels at Buda. The king granted a pardon to all those who would submit before a fixed date, and promised to restore their possessions and to annul the grants that he had made to their detriment during the revolt. Bebek and Kanizsai and their kinsmen, who did not lay down their arms before the term expired, were accorded a special pardon, but some of their castles were confiscated and Esztergom itself taken into royal hands for some years. By the spring of 1404 virtually the whole kingdom had been pacified, only a couple of fortresses continuing to resist the king’s troops.

Sigismund’s struggle with his barons ended with his complete victory. He was to have no difficulty in maintaining his control over Hungary during the 34 years that remained of his life. Many years would be spent far away from the kingdom, yet he would never again face opposition. His enemies at home, weakened and demoralised, could only accept defeat and wait for better times.


Stupor Mundi I

Frederick II (26 December 1194 – 13 December 1250; Sicilian: Fidiricu, Italian: Federico, German: Friedrich) was King of Sicily from 1198, King of Germany from 1212, King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor from 1220 and King of Jerusalem from 1225. His mother Constance was Queen of Sicily and his father was Henry VI of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Frederick’s reign saw the Holy Roman Empire reaching its all time territorial peak.

A few days after the Empress Constance had given birth in the village of Jesi on the day after Christmas 1194,1 she and her son continued their journey to the south. It was in Palermo, on the premature death of his father just four years later, that the child – named Frederick Roger, after his two grandfathers – was in his turn crowned King of Sicily.

There it was that he spent his childhood, receiving an education as far removed from that normally given to German princes as could possibly be imagined. Latin, Greek and Arabic were all official languages of Norman Sicily; to these Frederick was to add German, Italian and French. Ever since the days of his grandfather Roger II, the court had been the most cultivated in Europe, the meeting place of scholars and geographers, scientists and mathematicians, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. His personal tutor was very possibly Michael Scot, translator of Aristotle and Averroes, who is known to have spent several years in Palermo and was to become his close friend. It was impossible to find a subject which did not interest him. He would spend hours not only in study but in long disputations on religion, philosophy or mathematics. Often, too, he would withdraw to one of the parks and palaces that, we are told, ringed the city like a necklace, watching the birds and animals that were to be a constant passion. Many years later he was to write a book on falconry, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, which became a classic, displaying a knowledge and understanding of wildlife rare indeed in the thirteenth century.

The physical energy fully matched the intellectual. A contemporary, who clearly knew him well, wrote:

He is never idle, but passes the whole day in some occupation or other, and so that his vigour may increase with practice he strengthens his agile body with every kind of exercise and practice of arms. He either employs his weapons or carries them, drawing his shortsword, in whose use he is expert; he makes play of defending himself from attack. He is a good shot with the bow and often practises archery. He loves fast thoroughbred horses; and I believe that no one knows better than he how to curb them with the bridle and then set them at full gallop. This is how he spends his days from morn to eve, and then begins afresh the following day.

To this is added a regal majesty and majestic features and mien, to which are united a kindly and gracious air, a serene brow, brilliant eyes and expressive face, a burning spirit and a ready wit. Nevertheless his actions are sometimes odd and vulgar, though this is not due to nature but to contact with rough company … However he has virtue in advance of his age, and though not adult he is well versed in knowledge and has the gift of wisdom, which usually comes only with the passage of years. In him, then, the number of years does not count; nor is there need to await maturity, because as a man he is full of knowledge, and as a ruler of majesty.

This description was written in 1208, when Frederick was thirteen. He came of age on his fourteenth birthday, 26 December, and nine months later was married to Constance, daughter of Alfonso II of Aragon, ten years older than he and already a widow, her first husband having been King Imre of Hungary. She was the choice of Pope Innocent III, and at least in the early days of the marriage Frederick does not seem to have altogether shared the papal enthusiasm for her; but she brought 500 armed knights in her train, and in view of the continuing unrest throughout the kingdom, he needed all the help he could get. She also introduced, with her knights and ladies and troubadours, an element of worldly sophistication which had hitherto been lacking in Palermo. To Frederick, always alive to every new stimulus, there now opened up a whole new world, the world of courtly love. The marriage itself remained one of political convenience – though Constance duly presented her husband with a son, Henry, a year or two later – but it removed the rough edges; long before he was twenty, Frederick had acquired the social graces and the polished charm for which he would be famous for the rest of his life.

Early in January 1212 an embassy arrived in Palermo with a message from beyond the Alps. Once again, western Europe had been shown the perils of an elective monarchy; since the death of Henry VI, Germany had been torn apart by a civil war among the various claimants to the imperial title. One of these, Otto the Welf, Duke of Brunswick, had actually been crowned Emperor by Pope Innocent in 1209, and two years later had taken possession of south Italy, the entire mainland part of Frederick’s kingdom. Unfortunately for him, however, he went too far: his invasion of the papal province of Tuscany led to his instant excommunication, and in September 1211 a council of the leading German princes met at Nuremberg and declared him deposed. They it was who had despatched the ambassadors, with an invitation to Frederick to assume the vacant throne.

This invitation came as a complete surprise, and created a considerable stir in the Sicilian court. Frederick’s principal councillors strongly advised against acceptance; so too did his wife. He had no ties of his own with Germany; indeed he had never set foot on German soil. His hold on his own kingdom was still far from secure; it was scarcely a year since the Duke of Brunswick had been threatening him from across the Straits of Messina. Was this really a moment to absent himself from Sicily for a period of several months at least, for the sake of an honour which, however great, might yet prove illusory? On the other hand a refusal would, he knew, be seen by the German princes as a deliberate snub, and could not fail to strengthen the position of his chief rival. Both in Italy and in Germany, the Duke of Brunswick still had plenty of support. Having renounced none of his long-term ambitions, he was fully capable of launching a new campaign – and he would not make the same mistake next time. Here, on the other hand, was an opportunity to deal him a knockout blow. It was not to be missed.

Pope Innocent, after some hesitation, gave his approval. Frederick’s election would admittedly tighten the imperial grip to the north and south of the Papal States, and it was in order to emphasise the independence – at least in theory – of the Kingdom of Sicily from the Empire that the Pope insisted on Frederick’s renunciation of the Sicilian throne in favour of his newborn son, with Queen Constance acting as regent. Once these formalities – and a few others of lesser importance – had been settled, Frederick’s way was clear. At the end of February he sailed with a few trusted companions from Messina. His immediate destination, however, was not Germany but Rome; and there, on Easter Sunday, 25 March 1212, he knelt before the Pope and performed the act of feudal homage to him – technically on behalf of his son the King – for the Sicilian Kingdom. From Rome he sailed on to Genoa in a Genoese galley, somehow eluding the fleet which the Pisans (staunch supporters of the Duke of Brunswick) had sent to intercept him. The Genoese, unlike their Pisan rivals, were enthusiastically Ghibelline, none more so than their leading family, the Dorias, who put their principal palace at the disposal of the Emperor-elect until such time as the Alpine passes were once again open to enable him to complete his journey. Meanwhile, an agreement was reached, to the benefit of both sides, by the terms of which Frederick promised – in return for a substantial subsidy – to confirm on his accession as Emperor all the privileges granted to Genoa by his predecessors.

Even then his path to Germany was not clear. On 28 July he was given a warm welcome in Pavia; but the Lombard plain was being constantly patrolled by bands of pro-Guelf Milanese, and it was one of these bands that surprised the imperial party as they were leaving the town the next morning. Frederick was lucky indeed to be able to leap on to one of the horses and, fording the river Lambro bareback, to make his way to friendly Cremona. By which route he finally crossed the Alps is not recorded; it was certainly not the Brenner, for we know that the Duke of Brunswick and his army were at Trento. By the beginning of autumn Frederick was safely in Germany.

On 25 July 1215, in the cathedral at Aachen upon the throne of Charlemagne, the Archbishop of Mainz crowned Frederick King of the Romans, the traditional title of the Emperor-elect. He was just twenty-one. All that he now needed for the full imperial title was a further coronation by the Pope in Rome. Almost exactly a year before, on 27 July 1214, the army of Philip Augustus of France had defeated that of Otto of Brunswick and King John of England on the field of Bouvines, near Lille, effectively destroying all Otto’s hopes of opposing him. From that day his supremacy was unquestioned, and it was now – perhaps as a thank-offering to God, perhaps as a way of winning further papal approval – that he announced his intention of taking the Cross.

Few acts in Frederick’s life are to us today more incomprehensible. He had never been particularly pious; moreover, he had been brought up among Muslim scientists and scholars, whose religion he respected and whose language he spoke. Nor at this time was he under pressure from the Pope or anyone else. Indeed, there is plenty of reason to believe that he soon regretted his promise; he certainly showed no eagerness to fulfil it. He was in fact to remain in Germany for another four years, spent largely in ensuring the imperial succession of his son Henry, who in 1217 arrived with Queen Constance from Sicily. In the late summer of 1220 his parents made their way back to Italy, leaving their disconsolate little eight-year-old behind them. There followed a solemn progress through Italy, during which Frederick dispensed royal grants and diplomas with his usual largesse. In mid-November he arrived in Rome, and on the 22nd Pope Honorius III laid the imperial crown on his head.

Just sixty-five years before, his grandfather Barbarossa had been obliged to undergo a hole-and-corner coronation which had been followed by something not far short of a massacre. Those days, however, were long past; this time Rome was at peace – Frederick’s boundless generosity had seen to that – and the ceremony was perhaps the most splendid that had ever been seen in the basilica. When it was completed, and Pope and Emperor emerged into the winter sunshine, it was noted that the Emperor – unlike Barbarossa – unhesitatingly grasped the Pope’s stirrup as he mounted his horse, which he then led by the bridle for a few paces before mounting himself. Such gestures meant little to him. Not only was the Empire his own; he had also extracted from the Pope an undertaking which he valued very nearly as much – the restoration to him of his Sicilian realm. After eight years in Germany he longed to return to Palermo.

Those years had brought him the greatest secular title the world could bestow, but they had also showed him that he was at heart a man of the south, a Sicilian. Germany had been good to him, but he had never really liked the country or felt at home there. Of his thirty-eight years as Emperor, only nine were to be spent north of the Alps; throughout his reign he was to do all he could – though without conspicuous success – to shift the focus of the Empire to Italy, and it was in Italy that the main body of his life’s work was to be done. He began it in late December 1220 even before he had crossed the Straits of Messina, in the first important city within his northern frontier: the city of Capua.

About the state of Sicily he was under no illusions: for over thirty years – ever since the death of William the Good in 1189 – it had been in chaos. His father’s reign of terror had only increased the unruliness and dissatisfaction; then there had been his own minority – his mother as regent had barely succeeded in holding things together – followed by his long absence in Germany, during which the state had survived more in name than anything else. As the most urgent priority, order must be restored; it was with what are known as the Assizes of Capua that Frederick took the first steps in doing so, promulgating – in no less than twenty chapters – a series of laws that he must have pondered for many months before, laws which laid down the foundations for the national regeneration that was to continue for the rest of his reign. Essentially, they involved a return to the status quo existing at the time of William’s death, and a recentralisation of power under the Crown. The most far-reaching law of all was the de resignandis privilegiis, which decreed that all privileges, however small or seemingly insignificant, granted to any person or institution since that time should be submitted to the Royal Chancery for confirmation before the spring of 1221. Obviously, this edict fell hardest on the chief recipients of such privileges, who also constituted the most serious threat to the supremacy of the Crown: the nobility and the Church. For the nobility, moreover, there were two additional blows. No holder of a fief was permitted to marry, nor his children to inherit, without the consent of his sovereign. And all castles built anywhere in the kingdom since King William’s death were automatically forfeit to the Crown.

The proceedings at Capua were repeated, if on a slightly more modest scale, in the following months at Messina, Catania and Palermo; the Emperor then moved on to Syracuse, where he had serious business with the Genoese. Genoa had always been his friend, but as long ago as 1204 Genoese merchants had virtually taken possession of the city, from which they had spread their influence all over the island. One of the chief causes of the decline of Sicilian trade over the previous thirty years had been the fact that most of it had fallen into the hands of foreigners; there was no chance of a return to prosperity while outsiders remained in control. And so, despite the help that he had received from the Genoese on his journey to Germany, Frederick acted with characteristic firmness. He threw them out. His new laws gave him all the authority he needed. All the concessions that had been granted to Genoa, not only in Syracuse but in Palermo, Messina, Trapani and other trading centres across the island were summarily withdrawn, all Genoese depots and warehouses declared confiscate, with their contents, to the Sicilian Crown. Similar action was taken against Pisa, although the Pisan presence in Sicily was insignificant and her losses were relatively small.

But alas, there was another, far greater enemy than Genoa to be faced: the Muslims of western Sicily. Three-quarters of a century before, in the days of King Roger, the Arab community had been an integral and respected part of the kingdom. It had staffed the entire treasury and had provided most of the physicians, astronomers and other men of science who had earned Norman Sicily its outstanding reputation in the field of scholarship. But those days were long gone. Already during the reign of William the Good much of the semi-autonomous Arab region had been granted to the Abbey of Monreale; with the final collapse of Norman power, the Arabs had found that they were no longer appreciated or even respected. They had consequently been forced back, entrenching themselves in the wild and mountainous west, where Arab brigands and freebooters now constantly terrorised the local Christian communities. Frederick’s first campaign against them, in the summer of 1221, proved inconclusive; not until the following year did his troops capture the Saracen fortress of Iato, and with it the Muslim leader Ibn Abbad, who soon afterwards ended his days on the scaffold.

Not even his execution, however, marked the final solution to the problem. This came about only between 1222 and 1226, when Frederick adopted a still more drastic measure. He decided to remove the entire Muslim population of the rebellious western region – perhaps fifteen or twenty thousand people – altogether from the island, and to resettle them at the other end of his kingdom: at Lucera in northern Apulia, which became effectively a Muslim town, virtually every one of its Christian churches being replaced by a mosque. This was not, it must be emphasised, in any sense a penal colony. Its citizens enjoyed complete liberty and the free exercise of their religion, and Frederick, who had been brought up with Muslims from his cradle, ultimately built his own palace there – a building in distinctly oriental style which was to become one of his favourite residences.

The Saracens of Lucera, for their part, showed their new loyalty by providing him with his personal bodyguard. They also manned his principal weapons factory, their swordsmiths producing blades of damascened steel that only Toledo could equal, their carpenters constructing those vast engines of war – catapults, trebuchets, mangonels and the like – without which effective siege operations were impossible. Meanwhile, their women provided the Emperor with his harem: the Saracen dancing-girls who lived in considerable luxury in a wing of the palace, with their own staff of female servants and a body of eunuchs to see that they came to no harm. A number of these girls would accompany the Emperor on his constant travels, and although it was always maintained that they existed only to provide innocent entertainment for the imperial court there can be little doubt – as Gibbon remarks on the similar establishment kept by the Emperor Gordian – that they were in fact intended for use rather than ostentation.