Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Weapons and Armor of the Era of Knights

A selection of common weapons of the well armed knight of the 13th century. From left to right we have a quiver of crossbow bolts, a dagger, long sword, quiver of longbow arrows, handaxe, warhammer and a small shield called a buckler.

A Long hunting knife rests next to the plate and chainmail armor of a knight. The helmet is a two piece design the gauntlets (gloves) are plate top with chainmail palms. The gorget is a small plate piece that covers the throat area under the chin and rests on the chainmail coat.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Crusades-Bloody War in God's Name

From 1095-1291 (more or less depending who's history you believe) the Middle East from Greece to Egypt was subject to some of the most brutal and bloody wars of the Middle Ages-the Crusades. These were to be "Holy Wars" as well as wars for the traditional goals of land, power and wealth.
After the conquest of the "Holy Lands" by the forces of Islam from the Eastern Roman Empire (aka Byzantine Empire), the Emperors in Constantinople tried to arrange a situation where they could regain these valuable territories. In the late 1090's Emperor Alexios I, in desperation, appealed to Pope Urban II in Rome for Western assistance in the recapture of these lands. Evidently Emperor Alexois I thought the warriors the Pope would send would be under the Emperors control and would return the land to the empire-nothing could be further from the truth.
Pope Urban II saw the Emperor's letter as a rallying cry for all good Christian warriors to turn from warring among themselves and expend their energies in recapturing the Holy Land for the "true" religion, as well as for the greater glory of God, Pope Urban II and the Roman Catholic (rather than the Greek Orthodox Faith of the Byzantine Empire) Faith.  The knights and other "Crusaders" would wear a cross to show their devotion, would be given forgiveness for any sins they had committed, be guaranteed a place in Heaven, and get to keep any loot gained in the war.

So the first Crusades were launched.  Huge numbers (some sources say hundreds of thousands) of knights, retainers, men-at arms, camp followers, peasants, women and even children rallied to the call and marched on the Holy Land.  Tens of thousands died on the various marches, many were robbed and those that could not protect themselves were even sold into slavery.  Those that made it to battle saw everyone they met as a potential enemy, even other Christians who they often killed.  Fighting was bloody and brutal with massacre's common, as so often happens when killing in "God's Name."

In 1099, the Crusaders breached the walls of Jerusalem, and massacred everyone in the city they could find-Muslims, Jews and Christians, it made no difference to these warriors when their blood was up.

Rather than give up their newly conquered territories to the Byzantine Empire, the Crusaders set up a weak collection of Feudal states that could not and would not, support each other in time of need.

Ruled through arrogance and greed the Crusader states were in constant conflict with their Muslim neighbors and each other.

The results were predictable, in less than 100 years, the forces of Islam had taken back most of the lands the early Crusaders had captured.  So the next major Crusade, usually known as the Third Crusade, was launched to re-recapture the Holy Lands. Three powerful leaders answered the call-Phillip II of France, Fredrick I "Barbarossa" of the German "Holy Roman Empire" and Richard I of England.

Richard I was a true warrior king and was given the title "Couer de Leon" (Lion-Hearted) for his courage in battle. He was an enthusiastic participant in the Third Crusade, being instrumental in the capture (and massacre of the 5000 man garrison) of Acre, while Phillip II, blaming illness soon returned to France and Fredrick I drowned crossing the Saleph River in Turkey.  For two years Richard I struggled to regain Jerusalem but he was fought to a draw by the Great Saladin, Sultan of Egypt.

Saladin was a powerful warrior, firm in his religious belief as well as a man of honor and reason.  When it became obvious that neither he nor Richard would be totally victorious the two leaders formed a truce that produced a treaty ending the conflict, and allowed Christians free access, as pilgrims to the Holy Lands. Proclaiming a victory of sorts, Richard I returned to Europe and his renewed conflict with Phillip II over the lands of France. The Third Crusade was over.  More Crusades would follow, each less and less successful until by the end of the 13th century control of the Holy Lands was where it had been before the wars began, in the hands of the forces of Islam. Here they would remain until the First World War when the British would take the land from the dieing Ottoman Empire. 

While a failure in their religious goal of regaining permanent Christian control of the Holy Lands, the Crusades were critical in future developments of European and World History. The money made in renewed trade, looted treasures from the Eastern Cities (including Constantinople which was brutally sacked by Western Europeans in 1204 during the "4th Crusade" which was anything but a Holy War) enriched the coffers of the "Kingdoms, City States, Nobles and Merchants" of the West. This wealth and rediscovered knowledge from the Byzantines and Muslims would hasten the end of the Middle Ages and the coming of the rebirth of science and arts in Europe-the Renaissance.

Three great warrior "Religious" orders of knights and men-at-arms were formed, the Knights Templar, the Teutonic Knights and the Hospitallers, to protect Pilgrims, expand the faith and tax to support themselves. Each would have important effects on the growth in power, influence and wealth of Western Europe.
The movement of troops, merchants and pilgrims in the Crusades reawaken an interest in the World by Western Europeans that had lied dormant since the fall of the Western Rome Empire. Europe was now intrigued with the rest of the World, its lands, its trade, its riches and its conquest.
The riches of the Silk Road opened up an insatiable appetite in Europe for the goods of the East.  As it became more and more expensive to purchase these from the Islamic and Ottoman controlled trade cities, new trade routes were researched through discoveries of unknown lands.  First by the Portuguese going South to round Africa to find a profitable route to "India." And then by a little known Italian who decided to sail West in search of the "Riches of the East" in 1492, and the World changed for ever.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Basic Medieval-Feudal Society

The King-in theory owned the land of the kingdom.

Nobles (Dukes, Earls, Counts, Viscounts, Barons etc.) were given land (fiefs) as Vassals to the King, giving military service, loyalty and eventually taxes in return to the Monarch. This system of fief and vassal was in perpetuity (unless one broke the oaths of fealty or the family died out) and past through inheritance to the oldest male of the line.
Knights (lowest of the Lord Class) were given land (fiefs) by the Nobles and became their Vassals giving military service, loyalty and eventually rent to their Lord.
In all but the rarest of cases you were born into the Lord Class. Social mobility within the class was possible but difficult (and often dangerous-"Uneasy rests the head that wears the Crown").

Commoners originally had very limited social mobility, but as the Middle Ages progressed men of exceptional skill, and a good bit of luck, were able to improve their status and wealth within the commoner class.
Merchants-townsfolk-Guildsmen produced goods and services that enriched the kingdom and eventually provided a tax base for the government.

Freedmen tenant farmers rented the land and paid taxes.

Serf's were "owned" by the fief lands of a Lord and had extremely limited rights (virtual slaves except they were not the "property" of the Lord). They paid a portion of their crops as well as service to the lord.
Was outside the normal social, political rankings of the Middle Ages.
In the early Middle Ages the Church was one of the few systems that mobility and elevation in rank was based on skill vs heredity, as all positions were earned vs inherited. As the Western Clergy was not allowed to marry (although there were those individuals who failed to follow the "letter" of this rule) there was a constant need for new members to fill the positions from Monk to Pope as current members died, this is what allowed the unprecedented Social movement in this organization in the Middle Ages.
The Pope was the elected head of the Church in Western Europe and often held immense power (Religious, Political and often Military).

Just like in the Lord Class, the Religious Orders had officials of rank that helped run the Church-Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops were chosen for their positions-a rarity in the Middle Ages where positions of power were most often inherited or taken by force.

The greatest influence of the faith was through the countless small community churches manned by tens of thousands of priests that spread the religion and power of the Church.

Monks full filled a vital role in the early days of the Middle Ages as virtually the only repositories of book making and writing.  With the coming of  educational centers of learning (later the first Universities) in the 9th and 10th centuries, which were initially established to teach reading and writing to the clergy, this task reverted to the lay community.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

War of the Roses

After the defeat of the English in the 100 Years War, thousands of warriors returned to England just in time to join in a family dispute as to which branch of the Plantagenet Dynasty-Lancaster or York-should rule England. This civil war has been called the War of the Roses due to the color of rose each family supposedly chose as its de facto emblem.

From 1455 to 1485 England was wracked by the horrors of Civil War, kings were made, deposed, reinstated, deposed again and out righted murdered in the quest for control of the throne.

The followers of the House of the Duke of Lancaster were those of the Red Rose.
While the followers of the House of the Duke of York choose the White Rose.

For a time, the powerful Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick earned the title of "Kingmaker" during this war as he threw his support to different contenders.  At first he supported the Lancasterian Henry VI (king from:1422-1461 and 1470-1471), then helped Edward IV of York (king from: 1461-1470 and 1471-1483) to the throne, after a falling out with Edward, he helped to put  Henry VI back on the throne.  Before he could change sides again he was killed in the Battle of Barnet in 1471, leaving Edward IV as king.

With the death of Edward IV, his young son  Edward was proclaimed king, with his Uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester as "Lord Protector" of the boy king. The murder of Edward V (13 years old) and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York in 1483, left their Uncle Richard as the sole surviving adult male of the line and therefore king (there was an 8 year old nephew, Edward, son of Richard's executed younger brother George. Edward himself would be beheaded in 1499).

Richard III (1483-1485) was unpopular, thought to be the murderer of Edward V and a usurper. It did not take long for his enemies to form an army and challenge him for the crown.
In 1485, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, defeated Richard III (who died in the fight) at the Battle of Boswoth Fields. Through his marriage to Elizabeth of York (daughter of Edward IV) and a distant claim of descendance from King Edward III (his mother was the great-great-granddaughter of Henry's younger son John), Henry VII of the House of Tudor is made King of England (1483-1509).
The Tudor Rose, combines the Lancaster and York into one rose, one family and a new dynasty-the War of the Roses was over.

The Medieval Guild-Workers Unite

The Merchant Guilds and Craft Guilds formed in the Middle Ages were critical in the creation of new middle and wealthy classes of commoners in Feudal Europe.

In the 900's CE, the first Merchant Guilds appeared in Europe as organizations of merchants were formed for mutual protection as they traveled on trade routes that were then being reestablished throughout Europe. Some even gained charters to establish their own trade towns.

Craft Guilds were formed by the skilled workers in every craft known during the Middle Ages. From bakers to smiths, rules of conduct, training, quality of work and prices charged were created and enforced.

Starting as an "Apprentice" was the initial step in joining a guild. The apprentice would live with a Guild Master and either pay in coin, service or both to be taught the basics of the job/trade-this took up to seven years. When qualified,in the Masters eyes and by the quality of his work, the apprentice was upgraded to "Journeyman." Journeymen were entitled to pay, and would do the "lions share' of the work in the guilds. If the journeyman was skilled enough, he could present is best work (his Masters Piece) to the other masters and if they thought it worthy he would be granted the title of "Master." A master was paid the most for his "Master Works,",was required to oversee the work of journeymen and was allowed to train apprentices. Master became a title to be used as a rank of skill ie: Master Carpenter, Master Goldsmith, Master Baker etc.

The Hundred Years War (the 117 Years War just doesn't sound right)

For more than a century (circa 1336-1453) England and France fought a ruinous series of conflicts (it was never one constant war-nor was there any true periods of total peace) over control of the land of France and the French crown.

Throughout the period the English and Welsh longbowmen were one of the key weapons in the English arsenal. With a range of up to 400 yards and the ability to fire up to six aimed shots a minute, the longbow was a fearsome weapon for the French to face.

In several battles (Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt being the most famous) the smaller English army was able to overcome greater French numbers through superior tactics and the massive firepower of the longbow.

English King Henry V of the House of Plantagenet (1413-1422) was the most successful of the English kings in the war.  Through the Treaty of Troyes, he was even able to force French King Charles VI of the House Valois (1380-1422) to proclaim Henry the rightful heir to the throne (upon the death of Charles).  Unfortunately for the English, Henry died first (of dysentery) and the French voided the treaty.

In 1429, the teenage Maid of Oreans, Jeanne d'Arc (burned as a witch by the English in 1431), rallied the French Army and broke the English siege of Orleans. The Victory revised French spirits at a time when the English were politically divided.  The final phase of the war had now begun.
The final battles were more and more dominated by the latest in warfare weapons, gunpowder fire arms and cannons. The days of heavily armored warriors were numbered as was English control of France. In the end, the two countries remained independent of each other, but the animosity of a century of war lead to more than a dozen major other wars between the two over the next four centuries, with the Seven Years, American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars among the most important.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Han Dynasty-the People's Dynasty

Liu Bang (Gao Huangdi)1st Emperor of the Han Dynasty (207 BCE-220 CE), was one of the rare peasants to attain the Mandate of Heaven. He lead the popular revolt against the Qin Dynasty and proclaimed the Han Dynasty in 207 BCE.

Although the central government was never as powerful as that of the Qin Dynasty, at  the height of the Empire, the Han controlled much of the Silk Road. and its wealth.  Throughout its long life the Dynasty was wracked by revolts, divided into Eastern and Western Dynasties and hobbled by a government that relied more on it governors for support than the power of the emperor.

The Han were known for the high quality of their art such as this Rhinoceros carving.

The greatest discovery of the Han, was the creation of fine quality cloth paper.

The blast furnace was another important invention of the Han and was used in state run "factories" to produce huge quantities of iron for the tools and weapons of the empire.

Rather than the life size soldiers of the Qin tomb, the Han used smaller scale warriors to protect the spirits of the dead emperors. These tombs provide us with much information on the wealth, knowledge and power of the Han at their height before their inevitable fall and destruction.