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Western Civilisation

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Medieval/Early Modern Christianity - Recent Articles

Byzantium and 'The Franks'. A complex tragedy.

If united, Constantinople would still be Christian.

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1204: Le Siège de Constantinople - Encyclopédie de l'Histoire du Monde


(Sack of Constantinople, 1204).



Western Civilisation owes a lot to the Byzantine empire, the most Christian and pious state in history.  Art, technology, the sciences, universities with the first existing during the 9th century in Constantinople, literacy, a huge corpus of ancient pagan thought, continuation of Greek and Roman philosophies and ideas, the complexity and accounting around extended trade, heavy calvary and the attendant technology and metallurgy, social organisation, vast engineering works and advances, public spectacles and baths; and not the least a deep religious piety and understanding, using reason and logical arguments to understand faith. 

In short, the very foundations of Western civilisation were in part built on Byzantium.  The Renaissance for example occurred after 1453 and the Musulman annexation of Constantinople.  The exodus before 1450 of Orthodox Christian Byzantines to Italy provided the nucleus and energy of this engineering and scientific boom for the 15th century and beyond.  The wealth of Venice, Genoa and Pisa, was largely accrued thanks to Byzantium and often at her expense.  The very existence of Christian Europe itself was largely due to the Byzantine buffer state keeping the Mahometan at bay and providing a nexus of Christian opposition to the Ottomans. 

Byzantium is rarely pursued by those interested in medieval affairs.  They tend to the bigoted, myopic and incorrect assessments of Gibbon, who blamed Christians and the feminising effects of advanced culture for the Roman world’s decline.  There is not a single shred of evidence or common sense to support that assertion.  The debt owed by the fast-declining and imploding West to the ‘East’ is substantial.  Many good books exist which outline in different ways this credit. 

Some excellent books on Byzantium include Charles Oman’s ‘History of the Byzantine Empire’, Jonathan Harris’ ‘Lost World of Byzantium’ and , John Julius Norwich’s indefatigably long and detailed trilogy ‘Byzantium’ running to a vast number of very detailed pages.  Oman and Harris provide superb single volume accounts of Byzantium’s complex history from 330 AD or so, to 1453, the longest surviving empire in history.  Norwich’s account is incredibly forensic and well researched and will take a good long time to plough through.  All authors take a slightly different view of Byzantium and its relationship with the Western world.  But all agree that the impact on Western Europe was considerable indeed.  Constantinople was of course the greatest city in the world for 1000 years, the heart of Christendom, the locus of east-west trade, the entrepot of art, academies, libraries and science, the great generator of wealth and prestige.  Westerners who visited Constantinople at its height were overwhelmed by its beauty, its size, its churches including the largest structure in the world for a millennium the Hagia Sophia, its sophisticated political system and even its machines with mechanical devices impressing court visitors in the forms of roaring lions, chirping birds and gliding thrones. 

The relationship between the ‘Franks’ or Westerners and the Byzantines was complex.  It covered trade, religion, politics, and family dynasties.  Norwich in general takes the view that the Western states, especially the Franks and Normans were instrumental in Byzantium’s destruction.  The 4th Crusade which was redirected at the behest of Venice to take and sack Constantinople the most obvious example.  The Frankish territory conquered during the first Crusade, much of it formerly Byzantine territory, effectively reduced the empire in size, manpower and taxable income.  Venice, Genoa and Pisa dominated the mercantile trade and Venice especially was in effect Byzantium’s navy from the 10th century onwards.  The Norman 11th and 12th century wars on Byzantium in Greece and the Balkans also effectively impaired and degenerated the Orthodox state.  The constant religious conflicts exacerbated the military and political, with the final schism between Rome and the Eastern Church realised in 1054.

While all of this is true and aptly elaborated by Norwich, Oman and Harris and many others take a slightly different view.  The Franks or Westerners for more than 150 years were the sole fighting men and guarantors of the Byzantines dating from the early 11th century to beyond the Latin takeover of the empire (1204-1259) and even into the 14th century.  The Frankish crusades bought Byzantium its very life, and by 1150 the eastern empire was in a recrudescence, an efflorescence of wealth and peace thanks to the Frankish takeover of Syria and the Levant, pushing the Musulmans away from Byzantine’s borders. 

The eastern empire was also crass and hypocritical doing nothing to help the Crusades and even forming alliances with the Musulmans, viewing the Franks with as much distrust as they did the Infidel.  It is said with some evidence that the Byzantines helped the Musulman Turks destroy the 2nd crusade in Anatolia.  This duplicity bought them no favours with the Franks who could see little point in conquering territory in the East and handing it back to the Byzantines who had done nothing to aid in its recovery.  In the late 12th century there were pogroms and massacres (1187) in Constantinople of Venetians, Genoese and Pisans, due mostly to a widespread hatred of Western domination of trade and commerce.  The Franks naturally viewed all of this as simply an example of the effete, weak, incapable and mendacious character of the Eastern Greeks, who were too besotted with wealth and ease to protect their own empire or behave properly and help fellow Christians against the Infidel or respect trade, commercial and political agreements.  In this vein the sack of Constantinople in 1204 seems rather inevitable if for nothing else as a reprisal for the murders of innocent traders and the duplicity in helping the Mahometan during the Crusades. 

The relationship between the Eastern Greeks and the Western ‘Franks’ was thus very complicated.  The fact that there were flows of trade, ideas, culture and art and technology is indisputable.  The two Christian spheres of power had many bonds to unite them as well as many fences and walls to divide them.  Both viewed each other as ‘schismatic’ allowing the unchristian ideal of warring against a fellow believer to be conducted in ‘good conscience’.  A tragedy of history is that Byzantium’s eventual demise to the Musulmans did not need to happen.  If the Franks and the Greeks could have found a way to cooperate, their united strength would have most likely seen off the Turks and Ottomans.  The fact that they could not, and did not view the Infidel as infinitely worse than each other, is a monumental calamity.  If they had sought to reason and ally with each other, Constantinople would still be Christian. 


Byzantium and the end of glory

John Julius Norwich and 'Byzantium, the Apogee'

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Alexius I Comnenus | Byzantine emperor | Britannicajohn julius norwich byzantium apogee - Google Search | Magical book ...

(Alexius Comnenus)


John Julius Norwich’s very detailed and well written narrative entitled ‘Byzantium, the Apogee’ is a great primer for any who are interested in the most Christian, and for nigh on 1000 years, the world’s wealthiest and most sophisticated empire.  As Norwich relates, the battle of Manzikert on August 26, 1071 AD, was unquestionably,


“…the greatest disaster suffered by the Empire of Byzantium in the seven and half centuries of its existence.  The humiliation was bad enough, the performance of the imperial army having been characterised by a combination of treachery, panic and ignominious flight; the fate of the Emperor, too, was unparalleled since the capture of Valerian I by the Persian King Shapur I in AD 260….the real tragedy lay not in the battle itself but in its appalling epilogue.  Had Romanus Diogenes been permitted to retain his throne, all would have been well…”


The Musulman Seljuk Turk annihilation of Romanus and the largely mercenary armies of Byzantium at Manzikert, denuded the Christian empire of valuable and arable land, which provide men for the armies, taxes for the state and food for Constantinople.  The Musulman Sultan was more focussed on conquering Fatimid Shia Egypt than in eradicating Byzantium.  He took Romanus prisoner and on very lenient terms, without demanding more land or excessive ransom, allowed him to return to Constantinople, assuming that his northern border would now be secured and he could assault and reduce the Fatimid Caliphate.  Romanus never regained the throne, losing it to the usurper Michael VII, who blinded the former emperor, and imprisoned him in a monastery, where he died 2 years later.  One of the first acts of Michael VII was to repudiate the treaty between Romanus and the Seljuks. 


The abrogation of the lenient treaty meant that by 1080, the Turks had conquered wide swathes of Anatolia, some 30.000 square miles according to Norwich, renamed the Sultanate of Rum (Eastern Rome).  In a short period of time Byzantium had lost half its manpower and a considerable portion of its grain output.  The court intrigues in Constantinople, the persona ambition, the smug ‘intellectualism’ of the inner circle, led to disastrous and quite ignorant decisions.  The empire did nothing to obstruct the flood of Muslim Turks over once Christian territory, with wealthy cities, trade routes and valuable farmland given up with nary a fight.  The magnificent achievements of Basil II or the Bulgar slayer, in extending Byzantine control over the Balkans and to the Danube were also crumbling away due to ineptitude and corruption.  The empire was seeing itself torn from the south and from the north.


Inflation and economic malaise followed political and military turmoil and tumult.  The standard gold coin lost 25% of its value in a decade, with Emperor Michael VII nicknamed ‘Minus-a-quarter’.  A weak and feckless leader, Michael VII allowed the government to be run by a corrupt eunuch from his inner circle, one Nicephoritzes, who promptly continued the great centralisation of authority.  Corn and grain trade became government monopolies, which predictably became disasters.  The socialisation of key agricultural output created shortages, high prices and poor quality.  The supply of grain dropped as the landowners were squeezed by high taxation and reduced prices and profits, whilst consumers saw their price of basic bread rise sharply.  Inflation simply accelerated.


As with all flailing and failing empires, civil war followed and hollowed out a lost decade after Manzikert.  It was a mixture of ‘the anarchy’ in the England (1138-1153) and the War of the Roses (1455-1485).  It ended with the rise of a young, dynamic and successful military commander to the throne, one Alexius Comnenus.  He gave the empire 30 years of solid leadership but even his skills and acumen could not repair the damage of Manzikert and the lost years from 1025 and the death of Basil II, to 1080.  As Norwich states, ‘But he could, and did, restore to Byzantium its reputation and its good name among nations, thus preparing it to play its part in the great drama that was to begin to unfold even before the end of that turbulent century: the Crusades’.


The fate of Byzantium leads to one of the great ‘what if’ questions of history.  What if after 1025, the leadership of the Christian Byzantine leadership had been as intelligent, skilful, ruthless and militarily bold and capable as Basil II, or Alexius Comnenus?  It is unlikely that Manzikert would have occurred, and improbable that the Muslim Turks would have swept through Anatolia and beyond.  It is highly likely that modern day Turkey would be Christian, and Istanbul unknown and still called by its rightful name – Constantinople.

Christian Monks saving and building Civilisation

How many are thankful?

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"VILLAGE ENTRANCE WITH WINDMILL", by Jan Brueghel the Elder ...

(Jan Brueghel the Elder, Village with a Windmill)

Today, Priests and Monks are vilified en-masse by the anti-Christian media and tech platforms.  Criticism and exaggeration of real and quite criminal child sexual assaults and abuse abound.  There is no end of print or investigative reports on the issue.  Yet child abuse in public schools has been confirmed to run at 100x the level of that of the Priestly abuse of children.  There is no media or platform noise about this because such a fact does not sell copies or act as edible and enticing click bait.

In spite of the modern stigmatisation of monks and priests it is fair to say as many historians have detailed, that the monks saved civilisation.  How many ‘secular’ self-proclaimed ‘critical thinkers’ know this?  At the very least the obvious reality is that the monks in total, were indispensable to the forward march of Western civilisational development.  How many today feel any gratitude for the great works, past and present of the monks and priests?  Very few even know about the inheritors of Saint Paul of Thebes and Saint Anthony of Egypt (mid third century A.D), whose asceticism inspired the creation of monasteries, or groups of celibate men seeking the kingdom of Christ and developing the innovations which propelled Western Europe to an apex of achievement.

Cenobitic monasticism, or communal monasticism, was a reaction in part to the solitary existence of hermits, with a commitment to develop a community of faithful, educated and labouring men.  Eastern Christian monasticism developed earlier than the Western version, with Saint Benedict in the 6th century establishing 12 small communities of monk at Subiaco about 38 miles from Rome, before creating Monte Cassino, on the road between Rome and Naples around 529 A.D.  The famous rule of St. Benedict which informed all later monastic orders, and their behaviour was instituted first at Monte Cassino.  

St Benedict’s rule was moderate, common sensical, and structured, providing a template which was reused throughout Europe.  Monks were to receive adequate sleep and food, with a material existence not far from that of a typical peasant.  Education and work were expected to be undertaken in addition to prayers and religious obligations.  All men were treated equally regardless of status or wealth.  Monte Cassino itself was a miracle, sacked by pagan Lombards in 589, the Muslims in 884, the French in 1799, the shelling of World War II, it was always rebuilt and improved. 

The Benedictine order, from its founding in about 520 A.D, over the 900 years during the medieval era, provided 24 Popes, 200 cardinals, 7,000 archbishops, 15,000 bishops, and 1,500 canonised saints.  At its apogee of power, there were 37,000 monasteries.  The order attracted some 20 emperors, 10 empresses, forty-seven kings, and fifty queens.  The spiritual and humble life of the penitent monk thus enticed many of the elite within Europe.

Many know of the monk’s key role in preserving literature and texts within the monastical scriptoria.  Less known, is the practical arts pursued by monks which changed civilisation.  Agriculture is one example.  The agricultural restoration of Europe from end to end, was a monkish endeavour. 

Inter-alia the monastic orders converted unusable land into agriculture, drained marshes and created farms, pumped out water along the coast line using advanced wind mill technology and built dikes, engaged in advanced breeding of cattle and other livestock, replaced the ox with the horse, developed three and four field crop rotation, built an illimitable number of water mills for grinding and various manufacturing processes, brewed beer, discovered distilleries, improved viniculture, invented fish farming, redirected water flows to feed into cities and villages, taught the peasantry about irrigation and soil management, and developed any number of tools and machines for the farm.  The entire county of Yorkshire England owes its medieval prosperity to the Cistercian monks (order established in 1098), who utterly transformed the land there and brought a once moribund and devastated area into the monk-inspired extended trade routes and prosperity of the Middle Ages (the Normans slaughtered some 100.000 people in the 1070s and 80s and it took a century or more to recover).  This is but one example within the width and breadth of Europe that could be pointed out.

The monks-built watermills which transformed local industry.  Waterpower was used for crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth and tanning.  Jean Gimpel, always a great read on medieval history, reports that the 742 Cistercian abbeys throughout Europe, all possessed advanced technology.  The same level of technological sophistication within this network would have been prevalent across the various sites.  742 is a dense network of ‘factories’ which is what a medieval monastery became.  The increase in farming, industry and trade, naturally attracted villages, and necessitated the building of roads, bridges and social infrastructure.  This mass industrialisation was not seen in the ancient, pagan world.  This fact is curiously omitted by the deep admirers of ‘classical history’.  They seem to believe that they would be the toga-wearing elite, discussing stoicism, when in fact, 90% of the population led rudimentary, poor lives, untouched by mechanised appliances as developed during the medieval era.

Jean Gimpel writes in the ‘The Medieval Machine’ about the heavy pestles, the fullers’ great hammers, the spares, the plugs, the winches, the ropes, and the replacement by mechanisation of expensive horse labour.  The shafts spun by wheels, the use of automation to tan and make shoes and clothes, the grinding of grain, the endless usages of the machines to cook, sieve, turn, or wash.  It was a symphony of complex technology that is often disregarded by those who worship the ‘classical era’. 

The Cistercians and other monkish orders were also famous for their metallurgy.  Every monastery had a factory where waterpower drove the creation of complex agricultural implements.  Iron ore deposits were used for forge iron tools.  Blast furnaces were first developed by Christian monks.  For over 400 years, from the 14th to 18th centuries, the Cistercians were the leading iron manufacturers in Europe.  They even used the slag from the furnaces as fertiliser for their fields due to the concentration of phosphates.  The mining of salt, lead, alum and gypsum were all enhanced and lead by monasteries.  This metallurgical skill extended to cutlery, glass works, and metal plating. 

The monks experimented with flying, with a monk in the early 1000’s attempting a glider flight which lasted more than 600 feet.  A Jesuit priest, Father Lana-Terzi was the first to discuss the geometry and physics of a flying machine in his 1670 book, Prodomo alla Arte Maestra.  Clock making was a renowned skill of the monks, including the first clock built in 996 AD or so by the future Pope Sylvester for Madgeburg.  In the 1300s a 14th century monk at Glastonbury built a mechanical clock which now sits in the London Science Museum.  Richard of Wallingford, an abbot at a Benedictine monastery, built a mechanical tower clock at Saint Albans in the 14th century as well. 

The technological innovations of the monks are simply astounding.  Yet that is only a part of the story.  The monasteries provided hospitals, hospices and inns for travellers, built and sustain local parish churches, gave great quantities of food, aid and money to the poor, built lighthouses to protect sailors, copied enormous quantities of pagan and Christian literature, established schools and constructed the first universities based on a combination of pagan learning, mathematics, rhetoric, natural science, logic and theology.  There survive extant copies of school exercises in which students are challenged to understand Cicero, Horace, Juvenal, Persius, Seneca, Terence and others. 

The contribution of the monks to civilisation is without parallel or imitation in history.  Across every aspect of life, the material, the spiritual, the practical, the intellectual, the monks dominated European civilisation.  Saint Benedict is rightly viewed as the ‘Father of Europe’.  Without the monks, it is quite likely that civilisation would have failed, and a true Dark Age, imitating that of the ancient Greek Dark Ages, would have emerged.