Tag Archives: medieval

The Medieval Agrarian Economy

by Tim Harding

This striking image depicts the three main classes of medieval society – the clergy, the knights and the peasantry.[1]  Tellingly, the cleric and the knight are shown talking to each other; but the peasant is excluded from the conversation.  Even though the peasants comprised over 90% of the population, they were in many ways marginalized socially and economically.  So who were these peasants and what was their daily life like?

striking

Source of image: Wikimedia Commons

The term ‘peasant’ essentially means a traditional farmer of the Middle Ages, although in everyday language it has come to mean a lower class agricultural labourer.  In the Central Middle Ages, that is the period from 1000 to 1300CE, European peasants were divided into four classes according to their legal status and their relationship to the land they farmed.  These classes were slave, serf, free tenant or land owner.  The first two classes were usually much poorer than the second two.

There were several factors that influenced the lives of peasants during this period.  The reciprocal benefits of agricultural labour and warrior protection gave rise to closely settled manorial and feudal communities.[2]  More land was brought under cultivation by the communal clearing of forests, draining of swamps and the building of levees or dykes.[3]

The invention of a heavier wheeled plow enabled deeper cultivation of soils, including the burying of green manure from fallow land and also stubble from previous crops.  The deeper furrows also protected seed from wind and birds.[4]

plough

Source of image: Wikimedia Commons

There was also a period of warmer temperatures, milder winters and higher rainfall at this time, resulting in longer growing seasons.[5]  Another important factor was the replacement of the Roman two-field rotation system by a more efficient three-field system, enabling two-thirds of the land to be under cultivation at any one time, instead of only half the land.  This image shows the three cropping fields (West, South and East) of a typical rural community, with the remaining quarter devoted to pasture, the Manor house and Church.[6]

rural community

Source of image: Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011). p. 142.

Interestingly, the typical length of a plow-strip was 220 yards, called a furlong (a word still used in horse racing today).  The width of a plow-strip was a rod, and a rectangle of 4 rods by one furlong became an acre.[7] (Four rods later became a ‘chain’ of 22 yards, so an acre was an area one furlong by one chain).

The resulting increases in agricultural yields raised farm production above subsistence levels for the first time in centuries.   These surpluses not enabled not only trade, but also the storage of produce such as oats for the feeding of horses.  This in turn enabled the replacement of plow-pulling oxen by horses that required less pasture that could be reallocated to cropping.  Horses also moved and turned faster than oxen, resulting in even more efficiencies.[8]

Crop yields for wheat improved to an estimated four times the quantity of grain sown.  Typically, one quarter of the yield was reserved for the next planting, one or two quarters went to the lord of the manor as rent, and the remainder was either consumed as bread or beer, stored for the winter or sold at local markets.[9]

Few peasants could afford meat to eat – they mainly lived on bread, beer and vegetables grown by women and children in small cottage gardens, plus eggs from chickens and milk from cows and goats.  Those living in coastal areas also ate fish. [10]

 Bibliography

Backman, Clifford R., The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011).

Endnotes

[1] Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011) p.135.

[2] Backman, Clifford R., The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) p.215

[3] Bennett, p.140.

[4] Backman, p.218.

[5] Bennett, p.139.

[6] Bennett, p.140-142.

[7] Backman, p.217.

[8] Backman, p.218.

[9] Backman, p.219.

[10] Backman, p.220.

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Did the Crusades lead to Islamic State?

The Conversation

Carole Cusack, University of Sydney

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, professor of religious studies Carole Cusack considers the Crusades: can we really understand anything about Islamic State by looking at its rise as the latest incarnation of a centuries-old struggle between Islam and Christianity?


In 1996, late US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Following the collapse of communism in 1989, he argued, conflicts would increasingly involve religion.

Islam, which Huntington claimed had been the opponent of Christianity since the seventh century, would increasingly feature in geopolitical conflict.

So, it wasn’t particularly shocking when, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the then-US president, George W. Bush, used the term “crusade” to describe the American military response.

Framing the subsequent “war on terror” as a crusade acted as a red flag to journalists and political commentators, who could treat the events as simply the most recent stoush in a centuries-old conflict.

The actual Crusades (1096-1487) themselves evoke a romantic image of medieval knights, chivalry, romance and religious high-mindedness. But representing them as wars between Christians and Muslims is a gross oversimplification and a misreading of history.

Early Islamic conquests

That there were wars between Muslims and Christians is certainly true. After the death of Abu Bakr (573-634), the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and first caliph, the second Caliph Umar (583-644) sent the Islamic armies in three divisions to conquer and spread the religion of Islam.

Whole regions that were Christian fell to Islam. The Holy Land, which comprised modern-day Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, for instance, was defeated. And Egypt was conquered without even a battle in 640.

The ancient and vast Persian Empire, officially Zoroastrian in religion, had been conquered by 642. Weakened by war with the Christian Byzantine Empire, Persia was no match for the Muslim forces.

Muslim armies marched across north Africa and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into modern Spain, eventually securing a large territory in the Iberian Peninsula, which was known as Al-Andalus (also known as Muslim Spain or Islamic Iberia).

They also marched across the Pyrenees and into France in 732, the centenary of Muhammad’s death. But they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Poitiers (also known as Battle of Tours and, by Arab sources, as Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs) by the Frankish general, Charles Martel (686-741), grandfather of the great Emperor Charlemagne.

This was seen as a Christian victory and, after Poitiers, there were no further attacks on Western Europe. The Crusades came much later.

The causes of the Crusades

The proximate causes of the First Crusade (1096-1099) include the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1056-1118), who was crowned in 1081 and ruled until his death. His armies met the Muslim Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and were defeated.

This placed the city of Constantinople at risk of conquest. So, the emperor requested that the West send knights to assist him – and he was prepared to pay.

Pope Urban II (1044-1099) preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095. He argued that the Turks and Arabs attacked Christian territories and had “killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire”.

He also promised his audience:

All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.

This was recorded by a monk called Fulcher of Chartres, who wrote a chronicle of the First Crusade.

The four leaders of the First Crusade.
Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands answered the pope’s call and the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099. But the Crusaders’ presence in the Middle East was short-lived and the port city of Ruad, the last Christian possession, was lost in 1302/3.

Many later conflicts that were called Crusades were not actions against Muslim armies at all. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), for instance, was a Venetian Catholic army, which besieged Constantinople. Catholic Christians attacked Orthodox Christians, then looted the city, taking its treasures back to Venice.

Islam was not a factor in the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, either. In that instance, Pope Innocent III (1160/1-1216) used the language of war against the infidel (literally “unfaithful”, meaning those without true religion) against heretics in the south of France. So, “right-thinking” Christians killed “deviant” Christians.

The end of the Middle Ages

It wasn’t all intermittent fighting. There were also periods of peace and productive relationships between Christian and Muslim rulers in the Middle Ages.

For instance, Charlemagne (742-814) (also know as Charles the Great or Charles I), who united most of Western Europe during the early part of the Middle Ages, sent gifts to Harun al-Rashid (763-809), the Caliph of Baghdad. In return, he received diplomatic presents such as a chess set, an elaborate clepsydra (water clock) and an elephant.

In Spain, the culture from the early eighth century to the late 15th was known as “la Convicencia” (the co-existence), as Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace (though the level of harmony has been exaggerated). And there was an exchange of ideas in fields including mathematics, medicine and philosophy.

The Christian kingdoms of the north gradually reconquered Al-Andalus. And, in 1492, King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) reclaimed Granada and expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain, or forced them to convert to Christianity.

A clumsy view

Clearly, to speak of an “us versus them” mentality, or to frame current geopolitical conflicts as “crusades” of Christians against Muslims, or vice versa, is to misunderstand – and misuse – history.

Not all blood and guts: the Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid receives a delegation from Charlemagne.
Julius Köckert via Wikimedia Commons

Modern Westerners would find medieval Crusader knights as unappealing as they do Islamic State.

And it’s impossible to miss the fact that the immediate entry into heaven Pope Urban promised to Christian soldiers who died in battle against the infidel Muslims is conceptually identical to the martyrdom ideology of contemporary jihadists.

Reality is more complex – and more interesting – than the simple continuation of a historical struggle against the same enemy. Muslims conquered Christian territories, yes, but Christians engaged in reconquest.

There were forced conversions to both Islam and Christianity, and – very importantly – actual governments and monarchs were involved. It’s a simplistic thing to say that “Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state”, but there’s an element of truth in it.

The most important reason we should resist the lure of the crusade tag to any fight against jihadists is that groups like Islamic State want the West to think like that.

It justified the Paris bomb attacks of November 2015 as attacks against “the Crusader nation of France”. Osama bin Laden used the same reasoning after the September 11 attacks.

By adopting the role of Crusaders, Western nations play into Islamic State’s hands. It’s how these jihadists want the West to understand itself – as implacably opposed to Islam. But it’s not, and it never has been.


This is the sixth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

The ConversationCarole Cusack, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Breathtaking television: why Game of Thrones leaves the rest behind

The Conversation

Jason Jacobs, The University of Queensland

When Game of Thrones returns to screens for its fifth season on Sunday night, US time, it will no doubt continue to attract the critical and popular praise that it richly deserves.

DB Weiss and David Benioff’s HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s string of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, has achieved its cultural prominence not because of the vast amount of cash invested in the production and not on the back of the passionate fan base for the books. It’s not even the lucky coincidence of industrial changes in Hollywood television organisation over the past 20 years that have made it more hospitable to signature television, that is, television with strong authorial identity, style and attitude.

No: Game of Thrones is successful simply because it is much better than most other television and, for that matter, most other contemporary cultural output.

Game of Thrones Season 5 – Sansa Stark and Lord Baelish.
© Home Box Office, Inc.

By “better”, I mean it reaches a consistently satisfying – often breathtaking – level of achievement as entertainment.

That’s something that is not explainable by merely pointing to its fidelity to the books on which it is based, or its budget. There are many other well-funded television shows that blend history, sex, violence in a genre package, such as Marco Polo, The Borgias, Wolf Hall and Spartacus. The thing is, picking a formula and loading it with cash and a sprinkling of talent doesn’t guarantee critical or popular success: art and culture do not work like that.

What Game of Thrones does best

So what is the distinction of Game of Thrones – what makes it better?

First of all it avoids the temptation to import a bunch of boutique contemporary issues into its narrative.

The women depicted in it, for example, would have little truck with the contemporary feminist tendency to paint women as vulnerable victims in need of legal and state protections against feral men. Daenerys, Brienne and Arya are valiant as lions and cunning as foxes: armies, weapons and courage are their currency. We’ve watched them over four seasons carving out a space for themselves in a hostile world full of pitiless foes.

Game of Thrones Season 5. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Its homo- and bisexual characters are not magical emblems of ethical goodness for our edification; its men are not oversensitive metrosexuals in fur.

In avoiding such things, the show sidesteps the self-righteous and pompous tendency of some Hollywood productions to instruct us on how we should conduct our moral lives.

Secondly, Game of Thrones embraces its genre and uses it as a medium for expression.

It was the great philosopher Stanley Cavell who, in his books on Hollywood screwball comedies and melodramas, developed the notion that popular genres in the hands of great artists can be the source of extraordinary accomplishment. Game of Thrones – unlike other critically acclaimed shows such as Mad Men or Breaking Bad – fully revels in its fantasy genre.

Game of Thrones Season 5 – Jon Snow. © Home Box Office, Inc.

More importantly, it draws on the familiar resources of the genre – the magic, the medieval brutality, the monarchical mania for power – in order to do something never achieved in the genre before – even, arguably, by the books. That is, it makes the search for meaning, particularly of those struggling for power and revenge, intelligible in dramatic and spectacular ways.

The threat of the White Walkers, the disintegration and murder of the families of the North, the corruption and debt of the Lannisters; competing religious faiths, one breeding evil the other a strange kind of solidarity and commitment to justice; it shows us what loyalty, lies and betrayal mean when the stakes are mortal not trivial.

Somehow we feel this speaks to our own search for meaning today, but not in an aversive way that suggest the writers have the cocky confidence to provide an answer.

Popular genres resonate in uncertain times

The unravelling of Westeros, as it is figured by some of the finest performances on screen today, resonates with a profound uncertainty about our relationship to our own history and future. And it is through genre and fiction that this intelligibility is achieved. Why? Because we cannot make sense of it, cannot feel its palpable weight for us, through other forms of discourse such as philosophy, politics or science.

Indeed the great Hollywood directors of the 1940s and 50s all used popular genres in this way – think of John Ford’s westerns, Hitchcock’s thrillers, the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray and Max Ophuls.

None of that would matter much if it was executed poorly.

Game of Thrones Season 5 – Cersei and Jaime Lannister.
© Home Box Office, Inc.

Veteran actors like Charles Dance, Liam Cunningham, Diana Rigg and Ciaran Hinds have never done better work; the standout contributions are Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, Maisie Williams as Arya Stark and Aiden Gillan as Lord Baelish. Dinklage communicates the shifting blend of family resentment with the wit of a well-read intellect. Williams uses her youth as a constant misdirection for her evolving capabilities as a killer. Gillan manages to pull off the feat of never being less than chillingly ahead of us in his political designs while allowing us to glimpse chinks of his interiority that almost humanises him.

A win for ‘complex TV’?

Finally, the credit for making Game of Thrones better than the rest of television must lie with Benioff and Weiss.

In a recent Conversation, piece Jason Mittell made the case for denoting the shift to more sophisticated television drama as part of the rise of “complex TV”, by which he meant narrative complexity enabled by “major shifts in the television industry, new forms of television technology, and the growth of active, engaged viewing communities.”

There are many problems with this notion of “complex TV”: as a criterion of achievement, “complexity” is a quality that is too broad to capture aesthetic specificities. Lots of complex things are quite unrewarding aesthetically – transport and sewerage systems for example. And complex narratives can be irritating, or over plotted.

But what is striking is the demotion, in Mittell’s account, of the creative achievement of individual artists who are given a perfunctory mention at the end of his piece. On the contrary. Without Weiss and Benioff, Game of Thrones would be just another disappointing adaptation – think Harry Potter films – of some fine genre writing.

Game of Thrones Season 5 – Arya Stark.
© Home Box Office, Inc.

The tendency of cultural and media studies over the past 20 years has been to avoid judgement and discrimination between the bad, the good and the better, by pretending that everything except the contribution of talented artists is important.

In the meantime, the leading artists of our time – such as David Milch (Deadwood), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Weiss and Beinoff – have got on with the job of making great art for the masses. And herein lies one lesson that Game of Thrones can be said to offer us: without the talent and courage of individuals, no justice and, I would argue, no art, is feasible.

The first episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones will screen in Australia on Monday April 13 in simulcast with the US launch. Details here.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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The kind of toughness we need now

The Conversation

By Simon Reich, Rutgers University

I grew up in London during the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s. I lived in Pittsburgh during the 9/11 attacks when United Flight 93 was forced down not far from the city. I’m currently in Paris where I live part of the year.

Each of these cities is filled with decent, thoughtful, moderate people: people who care about their families, their communities and their country. They may argue vehemently about politics, religion and sport. But what binds them, overwhelmingly, is their commitment to a modern set of values, liberal-democratic values that its proponents collectively define as “modernity and progress”.

These values are not unique to what their adversaries call “the West”. These values were just as evident among those Arabs and Muslims who protested in the squares of Cairo and Tunis. Those who began the war against Assad in Syria. Those who demanded greater rights in the streets of Hong Kong. Those who clamor for recognition on the streets of Moscow.

Unfortunately, in these cases, the protesters were outnumbered and crushed by adversaries who control the military and the police. They were defeated by politicians who can whip up a frenzy among people who fear the future rather than embrace it.

We will always face threats

In each generation, we collectively face a threat from people who value control and conformity rather than freedom of expression. The source and form of these threats take many forms and those that carry them out vary in their goals.

The Cold War sought to impose a statist political system. Jihadists want to impose a medieval one masquerading as a religious one. But they share common features. They seek to divide and conquer, to rule and impose their values. They seek to quell freedom of thought and action.

Sometimes the threat is widespread and realistic. Soviet missiles really did pose an existential threat. Sometimes it is more symbolic. The Paris shooting, like the IRA in London and 9/11 fits in the latter category. The target was well-defined, and carried out barbarically and with efficiency. It was the quintessence of terrorism.

Sadly, we will always face such threats. And they will always hit soft targets.

The really important question is how we respond. The humanity demonstrated by those who held vigils on the streets of many capitals around the world after the Paris killings was deeply touching and symbolically very important. But it is just the start.

What to do?

Shock and sadness will inevitably give way to indignation, anger and a desire for revenge. The scale of the attack on Charlie Hebdo was much smaller than 9/11. But it would be foolish to underestimate the effect of these killings on the French national psyche, a country that was spared the post 9/11 bombings in London and Madrid.

So how will we respond to each other when the shock has subsided? Today, as I write this story, France is preparing for a moment of silence and the streets of Paris are eerily silent. But will France be able to distinguish the real enemy from those we think look like the enemy in the months ahead? After 9/11, Muslims and people who looked like Muslims (which included Sikhs in turbans to the more ignorant) suffered discrimination at the hands of unscrupulous politicians and violence at the hands of thugs looking for someone to blame. Many Europeans, living in the throes of mass unemployment, are prone to the same temptation – to blame someone, anyone, for their individual and collective woes.

As I sat on the train last night after the attack, there were two women sitting near me. One was an older woman who wore a traditional head-dress. She looked down, unwilling to even acknowledge a man sitting opposite her. The other was a young woman with make-up, painted nails, a short skirt and high-heeled boots. They were obviously both Muslims. These were clearly nobodies’ enemy. Neither is my sister-in-law’s partner, a Jew whose family is from North Africa – and who can be mistaken for an Arab Muslim.

France’s National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, has already embarked on a cynical course, denouncing Islam as the enemy. The FN is not alone. Michel Houellebecq, one of France’s most renowned authors, coincidentally published a novel yesterday entitled Submission (in English). Its central plot is that France has become an Islamic state in which civil society capitulates to Sharia law. Prior to the attack, it was the talk of France.

It is tempting to buy into this narrative, one of a clash of civilizations. Europeans from Greece to the UK are ready to do so. But we shouldn’t. Our common cause is with those who embrace common humanitarian values, even though we disagree about so much. Our enemies are those who reject these values. Both our allies and adversaries come in every color and proclaim every religion. It is time to get tough with those who oppose our common values. We’ve been too willing to let others divide us on the basis of color, wealth, religion or politics.

Getting tough doesn’t have to entail fighting more wars, mass imprisonment or the use of torture. The Spanish didn’t discriminate against a whole minority group when it fought ETA – and ultimately ETA faded away.

Real toughness means demonstrating the resolve showed by the English when they faced the IRA bombing campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. It entails the kind of dignity showed by those who held vigil in Paris’ Place de la Republique the night of the attack. It entails showing fortitude by sticking firmly with the values that have served us all well over the course of the last several centuries.

Otherwise, whether we defeat the Jihadists or not, they will have won.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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