Crusaders, Nomads and Conquistadors

Crusaders and Other Barbarians

by Gwydion M Williams

  • Horse-nomads and Sea-nomads
  • Why the Mongol conquest of China was incomplete till long after their venture into Europe
  • How allied Mongols & Crusaders fought and lost against Islam at the Battle of Goliath Spring
  • Europe’s Empires and England’s advantages

Empires in the ancient worldEurope never did recover the brief unity the Romans had imposed on it. It was in any case a unification for the rich by the rich and over the sweated enslaved bodies of the poor.

Classical Mediterranean civilisation saw the defeat of independent small production by the rich and by larger-scale production. Plato and Aristotle were justifiers of this process: clever teachers of rich pupils who used philosophical complexities to cover opinions that would sound outrageous if said directly.

Life for ordinary people was no worse under ‘barbarians’ than under the Greek and Roman empires. Europe before the Roman Empire was a diverse place; Celts were a dominant element, but they left behind no clear account of themselves, and their nature and origin remain a matter of dispute.

There were also other peoples besides Celts, although most European populations spoke a language derived from the ancient Indo-Europeans, believed to be wave of nomads who swept out from some unknown heartland, no further west than what is now the Ukraine.

Celts are normally reckoned to have begun at Hallstatt in Upper Austria, and might be somehow related to the very ancient cultures of the Danube, the nearest thing to a European river-valley civilisation. But all we have unknown peoples and unreadable scripts.

Europe’s roots are mixed and mostly mysterious. The original horse-riding Indo-European nomads overran farmers whose nature has to be guessed at from archaeological remains. We are fairly confident that their ancestors had arrived in waves from the middle east and merged with some yet older inhabitants. We ourselves are a product of these various mergers. A whole range of ancient languages must have been lost, with Basque as an enigmatic survivor.

At the same time as the original Europeans were overrun, some Indo-Europeans went west as Indo-Iranians, absorbing or erasing the Indus Valley civilisation, so we find Indo-European speakers both west and east of the older Mesopotamian-Semitic core.

The histories of nomadic peoples are also obscure, but it seems the original Indo-European nomads went as far east as what is now Mongolia. This may have been as much cultural as ethnic, various peoples accepting the language and way of life of successful conquerors. They had some influence on the Chinese, most of the names connected to horses and chariots look like Sinicised Indo-European. But the culture of the Yellow River and Yangtze was not erased as the Indus Valley culture was: it was not even much changed, keeping its own tone-based Sino-Tibetan speech and its interesting ideographic script, and much else that was well established before the first Western barbarians turned up from the gloomy steppes.

The nomads of East-Central Asia were inspired by invaders from the west, but became different and stronger, mostly speakers of Turkish and related languages, including Mongolian. There were several return waves of conquering nomads, Huns and others who began as nomads on the fringes of China and ended up as invaders of Europe:

By the second quarter of the fifth century a great war chief had arisen among the Huns, Attila. We have only vague and tantalizing glimpses of his power. He ruled not only the Huns but over a conglomerate of tributary Germanic tribes; his empire extended from the Rhine across the plains into Central Asia. He exchanged ambassadors with China. His head camp was in the plain of Hungary east of the Danube. There he was visited by an envoy from Constantinople, Priscus, who has left us an account of his state. The way of living of these Mongols was very like the way of living of the primitive Aryans they had replaced. The common folk were in huts and tents, the chiefs lived in great stockaded timber halls. There were feasts and drinking and singing by the bards. The Homeric heroes and even the Macedonian companions of Alexander would probably have felt more at home in the camp-capital of Attila than they would have done in the cultivated and decadent court of Theodosius 11, the son of Areadius, who was then reigning in Constantinople.

For a time it seemed as though the nomads under the leadership of the Huns and Attila would play the same part towards the Graeco-Roman civilization of the Mediterranean countries that the barbaric Greeks had played long ago to the Aegean civilization. It looked like history repeating itself upon a larger stage. But the Huns were much more wedded to the nomadic life than the early Greeks, who were rather migratory cattle farmers than true nomads. The Huns raided and plundered but did not settle. (H G Wells, History Of The World, pages 157-8)

The Roman Empire survived the Huns, but its western half was then overrun by Germanic tribes, Franks and Goths and Vandals and Burgundians, as well as Angles and Saxons overrunning the Roman province of Britannia, absorbing or replacing the Romanised Celts. The Western Roman Empire technically expired with the deposition of Romulus Augustilius in 476–though he was a usurper not recognized as a legitimate ruler by the Eastern emperor.

Europe In Darkness

Byzantium is often and validly described as a thousand-year continuation of Roman imperial traditions after Rome itself fell. But it was also Greek-speaking and could just as well be seen as a reassertion of Hellenistic traditions after four or five centuries of conquest by stronger and more primitive Latin-speakers.

In Western Europe, and nowhere else, there was a ‘dark age’ after the fall of Rome, a break in high culture between the late Roman empire and the early Renaissance, rebirth of Classical values. But these ‘dark ages’ also saw a successful expansion of Latin-Christian values in Europe far beyond anything Rome had ever ruled.

H G Wells notes how Europe had a culture divided against itself, in a way no other major culture was. Educated Chinese thought that there ought to be a single ruler for their ‘Chung Kuo’ (Central Empire). The scholar-gentry felt obliged to be loyal even to bad, weak or foolish emperors.

A Confucian who had opposed his Emperor in the way that Thomas a’ Becket opposed Henry II of England would have been execrated and despised rather than sanctified.

It was not a matter of being indifferent to tyranny or injustice. Some Confucian civil servants did take bold stands on moral issues, as many as there were bishops who took a dangerous moral stand on matters where they had no power-political motive. But the Confucians also never questioned the right of the Emperor to punish them, as some of them did indeed suffer horrible mutilations or death with continued loyalty.

Such an attitude would have seemed admirable to the early Christians, who were also ready to peacefully suffer for righteousness. But by Becket’s time, the Church had managed to partly secede from secular authority, and helped to keep Europe fragmented.

Chinese tradition kept a sensible harmony between the secular and the sacred. Those inclined to religion withdrew as monks or hermits, or else did what they could to encourage benevolence in whoever happened to be ruling. The core of Confucian education was secular, loosely recognising the power of ‘heaven’ but coexisting with the Taoist and Buddhist religions.

Western Europe’s educational system had been taken over during the Dark Ages by a uniquely intolerant religion. Any ruler anywhere in the world would punish those particular religions judged to be disloyal, or which promoted customs that the ruler’s culture found obnoxious. But the official versions of Christianity chose to treat all other religions as by definition criminal and wicked. Loyal well-behaved faiths were even worse, because this was a subtle devilishness that could easily deceive the Laity into thinking clerical power was neither admirable nor necessary.

While other religions were intolerant on particular matters, no faith other than the official versions of Christianity was intolerant on principle. In the rest of the world, only Islam would kill people for holding a mistaken belief. And it generally had to be something seriously blasphemous to the mainstream Islamic view, not the technicalities on which Christians got condemned for heresy.

Latin Christianity also did not see loyalty to secular rulers as a necessity; many parts of the Bible suggested quite the opposite. And the Church never knew quite what it wanted from the state:

The next factor in the European political disorder was the resolve of the Church at Rome to make no temporal prince but the Pope of Rome himself emperor in effect. He was already pontifex maximum; for all practical purposes he held the decaying city; if he had no armies he had at least a vast propaganda organization in his priests throughout the whole Latin world; if he had little power over men’s bodies he held the keys of heaven and hell in their imaginations and could exercise much influence upon their souls. So throughout the Middle Ages while one prince manoeuvred against another first for equality, then for ascendancy, and at last for the supreme prize, the Pope of Rome, sometimes boldly, sometimes craftily, sometimes feebly–for the popes were a succession of oldish men and the average reign of a pope was not more than two years–manoeuvred for the submission of all the princes to himself as the ultimate overlord of Christendom. (History Of The World, page 176)

Wells also understands how much the modern secular-democratic age owed to the high-tension religion that spawned it and then tried unsuccessfully to contain it. He argues that it began with the Crusades:

Such a wide-spread uprising of the common people in relation to a single idea as now occurred, was a new thing in the history of our race. There is nothing to parallel it in the previous history of the Roman Empire or of India or China. On a smaller scale, however, there had been similar movements among the Jewish people after their liberation from the Babylonian captivity, and later on Islam was to display a parallel susceptibility to collective feeling. Such movements were certainly connected with the new spirit that had come into life with the development of the missionary-teaching religions. The Hebrew prophets, Jesus and his disciples, Mani, Muhammad, were all exhorters of men’s individual souls. They brought the personal conscience face to face with God. Before that time religion had been much more a business of fetish, of pseudo- science, than of conscience. The old kind of religion turned upon temple, initiated priest and mystical sacrifice, and ruled the common man like a slave by fear. The new kind of religion made a man of him.

The preaching of the First Crusade was the first stirring of the common people in European history. It may be too much to call it the birth of modern democracy, but certainly at that time modern democracy stirred. Before very long we shall find it stirring again, and raising the most disturbing social and religious questions.

Wells also recognised what most West Europeans denied until recently, that there was a highly barbaric side to this crusading zeal:

Certainly this first stirring of democracy ended very pitifully and lamentably. Considerable bodies of common people, crowds rather than armies, set out eastward from France and the Rhineland and central Europe, without waiting for leaders or proper equipment, to rescue the Holy Sepulchre. This was the ‘people’s crusade’. Two great mobs blundered into Hungary, mistook the recently converted Magyars for pagans, committed atrocities and were massacred. A third multitude with a similarly confused mind, after a great pogrom of the Jews in the Rhineland, marched eastward, and was also destroyed in Hungary. Two other huge crowds, under the leadership of Peter the Hermit himself, reached Constantinople, crossed the Bosphorus, and were massacred rather than defeated by the Seljuk Turks. So began and ended this first movement of the European people, as people.

Next year (1097) the real fighting forces crossed the Bosphorus. Essentially they were Norman in leadership and spirit. They stormed Nicaea, marched by much the same route as Alexander had followed fourteen centuries before, to Antioch. The siege of Antioch kept them a year, and in June 1099 they invested Jerusalem. It was stormed after a month’s siege. The slaughter was terrible. Men riding on horseback were splashed by the blood in the streets. At nightfall on July 15 the Crusaders had fought their way into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and overcome all opposition there; blood-stained, weary, and ‘sobbing from excess of joy’ they knelt down in prayer.

Immediately the hostility of Latin and Greek broke out again. The Crusaders were the servants of the Latin church, and the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem found himself in a far worse case under the triumphant Latins than under the Turks. The Crusaders discovered themselves between Byzantine and Turk and fighting both. Much of Asia Minor was recovered by the Byzantine Empire, and the Latin princes were left, a buffer between Turk and Greek, with Jerusalem and a few small principalities… (Ibid. page 184-5)

There were two major divergent European traditions, expressed by the religious schism between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, and also by Latin or Greek as the main language of learning. It runs right through the Slavonic peoples, with Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes and Croats as Catholics, Russians, Ruthenians, Bulgarians and Serbs as Orthodox. Europe in general remained divided between the heritage of Latins and of Greeks, what I shall call Frankistan and Byzantistan.

In the Near East Europeans were until very recently called ‘Franks’, a word first used in Byzantium to mean western Christians. It caught on elsewhere and was still being used in various distortions and mispronunciations from the Persian Gulf to China a thousand years later. This is more than just a historical curiosity; it is a helpful reminder that non-Europeans were struck from the start by the unity, not the diversity, of the western peoples and long thought of them as one. (Penguin History Of The World, p 506)

Europe also seemed a backward fringe to the Arabs. And up until the 19th century, Europeans themselves saw the wider world as rich and interesting, not primitive or needing to be made European.

Ups And Downs Of History

History reveals that almost all societies have ‘surges’ in which they grow larger, stronger and more sophisticated, followed by ‘slumps’ in which they stagnate and sometimes lose territories they once controlled. The reasons for this are unclear, though the modern mathematics of ‘Structured Chaos’ suggests that a complex interacting system may show quasi-periodic fluctuations without much rhyme or reason–that’s why a dripping tap is unpredictable.

In school lessons and in examinations, questions are not asked unless there is some valid answer. Or at least an answer than the teacher or examiner will accept as valid, even when it’s total nonsense, as Aristotelian Physics was. But in life, apparently simple questions may have no known answer. Fermat’s Last Theorem was only recently solved, and it looks increasingly likely that Fermat himself had one of the numerous false answers that have been discovered across the years. Goldbach’s Conjecture–that all even numbers are the sum of two prime numbers–remains unproven.

Our present knowledge of science and maths is quite consistent with a belief that successive surges and slumps in civilisations might have no particular cause. Or at least none that we could follow with our existing level of knowledge And a simple-minded model in which the various civilisations of Eurasia surged or stagnated at random until one of them reached take-off would explain actual history very nicely.

Western Europe had a ‘surge’ under the Roman Empire, followed by an especially bad ‘slump’ which we call the Dark Ages. Europe emerged from these Dark Ages with a muddle of contradictory traditions, Latin and Greek and Germanic, as well as Judaism in a Christianised form. And, from the Arab-speaking Islamic world, we acquired the Chinese ideas of paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. Also Hindu numerals as ‘Arabic’ numbers and the Muslim-world inventions of algebra, algorithms and sophisticated chemistry.

European languages are still marked by Arabic words which indicate the special importance of Arabic study in certain areas: ‘zero’, ‘cipher’, ‘almanac’, ‘algebra’ and ‘alchemy’ are among them. The survival of a technical vocabulary of commerce, too–tariff, douane, magazine–is a reminder of the superiority of Arab commercial technique; the Arab merchants taught Christians how to keep accounts. Strikingly, this cultural traffic with Europe was almost entirely one way. Only one Latin text, it appears, was ever translated into Arabic during the Middle Ages, at a time when Arabic scholars were passionately interested in the cultural legacies of Greece, Persia and India. A single fragment of paper bearing a few German words with their Arabic equivalents is the only evidence from eight hundred years of Islamic Spain of any interest in western languages outside the peninsula. The Arabs regarded the civilization of the cold lands of the north as a meagre, unsophisticated affair, as no doubt it was. (Penguin History Of The World, page 328. Emphasis added.)

An Arab traveller is one of our best sources on Norse Paganism, including the human sacrifice that later Norse Christians must have preferred not to mention, but which has been proven by obviously murdered bodies of servants or slaves in some Viking burials. Meantime Latin Christendom, after the double sack of Rome by first Visigoths and then Vandals in the 5th century, had to work hard just to hang on.

Rome in the 4th century remained, nonetheless, a distinctly conservative and pagan city dominated by proud senatorial families. When the Visigothic army of Alaric first threatened the city in 408, the Senate and the prefect proposed pagan sacrifices to ward off the enemy, and even the pope would have allowed them to be performed in secret. In 410 Alaric seized Rome and allowed his troops to pillage the city for three days; much booty was taken, and many Romans fled.

It is unlikely, however, that the monuments of Rome suffered extensive damage. Its churches, for the most part, were spared. Even the longer, 14-day sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 did less damage than the Romans themselves. In the 4th and 5th centuries, the emperors repeatedly legislated against those who were stripping buildings and monuments for their materials, especially the marble. By the mid-5th century, the population had dropped to fewer than 250,000. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Meantime the Islamic World was doing very nicely. The Arabs had arrived as desert nomads, but Islam gave them a basic sense of justice and an admirable respect for knowledge. The story of them burning the Library at Alexandria is a complete propaganda lie: Islamic law required them to learn everything useful and to respect the sacred writings of religions that were not idolatrous.

Islamic civalisation had a ‘surge’ that took it higher than anything that had previously existed. Had Islamic Spain then discovered the New World, they would have had just the same advantage as the later Christian-Spanish Conquistadores. The same mix of God, Gold and Glory would have applied. They might have been just as ruthless with the Aztecs or the earlier Toltecs, obvious and obnoxious idolators, but might perhaps have classed the gentler Incas as ‘people of the book’. In any event, the gold of the New World would have flowed to Islam and perhaps enabled them to complete their conquest of Christian Europe. And modern science might have emerged in some very different fashion.

In actual history, the Islamic ‘surge’ was followed by a serious ‘slump’, leaving behind a body of unused knowledge that Christian Europe was to benefit from. The sophisticated Muslim world was first attacked by Europe’s crude plundering fanatical Crusaders, and then partly overrun by the Mongols.

The ‘Islamic Enlightenment’ had included people like Omar Khayyam, astronomer and philosopher as well as poet. But it had ended in ruin and defeat, and there was a naural tendency to return to a smpler sort of faith. Meantime Europe was past its low point and coming up rapidly.

Europe in the Dark Ages had been attacked by two aggressive cultures, the Pagan Norse and the Islamic World. It absorbed the former, and the Norse pattern of trading, raiding and conquest against the rest of Europe was later applied very successfully by Europe to the rest of the globe. Whereas the duel with Islam ended indecisively, but left the Latin-Christian world much more sophisticated and the Islamic world maybe less so.

Latin Christianity’s resistance to Islam included an assimilation of many aspects of a superior culture. This included the Islamic concept of Holy War, a defiance of earlier tradition but also a successful enterprise. Christians eventually lost the Holy Land, but did eliminate European paganism in the Baltic and also recovered the Iberian peninsula, with the capture of Lisbon as the main achievement of the Second Crusade. And once Christianity had dumped its pacifist origins and become an ideology of war, there was no limit to where war could be applied:

From the early fifteenth century onwards, Portuguese history is punctuated by the phenomenon of overseas expansion, which took the Portuguese to East Africa, India, China, Japan and South America, with consequences which have dominated the country’s development almost to the present. How can one account for this passion to colonize? What distinguishes the case of Portugal, when compared to that of other European countries, is that the voyages of discovery were not isolated actions of individual merchants or adventurers, but the result of a plan instituted by the State and carried out over many generations… It was this deliberate policy which made the Portuguese discoveries so far-reaching; indeed they inaugurated a new era in world history.

The original motives of the Crown in taking so active a role in maritime affairs may be sought in the long struggle with Islam… Once the Moors had been driven from what became modern Portugal (her present frontiers being the longest-established in Europe), the Portuguese carried the contest beyond their coasts. The war at sea was first fought by the Portuguese against Arab corsairs who raided their ports and harassed their shipping. To counteract these depredations, a royal fleet was constructed… the headquarters of the Templars was transferred from Tomar, in the centre of the country, to Castro Marim, at the eastern end of the Algarve, where the combat with the Moors was particularly intense. When the Order of Crato–a continuation from the Templars–had the Infante Dom Henrique (Prince Henry the Navigator) as its ‘Apostolic Administrator’, its accumulated resources were directed with decisive effect towards maritime enterprise. This is how it came about that the Templar cross was blazoned on the sails of Portuguese caravels.

It was largely due to Prince Henry that what was once a desultory military activity, encouraged by the prospect of plunder, was converted to one in which a sustained programme of exploration, partly inspired by scientific curiosity, became paramount. The convergence of religious and economic interests with royal sponsorship made possible this change of emphasis. The adventure of the discoveries appealed to the growing population (many of whom had the skills of shipbuilding and the experience of navigation) for whom the pursuit provided both diversion and employment. (Portugal: a companion history, pages 35-36)

Horse-nomads & Sea-nomads

After a slump there is usually a surge, and Europe’s surge included the territories and peoples who had been barbarian foes of Rome. Europe’s rise came a couple of centuries after the decline of the Mongol Empire, which had made direct links between Europe, West Asia and China for the first time–the ancient Silk Road had been much more a chain of trading from one intermediary to another, with Europe having little idea of the source. Silk was often supposed to be a vegetable fibre like cotton. The ‘Seres’ (silk people) were seriously supposed by the Greeks to be large red-headed people, the Greeks must have got garbled news about some real tribal traders further up the chain.

The legendary ‘Hyperboreans’–a enigmatic civilised nation ‘beyond the north wind’–sound like a distant echo of ancient China. More historically, China did appear twice in the European understanding of the tales of distant traders. Franck’s The Silk Road explains how the southern Chinese, in touch with the West via India, were called ‘Sinae’. Not until some centuries later did Westerners gradually realize that the Seres and the Sinae were in fact inhabitants of the same country.

The Mongolian Empire stretched right across Asia and made direct connections for the first time in history. Chinese scholars made maps of Europe for their Mongol overlords, but Europe in those days was cold, poor and backward: few Chinese wished to go there again. Europe wanted to recover contact with ‘Cathay’, but ‘Cathay’ had seen nothing in Europe that could equal the sophisticated culture and production that they already had.

The Mongols were also just the most successful example of a much older and wider pattern of horse-nomads and sea-nomads both hitting rich civilisations where they were vulnerable. Both the seas and the steppes lacked a regular government; anyone who went there had to be able to fight. On the steppes, a very large fraction of the society were potential soldiers. Whereas an advanced agricultural civilisation tended to stratify into warriors and priests on top, controlling an unarmed civil population of farmers and artisans.

There were many variants. The Viking pattern mix of trading, raiding, settlement and conquest within Europe was rather like the later European treatment of the rest of the world. But things had been similar with the Greeks, and Phoenicians before them. Sea-nomads were always a logical development of trade and travel.

By the 18th century, the entire world was much more developed and connected than it had ever been before. China under the Manchus was a larger richer state than it had ever been, and also had a much bigger population on its traditional core territories. Likewise in India the Mughal Empire, though falling apart, had been the biggest ever empire on the subcontinent since Ashoka’s Buddhist realm nearly two thousand years earlier.

Japan too reached an optimum within its own culture with the Edo period. Polynesian colonisation had reached almost all available island, ending with New Zealand about 1000 AD. People of Indonesian origin had reached Madagascar around 700 AD. In Africa, the Bantu had spread a pattern of advanced agriculture across most of the continent in the last thousand years. The Inuit (Eskimos) had mastered the cold north better than any people before them, spreading from Siberia to what is now Alaska and Canada. In New Guinea, even, an indigenous agricultural revolution had occurred. Only in Australia and a few other places was life much as it had been 1000 years before, or 10,000 for that matter.

It may have been pure luck, but Europe did also have vastly less of a culture of ‘secret knowledge’ than any other major culture. Anyone who knew Latin had access to all of the key documents of their own civilisation. This was quite different from most other cultures, where there was a widespread belief in the importance of secret lore. Secret lore was not unknown in Europe, but was mostly left to cranks and charlatans. Anyone who was serious sought to publish to the widest possible audience.

Most of what the Babylonians and Egyptians knew by way of science was simply not recorded, or not widely enough to come down to us. We know mostly what the Greeks got to know, since Greek culture liked to publicise its ideas. Plato and Aristotle had ambitions to take such knowledge out of the hands and minds of the vulgar ‘demos’, but were unable to do so. Their own writings ended up giving us the general background, but many other useful sources existed.

Industrialisation may correlate fairly well with Protestantism, but you could equally correlate it with beer drinking. And many people in the 19th century did quite seriously credit it to the racial superiority of Nordic types.

The evening-out within Eurasia in the 20th century shows that you can have industrialism without Protestantism, though perhaps only Protestants would have been eager to embrace the filth and suffering of the early Industrial Age.

It might also have been a matter of civilisation’s normal pattern of surges and slumps. Whichever Eurasian power first made substantial contact with the rich and relatively weak New World would rule the next few centuries, before normal human equality was restored.

I’ve already examined how Islam had a ‘surge’ after its first conquests, creating algebra and much else that Europe was later to use, picking up and transmitting the vastly useful Hindu notion of positional numbering, essentially the same system we use today.

But Islam is a rational religion, in a way that Christian Puritanism is not. You can live a life of moderate virtue as a very contented Muslim. Or you can strive for ‘higher spiritual honours’ and perhaps obtain them: those who take an interest in such matters are impressed by Islamic ‘spiritual’ achievements. Whereas few non-Protestants have ever been impressed by Protestant spirituality, as distinct from the material wealth and power than appeared to be associated with it.

You also had ideological confusion caused by a Papacy that was in Rome but not really of Rome. This Christian bishopric was placed on top of something much older, yet not all that old by Mediterranean standards. And the disastrous wars of religion caused secular society to look elsewhere:

During the eighteenth century, the wisdom of Confucius and Chinese methods of government were extolled by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who perceived a Chinese model for their theories of ‘benevolent despotism’. Things Chinese were in great vogue in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and the fashion for chinoiserie left a lingering impression on European design (‘willow pattern’ porcelain being perhaps the most lasting relic of this taste). But by the late nineteenth century western ideas of China had changed remarkably. It was now seen as a land of poverty, of teeming masses labouring under the yoke of corrupt and tyrannical rulers, and in a benighted state of heathenism. (China: A Cultural History, by Stephen G. Haw. Page 6)

There is little in Confucius’ teachings of a religious character. He certainly maintained that it was essential to perform all the traditional rites and sacrifices, and seems to have believed that his teachings accorded with the ‘Decree of Heaven’, yet said that it was wise ‘to keep one’s distance from the gods and spirits’. On being asked by one disciple how to serve the spirits of the dead and the gods he retorted: ‘You are not able even to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?’. When the disciple went on to ask about death, his reply was in similar vein: ‘You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?’. (Ibid., page 56)

Confucianism justified itself by good government, while Hinduism and Buddhism favoured the personal sanctity of its devotees. The various branches of Christianity all claimed to understand about death and salvation. But once this claim was undermined, the culture became free-floating.

Great Walls Of Culture

For a long time after Europe’s conquest of the New World, the European ‘sea-nomads’ remained peripheral to Asia. Asia was not in fact closed to anything that could be taken in without junking the existing culture. It was sensible enough to stick to the same methods that had worked for previous generations. But when Chinese farmers got to know about the useful new food crops of the New World, these were accepted without difficulty. No cultural ‘Great Wall’ existed against anything that fitted with the existing Chinese way of life.

The bricks-and-mortar Great Wall of China is commonly misunderstood. Unlike a city wall, the wall we see today is defended on both sides, and is more like a fortified road through hostile country. This last and greatest wall was built by the Ming dynasty, and did actually preserve them from their nomadic enemies. The Ming were overthrown by Chinese rebels indignant at their corruption and weakness, after which a scheming general betrayed the frontier defences and let in the Manchus, who at first claimed to be there to avenge the Ming.

Walls limited but did not prevent nomadic invasions. And it had always proved impossible to spread the agricultural civilisation of the Yellow River very far to the north, the land was too cold or dry for even the hardiest grains, and could only support nomads who raised a ‘meat crop’ off of the extensive grasslands. Nomads could not be replaced or assimilated, and could never safely be ignored. Gigantic walls were the best solution that any traditional culture could have managed.

Europe was always luckier, the lands that gave rise to one wave of civilisation-destroying barbarians would themselves be civilised agricultural lands in a few centuries. The Greeks may have been the first ‘barbarians’ to be thus incorporated, borrowing the city-state culture of the Phoenicians. Definitely, their South Italian colonies incorporated the Latins. The Latins under Roman leadership incorporated the Celts. The Germanic and Slavonic barbarians who destroyed Rome accepted and internalised its culture.

China and indeed most other civilisations faced a totally different situation. Chinese culture did spread far to the south and south-west, incorporating both tribalists and a mix of agricultural cultures that might have even deeper civilised roots than the Chinese themselves. But regarding the Northern Barbarians, the invading peoples could be and were incorporated, but the lands themselves were unsuited for settled agriculture and were continuously a source of fresh barbarism:

The Liao, the Xia, and the Jin were three regimes controlled by the aristocrats of China’s ethnic minorities. Despite the various political and military contradictions among them and in their relations with the Northern Song [Sung dynasty], some compromises were made, and economic and cultural exchanges with the Northern Song developed.. (An Outline History Of China, page 273)

Seeing that the Liao was in a precarious state, Emperor Hui Zong of the Northern Song concluded an alliance with the Jin for a joint attack against Liao. It was agreed that after defeating the Liao, the Song would retrieve the territories previously ceded to the Qidan and that the Jin would receive from the Song the same amount of silver and silk that had been previously given to the Liao… In the year of its conquest of the Liao, the Jin attacked the Song on two fronts, from the west and from the east… Once again, the Jin forces, in the autumn of 1126, marched southward and captured Dongjing the next year. The Northern Song regime came to an end. The rise of Jin to supreme power was as fast as a summer storm (Ibid., pages 276-277)

China under the Sung developed the technologies that Western Europe later used to conquer the entire globe. But the Sung were invaded by three formidable peoples, the Liao, the Jin (Kin) and the Mongols. The Ming dynasty threw out the Mongols but were never really secure against them, and when the Ming declined the Chinese suffered a fourth barbarian wave with the take-over by the Manchus. Europe only had to face the Mongols, and for a much briefer period, and yet it is commonly believed that this knocked back Kievian Russia and left it as Europe’s backward fringe.

The Chinese invented the compass and were the first to use it in navigation. During the Song-Yuan period, merchant ships from China, Persia, and Arabia were very active on the high seas… The Chinese art of printing became known to Japan during the eighth century. It was introduced to Korea during the tenth century and to Egypt during the twelfth century or perhaps a little earlier. Not until the thirteenth century did the Il-Khanate of Persia learn it and then introduced it to Africa and Europe. Towards the end of the fourteenth century block printing appeared for the first time in Europe. Movable type was invented in China during the eleventh century. It was introduced into Korea during the thirteenth century and to Europe at a later date.

The introduction of firearms to the West was closely related to the Mongols’ western campaign early in the thirteenth century… During their military campaigns in Central Asia and Persia, the Mongols used weapons made of gunpowder. Fighting with the Mongols, the Arabs learned the use of firearms. The Europeans learned the use of firearms in the same fashion (An Outline History Of China, page 325-6)

The Mongols were the one and only conquerors to control the whole of the steppes, from Korea to Hungary. No earlier nomadic warriors had had simultaneous power in China, Persia and Europe. And while the Tang-Chinese Empire did briefly extend almost as far west as Samarkand, this was a high point.

Tamerlane came closest to recreating the breadth of Mongol control. But though he briefly controlled the Golden Hoard of the TransBaltic through a protégé, he lost this control and ended up damaging steppe culture in general. Likewise he could not extend his power to China or to East-Central Asia, though he died trying.

The Mongol achievement of a unique control over the steppes was followed by several nations of Europe’s Atlantic coast taking control of all the world’s oceans. By this time, the Tsars and the Turks had between them defeated or conquered the nomads of West-Central Asia. They themselves would try to push west, but as rival civilised empires rather than nomadic raiders. China meantime was no closer to solving its nomad problem than the Han Chinese had been.

Britons are proud of the skill of the ‘English’ longbow-men–many of them Welsh, and all using a weapon developed in the Welsh border country. It is lucky for English pride that their closest direct encounter with the Mongols was a brief disruption of the herring trade; the Mongols had a weapon 50% better, used by horse-archers who could strike or retreat as they chose, not vulnerable to being ridden down as foot-soldier bowmen were.

The bow was by far the Mongols’ most important weapon. The mediaeval English longbow had a pull of seventy-five pounds and a range of up to two hundred and fifty yards, but the smaller, reflex composite bows used by the Mongols had a pull of between a hundred and a hundred and sixty pounds and a range of over three hundred and fifty yards. (Chambers, The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. Page 71)

With such weapons, the Mongols rode through Poland, thoroughly defeated several large European armies and conquered Hungary. Europeans remained divided: the Austrians reacted to Hungary’s misfortune by seizing some border territories, while the Pope was trying to organise a crusade against the Holy Roman Emperor, the formidable Frederick ‘Wonder Of The World’, Europe’s first open atheist since Pagan-Roman times. Mediaeval Europeans were no wiser than African tribal rulers facing 19th century European colonisers: the Mongols took Hungary, raided the Balkans and were planning a conquest of Austria:

Only the overwhelming numbers of a combined European army could have halted the Mongol invasion and no such army existed–but the Mongol army never advanced. Europe was saved by a single act of ambitious treachery. A messenger arrived from Karakorum with the news that on 11 December 1241 Ogedei Khan had died, apparently in a sudden convulsion brought on by excessive drinking, and his wife, Toregene, was now ruling as regent until a new khan could be elected…

The Mongol commanders and princes were bound by tradition to return to Karakorum for the election of a new khan, and Batu was anxious to lend his support to Mangku and the other opponents of Kuyuk. Above all he knew that the regent would not allow him to retain the imperial tumens which made up the backbone of his army. If Kuyuk was not elected, he might be able to return to Europe, and meanwhile his safest course would be to hold on to as much of his new empire as he could control with his Turkoman conscripts.

Hungary was abandoned. The Mongol army rode back across the Danube destroying everything in its path. The populations of towns and villages were slaughtered without mercy, all the barns and warehouses were systematically burned, and the already devastated departments of southern Hungary and Transylvania became a wilderness. Proclamations were posted in the Mongol camps declaring that all prisoners might return to their homes, but those who left were pursued and slaughtered. (Ibid, page 134-135)

The Road To Goliath Spring

The Mongols had pushed into the ‘TransBaltic’–the vast East-European territory that is now primarily European Russia–because it was the western end of the long strip of Steppe-land that they otherwise controlled. They also raided and conquered where they could, collecting tribute from the Russian principalities and pushing as far as Hungary and Poland before the death of their Great Khan interrupted the process.

With the Mongol Empire, the politics of Europe and the politics of China were directly relevant for the first time. Before that, China and Europe might as well have been on different planets. There was a trade in luxury goods only, silk and spices and other things people could manage without.

The sequence of the Mongol conquests is also surprising. They made their first raids into the TransBaltic before they completed their conquest of North China, then ruled by the Kin dynasty of nomadic conquerors. They began their conquest of South China only after securing the TransBaltic and pushing on into Middle-Europe. China was only fully Mongol under Khubilai Khan, who had no real authority over the western Mongol empires, even though he styled himself ‘Great Khan’.

South China was still ruled by the Southern Sung when the Mongols began their successful conquest of Mesopotamia and their failed attempt to seize Syrian / Palestine in alliance with various Christian monarchs. At this time the Mongols were a mix of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, all of them obedient to the Great Khan and ready to plunder the rich Islamic lands. There is no obvious reason why the Southern Sung should not have held out. Nor why the Mongols might not have conquered as far as Egypt and broken the back of the Islamic world.

This was the plan of the third Great Khan, Guyuk or Kuyuk, who favoured Nestorianism, a form of Christianity considered a heresy by Western Christians. It was continued by the succeeding Great Khan Mongke/ Mangku, who favoured Buddhism. He was also the son of a Nestorian-Christian mother, as were his younger brothers Khubilai and Hulegu. Together they tried to work with Latin-Christian Europe against the Islamic world. Envoys were sent:

They carried a letter in which the Mongol commander, who claimed that he had been charged by his khan to protect all Christians in western Asia and rebuild their churches, declared that he prayed to God for the success of the French crusade. This assurance of Mongol good will was surprising enough, but the letter also asked the French king to listen to the words which the ambassadors had been told to say to him, and when they had pleased him further by announcing that the Mongol khan had been baptized as a Christian and that Eljigidei had followed his example, the Nestorians delivered the message which their commander had not dared to put in writing. Eljigidei intended to march against Baghdad at the end of the winter, and if the King of France were to coincide his landing in Egypt with that attack, the two most powerful rulers in Islam would be unable to come to each other’s assistance and the victorious armies of France and the Mongol Empire would advance on two fronts to liberate the Holy Land…. The story of Kuyuk’s baptism was almost certainly true since it is recorded by the Moslem historian Juvaini, but it is more likely to have been motivated by self-interest than by profound conviction, and the alliance of the French crusaders with the newly-Christian khan was far more to the advantage of the Mongol Empire than Christendom. Neither Kuyuk nor Eljigidei believed that King Louis was capable of defeating the Sultan of Egypt, but at least he could keep him busy while their armies attacked Baghdad. (Ibid., page 155)

The Mongols offered a remarkable chance to settle the centuries-old war between Muslims and Christians. But Catholic Europe was at least as interested in taking advantage of the misfortunes of Russia’s Orthodox Christians.

This was the context of the formidable Alexander Nevsky, ancestor of the later Tsars and best known in Britain from the Eisenstein film which celebrated his historic victory over the Teutonic Knights. This order of warrior-monks had been founded to root out residual European paganism, but continued as an aggression against both Orthodox Christians and Catholic Poles, before its final defeat at Tannenberg/Grunwald two centuries later by an alliance of Poles, Russians, Tartars and the last survivors of Europe’s Baltic pagans.

The other important aspect of the great flowering of European knighthood was the number of military-religious orders, such as the Knights Templars and Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights. Their lives were bound by religious ritual, celibacy, vows of poverty, devotion to the Church and the restoration of the Holy Land to Christianity. In short, they were monks who were also professional soldiers. So the ideals of European knighthood were aesthetically quite sophisticated. But as an army they employed terribly crude methods.

The European horseman was far less mobile than his Mongol counterpart. He could not manage delicate or intricate manoeuvres; the day was usually decided on the basis of a rather basic head-on clash. Once the charge had taken place, most knights dismounted (or were brought down) and combat continued with blade and shield in ferocious hand-to-hand combat… The knights themselves were not trained officers, and their individual combat skills were of no use when leading men into battle. The size of their retinue was an indication of their wealth, not their ability, and there was no clear chain of command down from the commander-in-chief…

By contrast the Mongols were a tightly disciplined fighting machine, in which each soldier knew his place and his responsibilities. He did not fight as an individual, but as part of a massive formation that was led in and out of well-drilled manoeuvres. When the Mongol army advanced they approached as a series of long single ranks, made up of a number of units. The first two consisted of heavy cavalry, followed by three ranks of light cavalry. Out on either flank and up front were further, smaller detachments of light cavalry…

The Mongols also preferred to manoeuvre the enemy’s ranks to exactly where they wanted them… The sight of the Mongols in flight was a temptation that most enemy commanders could not resist.. By the time the enemy had reached the killing ground, their ranks were already spread out and made easy targets. (Storm From the East: From Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan. Page 92 93)

Military orders like the Templars and Teutonic Knights imposed more order than Europe was used to. But only in the 16th and 17th centuries and in imitation of Roman models did European troops start matching the orderliness and discipline of the historic Mongols.

Note also that the ‘crusading’ spirit was always intended by the Catholic hierarchy to be used against all power-political rivals and not just for broad Christian causes. Alexander Nevsky was quite right to reckon that Orthodox Christians would fare better under a Tartar yolk than a Catholic one. Besides, at that time it was quite possible that the religiously mixed Western Mongols would settle down as Christians rather than Muslims:

Unlike the other princes, Alexander’s allegiance to the Mongols was genuine: he was too devoutly orthodox to abandon his faith for the sake of an army, and whereas Galicia and Volynia, to whom Vladimir and Suzdal had been allied by the marriage of Grand Duke Andrew to the daughter of Prince Daniel, could expect willing assistance from the threatened Catholic kingdoms of Poland and Hungary, the only neighbours of Novgorod were the Teutonic Knights and the Swedes, against whose aggressive ambitions Mongol mastery was a powerful defence… Alexander Nevsky was, therefore, the first to go to Sarai and offer his allegiance to Batu’s Christian son Sartak, who had been given responsibility for the government of Russia.   (The Devils’s Horsemen, page 160-161)

As well as protecting Russian Orthodoxy, the Mongols almost did complete the Crusader’s mission of evicting Islam from the lands where their religion had begun:

From the Mongol perspective, a campaign into Persia and Syria was the logical pursuit of their philosophy of world domination. But the essential point behind Mongke’s objectives was that further expansion in the west was going to happen in the Middle East, not in Europe. For centuries the Mongols had been familiar with the great influence that Muslim merchants from Persia and the Gulf area enjoyed throughout Asia. More significant was the reputation of Persian scientists, astronomers, astrologers, mathematicians and technologists, who were without equal anywhere in the world. Apart from the sciences, there were also the arts: painting, carpet making, music and poetry. The Islamic Middle East was by any standards a vastly sophisticated, wealthy and advanced civilization, and the Mongols could hardly allow it to flourish outside of their sphere. Mongke’s objectives were obvious: by invading both the Sung empire in southern China and Persia, he was attempting to place the two great civilizations of the era under Mongol control. It stands as one of the most grandiose plans for world domination ever conceived.

One obvious conclusion that can be drawn from Mongke’s decision was that the Mongols appeared to have lost interest in Europe. Indeed, there is no evidence that after Batu’s withdrawal from eastern Europe the Mongols ever saw Europe as a prize worthy of the effort it would have taken to conquer it. Although the pronouncements of the Great Khans continued to reiterate the conviction that it was the Mongols’ God-given right to rule the world, and that all kings were obliged to offer tribute to the Great Khan, the reality was that in global terms Europe really did not matter that much. (Storm From The East, page 170)

Europe’s best feature from the Mongol point for view was as a source of allies in an assault against Islamic powers. Crusader power was still considerable, and the brothers Mongke, Hulegu and Kubilai had a Nestorian Christian mother who may have influenced their attitudes more than their grandfather Chinghis Khan.

At a time when the Latin-Catholic hierarchy was using its power to turn Christian kings against other Christians and ‘heretics’, the Mongol Khans were enlightened despots of a sort Europe was not to see again until the 18th century. Christianity as understood by the mass of ordinary Christians would have been well served by an alliance:

To them it seemed as though the prophesied armies of Prester John were on their way at last, and that when Hulegu’s soldiers crossed the Euphrates Saint John the Divine’s vision of Armageddon would come true. Hulegu was a Buddhist, but he was as impartial in matters of religion as his brother Mangku, and although he manipulated sectarian animosities to divide his enemies, it was the Christians who exercised the greatest influence on his policies: Ked-Buka, who had become his favourite commander, was a Christian, and so was his senior wife Dokuz-Khatun. (The Devils’s Horsemen, page 175)

Just as the death of Ogedei had saved Christendom, the death of Mangku saved Islam. But Hulegu’s position was far more precarious than Batu’s had been. As he had wished, Mangku’s brother Kubilai had been proclaimed khan in China, but another brother, Arik-Boke, had engineered his own election in Karakorum, and for the first time the supreme khanate of the Mongol Empire was being contested on the battlefield… Isolated and surrounded by potential enemies, Hulegu could do nothing but hang on to the heart of his empire and wait.

Ked-Buka was left behind to control the new conquests in Syria. He raided as far south as Gaza, and the sultan was captured near Amman and sent to Hulegu’s camp, where he was executed. But ‘the crusade’ was over. Its only achievement had been the return to Christendom of Damascus. One of the mosques became a church and on 1 March the European Count Bohemund, the Middle Eastern King Hayton and the oriental noyan Ked-Buka rode side by side in triumph through the streets, while the Moslem population bowed before the cross that was carried ahead of them. It was a poignant image of a Christian world that so nearly might have been.

It was the campaign in Syria that saved Europe from another invasion. In Russia the census and subsequent conscription that provided a flow of new tumens for Hulegu’s army deprived the Golden Horde of the soldiers who would otherwise have been used to support a full scale offensive in the west (The Devil’s Horsemen, page 179-180)

Ked-Buka left Damascus with a Christian army of twenty-five thousand Mongols, Georgians and Armenians. He knew that the Mamluks had reached Acre and he knew the size of their army, but he was a Mongol general and he was not impressed by numbers. At dawn on 3 September 1260 he crossed the river Jordan and rode ten miles along the Plain of Esdraelon between the mountains of Gilboa and the hills of Galilee, into the valley where David slew Goliath. Here, near the village of Ain Jalut (Goliath’s Spring), he met the Mamluk vanguard advancing under Baybars.

The battle of Ain Jalut has been recorded as one of the most decisive and significant battles in the history of the world. It was not a conclusive victory in itself and it was no dishonour to Georgian, Armenian and Mongol arms that the soldiers fought so well against such odds, but it destroyed the myth of the Mongols’ invincibility, it broke the momentum of their conquests and it marked the day when Islam was returned towards triumph from the brink of oblivion. From that time onwards, while confusion and discord divided their enemies, the Mamluks flourished, the final methodical expulsion of the crusaders from Palestine began and Christian influence in Asia was eclipsed. (The Devil’s Horsemen, page 184-185)

The defeat of the Christian/Mongol force at Goliath Spring was a disaster for West-Asian Christianity, which thereafter became increasingly a European creed. So much that we need to remind ourselves there was nothing European in its origins, and that its original context was part of the Jewish resistance to Greek and Roman influence over West Asia.

Since the battle of Ain Jalut does not match Victorian notions of how history should have happened, it is marginal or excluded in most of our English-language ‘world’ histories. And since it needs to be re-inserted in popular consciousness–a process that may take decades–it might as well be as the battle of ‘Goliath Spring’. To a westerner–indeed to any non-Muslim–Ain Jalut could be a man, a horse, a belly-dancer, a spicy lamb dish or some obscure Muslim religious duty. Saying ‘Goliath’s Spring’ is much more meaningful and focused.

Goliath’s Spring was one of the world’s turning-points. There was always something religious in the Mongol expansion. So a victory by Muslims over a mostly-Christian army led by a Christian Mongol could be taken as a sign that Islam was actually luckier or closer to God. A Christian/Mongol win at Goliath Spring might have meant that Europe’s expansionism would have gone east with Asian-Christian allies.

And with the spice trade not blocked by Islam, there would have been no need for Columbus.

That’s how history might have been. In the event, Christianity pushed Islam out of Spain and Islam pushed Christianity out of Asia, while retaining North Africa. Europe was given a strong incentive to go a long way round the Islamic world and re-establish contact with rich non-Islamic ‘Cathay’.

Accidents of geography gave Europe control of both the New World and of West Africa. West Africa had been relatively isolated from Eurasia, with only overland trade links across the Sahara Desert. So native rulers who were already slave-owners on a grand scale were quite happy to trade hard-working black slaves who already knew the basics of tropical agriculture and could replace the Native Americans in the Caribbean who had mostly died of Eurasian diseases or else been slaughtered or worked to death by the Spaniards.

Thus was born the first true system of global trade, with the New World producing gold, silver, sugar, cotton and tobacco. Giving Europeans of the Atlantic coast the means to take over the world’s oceans, and eventually move in on Asia’s sophisticated empires. It was a system that Spain and Portugal began, the French and Dutch seized parts of, but which the English ended up dominating.

And why England?


Imagine an ‘English Netherlands’, a territory centred on London, with borders running from the Wash to Oxford and then down to Southampton. It would have been a powerful and prosperous state, but it would have lacked some of the key imperial centres–Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth. Worse, all of the pioneering regions of the Industrial Revolution would have lain outside, not just iron and coal but also the woollen and cotton industries.

In actual history, the various English kingdoms were swallowed up by Wessex after King Alfred led a Saxon fight-back against the Danish invasion. It emerged as the best-organised state in Western Europe, a pattern that survived a later Danish conquest, a second Saxon recovery and then the Norman conquest.

The pattern looks remarkably like a total absence of pattern. Had Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy won the Battle of Shrewsbury, he and his allies might have redistributed England and Wales into three substantial realms in the 13th century, and perhaps they never would have reunited. Equally, Charles the Bold came quite close to uniting the Netherlands with a wider territory under himself as King of Burgundy. There seems no inevitability about the eventual emergence of England as large and united, while the Netherlands ended up too small to sustain its 17th century success.

Meantime in Scandinavia, the other main group of sea-going Germanic peoples kept fragmenting despite numerous attempts to make a single large kingdom out of the similar peoples of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Scandinavian culture as a whole took over the neighbouring Finns and settled Iceland, Europe’s first successful colonial settlement. But it was always divided against itself. Scandinavia in general and Iceland in particular sacrificed collective power for the sake of personal freedom.

Small-scale family settlements were able to take over Iceland, which was empty apart from some Irish monks. These same enterprising people settled Greenland and got as far as ‘Vinland’–probably Newfoundland. But as a crowd of loosely connected kindreds with no strong centre, they could not win against the much more numerous natives who had realised that these strangers were going to take their land in the long run if not thrown out in short order. Even the Greenland settlement failed, though you could also blame the weather in the ‘Little Ice Age’, and an unhelpful attitude by distant Danish rulers. In any case, they failed.

Scandinavians had got most of the way to the New World. Following the Spanish discoveries further south, the English state made a determined and successful push in the same direction.

You could see it as several phases of Germanic expansion over tens of centuries:

a) The obscure take-over in what is now Germany, which was at one time Celtic–though the Celts themselves were conquerors of earlier forgotten peoples.

b) The abortive Celtic/Germanic expansion against Roman lands, Ambrones and Teutones and Cimbri. This was defeated by Gaius Marius, uncle of Julius Caesar. Arguably the military concentration needed to defeat the Celts and Germans as well as civilised foes like Mithradates made it inevitable that Rome’s aristocratic republic would become an autocratic Empire.

c) The successful Germanic resistance to Roman attempts at conquest, culminating in the defeat of Varus and the destruction of three Roman legions in 9 AD.

d) Subsequent successful expansion as the Roman Empire was declining–though Attila’s Huns and others from further east were also involved. Within most Roman provinces, the Germanic tribalists became a ruling class and were absorbed. Only in Britain was the whole population either replaced or Germanised.

e) Further Dark-Age wave of Scandinavians or Vikings, based on superior ship technology. What they did to Europe was similar to what Europe later did to the rest of the world.

f) Mediaeval German expansion into Slavonic lands. (The Crusades were much more the work of Latins or Latinised Germanic peoples, including the Normans.)

g) World-wide settlement by English, Dutch and related people on suitable lands, following the earlier example of the Spanish and Portuguese.

The English viewpoint often evades our Germanic origins and membership of this much larger group. In part because the name makes it sound as if the modern Germans are the core of it: the concept might be easier if we called the Dutch ‘Netherlanders’ and used ‘Dutch’ for Germans, they themselves say ‘Deutsch’.

The ‘islander’ mentality closes its mind to the origins of the English as continental invaders. Thus the interesting early humans of Boxgrove get described as ‘early English’, as was Piltdown Man before the fraud was exposed. Anyone living in the British Isles before even the Celts arrived could have little connection with any modern population.

England–expanded as Great Britain and then the British Empire–was the most successful of the Germanic states. The Saxon state build by Alfred the Great was better run than most Latin-Christian realms. It was monstrous for the Papacy to sanction William of Normandy’s invasion, just as it was for them to sanction the Crusades later on, and to award Ireland as a free gift to the English monarchy.

Papal power during the Dark Ages got into a pattern of interfering with non-religious matters, and organising wars in the name of what was originally a pacifist religion. The pattern was strongest in the Papal-Normal alliance, which conquered first England and then Ireland, as well as Sicily. Normans also played a large role in the failed conquest of the Holy Land.

As well as failing to put us in context, English historians play up the cosy aspects of our past, the reality is much more mixed. The Kingdom of England in the 18th century was ruled by an imported Germany dynasty with poor hereditary claims. Yet in the past thousand years, there had been several successful replacements of the person with the best right to be monarch, numerous failed replacements and three long civil wars.

In the days when Tibetan warriors were taking over the Silk Road–they only became peaceful Buddhists much later, under a mix of Chinese and Nepalese influence–England was a mass of small Saxon kingdoms, plus some Britanno-Celtic hold-outs. But the Saxons themselves were then attacked by Norsemen or Danes, a fresh wave of Germanic settlers that in part replaced them. Only because Alfred the Great ended up forcing the ‘Danes’ to recognise him as King did it come to be seen as an English continuity.

The heirs of Alfred the Great ruled much more than Wessex, the other rival Saxon royal dynasties having been destroyed or discredited by the Norsemen. Yet they failed to consolidate themselves or to prevent fresh invasions. From 1016 to 1042 the kingdom was ruled by the Danish dynasty of Svein and Canute. The dynasty of Alfred was restored in the person of Edward the Confessor, but under the effective control of the Godwinson family:

Godwine became a favourite of King Canute the Great, who made him earl of Wessex about 1018. In the disputes over the succession that followed the death of Canute, Godwine was held responsible for the murder (1036) of one of the claimants to the throne, Alfred the Aetheling. Godwine maintained his position, however, and went on to dominate Edward the Confessor. (Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

Harold Godwinson’s eventual succession as the last Saxon king was bound to be opposed, his dynastic legitimacy was zero and his family’s reputation highly tainted. And Duke William would have been happy to step into an existing state structure, as James 6th later did. And as David Hume notes in his History of England, Edgar the Atheling who was the lawful heir from Alfred the Great’s dynasty was not seen as a threat and became just another nobleman under William the Conqueror’s rule

But there was enough Saxon resistance to push King William into wholesale conquest and replacement of the Saxon nobility. Analogous to the failed British resistance to the first bands of Angles and Saxons, and distinct from the successful English revival under Alfred and the mass killing of ‘Danes’ under Ethelred, who may have been a more brutal and effective king than our main source would suggest.

A third break in legitimacy occurred with the dynastic struggles of Stephen and Matilda, Matilda was the proper heir, and eventually her son Henry took over.

A fourth break in legitimacy occurred with the overthrow of Richard 2nd, with rightful heir Edmund Mortimer ignored by the House of Lancaster. This paved the way for the drift into Wars Of Roses under Henry 6th.

The overthrow of Richard 3rd was yet another break in legitimacy. Richard was very reasonably suspected of having killed off his nephews, but Henry Tudor’s rights were dubious and he knew it. All of the rival heirs were killed off under Henry 7th, and England came close to an extinction of the legitimate line of the kind that happened in Russia after Ivan the Terrible, whose sons died sonless. But as it happened, the line held, the questionable legitimacy of Elizabeth Tudor allowed her to keep the show on the road and then hand on a unified realm to James the Sixth of Scotland, who by becoming James the First of England removed the most dangerous diversion to England’s global imperial prospects.

The British Empire had strengths that a purely English venture flanked by a hostile Scotland would have lacked. Yet though it was nominally a joint venture by English Scottish and Irish, Middle-England was always the accepted core. Admiral Nelson was doing nothing unexpected when his famous message read ‘England expects’.

It’s also worth noting that East Anglia, the most middling portion of Middle-England, produced two of Britain’s three notable warriors in modern times, Cromwell and Nelson. Also Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, and the most distinguished scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. Also Margaret Thatcher, if that counts; in the long run I doubt it will.

Long before such things became possible, you had the ‘English’ Civil War, the first overthrow by civil society, which had showed its superiority even though it did bring back the King. And in 1688, King James was chased out and a questionable heir rejected.

There were social differences behind the religious divisions into Puritan, Anglican and Catholic. But without an ideology that praised intolerance and saw different opinions as satanic, would the divisions have gone so far or taken so long to heal?

First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism No. 65, Summer 2001

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