Orientalism And the Middle Ages: Islamic Palaces In The Eyes Of The Crusaders

What do you imagine when someone mentions an “Islamic palace” to you? Do you think of a royal palace from Disney’s Aladdin or do you think about more realistic examples that you saw in a documentary about travelling? This post will try to assess how European Crusaders understood and perceived of Islamic palaces through the medium of contemporary popular poems, also known as romances.

Comparison between the Sultan’s palace in Disney’s Aladdin and an actual royal palace in Seville, Spain. The actual palace has some significant Islamic influences.

Think like a Historian:

Can a historian use popular culture (i.e. things that are popular within a culture) to derive any conclusions about a society that they are studying? Can you fine both pros and cons for such an approach?

What were the Crusades and who were the Crusaders?

The Crusades, broadly speaking, were a series of socio-political conflicts that spanned from 1096 and 1271. Historians argue that there were several crusades, with the first few focusing on reaching Jerusalem and the latter ones emphasising the need to break-up Islamic rule on the Iberian Peninsula. These conflicts were often framed by figures in power as having a religious angle, which focused on Christianity being “suppressed” by Islam and therefore the latter requiring protection. Consequently, the Crusades were a wide-ranging series of socio-political conflicts that took place in Europe and the Middle East.

The Crusaders were the individuals involved in the Crusades. These individuals often came from all parts of Europe. They were usually various figures in power, such as rulers, and their subordinates, knights. The motives of such individuals was often highly complex and usually linked to wider geo-political and geo-economic implications as well as some personal ones. However, to say that these groups only consisted of knights in shining armours and powerful kings is an extremely simplistic explanation of who the Crusaders were. Indeed, the Crusaders were not a monolith group of people. There were also individuals of lower social standing, who usually joined the crusading groups to earn some income or to gain social prominence. Consequently, the Crusaders were not a unanimously agreeing group of people and came from differing socio-cultural backgrounds.

Think like a Historian:

Can people from the same socio-cultural group have differing ideas what their culture is? Can you give any examples?
SOURCE TIME: Here are two Mediaeval songs, also known as romances, from approximately the same period. They were written at the time of the Crusades and probably were quite popular amongst the Crusaders. What can you understand from these songs about the Crusaders and their aims? Are these sources enough to fully understand their intentions?

Islamic Palaces as Described in Mediaeval Romances

When assessing how the Crusaders perceived and understood Islamic palaces a historian should look at the scope of possible evidence. In the case of this post we will only be looking at two romances that involve a narrative centred around royal Islamic palace. The sources that will be assessed are: The Song of Roland and Charlemagne’s Journey To Jerusalem and Constantinople.

Both texts seem to frame the Islamic palace as a place where some form of negotiation takes place. Such negotiations are often centred around the formation of political interactions. For example, In Charlemagne’s Journey the group of Franks is permitted to dine and live in King Hugo’s palace whilst residing in Constantinople as part of what seems to be an unexpectant diplomatic visit. This suggests that the Islamic palaces were seen in a positive light as long as the interactions involved the Europeans. Indeed, narratives that did not involve the presence of the Europeans were probably seen as potentially dangerous and subversive to political power. In The Song of Roland, for instance, the character of the Emir strikes a profitable alliance with the King of Marseille who gives him “all of [his] lands and Saragossa and all the land that appertains thereto”, therefore providing the latter with sufficient resources to fight against Charlemagne. Such narrative suggests that the palaces served as the means to frame the environment of the characters. As a result, palaces seem to be used as the means to frame some key sections of the overall narrative and thus was probably should be understood as a symbol of political importance for contemporaneous readers or listeners.

SOURCE TIME: This is a painting by a Saxonian painter, Julius Köckert. It was painted in the mid 1850s. Saxony is now part of Germany. This painting depicts a diplomatic meeting between Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne’s envoys in Baghdad. Harun al-Rashid was an Islamic ruler whose reign corresponded with what historians call an ‘Islamic Golden Age’. There is no historical evidence for such a meeting taking place. However, contemporary European chronicles associated with Charlemagne’s court do mention envoys from ‘the East’ visiting Charlemagne’s court. Why do you think a palace is absent from this painting? Think about how the painter chose to depict both Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid.

Both texts appear to frame the Islamic palaces as highly exotic and rich places. There are numerous associations and mentions of “opulent” surroundings and “gold” and “silver” in both texts when the narrative is centred around the palace. This is most clear in Charlemagne’s Journey as the narrative predominantly describes what Charlemagne and his company saw within King Hugo’s palace, rather in the Song of Roland as the latter focuses on the military actions of both Muslims and the Franks. Charlemagne’s Journey continuously makes mention of “rich splendour” of King Hugo’s palace, which could be seen in such descriptions like “the tables and chairs and benches are of pure gold” and “with costly paintings of animals and of dragons”. This could suggest that for European Crusaders Islamic palaces, or even Islamic kings and kingdoms, connoted to the source of wealth. In order to make a more plausible interpretation of such a conclusion one may have to look at the actual examples that the Crusaders were likely to encounter on their routes to either the Middle East or the Islamic held regions. As a result, Islamic palaces seem to connote to a place of richness, which in turn is used as a rhetorical devise to strike awe into the contemporary readers or listeners.

As a consequence of the wealth described in the two poems, Islamic palaces seem to gain an aspect of ‘otherness’, or a high degree of difference from the European palaces. As has been mentioned above, contemporary bards often used highly superfluous language to describe the richness of the Islamic palaces. Yet, this is one of the very few features than makes an Islamic palace special in the eyes of the authors of the two sources. Although it could be argued that such a narrative is centred predominantly around the individuals rather than the palaces, such an argument does not account for the overall implications the palatial setting may have had. If compared to the narrative that surrounds European palaces little positive actions happen in the walls of Islamic palaces. The Song of Roland has the narrative of striking deals between Charlemagne’s enemies within the palace walls whilst Charlemagne’s palace is being associated with justice, specifically just punishments. Similarly, the walls of the Islamic palace in Charlemagne’s Journey are associated with deception as they contain special holes through which the cunning advisors can listen in to the drunken brawls of the Franks. As a result, there seems to be a tension between the authors envisioning Islamic palaces as a desirable, economically wealthy place and the potential deception that may have occurred in the setting. Consequently, there may be a hint of fear or at least uncertainty from the European perspective in relation to Islamic palaces in some of the Mediaeval romances.

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think Mediaeval writers depicted Islamic palaces in such a way? Was it to make the text interesting or are there wider implications? Why do you think so?

To explore this topic further…

Enjoy 🙂

The Golden Ages: Spain (2/?)

In the previous post we have briefly introduced and discussed a concept of the ‘Golden Age’ and how it is understood by those who study early-modern Spanish history. As promised, in the next few posts we will be diving more in depth of how the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ came to be and what kind of cultural artefacts it produced. This specific post will focus on the developments and strengthening of the Spanish government that allowed for relative political stability within the European part of the realm.

Think like a Historian:

What makes a strong government? Can you give historical or contemporary examples of situations where you think a government has been either strong or weak? Why do you think so?

The role of Isabella and Ferdinand

Given that Isabella and Ferdinand assumed their respective Crowns after a period of major political instability they had to focus on establishing strong, long-during, political ties with their subjects. A key element of this was the establishment of a stable relationship between the Spanish Crown and Spain’s nobility, which was mainly done by the Crown’s attempts to impose a higher degree of royal authority on the nobility throughout the course of their reign. The Crown’s attempts to foster such relationships mainly took a form of surrounding the Royal Court with prestige. For example, the power of nobility was limited by switching their attention from inner rivalries to pursuing the knightly culture and chivalric activities, such as jousts and tournaments as well as participating in motto writing competitions[1]. Furthermore, the majority of the nobles, who had fought against the Crown, were pacified by being granted various pardons by the monarchs[2]. Various actions, such as the ones mentioned above, allowed the Crown to establish a more positive image in the minds of the ex-rebels as well as the supporters of the Crown.

This is a brief video that explains the concept of chivalry and its role in a Mediaeval society.
This is another video that focuses on explaining what Mediaeval Romances were and places them within a literary context.

Just as Isabella and Ferdinand had to control various individuals to lay foundations to political stability, they also had to impose their royal authority onto the contemporaneous Institutions. One of such Institutions was the Cortes which had attempted to disregard the monarchy at the start of their reign.  In order to secure their power over the Cortes, the Crown employed the corregidores from 1480[3]; replaced all nobility within the Council of Castile with letrados, educated lawyers; and extensively used the royal progress[4]. This reform proved to be efficient as the revenue from Castilian lands increased from 800 000 maravedĂ­s in 1470 to 22 million in 1504[5], thus demonstrating that people accepted the royal authority of the Crown and therefore allowing the Crown to strengthen their control of the localities. Consequently, Isabella and Ferdinand managed to lay down the foundations for political stability as they mostly subdued the Spanish nobility and the local governing bodies.

The role of Charles V

Nevertheless, despite Ferdinand and Isabella vastly increasing the authority of the Crown in the eyes of the nobility, their successor, Charles V, was faced with a major revolt at the start of his reign. This revolt, led by the Communeros, challenged Charles’s authority as king.

Yet, due to the revolt disintegrating as soon as Charles met some of the demands, such as employing Castilians in governmental bodies, it was highly likely that Charles did indeed benefit from the previously established foundations in the relationship between the nobility and the Crown. As a result, Charles continued to extend his royal authority further.

Although the Crown and the Cortes continued to borrow extensively from foreign investors for his military campaigns despite the despite the 1530s influx of bullion from the New World, Charles was mostly successful at continuing to control the Cortes. This was achieved by predominantly by Charles employing skilful locals, such as Cobos, that constituted the majority out of pre-existing letrados[6]. Such personnel was able to effectively govern multiple councils, including the Council of Finance, created in 1523. Success of such changes was evident by the Cortes supporting Charles’ extensive military campaigns as in 1528 when the French forces besieged Milan and Naples, the Cortes willingly approved a subsidy of 533,333 ducats for Charles to utilise in the war[7]. Consequently, Isabella and Ferdinand certainly contributed for laying the foundations to the ‘Golden Age’ as the Crown relied on its stable authority, thus allowing Charles to have greater control of his empire.

A short video about Charles V’s foreign policy as well as some bits of his domestic policy. Don’t be alarmed at the fact that the video’s description says that he was a Holy Roman Emperor. He held two titles- that of the Spanish monarch and the Holy Roman Emperor.

The role of Philip II

As a result of the internal political efforts of Isabella and Ferdinand and Charles, Philip felt more secure in terms of his state’s unity than any of his predecessors. This could be seen in Philip’s preference of the centralised system of government throughout his reign, rather than continuing to utilise the peripatetic kingship. The Royal Court, having settled in Madrid in 1561, became the centre of Philip’s conciliar system. Such an approach allowed Philip to become personally involved with the matters of his Empire as all of the information about it went through Philip’s hands. Although such a process was a time-consuming one, it was nevertheless highly effective. This was mainly due to Philip’s continuing to use skilful letrados who performed both executive and legislative roles. This was beneficent for Philip because he was able to dictate his own rules to the Cortes, thus changing the prior trend. For example, despite the backward nature of the Council of Finance and Spain’s reliance on foreign bankers, the Spanish Crown was still able to collect triple number of ducats in 1590s in comparison to 1559[8]. Consequently, the fact that Philip managed to slightly alter the style of rule and to utilise it to his advantage demonstrates that he was working on already pre-established foundations, which were laid by Isabella and Ferdinand. 

SOURCE TIME: This is a portrait of Philip II’s son, Prince Don Carlos. This portrait provides an idealised image of the Prince and it was painted after his very mysterious death at a young age. Why do you think this portrait was painted? Also think about what it shows what Philip II saw as an important part of the government. (photo cc: Rimma)

Think like a Historian:

Do you think a conciliar government is useful for a monarch? Do you think conciliar government still exists today?

Important vocabulary

  • Chivalric (n. chivalry): a way of behaviour that was followed by Medieval knights, that placed emphasis on honour and courage
  • The Cortes: One of the key administrative institutions within the Spanish government
  • The corregidores (pl.): A Spanish government official
  • Letrados (pl.): A lawyer or a judge in early-modern Spain
  • MaravedĂ­s: A system of currency in early-modern Spain
  • Peripatetic kingship: A method of governing a country, that was popular amongst Mediaeval rulers. It is mostly characterised by the Royal Court continuously moving around the country, from one location to the other.
  • Conciliar system: A system of government that functions on many councils being responsible for an individual aspect of government, such as finances or education.

To explore this topic further…

  • If you’re interested in exploring the Spanish ‘Golden Age’, then I would recommend reading Henry Kamen’s Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict (Great Britain, 2005). It is a very neat discussion on how the ‘Golden Age’ of Spain came to be as well as its cultural implications.
  • If you’re interested in the roles of Isabella and Ferdinand, J. Edwards’ Ferdinand and Isabella: Profiles in Power is a very comprehensible source to begin with.
  • This is a quick link to the narrative of events of what had happened to Don Carlos.
  • To keep things interesting, there even is an opera that is based on these events. It’s called Don Carlos (surprising turn of events, we know).
This is an entire opera that was recorded in Vienna in 2015.


[1] J. Edwards, Ferdinand and Isabella: Profiles in Power (2013, USA), 136

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert S. Chamberlain, ‘The Corregidor in Castile in the Sixteenth Century and the Residencia as Applied to the Corregidor’ in The Hispanic American Historical Review (1943), pp. 222-257

[4]Henry Kamen, Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict (Great Britain, 2005), p.17

[5] Robert S. Chamberlain, ‘The Corregidor in Castile in the Sixteenth Century and the Residencia as Applied to the Corregidor’ in The Hispanic American Historical Review (May, 1943), pp. 222-257

[6] Aurelio Espinosa, The Empire of the Cities: Emperor Charles V, the Communero Revolt and the Transformation of the Spanish System (Netherlands, 2009), p. 211

[7] Aurelio Espinosa, The Spanish Reformation: Institutional Reform, Taxation, and the Secularization of

Ecclesiastical Properties under Charles V, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1 (2006), pp. 3-24

[8] John Lynch, Spain Under the Habsburgs in Volume 1: Empire and Absolutism, 1516-1598 (Oxford, 1981), pp. 188-89

The Golden Ages: Spain (1/?)

When studying various topics historians come up with a wide range of terms to describe a specific period-‘Middle Ages’, ‘Classical Antiquity’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Modern’, ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Golden Age’. This series of posts will attempt to discuss and to explore a wide range of ‘Golden ages’, whilst keeping the content entertaining and informative as usual. We’re starting off with the Spanish one and then will be travelling around the globe to see whether any of them have any similarities. Enjoy!

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think historians come up with various names to describe a specific historical period?

What is a ‘Golden age’?

The ‘Golden Age’ is a term that is usually employed by historians to describe a period of cultural flourishing which manifests itself in prospering of the arts, such as painting and architecture. Depending on the conditions in which a specific ‘Golden Age’ arises there is a strong economy, but such cases are rare.

This a short introductory video to the Spanish ‘Golden Age’. It covers the core concepts extremely well.

Spanish ‘Golden Age’: A brief introduction

When historians discuss the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ they usually refer to the reign of Philip II, during which Spain experienced a rapid development of the arts and culture. The foundations to this phenomena were mostly laid by his predecessors, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand as they established a strong political and religious unity within their kingdom after a period of civil unrest. Although the methods that were employed by them were cruel, they were effective. The consequent pacification led to political and cultural stability within Spain, which, in turn, was essential for Spain’s flourishing of arts under Philip II.

SOURCE TIME: This is a dual portrait of Isabella and Ferdinand. The date and the author of this piece are unknown. Your main task is to think how the two monarchs are depicted and whether the artist is trying to achieve anything. If yes, what do you think is the artist’s or the rulers’ aims is?

Nevertheless, the ‘Golden Age’ would not have occurred without Isabella and Ferdinand’s successors, mainly Charles V and Philip II himself contributing to its creation. Charles built on the pre-established foundations in order to strengthen the conciliar system of the Spanish government and thus exert an even greater degree of control over the Spanish Empire than his predecessors.

SOURCE TIME: This is the portrait of Charles V when he was already quite old and was in charge of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. It was painted by a famous contemporary European artist Titian. Your task is to compare how Isabella and Ferdinand were depicted in the painting above and the way Charles V is depicted. What stylistic differences can you see? Do you think that these differences can point to a ‘Golden Age’ creeping in? Why do you think so?

Philip II too contributed to the creation of the ‘Golden Age’. He exploited the pre-existing governmental system efficiently, thus allowing him to exert some control over the foreign policy. Due to this, Philip was able to expand his empire further, thus allowing him to focus on patronage and developments of the arts within Spain.

SOURCE TIME: This is a portrait of young Philip II. Which was painted in 1551, shortly before he married Queen Mary I of England. The artist is Titian (yes, the same one that painted his father, Charles V). What can you tell about Philip II from this painting? After thinking and discussing it, think about the role Titian played at the royal court. Why do you think he painted the two kings?

Think like a Historian:

Who is more important when it comes to cultural developments- a society or an individual creator? Why do you think so?
Important vocabulary:
  • Golden Age: a term that describes cultural flourishing during a historical period.
To explore this topic further…
  • If you’re interested in exploring the history of the ‘Golden Age’ as a concept, this article is a solid place to start as it discusses the way ancient Greeks and Romans used the concept in their poetry.
  • If you’re interested in exploring the Spanish ‘Golden Age’, then I would recommend reading Henry Kamen’s Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict (Great Britain, 2005). It is a very neat discussion on how the ‘Golden Age’ of Spain came to be as well as its cultural implications.
  • Watch this documentary about how the literary traditions of the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ and the English ‘Golden Age’ helped one another and produced Shakespeare

USA of the 1920s-1930s: Life of Black Americans (2/?)

In the previous post, we began discussing the life of Black Americans in 1920-30 and we tried to contextualise the discussion on the start of the segregation movement. In this post we decided to discuss the regional differences of how Black people were treated in this period.

To what extent were the experiences of Black people different in the South and in the North?

At the turn of the century, the majority (around 90%) of the Black American population lived in the South, working predominantly in agriculture as sharecroppers. However, by the 1970s, less than half were living in the South, due to successive waves of South-to-North migration. These were fuelled both by the push factors of acute discrimination, segregation and poor work prospects in the South, and the pull factors of better economic and social opportunities in Northern and Western cities.

Think like a Historian:

What factors can cause a person to move to a city apart from finding better work prospects?

The first movement started in the mid-1910s, when industries in the North faced labour shortage during WWI. Between 1910 and 1920, 500,000 Black Americans migrated northwards to cities like Chicago and New York, or westwards to California. In addition to finding work, many people were drawn to the fact that the North seemingly presented fewer barriers to Black Americans.

This was true to some extent; segregation was less overt than in the South, with some greater opportunities for educational (e.g. integrated schools) and employment advances, and Black Americans had greater freedoms than they did in the sharecropping system of the South. The communities these migrations created in cities also fostered a strong, Black American urban culture, where people could aid and empower each other to fight against discrimination in the North. This led to the first mass social associations of Black Americans, such as the National Urban League or the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which gave the Black community a voice that they could never have had in the South. It was mainly in the North where African American talent could succeed, something which was epitomised by the Harlem Renaissance (a literary and musical movement) in the 1920s.

Here is a short introductory video to the Harlem Renaissance.
Here is a short video about Langston Hughes, one of the famous writers who was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.

Think like a Historian:

How and why, do you think, discrimination occurs?

However, although Jim Crow Laws only existed in the South, Black Americans in the North faced discrimination and hardship in their daily lives. Often the jobs they found were manual and badly paid, especially once white soldiers returned from WWI, many of them resentful at the appearance that their jobs had been ‘stolen’. Systemic racism meant that de facto segregation was the reality in Northern cities. For example, various clauses were written into leases that prevented Black Americans from buying or renting specific houses, or the redlining policy of refusing to guarantee mortgages in Black neighbourhoods. When Black families moved into white neighbourhoods or attended schools, they were often the targets of similar abuse that they faced in the South. Many Black activists such as Huey Newton and Ella Baker turned to campaigning once they recognised that even the Northern cities they had sought refuge in were heavily discriminatory in their own way.

Here is a video that discusses the impact the Black Panthers had on the segregation movement and compares it with today’s protests.

The Black community was the hardest hit by the Wall Street Crash (1929) and the Depression that followed as they were the first employees to be sacked when the wave of unemployment hit the USA. They received much less aid, and segregation excluded them even from food banks and soup kitchens.

Examples of Violence towards Black Americans:

Race Riots – eg. Tulsa 1921 Massacre. Roughly 150 Black Americans were killed and hundreds injured, as well as thousands of Black businesses and homes destroyed by armed groups of White Americans. The riots were triggered by the fabricated sexual assault of White, 17 year old Sarah Page by Black 19 year old Dick Rowland.

Lynchings – a type of violence carried out by a group of people in the ‘name of the law’ i.e. their perceived idea of law and morality, through which the victim is tortured and murdered, most typically by hanging. Lynching was a tool used by many White Americans to terrorise the Black community and became a symbol of White supremacy and Black oppression throughout the fight for civil rights and equality in America. Typical accusations which triggered and were used as “justifications” for lynchings included murder, sexual assault and any other forms of supposed Black violence towards Whites. e.g. Death of Raymond Gunn – lynched in Maryville, Missouri in 1931 before his trial surrounding the murder of a White school teacher.

Important vocabulary
  • Sharecropper: is a person who relies on usage of someone else’s land, whereby the owner of the land allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop.
  • Segregation: physical separation of one group from the other
  • Harlem Renaissance: a blossoming (c. 1918–37) of African American culture, particularly in the creative arts, and the most influential movement in African American literary history. (cc: Britannica)
  • Black Panthers: African American revolutionary party, founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The party’s original purpose was to patrol African American neighbourhoods to protect residents from acts of police brutality. (cc: Britannica)
  • the Wall Street Crash: the collapse of the American stock market and consequently the entire American economy on  29 October 1930.
  • Lynchings: a type of violence carried out by a group of people in the ‘name of the law’ i.e. their perceived idea of law and morality, through which the victim is tortured and murdered, most typically by hanging.
To explore the topic further

  • If you’re interested in the people who’d led the Segregation movement, King: A Critical Biography by David L Lewis is a good place to start. It discusses the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Segregation movement.
  • If you’re interested in the actions of the Segregation movement, Freedom Rights: New Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement by Danielle L. McGuire and John Dittmer provides an updated perspective on the Segregation movement as it discusses it together with the current BLM protests.
  • If you’re interested in the Blank Panthers, or people who’d led the movement, Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur is a compelling autobiography of Assata Shakur, who was an activist in 1960s-70s and joined various organisations.
  • If you’d like to find out about the ‘feel’ of the life in the 1920s-70s, a good place to start would be by reading Langston Hughes’ poetry (The Negro Speaks of Rivers and I, Too, Am America are a must read) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The authors of this series of posts: Clara and Katie

Mediaeval Kingship and European Identity: The Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s fatherhood of Europe (3/3)

In the previous post in the series about the historical myth of Charlemagne, we discussed whether Charlemagne had successfully united his realm and whether this realm corresponded to the modern day Europe. Now, it is the time to take a look whether Charlemagne managed to achieve economic unification of his realm and whether such unification lasted for a significant amount of time.

Think like a Historian:

Why would a ruler try to unite their realm by using economy? How would they do it? Can you think of any examples from the course you’re studying right now?

To understand Charlemagne’s significance as a unifier, one also has to grasp the extent of the economic fragmentation of Western European territories prior to his reign. The Western European economy, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, “moved exclusively to the rhythms of the ancient world”[1] being aided by trans-Mediterranean trade and the three cultures—Persian, Semitic and Graeco-Roman[2]. However, the Arab conquests in the seventh century CE of the eastern and southern Mediterranean prevented the various trading sea routes from being used. Cut-off from their main trade routes, the newly formed tribes of Northern Gaul and Germany had to adapt in order to survive. Due to the lack of acceptance of new types of gold currency local rulers were forced to turn to another valuable unit to reward their supporters with—fertile land.[3] As a result, European feudalism, a political system based on land distribution, was developed circa sixth century CE.

Here is a video that gives a short explanation of the tactics that were used during the Arab conquests in the during the early 7th century.
Here is a video that explains the basics of European feudalism.

All of these factors caused early feudal societies, such as the one during Charlemagne’s reign, to have subjects that were “scattered rather evenly throughout the realm on smallish, individual farms”[4]. Large estates belonged either to a select number of families, or monasteries. The crop yield from these lands was low due to the undeveloped farming methods, which resulted in little surplus and limited trade opportunities. As a result, contemporary Medieval economy was primarily dependent on the positive relationship between the ruler and the local military elite — after all realms of various tribes required protection from expansionist neighbours who often gained resources via aggressive methods.

In this harsh economy Charlemagne attempted to unify his Empire. The main way in which Charlemagne attempted to do so was minting his celebrated portrait coin circa 812.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two images of two coins. The one with a person’s face on it, was created during Charlemagne’s reign. The one that has a symbol that looks like the capital letter ‘R’ was created in the reign of Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short. What differences can you notice if you were to compare these two coins? Why do you think Charlemagne changed the appearance of the coin? Does Charlemagne remind you of someone else on the coin?
SOURCE TIME (cont.): Another two coins for you to compare, since this post is all about the ‘money moves’. Again, here is a coin that was created under Charlemagne. The coin on the left, was created under ancient Roman king, Constantine, who was famous for his administrative and financial reforms that strengthened the Roman empire. What is Charlemagne trying to do with his portrait on his coin? What does it tell a historian about the ways the Mediaeval rulers saw ancient Rome?

Despite the regional differences between individual mints of coins (i.e. individual versions of the coins) their purpose is evident—to demonstrate the extent of Charlemagne’s power after his coronation as the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE. The implication of imperial propaganda in this case is exceptionally clear. The latter form of a portrait coin conveyed imperial power and the consequent imperial status, by evoking the Roman emperors by depicting Charlemagne in the classical dress on the obverse and a Christianised temple on the reverse. This depiction would have signalled Frankish supremacy to Charlemagne’s contemporaries within as well as outside his empire. This style of coinage was very different to those minted before as they usually used the name of the person who minted the coin and the location where the coin was minted. Such stark contrast between two types of coins had contributed to the creation of early Medieval European unification as subjects within Charlemagne’s empire saw themselves as living under the rule of one of the greatest monarchs of the day. The same message was sent off to other rulers that surrounded Charlemagne’s realm.

Think like a Historian:

Are coins a useful type of source to use when trying to find more things about a certain historical period?

This standardisation of coinage, however, would have produced limited achievements, had Charlemagne not had any idea of what to expect from his own tax- payers. The fact that meticulously organised documents, such as the polyptych of Saint Germain des PrĂ©s, which was, in this case, a detailed survey of monastic property as well as its inhabitants demonstrated a degree of desired economic unification. The question-answer format of the polyptych served its purpose as this method allowed to categorise the sort of buildings on the land, thus allowing to categorise their inhabitants and finally to calculate the total sum per each manor. For example, in the case of Saint Remi and Lorsch the lands contained “25 manors, 1690 holdings, and about 9400 names”.[5]Long-term unification in this case could be seen, as not only the overall survey of the land was conducted, but also this information could have been used for future purposes, such as management of each estate for the empire to flourish. This was equivalent to the English Domesday Book as the government clearly required a reliable survey of its lands in order to assess the situation clearly in order to rule the conquered land effectively.

Here is a short informative video about Mediaeval manuscripts.
Another short video in case anyone is interested in the ‘weird’ side of Mediaeval manuscripts. (Also, useful for some NicheTM knowledge for when you’re using Mediaeval marginalia for memes cc: Rimma)

However, it is more justifiable to argue that Charlemagne merely laid foundations to what later would become national European economic identity in accordance with the states. After the death of Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious in 840, Louis’ sons fought for the larger half of the empire. Consequently, after the end of the conflict, the trade ceased to be profitable as whilst making the journey across the former empire a merchant had to cross up to eleven borders and to pay an import duty he crossed each border to the local ruler. This was an expensive and inefficient way to trade as by the time the merchant reached the desired market the reclaimed cost for the goods was so high that no purchaser would want to acquire the goods. Consequently, both the purchasers and sellers returned to producing and consuming products on the site.  As a result, the trade system collapsed and each economic system enclosed within itself to cultivate individual identities that would come out as a result in the space of two hundred years.

This leads to the conclusion that, had Charlemagne been the true “father of Europe” his economic policies would have had a more lasting unificatory impact than mere thirty years. The terminology used in the accolade implies that Charlemagne had united Europe during his lifetime to such an extent that his empire would become economically important to the whole of Europe even after his death. Nevertheless, due to the fact that the economic system of Charlemagne’s empire did not withstand the challenge of the civil war Charlemagne’s claim to the ‘fatherhood’ of Europe is indeed limited.

Think like a Historian:

Why are historical myths created?

Although Charlemagne’s accolade had been discussed as if having a fixed meaning, it must be ultimately said that just as any set of words, the meaning of the “father of Europe” changed with time. It could be argued that Charlemagne was no “father of Europe” simply because the term became a mere political myth and that it did not hold any political implications and therefore it be discussed in terms of political unity. It was a useful formula employed by contemporary authors which was then forgotten and rediscovered in twentieth century by politicians and historians after the Second World War in order to “contribute to the creation of a more peaceful European state”. Although “Europe” for Charlemagne and his contemporaries may have been part of their claims to political authority, this notion of Charlemagne ruling the “realms of Europe” had acquired a nostalgic tone by the start of his son’s reign. Consequently, Charlemagne’s “fatherhood” of Europe cannot be true simply due to the fluidity of the term, which had been applied by later generations of chroniclers. It must ultimately be concluded that Charlemagne’s title of “father of Europe” was a political myth promulgated by those in power at their discretion at various points in time. Charlemagne did not do any more than his father and the implication that his legacy resonated through the tides of history is simply not credible to discuss, considering about 900 years of political, linguistic and religious disunity. Having considered the evidence, Charlemagne was more of an outlier in the European history of disunity, with various powerful figures, like Napoleon, attempting to become the next Charlemagne. As a result, Charlemagne’s existence was useful means for these people to push their agendas, which was in turn reinforced by their obsession with cultural and political continuity, hence allowing for the myth to be developed into what it is today. 

[1] Peter Brown , ‘“Mohammed and Charlemagne” by Henri Pirenne’, Daedalus 1 (1974), pp. 25-33, pp. 26-27

[2]  Robert. S. Lopez, ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne: A Revision’, Speculum 1 (1943), pp. 14-38, pp. 15-18

[3] Ibid.

[4]  Mayke  De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 15

[5] Devroey Jean-Pierre, Ordering, measuring, and counting: Carolingian rule, cultural capital and the economic performance in Western Europe (750-900)

To explore this topic further…
  • If you’re interested in reading more about the historical figure of Charlemagne, a good starting point would be Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, which is a very interesting read because it tries to unpick the historical image of Charlemagne as much as possible.
  • Another good book to start with is Janet Nelson’s King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne. It would be useful for those who would like to learn about Charlemagne’s reign overall, without any ‘fathers of Europe’ and historical myth-making.
  • Any of the books and articles in the footnotes of this post, can be of use, if you’re looking for a smaller topic to explore.

cc: Rimma

USA of the 1920s-1930s: Life of Black Americans (1/?)

Racism, police brutality, imperialism, protests, the Black Lives Matter, the Segregation movement- we hear these words on the news every day. The variety of discussions these words create are undoubtedly immense and yet, few people understand the historical processes behind the events of today. As thus, this series of posts will aim to contextualise the historical events that are linked with race and empires with a focus on the USA; the effects of which we are witnessing today.

In the near future, we are hoping to also focus on the British and the Russian Empires and you would be able to find the posts about them in their respective sections on our website.


In April 1865, the American Civil War ended bringing a formal end to slavery in the United States.

Here is a short video about the American Civil War to contextualise the events that followed it.

Three amendments (“The Reconstruction Amendments”) were consequently made to the US constitution to signify this seismic shift in American society: the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolishing slavery (except for those convicted of committing a crime); the Fourteenth Amendment (1870) affirming Blacks were US citizens and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) which granted voting rights to every US citizen regardless of “race, colour or previous condition of servitude” which meant Black American men could now vote, provided they fulfilled certain criteria (such as property ownership). On paper these political changes seemed to indicate a move towards a more equal society. In reality, the monumental struggle for Black Americans to have an active role in a politically and socially equal society was only just beginning.

The Reconstructions Amendments were vague and contained loopholes which were exploited by those states that opposed them. Moreover, freed Black slaves remained trapped in a cycle of poverty as they lacked education, wealth, economic power. This also meant they were unable to dominate politically as they lacked the education, experience and means to engage in the political system. The Reconstruction process ended in 1877 and from then on Black Americans, predominantly in the South, faced a full-scale attack on their civil rights.

Think like a Historian:

Can a society be changed? If yes, how can it happen?

Jim Crow Laws and Segregation

Jim Crow refers to the segregation laws, rules and customs that came about after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and lasted until the 1960s, institutionalising white supremacy and systematic racism across the American South. The name comes from the stock ‘comedy’ character “Jim Crow” which was an exaggerated, stereotypical image of the ‘Black man’ of the early 19​ century, played by black faced actors.

This is a very interesting video made by the Jim Crow museum which discusses the depiction and usage of Jim Crow character in more depth.

Think like a Historian:

Can caricatures be used as historical sources to understand a certain period in history? Why do you think so?

Racial segregation in the South affected all aspects of everyday life for Black Americans: education, public transport, work, healthcare, leisure as well as voting rights and freedom from violence.

Theoretically, Black Americans should have been able to vote throughout this period. However, multiple barriers stopped many from casting their ballot or gaining a foothold in the political system. Black Americans had to pay a poll tax, which many could not afford due to their low wages, as well as pass a literacy test, which was impossible for most due to low literacy levels amongst the Black community. Even those who made it past these obstacles faced suppression in the form of violence and threats. Representation for Black Americans during this period was incredibly low and Black voices were ignored and shunned from the political sphere.

A short video that discusses the effects of Jim Crow laws
Important vocabulary
  • The Reconstructions Amendments: a set of laws that formally ended slavery at the end of the American Civil war
  • Jim Crow: a caricature character which depicted an exaggerated, stereotypical image of the ‘Black man’
  • Jim Crow laws: a set of laws that came about after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and lasted until the 1960s, institutionalising white supremacy and systematic racism across the American South
  • Segregation: physical separation of one group from the other
To explore the topic further…
  • If you’re interested in the people who’d led the Segregation movement, King: A Critical Biography by David L Lewis is a good place to start. It discusses the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Segregation movement.
  • If you’re interested in the actions of the Segregation movement, Freedom Rights: New Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement by Danielle L. McGuire and John Dittmer provides an updated perspective on the Segregation movement as it discusses it together with the current BLM protests.
  • If you’d like to find out about the ‘feel’ of the life during the times of the Jim Craw laws, a good place to start would be To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

The authors of this series of posts: Clara and Katie

Mediaeval Kingship and European Identity: The Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s fatherhood of Europe (2/3)

In the previous post in the series about Charlemagne and the historical myth of his fatherhood of Europe, we discussed the overall implications of what on earth is a ‘historical myth’ and whether accolades can help historians to decipher anything about the past.

In this post we will be unpicking Charlemagne’s ‘fatherhood’ of Europe further and will be discussing the political implications of the accolade as in order to make a claim to be called a “father of Europe” the various political reforms have to last long enough to make a unified ‘Europe’. Furthermore, because we cannot separate the language from its context, when writing about history, we will have to discuss what political ‘unity’ meant for Charlemagne’s contemporaries.

Think like a Historian:

Do historians need any other skills apart from analysing the past events? If yes, what are the skills required?

Due to Charlemagne living in a galaxy far, far away a time far removed from ours, historians who study his reign do not have many sources to rely on to find out absolutely everything about Charlemagne’s reign. As a result, historians are not entirely certain about the way Charlemagne’s contemporaries treated political unity. In order to solve such issues with the understanding of any historical period (including the reign of Charlemagne), historians debate whose understanding of the events and of the contemporary is more plausible. These debates are referred as “Historiographical debates” by academics.

Think like a Historian:

Can a group of people ever absolutely agree on something, which they can never find out for certain?

So what do historians who study Charlemagne’s reign think the concept of ‘unity’ in early Mediaeval Europe meant? On a governmental level, Johannes Fried, argues that ninth-century Frankish sources demonstrate no sign of “transpersonal or abstract concepts”[1] of a politically unified community, hence suggesting that the early medieval government, in its core, was not aiming to create unification between the king and his lords.  The only possible exception from the rule was the far-removed belief in “ecclesia”, or the Church,[2] which signified the Christian empire[3] and was based on the belief that the multi faith society was undesirable. As a result, the historians should consider the religious unity of the empire as part of political unity. However, others disagree with such a claim. Hans-Werner Goetz countered the notion that “ecclesia” was not the only concept which referred to political unity.[4] A more appropriate concept, in his view, was the concept of “regnum” which referred to “a territorial unit that existed regardless of personal ties between a ruler and his magnates”.[5] Nevertheless, Goetz’ view may not be the most valuable one in this situation as he tends to disregard the connection between “ecclesia” and the medieval empire.[6] Consequently, we have to look at religious and other political ways how a kingdom may have to be united to make our judgement about Charlemagne’s ‘fatherhood’ of Europe.

Think like a Historian:

How can a ruler unite a country?

Understanding the geo-political context in which Charlemagne ruled his empire is vital to comprehend his strive for unification of his realm. With Saxons raiding the Northern border, the Moors having solid control over the Mediterranean[3] and the Holy See (The Pope in Rome) being constantly threatened, it was unsurprising that Charlemagne wanted to impose a degree of unity to his empire. As a result, the newly invaded territories were subdued by brutal force. The author of the Annales Nazariani conveys that after a rebellion of a newly subdued Thuringian nobles they were killed off, having their eyes “torn out”, bit by bit after returning from giving “fidelity to the king and his children” in the tomb of St Peter.[4] In a similar light, Charlemagne’s men have been said to have slaughtered 4,500 people within one day in 782 during Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons.[5] This degree of unjustifiably harsh control demonstrated that Charlemagne was somewhat fearful about the potential threat posed by the hostile tribes, given that ultimately these slaughters were aimed to conform the conquered peoples to the Christian faith. There was certainly a personal element to Charlemagne’s strive to unify his realm. It is highly likely that he  saw it as his personal mission to unite Christendom.[6]Consequently, both the geo-political and religious contexts are vital to understand that Charlemagne attempted to emulate an ideal “father” king and thus on a personal level he saw himself as the “father of Europe”.

Charlemagne managed to quickly establish himself as an effective unifier by adding an ecclesiastical element to his role as a king whilst ruling his realm.[4] Charlemagne managed to introduce the Old Testament and teachings of St Augustine of Hippo to promote the idea that the king’s position was bestowed by God for making a divine plan for the universe hence allowing the king to take care of both  spiritual and material matters within his own kingdom. This is evident by such acts and decrees like the 789 decree that demanded for “every single monastery” to “provide instruction in the singing of psalms, musical notation, [Gregorian] chant, the computation of the years and seasons, and grammar”.[6] The long-term goal of this act had been to root Christianity within the empire and thus to unite its inhabitants. Similarly, the 802 Capitulary for the Missi (an act that demanded people to swear an oath that confirmed their Christian faith) allowed for the imposition of unity throughout Charlemagne’s empire. These reforms radically changed the role of the monarch, therefore allowing for a conclusion that Charlemagne was indeed an omnipotent “father” monarch to his contemporaries given his care for the spiritual well-being of his subjects.

This is a 7th century chant Deum Verum (True Lord). Such chants would’ve been sung during Charlemagne’s reign by Gregorian monks and nuns in the monasteries.
To make your life funkier, here is a Gregorian chant cover of Coldplay’s song ‘Viva la Vida’ (hopefully, you’ll know the original, otherwise we’ll feel old). Enjoy!

Think like a Historian:

Why can verbal oaths be important in a society that does not have an overall literate population?

Yet, despite Charlemagne’s efforts legislation that was passed to unite religiously his empire was not sufficient. This was because Christianity was not widespread within early Medieval Europe. Even the most devout Christians that lived outside the monasteries, were considered lucky if they saw a priest once a year.[1] It appears that the most predominant form of religion were multiple tribal pluralistic faiths. After all, in contemporary world, the North half of Europe remained pagan[2] and the vast majority of Charlemagne’s empire was Christian only in name, but not in practice. This is evidenced by Charlemagne’s continuous struggle with the Saxons, who had continuously practiced paganism. As a result, it should not come as a surprise that due to the multitude of pluralistic faiths it was difficult for Charlemagne to establish a religiously united empire and thus factually Charlemagne has very little actual claim to be called a “father of Europe”.

Here is a short video that gives a brief overview of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons.
SOURCE TIME (yes, this time it is a video source, rather than a written one): Listen to this account of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons, which was originally written by the chronicler Einhard. Einghard knew Charlemagne and his court personally.However, Einhard did not participate in the military campaigns. How does Einhard describe the Saxons? Can you fully trust Einhard’s account? Give your reasons for or against.

Although Charlemagne did fail to unite his empire on religious basis he attempted to do so by utilising his civil authority as a “father” monarch to unify his empire. Charlemagne had created a backbone to his government by placing his most loyal and capable followers in charge of an individual area. The said, counts enjoyed a wide range of administrative powers, such as raising troops and collecting taxes.

However, their legislative power was extremely limited as this body was in turn checked by another set of separate corps, missi dominici, who acted as Charlemagne’s personal representatives. There was a strong link between Charlemagne and the said corps as the primary sources usually contained “the royal capitularies” and “quasi-legislative documents” that would be “dispatched across the kingdom in order to provide instructions for king’s will”.[2] Charlemagne cared about the content of the reports that reached him. Adalard emphasizes Charlemagne’s personal concern with the reliability of the information by stating that each man, who entered Charlemagne’s court regardless of his status, was made to verbally state the political situation in the region which he came from.[3] This was very different from the older model based on Roman tradition of gathering intelligence in which class mattered and the testimony from those of lower class was seen as less valid.[4] The same degree of meticulous control was employed at Charlemagne’s court. At his court Charlemagne fully exploited the traditional Frankish annual assembly by cementing his personal ties with the attending trusted clergy and nobility as during these assemblies the king “heard their complaints, accepted their advice, gained their assent for his policies, and delivered to them in his own words his commands for ruling his realm.”[5] Consequently, such meticulous control over nobility allowed Charlemagne not only to watch over his empire, but also to be perceived as an ideal medieval King given almost omnipotent qualities he gained by this degree of control. As a result, it was clear how Charlemagne became to be perceived as a “father of Europe” given the means he used to protect and to unify his empire by gathering more information about his realm than any of his predecessors; given the fact that it was surrounded by hostile tribes, such as the Saxons and the Lombards.

Think like a Historian:

Can a modification of a previous governmental or administrative system be of use for a ruler? If so, why and how? Can you think of any examples?

Nevertheless, the actual political strength of Charlemagne’s empire, given various factors outlined above, was limited and Charlemagne’s empire fell apart soon after his death. This has occurred predominantly due to the civil war that had occurred between his three grandsons. The civil war ended in August 843 with the treaty of Verdun and the empire was subdivided three parts once again—Lothar took majority of lands that stretched to Italy, Louis took the east of Rhine and Charles took Aquitane. As a result, it is certainly could be argued that Charlemagne was not a political “father of Europe” due to his inability to establish a long-lasting political unification of his empire.

This is a video that explains the short-term and long-term importance of the Treaty of Verdun.

Ultimately it must be said that, as much as Charlemagne desired to unite his empire via religious beliefs, he was unable to do so, simply due to inability to spread Christianity across his empire to such an extent which would unify various tribes that lived within it. The case is clear once various divisions created by the 843 Treaty of Verdun are considered in contemporary context. Given that these divisions had been created in the first place highlight that Charlemagne’s empire was never unified in the first place. As a result, Charlemagne cannot be considered the political “father of Europe” simply because it was almost impossible to fully unite his realm in contemporary context, despite him evidently attempting to do so.

[3] Konrad Nordland, ‘Carolingian Empire’, accessed May,  2019, at https://www.academia.edu/38718066/Carolingian_Empire and M. Shane Bjornlie, ed.,  Emerick Judson, The Life and Legacy of Constantine (New York, 2017), pp. 133-161, p. 148; Starostine Dmitri, “ …in die festivitatis: Calendar science, everyday rhythms and the ritual structuring of time in the early medieval communities of the Frankish kingdom”, accessed May,  2019 at https://www.academia.edu/33221752/Book_to_send.docx

[6] this was done by increasing the number of the scheduled meetings, which would have occurred between the monarch and his council; from Jinty Nelson, ‘Charlemagne and Europe’ in Journal of the British Academy, 2 (2014), pp. 125–152, p. 138

[3] Konrad Nordland, ‘Carolingian Empire’, accessed May,  2019, at https://www.academia.edu/38718066/Carolingian_Empire

[6] Britannica, accessed June, 2019 at


[2] Lat. ‘divine cult’; a stately concern that the duty of a true Christian monarch was to “combat heresy” and “care for his people”, from ‘Ecclesia and the early medieval polity’. in eds., W. Pohl, H. Reimitz and S. Airlie, Staat im frĂŒhen Mittelalter. Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 11 (Wien, 2006), pp. 113-132, pp.115-116

[3] De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 17

[4]  Britannica, accessed June, 2019 at


[5] Ibid.

[6]  Konrad Nordland, ‘Carolingian Empire’, accessed May,  2019, at https://www.academia.edu/38718066/Carolingian_Empire

[7] Ibid.

[8]  Elizabeth Freeman, “Charles the Great, or Just Plain Charles: Was Charlemagne a Great Medieval Leader?”, Agora: Journal of the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria, 52 (2017), pp. 10- 19, p. 15

[3] Colin M. Wells, ‘The Maghrib and the Mediterranean in the Early Middle Ages’, Florilegium 16 (1999), pp. 17-29, p. 20

[4] McKitterick Rosamund, Charlemagne: The Formation of European Identity, pp.266-267

[1] Mayke De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 17

[2]  Ruth Horie, ‘The concept of Ecclesia’ in Perceptions of Ecclesia: Church and Soul in Medieval Dedication Sermons, pp.35-44, p.35

To explore the topic further…
  • If you’re interested in reading more about the historical figure of Charlemagne, a good starting point would be Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, which is a very interesting read because it tries to unpick the historical image of Charlemagne as much as possible.
  • If you’re interested in Charlemagne as a ruler, and how his contemporaries perceived him, a good starting point is Two Lives of Charlemagne: The Life of Charlemagne; Charlemagne (Penguin Classics). It has a very comprehensible introduction and notes for you to understand the text and begin researching for yourself.
  • Any of the books and articles in the footnotes of this post, can be of use, if you’re looking for a niche topic to explore.

Mediaeval Kingship and European Identity: The Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s fatherhood of Europe (1/3)

This series of posts will be dedicated to a discussion on power relations and how they affect the formation of a historical myth in popular culture. Given that various politicians often refer to Mediaeval rulers as means to push their agendas, rather than referring to historical facts, we decided to do some historical ‘myth-busting’ and chose Charlemagne as our case study to separate the myth from the historical fact.

Think like a Historian:

What do you think the phrase “historical myth” means?

Charles or Karl I, Carolus Magnus, “father of Europe”, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, first Emperor of the Romans, lighthouse of Europe, Charlemagne—these are only some of the names this king had received during his lifetime.

Here is Charlemagne, depicted in a Mediaeval manuscript.

Charlemagne’s achievements in the eyes of his contemporaries were numerous. He considerably expanded Pepin the Short’s domain, whilst simultaneously spreading Christianity, throughout the majority of barbarian Europe.  The most fruitful campaigns occurred in the first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign, expanding the Frankish kingdom from the Spanish Pyrenees in the West to the Rhine river in the East. This territory later became known as the Holy Roman Empire, a geo-political body that would be a political centre of European political power until 19th century. He conducted the cultural revival which is known as the Carolingian Renaissance—that is all in addition to being the first man to be crowned ‘Emperor’ since the fall of the Roman Empire. Perceived by his contemporaries as a great king, he acquired the title of “the king, father of Europe” in his lifetime via his political and economic policies which aimed at uniting his empire. It is widely accepted by historians that the chronicler, Notker the Stammerer, was the first to use the epithet “Rex, pater Europae” during Charlemagne’s lifetime. This imagery was perpetuated further by such literary works like the Song of Roland and such other romances that idealised Charlemagne and his empire during the times of trouble.

In case anyone reading these posts is interested in linguistics and languages in general, here is a video that has some bits of The Song of Roland in Mediaeval French. This video is also helpful to see how the poetic meter functions in the original language, rather than in the English translation.

The actual figure of Charlemagne was influential on the way modern Europe came to be perceived. His impact is recognised in the fact that every year since 1950, the ‘Charlemagne prize’ has been presented in the German city of Aachen, the capital of the Carolingian Empire. The prize is given to an individual considered to have made an outstanding contribution to European unity. The late German chancellor Helmut Kohl admitted that the Charlemagne Prize is “the most important honour Europe can bestow”. Winston Churchill, Tony Blair, Pope Francis and Emmanuel Macron were one of the prise recipients. Nevertheless, Charlemagne’s impact on unification of Europe was extremely limited, given how long ago he had lived. Yet European citizens and politicians seem to be obsessed with the idea of a European unity that had never existed as a pan-European entity. Consequently, Charlemagne- as- a -unifier- of- Europe, is a mere myth that had been utilised by various rulers after his death.

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think people would chose to name a prize after a historical figure? Does it serve a wider, political purpose?

That said, this myth had been nourished by Charlemagne’s contemporaries insomuch as the future rulers. Chronicler Einhard had composed a very popular biography of the king and Notker the Stammerer in his Gesta Karoli Magni depicted Charlemagne as a caring father figure for the entire state. Such descriptions were unsurprising as Charlemagne was one of the founders of the Carolingian Renaissance, a cultural movement that manifested itself in various educatory reforms, including the preservation of the Classical texts. This in turn allowed for Charlemagne to create an ideological image of himself as the “father of Europe”, and through this image it was possible to create an “imaginary community”. Consequently, it was this specific image of Charlemagne that had survived through the ages and it was this specific image that was perpetuated further by subsequent generations of rulers in the medieval and modern periods. For instance, such rulers included Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler. Whilst the future rulers had twisted the original implication the accolade had, such as in the case of Hitler’s revival of the accolade, it nevertheless clear that the actual figure of Charlemagne has very little to do with actual unification and thus the “fatherhood” of modern day Europe given that his empire did not survive long enough to have so much geo-political impact on the continent.

Think like a Historian:

Who is more responsible for creation of any historical myths– the people or the ruler? Why do you think this?

Who was historical Charlemagne?

It is necessary to lay out who was the man who stood behind these illustrious titles. Born in about 742 Charlemagne was an illegitimate son of Pepin the Short, and Bertrada of Laon. Charlemagne’s childhood years are covered by darkness, although it is known except that he was tutored at the palace school by Fulrad, the abbot of St. Denis. At twenty-six Charlemagne became the King of the Franks, following his brother’s death. Given that Charlemagne lived for an impressive seventy two years, during his lifetime, he considerably expanded Pepin the Short’s realms and attempted to unify his empire through implementation of Christianity both by peaceful and forceful means.

Here is a short overview of Charlemagne’s reign.

What on earth does the “father of Europe” mean?

In order to discuss why Charlemagne was given the “fatherhood” of Europe, we need to look at what the terms “Europe” and “father” meant to his contemporaries.

For centuries “Europe” had been a mere “geographic notion”, whose origins laid in Greek myth and used as in reference to mainland Greece[1]. Yet, by fifth century this view was advanced by Herodotus and the world was supposedly divided solidly into three parts—Europe, Asia and Libya.[2]

Here is a map that is based on the view of the world described by an ancient Greek philosopher, Herodotus.

However, during Charlemagne’s reign the term “Europe” grew to signify his own empire, supposedly united under the banner of Christianity and a strong feudal based economy[3].

A map which shows how Charlemagne’s empire developed throughout his reign.

Evidently, Charlemagne’s “Europe” encompassed a geographical area in Western Europe, rather than how modern individuals understand it as. Charlemagne’s “Europe” does not encompass neither the Iberian peninsula, nor the British isles, nor the Nordic states like Sweden or Denmark. As a result, one ought to focus on Charlemagne’s contemporary definition for “Europe”, rather than its modern one.

Furthermore, one must examine what Charlemagne’s contemporaries understood by “father”. The term “father” for Charlemagne’s contemporaries, as suggested by Janet Nelson, was similar to the contemporary role of father in a household, which was to be responsible for the protection of his people, only with the household being an entire nation under king’s rule.[4]. Just as this legendary King Arthur, any early medieval monarch should “not only set in motion the formal processes of the law, but also be motivated by an inward feeling for natural justice”[5]. As a result, following the contemporary implications the term “father” had, the term within this and the consequent posts will be understood as synonymous to “unifier”. This will be done to merge contemporary and modern definitions to achieve a fluid discussion. Subsequently, a “unifier” king would aim protect his people by unification of his realm to such an extent that this unity would exist even after his death. Overall, the term “father of Europe” within the context of this and future posts will suggest that the extent of unification and consequent long-lasting success of Charlemagne’s political and economic policies.

[1]Mia Rodriguez-Salgado, ‘In Search of Europe’, History Today 42 (1992), pp. 50-60

[2] Ibid, p. 50

[3] Ibid., p. 53

[4] Rosamund McKitterick, ed., ‘Kingship and Empire’, in Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 52-87

[5] Bernard Srone, ‘Models of Kingship: Arthur in Medieval Romance’,  History Today 37 (1987), pp. 62-73, p.63

To explore the topic further…
  • If you’re interested in reading more about the historical figure of Charlemagne, a good starting point would be Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, which is a very interesting read because it tries to unpick the historical image of Charlemagne as much as possible.
  • If you’re interested in a more cultural angle of Mediaeval history, and are interested in literature a good starting point would be The Song of Roland and Other Poems of Charlemagne, which had been translated by Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt. This book has a very readable introduction and notes to help you understand the text better.
  • If you’re interested in finding out how different communities and identities form, a good starting point would be Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. It’s a must read for any students who are considering of studying History at a university level.
  • If you would like to have a chill, here is a very funky playlist with Mediaeval music

The Russian Empire Before Nicholas II: Westernisation of the Empire under Peter I(2/?)

In the previous post we looked at the start of political and economic Westernisation that had occurred as a result of Peter I’s reforms.

In this post we will take a look at the cultural changes that had happened as the result of Peter’s Westernisation reforms. Given that the term ‘culture’ has very broad implications (and is still debated by historians what it actually means), we decided to focus on the literary and theatrical sources to seek evidence for cultural changes as these type of sources provide the most insight into the various societal groups that had lived on the territory of the Russian Empire and their perception of ‘the West’.

Think like a Historian:

What is culture? Do you think that ‘culture’ can be seen as a unified entity?
Culture before Peter I’s Westernisation policy

As it had been mentioned in the previous post, Russia did make some contact with the West before 1698. However, such contact had a limited effect and was mostly visible in the cities as most of the Western cultural influences was brought over by merchants and clerics. The latter often brought over Western and Latin culture with them. For example, by 1670s a so-called German Quarter was well-established in Moscow to such an extent that its inhabitants performed the first court play in Muscovy, called the Action of Artaxerxes, in 1672. The play and its first production are both interesting to cultural historians for three reasons: because the theatrical troop was made out of mostly German-speaking individuals; because the plot is based on the Catholic Counter-Reformation tradition of plays; and because it was the first Russian play ever produced.

Please accept a niche meme to ease your existence. For education purposes- a ‘bilina’ (pl. ‘biliny’) was a traditional form of entertainment at a Muscovite court, which involved a small group of entertainers singing songs about the old heroes and their mighty deeds. (cc: Rimma)
Although this video does not talk about theatre at the time of the European Counter-Reformation, it discusses what this religious phenomena was all about.
General Influences on the Russian society after Peter I’s Reforms

Given that Peter’s reforms were implemented very quickly and aimed to change Russian Government, economy and the army quite radically, the society itself started to change. Such changes had led to an enhanced split between different social classes. For example, the nobility was made to conform to Western ideas about fashion, education of the youngsters and state service, which seemed to have a positive effect at first as the diplomatic and cultural links with ‘the West’ had been strengthened; such changes led to a divide within the Russian society. This could be seen in the cultural differences between the nobility and the serfs. For instance, whilst by the end of 19th century most of the Russian nobility had French as their first language, a large amount of the serfs remained illiterate. This became a prominent theme in Russian literature by the end of the 19th century.

Think like a Historian:

Can a language be used as a unifying social force and why would it be particularly useful/not useful?
Establishment of St. Petersburg as a New Cultural Capital of the Russian Empire

Nevertheless, the most important outcome of Peter’s reign was the establishment of St.Petersburg, which became the new capital city of the Russian Empire in 1713, only ten years after its foundation. The city itself was very different to the rest of Russia’s major cities in both appearance and the way of life. Indeed, the city became known as a ‘Window to the West‘ due to its contrasting appearance from the rest of the Russian Empire and due to its close geographical position to Sweden. Peter aimed to make St.Petersburg architecturally as ‘Western’ as possible. He went as far as to employ foreigners, such as the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond to guide the construction of the city itself and the Swissman Domenico Trezzini to help with the construction of the St.Peter’s and Paul’s Cathedral.

Think like a Historian:

Can buildings only tell a historian about the preferred architectural style of the time it was build in, or can the architecture tell a historian something more about the society overall?

Just as the appearance of the city differed from the rest of the Russian Empire, so did the cultural life. Although by the mid 1720s, the culture of St. Petersburg was not particularly different from the rest of Russia, within a century the city became a cultural hub for all kind of writers, actors, playwrights and critics. Whilst the ‘why did this happen?’ would be answered in the future posts, it is important to briefly describe the cultural life of the city in the early 18th century. Generally, the inhabitants of the city were fond of strolling down the newly build Summer Gardens, which were modelled from the French Versailles’ gardens; enjoyed riding gondola-styled boats in the city’s multiple canals; enjoyed popping into operas and libraries and probably wondered about what the tsar and his ministers were doing when they passed the Peterhof and Monplaisir Palaces.

Consequently, by the end of Peter’s reign St.Petersburg was already seen as a controversial city that became a symbol for Russian Empire’s modernity, whilst the old capital city, Moscow, became synonymous with backwardness and conservatism.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent is it important for a country that is undergoing Westernisation to have a cultural ‘jumping block’ between its own culture and the more Western one?
Important vocabulary
  • Serf: an unpaid agricultural labourer
  • ‘Window to the West’: a nickname for St.Petersburg
To explore the topic further…
  • Watch this short clip made by National Geographic that takes us across the gardens of the Peterhof palace.
  • Read a biography of Peter I by Robert K. Massie, which is called Peter the Great: His Life and World. It is very comprehensible and contextualises Peter’s reign very well.
  • Read a poem by a Russian poet A. S. Pushkin called The Bronze Horseman, which is about Peter I’s statue driving a young man, Evgenii, insane. It’s a top-tier read if you’re either into Russian Literature, or want to read about statues coming to life.
  • If you speak/ read Russian, you can find Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow and Fonzivin’s The Minor (Russ. Nedorosl’). Unfortunately, these texts have not been translated to English just yet. 😩
  • HOWEVER, dear English-speakers, do not fret as there is a very awesome documentary about Catherine the Great, who was a massive patron for the arts.
Here is the video about Catherine the Great.

The Russian Empire Before Nicholas II: Westernisation of the Empire (1/?)

Russia’s relationship with ‘the West’ was, and continues to be, a complex one. Whether that is either due to Russia’s geographical position, as after all the entire country takes up a fair chunk of Eastern Europe and almost all of the continental Asia, or due to political differences or due to cultural ones, one will never be able to know for certain. However, one can gain knowledge by attempting to unpack the causes and effects of various historical events that had caused this relationship to be so complex. One of such causes was the process of Westernisation that had been started in full force by Peter I. As thus, this series of posts will be dedicated to a lengthy historical process called Westernisation and its effects on Russian politics, culture and various societal groups.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two very different portraits of two Russian rulers. The individual on the left side of the slide is Peter I. The portrait was painted in 1698 and was given to the English King, William III in 1698. On the right side of the slide is Peter’s predecessor, Alexis I. This portrait was painted in 1670s. Why do you think the two are depicted so differently?

So what on earth, is this ‘Westernisation’ process all about?

Collins dictionary defines ‘Westernisation’ as- “the process” by which “a country, a person or a state” adopts “ideas and behaviour that are typical of Europe and North America, rather than preserving the ideas and behaviour traditional in their culture”. Whilst the definition seems to be clear- cut and simply means that the ‘Westernisation’ is a process of adaptation of various ‘Western’ cultural, political and economic ideas, the process itself is complex if you were to dive in deeper. On one hand, this definition implies that ‘Westernisation’ is a negative process because people lose their sense of identity and ties to their culture. On the other hand, however, it implies a positive, more progressive change towards a ‘better’ way of structuring ideas about the state and the society.

In practice ‘Westernisation’ can mean almost anything. This is because it is a process by which various cultures from the Western Europe interact with other cultures from other parts of the globe. As thus, the process can be both aggressive and amiable. The repercussions of such meeting have profound effects on the local population for years after the original contact had taken place.

Think like a Historian:

Can you ever describe a historical process as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Why do you think this?

The Russian Empire did not have a majorly differing experience when it came to the ‘Westernisation’ process up to 1690s. Indeed, there were political, societal and cultural effects of Russia’s interaction with the West. Tsar Ivan IV, corresponded with Elizabeth I over military and trade relationships between England and Muscovy. Tsar Alexei I, influenced by the increasing importance of Louis XIV’s plays and attitude to the arts, had built the first tsarist theatre as well as the Palace of Amusements. Consequently, up to 1690s Westernisation process in Russia was slow-paced and gradual.

This is a very good video that discusses MoliĂšre’s plays and life. You may find it useful for contextual purposes to answer the question below.

However, what was different about the Westernisation of the Russian Empire, than, for example in the colonies of the British Empire, was that the Westernisation process was induced upon an already large territory that was not separated by oceans and that the process was not gradual to a large extent from 1690s. As a result of such rapid change, almost a developmental ‘skip’ between Medieval Muscovy and Modern Imperial Russia, various societal splits began to occur that lasted and grew all the way until 1917. Consequently, when discussing the Westernisation of the Russian Empire one ought to have a look at the role of Peter I in this process and the effects it had.

Russia and ‘the West’ before Peter I

When Peter I had assumed personal rule, in 1689 Rus’ (former Duchy of Muscovy) spread from the Caspian Sea in the West to the Pacific Ocean in the East. By that stage most of Russia’s expansion into Siberia and Asia had already occurred and most Siberian tribes have been pacified. Yet, Rus’ remained an overall politically and economically backward country. It relied on feudal agricultural methods, internal and external trade depended heavily on seasonal changes, which was made harder by Rus’ being predominantly landlocked from main trade routes. Only a very small percentage of the overall population lived in towns.

In internal politics Rus’ was divided. Various court factions struggled for power by trying to put their candidate onto the throne after Ivan IV’s heirless death. This period later became known as the ‘Time of Troubles’.

A quick video that lays out the essential facts about the Time of Troubles

Consequently, Peter I was faced with a wide set of issues in 1689. He had to deal with political and economic backwardness. He had to deal with political tensions. Thus rapid change in the face of the Westernisation seemed to be a clear-cut, easy answer to these problems for someone who was as principal and as ambitious as Peter. This could be backed up by Peter’s personality. One of the ministers of Tsarina Sophia, who acted as a regent, described young Peter as “[having] a thirst for knowledge that cannot be quenched. He wishes to know everything“.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent can a historian rely on someone’s description of a ruler’s personality in order to draw conclusions about the ruler’s aims and policies?

The Role of Peter I in the Westernisation of the Russian Empire: Politics, Economy and the Army

So, what did Peter I actually do when he decided to pursuit the Westernisation policy of the entire Rus’? Well… he had decided to lead by example and travelled all the way to various European countries to educate himself on such matters like ship-building, state-making and the arts to apply his knowledge upon return to the Rus’-ian systems of government, economy and culture.

In short the situation was very much like the meme above (cc: Rimma)

SOURCE TIME: This painting was painted in 1838-40 by a French artist Louise Marie-Jeanne Hersent-Mauduit. The original title of the painting is “Louis XV visiting Peter the Great, May 10th, 1717”. This is a very wholesome painting of an equally wholesome historical event that took place in the palace of Versailles in the 1717. It depicts Peter I (the tall bloke with moustache who is standing in the centre of the scene) holding the young Louis XV (the child that Peter is holding), whilst Louis’ French ministers are shocked by Peter’s behaviour. What can you tell about Peter I’s character from this painting? Does this painting present any issues if a historian is trying to find out about the perception of Russia at a French court?
Politics and Administration

One of the major reforms that came about of Peter’s application of the ‘Western’ ideas was the reform of the administration of his domain. This was done predominantly via the introduction of autocracy, and the consequent reversal of traditionally Rus’-ian court rituals and traditions, which reversed Rus’ feudal governmental system to a large extent. In order to achieve Western-styled autocracy Peter attempted to reduce the influence of boyars in the Boyar Duma, which had constituted a relatively strong opposition to Peter’s reforms. This was done by targeting boyars with numerous taxes, obligatory services and reforms of their appearance, which was made according to the contemporary Western fashion. The two final blows at the boyars was delivered in 1712 as the Western-styled St. Petersburg was announced as an official capital of Russian Empire and in 1722 via the creation of the Table of Ranks, a list of ranks within the Russian society that established a honorific system of loyalty to the tsar. Consequently, Peter’s reforms not only Westernised the Muscovite state, but also established the order and the tensions of the contemporary Russian society that would come into play in 1917 Revolution.

Here is a very brief video that outlines the history behind the foundations of St Petersburg. There will be more about the city and its culture in future posts.
Economy and Administration

Just as Peter reformed the political administration of his realm, he also reformed its economy. The reform of the economy was required for two main reasons: firstly, because both the reformed political system and the army required a reformed economy to secure both of them; and secondly, because the reformed economy was more profitable than the one that existed under Muscovy. The economic system of Muscovy was highly complex and inefficient, as for example, there was no universal methods of payment, which meant that people could pay for the goods in either coins or physical labour or goods. Furthermore, many people did not pay their taxes. In order to eliminate the complexities of the system, Peter had decided to charge a single tax on each individual adult male which partially resolved the problems listed above as people could not evade taxation anymore and the government knew theoretically how much revenue they could receive. Furthermore, due to the rapid militarisation of the Russian army some industries began to develop quickly. For example, the iron mining industry was one of them as it allowed to produce various military devices domestically at a cheaper price as there was no need to transport them from other countries.

This video doesn’t necessarily touch upon the economics of Peter I as much, but it gives a very nice overview of his reign and compares it to the rise of the Prussian Empire.

Such economic changes had significant consequences for the Russian society. On one hand, the government gained the means of increasing their profit, and was successful at it. For example, the Crown’s income tripled and many people were able to find new jobs in the rapidly deserving industries. On the other hand, however, due to the government’s attempt to reduce the industrial difficulties and to gain a larger body of people to enforce taxation upon, merchant enterprises were allowed to purchase serfs, thus furthering the subjugation of the serfs to the landowners. Consequently, both Peter’s economic and political reforms arguably divided the contemporary society more than united it long-term.

Think like a Historian:

What do you think the historian Paul Bushkovitch means in this quote? The historian is commenting on Peter’s economic reforms.

Substantial industrialisation cannot take place on the basis of mass demand private domestic capital and available entrepreneurial resources. The state, if it desires industrialisation, has to foster industries.
The Army

Another major target for reform of Peter’s Westernisation policy was the army. In 1689, Russian army was much weaker than any of the European ones. It was militarily backward because there were a small number of well trained army men and the soldiers themselves were usually untrained serfs. A well-trained army was necessarily not only for Russia to establish herself on the European political scene, but also for Peter to exert control at home given various political instabilities that had occurred during the ‘Time of Troubles’. In order to deal with these issues and to strengthen the army Peter attempted to Westernise it. One of the ways how this was achieved was by Peter recreating a Western-styled army hierarchy. For example, all soldiers received basic training, but only the officers from two special regiments– the Preobrazhenskii and the Semeovskii–were able to command the army.

Furthermore, Peter enhanced the role of the navy in the Russian army. Prior to Peter’s reign, Muscovite navy was almost non-existent as Muscovy was mostly a landlocked territory that mainly traded with her neighbours, like Livonia or Poland, which could be reached by land. Peter based the growing Russian navy on the mouth of the Don River, near the Azov Sea.

Such rapid reforms of the army were highly successful short-term. For instance, the 1709 Battle near Poltava was a breaking point in the Russo-Swedish relations as the Russian army was able to overcome the Swedish army and ultimately sign a very beneficial Treaty of Nystadt in 1721. By the terms of this treaty Russia received control over some regions in the Baltic, such as Estonia, therefore allowing for easier access to international naval trade. In 1722, Peter was able to lead a campaign against the Ottoman Empire, which although was less successful than the Swedish campaign, nevertheless allowed for the Russians to gain the ports of Baku and Derbent and therefore the access to the Caspian Sea.

Think like a Historian:

Why is a strong army and a strong navy necessary for an Empire?
Important vocabulary:
  • Westernisation: a socio-cultural process whereby a contact is made between a Western European nation and a non-Western European one.
  • Expansion: a process by which a country grows geographically larger
  • The Time of Troubles: a period in Russian history in the late 16th century- early 17th century that was characterised by massive political and economic instability.
  • Regent: an individual that rules instead of a monarch. This situation could occur as a result of a monarch being too young to rule by themselves or there not being one on the the throne.
  • Boyar: a member of an old aristocracy in Russia.
  • Boyar Duma: a council that consisted of members of old Russian aristocracy from the Mediaeval times.
  • Militarisation: a process by which a state’s army is strengthened.
  • Serf: an unpaid agricultural labourer.
  • Regiment: a unit within an army.
To explore the topic further…
  • Read a biography of Peter I by Robert K. Massie, which is called Peter the Great: His Life and World. It is very comprehensible and contextualises Peter’s reign very well.
  • Read a poem by a Russian poet A. S. Pushkin called The Bronze Horseman, which is about Peter I’s statue driving a young man, Evgenii, insane. It’s a top-tier read if you’re either into Russian Literature, or want to read about statues coming to life.
  • Watch these videos on the Great Northern War to contextualise Peter’s foreign policy and the Russo-Swedish relations