Clash of cultures.



Kerak castle in modern Jordan

It was on this day April 5th in 1081 that Alexios I Komnenos was crowned Byzantine Emperor.  He inherited an empire on the brink of collapse.  In the Balkans the Normans were carving out yet another kingdom in the Mediterranean to add to Sicily and Southern Italy.  In the East the Seljuk Turks occupied Anatolia and were moving into the ancient coastal Greek cities.  Other Turkic tribes such as the Danishmends were moving in behind the Seljuks.

With tax revenues severely curtailed and unable to recruit new legions Alexios made an appeal to the West.  He sent a message to the Pope in Rome, asking for some western soldiers to help him defend the Byzantine Empire from the Turks.

What happened in response was the Crusades.  A river of knights and peasants flowed out of the West, through the Byzantine Empire and into the Holy Land.  In the process they established a culture of intolerance and hatred that persists between fundamentalist Christians and Muslims today.

Byzantine politics was characterised by negotiation, diplomacy, political maneuvering, treaties, alliances, compromises and constantly shifting positions.  Your blood enemy today could be your ally tommorrow.  You never completely burned your bridges if you could help it.  It might be better to accept the presence of the Seljuks nearby if it kept the Caliphate far away.

The Franks had no understanding of the delicate interplay of Eastern Roman politics.  They were shoot first and ask questions later types of knights.  In fact most of the Frankish knights who arrived with the crusades were younger sons.  The eldest son, the one trained in administration, remained at home to inherit.  The younger sons, trained in war to serve their brothers, found new opportunity opening up in the East.  A landless adventurer could hope to carve himself out an estate in the lands of Outremer.

Franks could not distinguish between many of the Eastern sects.  They slaughtered Armenian Christians beliving them Muslims.  They hated Jews even more than the Arabs.  They didn’t even like the Byzantines very much, their Orthodox Christian allies, the people who invited them to the East.

The Western knights had a Manichaean view of religion.  If you are one of us you are good and on the side of God.  If you are against us you are evil.  Facing them were Muslims who saw the world in exactly the same way, only Allah is good and the Christians were evil.  The crusades brought these polar opposites together and established norms that persist to this day.

The First Crusade established the Crusader Kingdoms in modern day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine/Israel.  It gave Alexios back control of Anatolia, but gave him a new headache in the form of Norman and Frankish adventurers.  The Western knights had no interest in returning lands to the Byzantine Empire.  They wanted to keep what they conquered.

The Crusader Kingdoms barely lasted 300 years on the mainland.  In the process they did provide a buffer between the Arabs and Byzantium.  Constantinople limped on until 1453 when it fell to another Turkish Tribe, the Ottomans.


Born April 2nd, 742 Charles became King of the Franks in 768, King of the Lombards in 774 and Emperor of the Romans and the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD.  Charles I became Charles the Great:  Charlemagne.

He was the power that reunited Europe militarily for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire.   He cowed and converted the German Saxon tribes and he dispossed the Lombards of Northern Italy in service of the Pope.  He drove the Muslims south of the Pyrenees, but when he tried to push his luck he was driven back.  As he retreated through the mountains the Basques decided to revenge themselves for the sack of Pamplona.  At the battle of Roncesvaux pass his rearguard was destroyed and a certain brave knight named Roland was slain.  The moment was immortalised in the Song of Roland the classic epic of the Amour Courtois which inspired tales such as King Arthur and Robin Hood.

Charlemagne was the Grandson of Charles Martel (the hammer) the man who saved france from invasion by the Arabic armies at the Battle of Tours in 732.  The wars won by Charlmagne were a continuation of the struggles of his Grandfather against Arabs, Saxons, Lombards and Burgundians.

His campaigns in Italy brought him into contact with the Saracens.  With the Franks to the West of the Byzantine Empire the Arabic Sultan, Harun al Rashid, saw an opportunity to occupy his traditional enemy on a third front.  They were already fully occupied with the Arabs to the East and the Bulgarians under Krum to the North.  Baghdad presented Charlemagne with an elephant and a clock as gifts but the talks amounted to nothing other than many sleepless nights for the Byzantine rulers.

The rise of the Franks to become a power and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire removed any lingering chance for the reunification of the Ancient Roman Empire.  What followed was a clean separation of state and church alike underlined by the Great Schism of 1054.

The title of this post: Joyeuse is the name of Charlemagnes sword.  Supposedly still preserved today in the Louvre the blade is thought to be genuinely from the 8th or 9th century.   Other parts of the sword have been added or changed over the centuries.  It was the blade used for the crowning of the kings of France, even including Napoleon.  It translates simply as “Joy”.

Infant Joy; by William Blake

I have no name
I am but two days old.
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,
sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
sweet joy I call thee;
thou dost smile.
I sing the while
sweet joy befall thee.


An Irish Giant


Ireland is often called the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’.  The reason for this is Celtic Orthodoxy.  During the dark ages, and the 5th Century in particular, civil systems in Europe broke down.  The Roman Empire fragmented under the migrations of Goths, Vandals, Alans, Suebi, Burgundians, Franks, Huns, Lombards etc.  The Christian Church in the West lost cohesion and direction in this period.  Heresies flourished in the vacuum of central control.

Continental reformists tried to hold it together, the most famous being St Augustine (who resolved the Faith Vs Belief dichotomy and established the “City of God” as an ideal that could withstand the loss of place) and St Benedict (who gave the best known of the Monastic rules).  Benedict died in 543 AD, the year in which St Columbanus was born.

Columbanus is the monk who most represents what people mean when they talk of the isle of saints and scholars.  Columbanus brought Celtic Orthodoxy to Europe.  The Irish Monks began a pagan conversion mission with Germanic tribes that can be argued to have persisted in one form or another until the Eastern and Western Churches met in the Baltic States in the 14th Century Northern Crusades.

The story goes like this.  Christianity came to Ireland in the early 5th Century, when Europe was in turmoil.  A strong Celtic monastic tradition was founded and the monasteries were the dominant clerical force in Ireland.  The Irish Monasteries were insulated from the turmoil in Europe, and the invasions of pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes experienced in England.  They acted as a reservoir for orthodox Christianity.  They also served as a well of education.  Nobles from all over Western Europe sent children to Irish Monasteries for an education in a safe environment.  Many of these children returned to their own lands as educated Christians.  They were a cohesive force for the development of Christian cooperation, and paved the way for the ascent of Christian kings in Europe such as Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty.

Arianism was more pervasive than Catholicism in the Frankish courts when Clovis came to power.  His alignment with Catholicism was controversial and may have lost him some military support.  Ultimately it gained him allies from non-Frankish races, such as the Britons and the remaining Gallo-Roman aristocracy.

Without Clovis we would not have had a unified Frankish kingdom in the West.  Without the Franks Charles Martell could not have risen to power.  The Armies of Islam could have smashed Europe unopposed in the 8th Century.  We would never have had Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.  The Irish Monastic Education system was the little acorn from which the Holy Roman Empire grew.

From Ireland St Columba established missions to Britain from his Monastery in Iona in Scotland, seeking to convert the pagan Picts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England.

At the same time St Columbanus took Irish missions to mainland Europe.   The significance of his mission might be suggested by the fact that he took 12 companions or ‘apostles’ with him.   Of these two Columbanus can be seen to have had the more significant effect on the wider stage.  In Europe he established Celtic monasteries in France and in Italy.  He challenged the emergence of heresies such as Arianism and Nestorianism.  In doing so he was criticizing Papal Authority, because he questioned why the Papacy was allowing the dilution of orthodoxy.  He established an Irish monastic tradition on the European mainland which demanded a response from Rome.

Many Celtic practices differed from those in Rome.  The rule of Columbanus was stricter than the rule of Benedict.  The tonsure was visibly different, the Celtic monks shaving the front of the head and the Romans shaving the crown.  The date of Easter was calculated differently also.  All of these things brought the Irish monks on a collision course with Rome.

Columbanus, by coincidence, was born in the year Benedict died, and died on this day in the year 615AD.   Over the following decades the Papacy rebuilt its influence and Roman practices replaced those of the Irish.  It was 50 years before the clash between the Celts and Rome was fully and finally resolved by the Synod of Whitby in the Jute Kingdom of Northumbria, in England.

The legend of Ireland, as an isle of Saints and Scholars, was attributable to actions that happened largely in a period of only 50 years but had impacts over thousands of years.