History Today magazine lists its top ten history movies

And here they are:

1. Mirror (Andrei Takovsky, 1975, USSR)

2. Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson, 1974, France)

3. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946, UK)

4. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985, USSR)

5. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1969, Italy/US)

6. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966, USSR)

7. A Canterbury Tale (Powell and Pressburger, 1944, UK)

8. La Reine Margot (Patrice Chéreau, 1994, France)

9. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden)

10. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980, West Germany)




Muslim Spain in the Middle Ages

For a long time, Spain struggled to suppress or forget the centuries of rule under the Islamic caliphate. In the year 711, only decades after the death of the prophet Mohammed, the Iberian peninsula was invaded right up to the Pyrenees and beyond. In fact, the Muslim army got as far as the city of Tours in France before it was repelled. But from then until the 12th century AD, most of what we now call Spain and Portugal was under Islamic rule. And it’s a fact that the majority of the population – based in the southern half of the peninsula – became or was Muslim.

The high point of the caliphate’s rule was from the 800s to the 1000s when the emirs of Cordoba oversaw the creation of great cities, places of learning and a flourishing culture. Their libraries would transmit lost portions of Greek and Roman literature and learning to the rest of Europe.

The Christian fight back started from 711 and continued until 1492 when the last Islamic foothold in Grenada was dislodged.  It was a slow process called the ‘Reconquista’ and the kingdoms that emerged were hugely different from the Visigoth, Germanic rooted Christian Spain that that had been overrun in the 8th century. For a start, the Islamic influence was everywhere – particularly in the buildings. And if you go to Toledo, Cordoba and Seville – you just can’t avoid it….as my photos from my visits below prove!

Outside the mosque/church
Outside the mosque/church
Started as a Visigoth church, became a mosque, then back to a church
Started as a Visigoth church, became a mosque, then back to a church
A church then a mosque and back to a church
A church then a mosque and back to a church
Formerly a synagogue in Toledo - a city of three Abrahamic faiths in the Middle Ages
Formerly a synagogue in Toledo – a city of three Abrahamic faiths in the Middle Ages
A door in Toledo
A door in Toledo
A sea of arches inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba - converted later to a cathedral
A sea of arches inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba – converted later to a cathedral
The Great Mosque of Cordoba built by Abd al Rahman in the 9th century
The Great Mosque of Cordoba built by Abd al Rahman in the 9th century
A door in Cordoba - the city was once the largest in western Europe
A door in Cordoba – the city was once the largest in western Europe
The Alcazar in Seville - remodelled by Christian rulers who used Moorish builders
The Alcazar in Seville – remodelled by Christian rulers who used Moorish builders
The Alcazar in Seville
The Alcazar in Seville
The Alcazar or ruler's home in Seville
The Alcazar or ruler’s home in Seville
A Moorish tower in Seville
A Moorish tower in Seville
The walls of medieval Seville
The walls of medieval Seville
Now a restaurant but once a Moorish dwelling
Now a restaurant but once a Moorish dwelling

Templar HQ and the mysterious fire

English: The doors of Saladin's minbar in the ...
The doors of Saladin’s minbar in the al-Aqsa Mosque 

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem was once the platform on which the great Temple of the Jewish people had stood – destroyed or severely damaged in turn by pharaohs from Egypt, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greek and finally by the Romans.

Recognising the holy nature of the site, the conquering Muslims of the 7th century AD built a structure we now call the Dome of the Rock. The Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik constructed the Dome staking a decisive claim by Islam to Temple Mount.

Before this caliph, it is believed that the second or Rashidun (righteous) caliph after the prophet Mohammed built a small prayer house on the mount that was later expanded into the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The reason for Islamic veneration was that Mohammed was believed to have been transported to this place from Mecca during the so-called “Night Journey”, which took only a single night to achieve. It was here that Allah commanded Mohammed to tell Muslims to pray facing Mecca and not Jerusalem.

Successive Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs rebuilt the mosque until the year 1099 when Christian crusaders audaciously took the city. After 450 years of Muslim rule, Christians were back in charge. The last Christian rulers had been the eastern Roman (or Byzantine if you prefer) emperors governing from Constantinople.

The mosque was immediately regarded as the Temple of Solomon built on top of his stables and it was soon suspected that secret treasures of the great king lay underneath the structure. A new order of knights dedicated to protecting Christian pilgrims took over the building and called themselves the Knights Templar. Our very own Templars then set about extensive building work to convert it to a church and include military installations.

When the Muslim ruler Saladin seized Jerusalem back in 1187, he undid much of the Templar work though the large stone extensions remained and today are the Womens’ Mosque and Islamic Museum. Saladin installed a new minbar and for the centuries that followed it reverted to being a functioning mosque.

After 1967, Jerusalem came totally under Israeli control and in 1969, a fire swept through the mosque incinerating the minbar of Saladin and other decorative features. At first, Palestinians blamed Israelis while some Israelis wondered if the Palestinians had done it themselves. But then it emerged that the real culprit was an Australian called Denis Michael Rohan.

Rohan claimed that he believed if the mosque was destroyed, it would hasten the building of the third Temple – one that would replace the second Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans. This, he asserted, would hasten the coming of Jesus Christ.

Jesus didn’t come. And Rohan was detained in a psychiatric facility until he died in 1995.

Pope Benedict XVI resigns – is this unprecedented?

Pope Benedictus XVI
Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Pope announced that he intended to resign today on grounds of ill health and age – leaving office before the end of the month. In recent centuries, the view has been that popes continue until they croak but Pope Benedict’s decision to leave before dying is not without precedent. If you head back into the Middle Ages – popes stepped down for any number of reasons.

Pope Benedict IX (1032-1948) for example found the burden of the papacy too much for his eleven year old shoulders – yes, he was eleven when his family arranged for him to become pope! And why not – two of his uncles had been pope before him. He got fed up with his duties and sold the papacy to his godfather though changed his mind later on and seized it back.

Pope Celestine V (six months in 1294) decided the job really wasn’t for him and passed a law permitting a pope to resign, which he duly did. Celestine rather fancied the thought of retiring to peaceful contemplation. But his rather overbearing successor, Boniface VIII, decided to imprison him instead and possibly had him murdered. His confinement certainly didn’t last very long and was followed very shortly after by his funeral.

Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415) was caught up in the Western Schism where, for several decades, there were two and sometimes more popes. One sat in Rome and the other in the French city of Avignon. To try and end this crazy situation that divided Europe, a decision was made that if one pope stepped down, the other one would. Of course, there then followed a game of brinkmanship to see who would blink first but in the end, Gregory did the noble thing. He was allowed to retire to Ancona where history records nothing terrible happening to him.

Recent times have not been without papal controversy with claims that Pope John Paul I was murdered – I have no view on this – and reports that Pius XII wrote a decree insisting that if the Nazis kidnapped him, he should be deemed to be no longer pope. I’ve no doubt in the next few days and weeks we will hear many salacious theories as to the stepping down of Benedict. Just be aware that the Vatican has been here before!

The Knights Templar and money lending

English: Knights Templar Česky: Dva templáři
Knights Templar

The Knights Templar were warriors, monks, farmers, royal advisers and bankers all rolled into one. Whether they sat on fabled mountains of gold – it was certainly widely believed (particularly by certain monarchs) that they did – they certainly lent vast sums to popes and princes. The Paris Temple in particular was a heavily fortified bank in the eyes of the French kings.

As today’s banking system sees its reputation torn to shreds, it’s worth recalling that our banks owe a debt to the Templars for creating an early system of lending and credit. So how did it work?

Well, in a pre-capitalist age without modern banking, you might have to haul large amounts of bullion around with you when you went off on crusade or even dig a hole in the ground to hide it. Not exactly sophisticated. Your wealth would largely be based on land and that was at risk of being seized by somebody unscrupulous while you were away. So step forward the Knights Templar with an easier way to access your money while on crusade without having to heave great sacks of it with you.

They issued letters of credit – a promise to pay the bearer the designated amount. These could be cashed in – bit like old fashioned travellers’ cheques – at Templar houses or preceptories. The order would charge a kind of administration fee to avoid the charge of usury. It was sin to charge interest on loans – a religious rule still followed today by Islamic financial institutions where ‘enhanced capital’ is OK but not outright earning of interest.  Jewish lenders were permitted to charge interest, which contributed to anti-Jewish feeling in times of economic crisis or political upheaval.

Templar enthusiasm for the world of high finance may have originated at the Champagne Fairs – a massive market held in Troyes and other towns in the Champagne district of France.  This was where the first Templars originated from so the order had strong links to this part of the world. Merchants would come from all over Europe bringing goods from further afield including the Middle East. To ease the flow of transactions, the Templars developed their credit note system. The knights themselves would have been selling their wool and other produce from their manors to fund their crusading activities in outremer.

So was Richard III evil or not?

Richard III and the Ghosts
Richard III and the Ghosts 

We’re led to believe now that the Middle Ages ended in a car park in Leicester. OK, the car park wasn’t there in 1485 when the area witnessed the violent Battle of Bosworth. This was where the reigning monarch, Richard III, met the forces of Henry Tudor – a rebel prince of mainly Welsh stock with a tenuous family claim to the throne. In fact, the royal families of Castile and Portugal had better claims to the English throne than Henry Tudor.

The battle that ensued has to be set in the context of the long War of the Roses between the royal houses of York and Lancaster – represented by a white rose and a red rose respectively. Lancastrians had seized power in 1399 killing Richard II and we then had Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. The latter was overthrown and killed by the Yorkist Edward IV whose brother, Richard III, then succeeded him.

If Shakespeare is to be believed, Richard got to the throne by a combination of murder and deceit during this brother’s reign. He also allegedly murdered two boys – the sons of his brother – in the Tower of London. His evil tendencies were enhanced by his physical appearance – a common view in ancient times. Richard was a hunchback with a withered arm and nasty face….so must have been evil! Right? If you want to see this portrayal in its full glory and gory, watch the 1955 movie of the play starring Laurence Olivier – he just exudes malice from every pore.

The Richard III Society and screenwriter Phillippa Langley have argued long and hard that the king has been misrepresented by Tudor propagandists and Shakespeare and that this monarch is thoroughly misunderstood. The discovery of the king’s skeleton and evidence of abuse to the dead man’s body – he was hacked at and his naked corpse displayed round the town – show the Tudors were perfectly capable of being wicked themselves.

There has been a lively debate online between pro and anti Richard factions. The pro-Tudors have retorted that the skeleton has confirmed the king’s deformities, his unsavory face and all round bad guy status. Nonsense, say Richard’s supporters, he shows nobility and the disease he suffered from – scoliosis – showed he had to battle through pain to rule a great kingdom.

Click HERE for an excellent summary of the news surrounding the Richard III skeleton discovery from The Guardian newspaper.