How was Easter celebrated when the Knights Templar were around?

Yates-Thompson-34-f.-84-Resurrection-of-ChristThe crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.

For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.

The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.

The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday.  Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.

Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.

So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.

Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.

 

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Is there a Muslim inscription on the Throne of Saint Peter?

tcajan13_p18In an early nineteenth century book in my library I came across a fascinating story that I’d like some historical sleuths out there to confirm or deny. The claim in the book is that on the Throne of St Peter in the Vatican – held aloft by the four Doctors of the Church – is inscribed the declaration of faith made by all Muslims (the Shahadah): “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet (or Messenger)”

I came across this because the book is a calendar of holy events during the year and the 18th January, just gone, is The Feast of St Peter’s Chair. The book describes the throne at the end of the nave in St Peter’s basilica – the centre of the Roman Catholic church:

A glory of seraphim, with groups of angels, sheds a brilliant light upon its splendours. This throne enshrines the real, plain, worm-eaten, wooden chair on which St Peter, the prince of the apostles, is said to have pontificated

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Charles the Bald

The chair has not been seen in modern times. It is indeed a worm-eaten relic donated to pope John VIII in the 9th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald. He gave the pope this present in return for being crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pontiff, thereby making him the divinely anointed ruler of central Europe. This papal ceremony had been initiated by his grandfather Charlemagne.

Pope John VIII was in terrible trouble. The Muslim Saracens had overrun Sicily and southern Italy and were menacing Rome. He needed the help of the emperor. In the end, Charles couldn’t give the papacy the support it badly needed and the pope turned to the Byzantine empire for assistance. This angered some in Rome and he became the first pope to be assassinated.

Pope_John_VIII_Illustration
Pope John VIII

Fast forward to the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. The French leader took Italy and, as in other places, Napoleon’s soldiers looted religious sites. They were imbued with the anti-clerical ideas of the revolution and not cowed by the holiness of the Vatican. Once they got into the basilica, they had the throne of St Peter in their sights. By now, the ancient relic was encased in seventeenth century statuary – a magnificent ebony and gold construction.

The sacrilegious curiosity of the French broke through all obstacles to their seeing the chair of St Peter. They actually removed its superb casket and discovered the relic. Upon its mouldering and dusty surface were traced carvings, which bore the appearance of letters. The chair was quickly brought into a better light, the dust and cobwebs removed, and the inscription faithfully copied. The writing is in Arabic characters and is the well-known confession of Mahometan faith – “There is but one GOD and MAHOMET is his prophet!”

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The Shahadah appears on ISIS flags

The book speculates that the chair might have been crusader spoil from the east – though that would be contradicted by the account of it being an earlier donation in the ninth century, 200 years before the First Crusade. The statement inscribed on the chair is known as the “Shahadah” – which only has to be recited three times in order for somebody to become a Muslim. In our time, it’s also the Arabic statement on the flags of Daesh or the so-called Islamic State.

800px-Venezia_-_Chiesa_di_San_Pietro_di_Castello_-_Cattedra_di_San_Pietro
The Venice throne

Coincidentally, there is another throne of St Peter held in the church of San Pietro di Castello in Venice – once the seat of the Venetian patriarchs. This church is rarely visited by tourists, though it should be. The throne is clearly modelled from an Islamic gravestone. Historians believe its journey began in the Muslim Fatimid empire. When that collapsed, it was most likely looted by Byzantine troops. Then during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, it would have ended up in Venetian hands after their soldiers ransacked Constantinople.

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The worm-eaten throne in Rome

Back to the throne in Rome – it was exposed again to public view in 1867. This was for the eighteenth centenary of the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. Photos were taken by the Alessandri brothers at the time. The throne is one foot ten inches high and just under three feet wide. With metal rings on the side, it was clearly intended to be carried with poles – presumably with the pope seated in it. Bits had been hacked off for relics to be given away. The “arabesque” motifs were noted by spectators.

And as my book notes:

This story has been since hushed up, the chair replaced, and none but the unhallowed remember the fact, and none but the audacious repeat it. Yet such there are, even at Rome!

 

Venice – evidence of an evil Crusade

One of the worst atrocities committed in the name of religion must surely be the sacking of Constantinople by Christian crusaders in the year 1204. The city of Constantinople had been the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire since the emperor Constantine – the first emperor to embrace Christianity. it had been “The City” of the early Middle Ages rivalled by none. Yet by the Fourth Crusade, the eastern Roman Empire – or Byzantine Empire as it’s more commonly called though it was never called that at the time – was in a slow decline. The lands it had once ruled in Egypt and the Levant were now under Muslim control and the Balkans had mostly slipped away. 

Tetrarchs in VeniceBut Constantinople – defended by huge walls – endured. That is until a wily, nonagenarian and blind Doge of Venice called Enrico Dandolo decided that the crusades shouldn’t attack their intended Muslim target but instead divert to Constantinople and sack it. Why? Because the Byzantines had long been the commercial and political rivals of Venice. And the latter was in the ascendancy while the Byzantines were not the force they had once been. So why not kick them while they were down.

And so it came to pass that the city was put under siege and its walls breached. The destruction was on an epic scale and the Venetians stripped the place of all the booty they could carry. That included the four horses you see on top of Saint Mark’s cathedral (well, they’re replicas and the real ones are now under cover). One statue taken back that tourists always seem to miss is a third or fourth century CE depiction of the last pagan Roman emperor Diocletian and his three co-emperors or “tetrarchs”. 

This statue was obviously part of an ancient monument in Constantinople and was just unceremoniously slammed into a corner of Saint Mark’s cathedral where it looks weirdly out of place. But there it is – a piece of crusader/Templar booty.  And most tourists walk past it without blinking.

Tetrarchs in Venice

The destruction of Constantinople by the crusaders – the year 1204

Constantinople in Byzantine times
Constantinople in Byzantine times (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Tomb of Enrico Dàndolo (Henricus Dandolus), Do...
Tomb of Enrico Dàndolo (Henricus Dandolus), Doge of Venice, in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Photo by Radomil talk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
ConquestOf Constantinople By The Crusaders In 1204
ConquestOf Constantinople By The Crusaders In 1204 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Taking of Constantinople
The Taking of Constantinople (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first time I ever read about this – well, it’s just one of those events you wish could somehow have been reversed, stopped from ever happening. There in the eastern Mediterranean was “The City” – the most opulent metropolis of the Middle Ages. Standing at the end of the Silk Route, a collection of golden domed edifices built by the Roman emperor Constantine and further embellished by rulers like Justinian and the great Byzantine emperor Basil.  Constantinople was beyond doubt the greatest city of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, it had a deadly rival in Venice – an emerging maritime power in the medieval period.  The Doge – ruler of Venice – funded the Fourth Crusade but finding the crusaders unable to cough up what they owed him, he ordered them to sack Constantinople. Even though the eastern Christians of the city had rejected papal power and formed what we now call the Orthodox church, the pope was still sufficiently scandalized by what he now saw as an abuse of the crusades. He condemned their actions repeatedly but to no avail.

Here was a military venture that was supposed to push back Islam and reassert Christian power in the Middle East. Their original target was supposed to be Muslim Cairo. Instead, the crusaders were heading off to beat up the largest Christian power in the east because they owed money to the Doge. Tragically, they did indeed manage to breach the city’s walls – built in the 400s and thought to be impenetrable. The multi-layered walls had repelled everybody from the Huns to the Arabs and Bulgars. But not this army.

A weak and divided Byzantine leadership crumbled. The crusaders set fire to large parts of the city – and you can still see evidence of the damage in modern Istanbul today, as I have done – and then moved in to the Hagia Sophia. This was the massive cathedral built by Justinian in the mid-500s that still inspires awe today.

Gold and silver and jewels were stripped off the walls and altars. A contemporary chronicler recounted the events with horror:

“For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendour.”

Stealing wasn’t enough for the crusaders as they decided to defile the church by crowning a prostitute as bishop:

“Nay more, a certain harlot, a sharer in their guilt, a minister of the furies, a servant of the demons, a worker of incantations and poisonings, insulting Christ, sat in the patriarch’s seat, singing an obscene song and dancing frequently.”

If you visit Venice, look up at the four horses above St Mark’s church – they were looted by crusaders in this year. A so-called Latin kingdom was established that lasted a few decades before the Byzantines were able to reassert control. However, Constantinople would never fully recover from this battering and sank into an irreversible decline.

How did the Crusades start?

Alp Arslan humiliant Romain IV
Alp Arslan humiliant Romain IV (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Map showing when and how the Turks took Anatolia
Map showing when and how the Turks took Anatolia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Alp Arslan led Seljuk Turks to victor...
English: Alp Arslan led Seljuk Turks to victory against the Byzantines in 1071. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the year 1095, Pope Urban II addressed a huge crowd at the town of Clermont in France and urged them to do something new and very exciting – to march east and fight the forces of Islam. Something terrible had happened – he said. It needed an immediate remedy – every fit and able man must go and defend the Christian holy places.

“Let those who, for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights!”

Since the end of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Middle East had been divided between the Muslim realms covering north Africa and the Levant and the Christian Byzantine Empire (which viewed itself as the unbroken continuation of the eastern Roman empire).

The Byzantines had experienced mixed fortunes over the centuries but in the 10th and 11th centuries, the emperors of Constantinople had not only pushed back the Arab armies of the Caliph but aggressively expanded. However, a new force emerged that checked the Byzantines: the Seljuk Turks. These people had migrated from the Caspian and Aral seas and arrived in Persia before invading down into Syria.

By the year 1071, the Seljuks were looking like the new dominant power in the Levant. The Seljuks were probably more interested in crushing the Fatimids in Egypt but were provoked into battle with the Byzantines and beat them soundly at the Battle of Manzikert. The Seljuk leader Alp Arslan captured and humiliated the Byzantine emperor Romanos who was later blinded by his own side for bringing shame to Constantinople.

All of which left Asia Minor open to the Turks – which shook Christians in the west. Even though there was little love between the Latin rite Christians of the west and the Greek rite Christians of Constantinople – there was nevertheless a fear that the east would fall entirely to the forces of the caliph. Or as Pope Urban put it:

“For your brethren who live in the East are in urgent need of your help and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them.”

He was speaking twenty years after the defeat at Manzikert and there had previously been talk of a crusade – but now a begging letter from Constantinople propelled Rome into action. There was also another element often overlooked. 1094 – the year before Pope Urban’s sermon – has been described as the ‘year of the death of caliphs and commanders’. Both the Fatimid caliph and his vizier died. In Baghdad, the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadi passed away as well. Two years earlier, the Seljuk vizier had been murdered by the Assassins, a fanatical sect, and the Sultan had died two months later in suspicious circumstances.

Did Pope Urban II know this? Were the crusaders exploiting a political vacuum in the Muslim east? We don’t know from any Christian writers. But there are chroniclers from Syria who condemned the lack of action by both Seljuks and the caliph in Baghdad when crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. Clearly, internal divisions after the year of death were still lingering. And it’s only in 1144 that we see a clear fightback from the Seljuks under Zengi – taking Edessa back from the crusaders.

The Crusaders in Egypt

Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo
Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Simeon I of Bulgaria sending envoys to the Fat...
Simeon I of Bulgaria sending envoys to the Fatimids. Madrid Skylitzes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: The Fatimid Caliphate at its greatest...
English: The Fatimid Caliphate at its greatest extent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the middle of the twelfth century AD, the crusaders began looking at Egypt as the territory they had to annex if their venture was to have any chance of success. I say “Egypt” but of course the nation that we know today didn’t exist at this time and from 909 to 1171 was part of the huge and sprawling Fatimid empire. This Islamic realm stretched from Morocco to modern Jordan and Syria. It took its name from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, from whom the Fatimids claimed descent and therefore legitimacy.

The real significance of the Fatimids was that they weren’t Sunni. They didn’t recognise the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Worse, from the perspective of the caliph, they adhered to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam and sought to overthrow their Sunni overlords. And they came quite close to achieving that aim. Throughout the tenth century – the Fatimids were by far the most powerful Muslim force but internal and external problems were stacking up.

The Fatimids had originated in modern Algeria and through conquest, took over the existing Islamic dominions including southern Italy. In that area, they constantly bumped up against the military power of a very resurgent and aggressive Byzantine empire. But keen to push east and overthrow the caliph in Baghdad, the Fatimids took Egypt and established the city of Cairo. This effectively became their capital and it was from here that they pushed up into the Levant – all the time promoting their version of Islam and insisting that the Sunni caliph was an imposter.

Trouble began for the Fatimids with a rather mad ruler called al-Hakim whose random brutality became the stuff of legend. This included flattening the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and killing all dogs in Cairo because he couldn’t stand their barking. However, al-Hakim was at the same time accused of being too lenient towards non-Muslims by the caliph in Baghdad who began accusing the Fatimids of being less than pure, certainly not descended from Fatima and possibly  – horror of horrors – being of Jewish ancestry! Mercifully for everybody, al-Hakim went out for a stroll one night in Cairo and only his blood stained cloak and a confused donkey were found. He was never heard of or seen again.

There now began a long period of anarchy and secession of territories from the Fatimid empire. Nubians, Turks and Berbers fought between each other and the rulers had difficulty asserting control. By the mid-twelfth century – two new and very large threats had emerged that would eventually combine to destroy the Fatimids. The crusaders had taken Jerusalem and established a string of kingdoms along the eastern Mediterranean coast. And from the north had emerged the Seljuk Turks – uniting Sunni Islam under vigorous military rulers.

For the crusaders of Jerusalem – Egypt became a very attractive target. The Seljuks had invaded the crusader kingdom of Edessa and the Byzantines had claimed sovereignty over Antioch. So the kingdom of Jerusalem began looking southwards at the Fatimids who were busy arguing amongst themselves. Almaric I of Jerusalem, together with the Byzantines, invaded Egypt, which seemed ripe for the taking. And sure enough – they defeated the Fatimids in their first battle.

This has given rise to a question still hotly debated today – could Almaric have annexed Egypt? In the end he retreated but there’s plenty of reasons for supposing he could have succeeded. Some senior figures in the Fatimid empire were already working with the Sunni Seljuks while others remained loyal to the original Fatimid aims. So the ruling elite was divided and treacherous.

It’s been argued that Almaric could have relied on the Coptic Christians of Egypt to rally to his side but that may be an assumption too far. Eastern Christians did not necessarily look favorably at the Latin rites, western crusaders and vice versa. The Greek rites church of Byzantium had gone its own way, splitting from Rome, a hundred years earlier. The Coptic church, with its long history of a powerful patriarch in Alexandria, did not look to Rome for spiritual guidance. But a Latin crusader king could conceivably have convinced the Copts to come on side – they were a much larger percentage of the population at that time – and Almaric might have assured them that he would put the forward march of Islam on hold.

Who knows? It didn’t happen but as I’ll show in future posts – that didn’t stop some very well known crusaders having another go at Egypt.

 

 

 

Top baddies of the Middle Ages

The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople

A medieval depiction of the death of Androniko...

Cardinal Cencius (future Pope Honorius III), t...
Cardinal Cencius (future Pope Honorius III), the author of the Liber Censuum; portrait by Giotto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where would you start? Well – why not with ‘bad’ King John. The man who took on the barons and lost, was excommunicated by the pope, mislaid the crown jewels in a marshy swamp and finally fled in the face of an invasion of England by the king of France. Here is the Discovery Channel take on King John.

In our list of hatred, we’d obviously have to include King Philip the Fair of France. He might have been handsome on the outside, but he was pretty ugly within. The monarch who turned on the church, the Jews, merchants and finally the Templars in order to pay off his debts. We definitely don’t like him.

If you think heresy hunters are a bad lot – then we better include Pope Honorius III who sanctioned the Dominican order – the clever but sinister bunch sent out to find sinners and torch them. This pope is also supposed to have penned a book called the Grimoire of Honorius the Great – a treatise on witchcraft that included advice on the benefits of human sacrifice as a way of rooting our sorcerers. Nice.

But he wasn’t the worst pope. That honour must surely go to pope Boniface VIII whose crimes were so appalling that the medieval poet Dante put him in the deepest pit of hell in his classic work, the Divine Comedy. Simony and worshiping idols were among his crimes – and basically…not actually believing in God at all.

The doge of Venice – Enrico Dandalo – who ruled the city during the Fourth Crusade is high up on my list of dodgy medieval characters. Here’s a man who cynically re-directed a crusade against Islam towards the eastern Christian city of Constantinople because it suited Venice’s needs to destroy its old rival ahead of the Saracens. The ninety-something doge didn’t allow his old age and blindness to prevent him personally attending the siege, rallying his troops when they slackened. The result of breaching the walls of Constantinople was an orgy of destruction that contributed hugely to the eventual collapse of the Byzantine empire.

Not that the Byzantines were entirely pleasant people. Court intrigues frequently involved the losing party being mutilated in some ghastly manner. The roll call of horror is something else. Take the Emperor Zeno who rather objected to being buried alive but his grieving wife ignored the screams from the sarcophagus and carried on with the funeral. Another empress had the emperor Nikephoros II killed by a group of assassins who entered the palace dressed as women.

And who could forget the grim end of Andronikos I Komnenos? This Byzantine had ruled by complete terror betweeen 1183 and 1185 until the people could take it no longer. The city mob tied him to a post and beat him for three days. They cut off his right  hand, pulled his teeth, hair and eyes out and possibly because he had been quite good looking, pored boiling water over his head.

Who are your favorite medieval baddies?