Posts tagged with: Crusades

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Writing in The Guardian, historian Peter Frankopan looks at how the Byzantine Empire, which had “the distinction of being one of the very few realms to survive for more than a millennium,” might offer clues to a way out of the current Eurozone crisis.

Frankopan, author of The First Crusade: The Call from the East, notes that “like the EU, the Byzantine empire was a multilingual, multi-ethnic commonwealth that spread across different climates and varied local economies, ranging from bustling cities to market towns, from thriving ports to small rural settlements. Not only that, but it also had a single currency – one, furthermore, that did not fluctuate in value for centuries.”

More on the history of the Byzantine gold coin known as the solidus or, in Greek the nomisma, here.

Frankopan asserts that government in Byzantium was “lean, simple and efficient.”

If Eurocrats could learn from the structure of the empire, then so too could they benefit from looking at how it dealt with a chronic recession, brought on by the same deadly combination that has crippled western economies today. In the 1070s, government revenues collapsed, while expenditure continued to rise on essential services (such as the military); these were made worse by a chronic liquidity crisis. So bad did the situation become that the doors of the treasury were flung open: there was no point locking them, wrote one contemporary, because there was nothing there to steal. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Occupy Wall Street?

On the Sojourners blog, Shane Claiborne marks the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi by absurdly wondering if “he’d be on Wall Street protesting today.” This follows the practice of shrinking Jesus Christ and various saints of the church down to pocket size (What Would Jesus Cut?) in order to fit them into whatever pet political project is at hand, in this case the Occupy Wall Street antics. Not the whole saint in the context of history, mind you, which could be inconvenient, but a happy little Smurf-Saint you can use to practice ventriloquism.

This causes all sorts of problems (most of them apparently unrecognized) for Claiborne as he attempts to cast St Francis as a fellow activist standing against Christian “extremists” who, among other sins, “bless bombs” and “baptize Wall Street.” This is anachronistic in the extreme but nevertheless it needs to be pointed out that the saint’s embrace of poverty and his care for the poor was not based on, as Claiborne claims, his status as “one of the first critics of capitalism.” St Francis lived and worked and prayed as he did out of a total commitment to the greatest commandment — to love God and love the neighbor.

Claiborne gets me to wondering: What would the Wall Street rabble demanding an end to the market economy make of St Francis and his deep devotion to orthodox Christian belief (he was one of those dogmatic Roman Catholics, don’t you know?), and all that involves? How many of the anarchists stretched out on the sidewalks of lower Manhattan with their smart phones and iPods could tell you what a feast day is and how it’s celebrated? An entry in the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia notes that St Francis drew his strength from “his intimate union with Jesus in the Holy Communion” not mobilizing Ivy League undergrads protesting their mounting student loan debts. Later in life, the saint was known for “an ungrudging submission to what constituted ecclesiastical authority.” Quite the revolutionary.

Claiborne recounts the journey St Francis made in 1219 to Egypt where crusaders were battling “Saracens.” Yes, he was sickened by the carnage and brutality he witnessed there and worked as a peacemaker to both sides. But the saint made his journey to convert Muslims to Christianity. Is that Claiborne’s model of ecumenical outreach?

Read the absurdly fantastic demands of the Occupy Wall Street crowd including free college education, multi-trillion dollar government spending programs, living wages for all, and the like. You wonder: Who is really worshiping Mammon here? Their program is devoid of any spiritual value. It is a political manifesto, imbued with grievance and aimed at plunder.

Love for the neighbor? Not if you’re one of those neighbors working on Wall Street — or Main Street for that matter. The protesters should listen to the saint’s words:

And all the brothers should beware that they do not slander or engage in disputes; rather, they should strive to keep silence whenever God gives them [such] grace. Nor should they quarrel among themselves or with others, but they should strive to respond humbly, saying: I am a useless servant. And they should not become angry, since everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; and he who has said to his brother ‘Raqa’ shall be liable to the Council; whoever has said ‘fool’ shall be liable to the fires of hell (Mt. 5:22). And they should love one another, as the Lord says: This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you (Jn. 15:12). And let them express the love which they have for one another by their deeds, as the Apostle says: Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth (1 Jn. 3:18). And they should slander no one. Let them not murmur nor detract from others, for it is written: Gossips and detractors are detestable to God (Rom. 1:29-30). And let them be modest, by showing meekness toward everyone (cf. Tit. 3:2). Let them not judge or condemn. And as the Lord says, they should not take notice of the little defects of others. Rather they should reflect much more on their own in the bitterness of their soul. And let them strive to enter through the narrow gate, for the Lord says: Narrow is the gate and hard the road that leads to life; and there are few who find it (Mt. 7:14).”

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, August 17, 2009

The Surprising Life of a Medieval EmpireThe Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Edited by Elizabeth Jeffreys, John Haldon, Robin Cormack. Oxford University Press (2008)

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin. Princeton University Press (2008)

Ask the average college student to identify the 1,100 year old empire that was, at various points in its history, the political, commercial, artistic and ecclesiastical center of Europe and, indeed, was responsible for the very survival and flourishing of what we know today as Europe and you’re not likely to get the correct answer: Byzantium.

The reasons for this are manifold but not least is that as Western Europe came into its own in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, Byzantium gradually succumbed piecemeal to the constant conquering pressure of Ottomans and Arabs. When Constantinople finally fell in 1453 (two years after the birth of the Genoese Christopher Columbus), Europe, now cut off from many land routes to Asian trade, was already looking West and South in anticipation of the age of exploration and colonization. Byzantium, and the Christian East, would fall under Muslim domination and dhimmitude for centuries and its history would fade away before the disinterest, or ignorance, of the West.

This “condemnation to oblivion” as the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, describe it, is “no longer quite so true as it once was.” New exhibitions of Byzantine art in Europe and America have been hugely successful in recent years and travel to cities with Byzantine landmarks and archeological sites in Greece, Turkey and the Balkans is easier than ever. Academic centers throughout western Europe and the United States host Byzantine Studies departments, scholarly journals proliferate, and a new generation of scholars has elevated the field from what once was a narrow specialty.

The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies is a useful, one volume reference work that would well serve both the scholar and general reader with an interest in Byzantine culture. The editors have prefaced the volume with a detailed assessment of the Discipline, the state of scholarly learning on everything from art history to weights and measures. Other sections examine Landscape, Land Use, and the Environment; Institutions and Relationships (including the economy); and The World Around Byzantium. Each of the nearly two dozen subheadings include concise chapters with references and suggestions for further readings.

For those interested in the economic life of Byzantium, the Handbook offers an account in Towns and Cities that describes agricultural, commercial and industrial activity, and charts a decline in these areas during periodic invasions by various waves of Slav, Avar, Persian and Ottoman peoples, or bouts of the plague. Where political and military fortunes turned favorable, as in the 8th and 9th centuries, economic life enjoyed a parallel revival. Regional cities became economic centers, places like Thessalonike, Thebes (silk textiles) and Corinth, where glass, pottery, metals and textiles were produced. In his chapter on the Economy, Alan Harvey relates how Constantinople, in the 12th Century, “was clearly a bustling city with a wide range of skilled craftsmen, merchants, artisans, petty traders. There was also a transient population of various nationalities, in addition to the more settled presence of Italian merchants.”

And, because it was a Christian empire, the Handbook has a lot to say about the Byzantine Church, its relations with the Empire, and its developing rivalry with Rome, especially as the papal reform movement took hold in the 11th century. The Emperor and Court chapter in the Handbook should also go some way toward a better understanding of “late ancient state formation,” a subject the editors say has received “remarkably little attention” by historians and political theorists.

Writing in the Handbook’s summary chapter, Cyril Mango catalogs the achievements of Byzantium but also adds that historians have not “credited [the empire] with any advance in science, philosophy, political theory, or having produced a great literature.” Maybe the Byzantines had other ambitions. James Howard-Johnston asserts that the “ultimate rationale” of Byzantium’s existence was its “Christian imperial mission.”

That conviction, widely shared in a thoroughly Orthodox society, was the shaping influence on its foreign policy. It provides the basic, underlying reason for Byzantium’s tenacious longetivity, for its stubborn resistance in the opening confrontation with Islam, and, even more extraordinary, for the resilience shown in the last three and half centuries of decline.

For the general reader, perhaps a better place to begin to illuminate the “black hole” of Byzantine history is Judith Herrin’s fine book, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. A senior research fellow in Byzantine Studies at King’s College London, Herrin sets out to trace the period’s “most significant high points as clearly and compellingly as I can; to reveal the structures and mentalities which sustained it.” Her aim is to help the reader understand “how the modern western world, which developed from Europe, could not have existed had it not been shielded and inspired by what happened further to the east in Byzantium. The Muslim world is also an important element of this history, as is the love-hate relationship between Christendom and Islam.”

Byzantium’s ability to conquer, Herrin writes, and “above all, to defend itself and its magnificent capital was to shield the northwestern world of the Mediterranean during the chaotic but creative period that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Without Byzantium there would have been no Europe.” (more…)