The seeds of the future were now awakening, unbeknownst to most people - to them, life was an ongoing, unchanging grind. Even so, new ideas, technologies and creations arose and old ones were perfected. An undercurrent of questioning and relativism was slowly developing, though conservative forces were nevertheless predominant. Established authorities held sway and the cosmos was orderly, even if the world was not.
Mahmud of Ghazni (Afghanistan) built impressive palace gardens, attracting scholars, musicians and craftspeople to his court – by choice or by force. He was a warrior too, delighting in reducing North India, in forcing conversion and acquiring land for Muslims. In those days it wasn’t exceptional to be both violent and cultured.
Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria, gave a religious significance to war, rulership and justice. Enraged by the murderous Crusader takeover of Jerusalem, he vowed to deal with them. He nevertheless offered the Crusaders shared rule of Palestine. Some Crusaders favoured this option, respecting the advanced Muslims, but ruthlessly ambitious papists and power-seekers from Europe blocked the deal – they sought baser things than cultural tolerance. So Saladin declared holy war and overwhelmed the Crusader kingdoms in Palestine. He almost succeeded in expelling the Crusaders altogether. As is common in history, a big opportunity, power-sharing in this instance, was missed.
The Mongolian Genghiz Khan believed the gods had called him to unite the world – by thunder and fury. The deal was ‘submit or die’ – quite simple. Those who submitted were given a stake in the far-flung, cosmopolitan and efficient Mongol world – the biggest empire ever. Those who didn’t were annihilated.
Meanwhile, Japanese emperors were becoming increasingly withdrawn, ritualised, attending to gods more than people – the state was thenceforth run by dictatorial Shoguns (a bit like unelected prime ministers). Across the world, grandeur took many forms and often had a cruel shadow.
Many and true were the philosophers, artists and saints of the day too. Avicenna of Bokhara, a learned healer and a contemporary of Mahmud of Ghazni, wrote medical works which spread to China and Europe. Moses Maimonides, the Jewish physician to Saladin, wrestled with intricate spiritual questions, exemplifying the deep search for truth of the time. Roger Bacon in England, meanwhile, was laying the foundations of observation and experimentation, one day to be called ‘scientific enquiry’.
At the bottom of the pile were the folk that history conveniently forgets. Many still lived in isolated villages, minding their lands, raising their families, living their lives. Eighty percent of the world’s space was still occupied by gatherers, herders or hand-cultivators. However, eighty percent of the population lived in the spreading farmed or urban landscapes created by humans. Fields, clearings, terraces, irrigation and drainage systems turned wilderness and forest into a farming countryside. Increasing proportions of humanity went to market and paid tax.
Some lived as serfs and peasants, bonded to estates and monasteries, while others eked out livings in towns as servants, traders and craftsmen. Religion was ever-present: the biggest projects of the time (apart from war) were pagoda, mosque and abbey building.
The Middle Ages were busy. Activity increased. Things got bigger. The Hansa League and the Knights Templar became enormous pan-European trading and banking organisations. Nanking, Kanauj, Baghdad, Constantinople and Cordoba were large, multicultural cities. Camel caravans crossed the deserts, Chinese junks and Arabic dhows plied the oceans and pilgrim routes were trodden by the feet of thousands.
The Middle Ages are so-called because they stood between the ancient classical civilisations and the modern world. Things were no longer as simple as they once were – societies were becoming more variegated, with increasingly competitive interest-groups vying for influence. Sects, subcultures and dissenters abounded – some, such as the Sufis and Hashishiyun, flourished, while others, such as Cathars, Nestorians and Bogomils, fell to the sword. Madnesses occurred too: the intolerant rantings of Peter the Hermit and Joachim of Fiore caused many infidels, Jews and heretics to be pointlessly killed during the Crusades.
Simultaneously, great debates took place between lamas, bishops, rabbis, imams and Confucians at the Mongol courts in Karakoram, Tabriz and Beijing. This was humanity doing its thing. Happy and tragic, magnificent and depraved events occurred – as usual. Organ music and Zen Buddhism, alchemy and scholastic debate were the highest expressions of the age. However, heartless torture, murderous crusades and mindless cruelty were also the order of the day.
Gruel, rice and barley beer for most. Meat, wheat, wine and delicacies for some.
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