Before Europe: The Christian West in the Annals of Medieval Islam

“Is it possible, then, to write a history of Europe using only Arabic sources? König’s answer is still a resounding yes, albeit with a caveat. He recognizes in medieval Muslim historians an impressive ability to trace the roots of Latin Christendom in the Roman Empire, follow the rise of the Franks, and record the development of the many kingdoms that made up the western world of the High Middle Ages. At least by the late-medieval period, they ‘undoubtedly’ had the notion of a distinct Latin-Christian sphere. But if their writings ultimately lack the sense of a coherent, uniform entity called Europe when viewed from the outside, then it was just “as vague and imprecise as their ‘Latin-Christian’ contemporaries’ sense of cohesion.’”

Love this! This is post-modern historiography done beautifully! Not rejection of narrative and contextualization abilities, but re-framing of narratives in a challenge to Euro-centric constructs and modes of thought!

Before Europe: The Christian West in the Annals of Medieval Islam

Fun With Historical Linguistics!

I’m sure all native speakers of English who have learned/attempted to learn a second language in the classroom (this excludes you lucky people who are native speakers of more than one language) have at some point thought to themselves “What is up with these gendered nouns? And why doesn’t English have them?” Now, in my fourth attempt to learn a new language (French kind of stuck, Spanish and Hebrew not so much), I finally decided to look it up.

Old English, a Germanic language, had a gendered grammatical structure. The transition from a gendered to a neutral grammatical structure began in the north of England as a result of repeated Danish, Norse, and Saxon invasions of/migration to that region. With speakers of multiple languages living in close proximity to each other, the dominant tongue of Old English and the new languages of the invaders/migrants began to evolve into a language accessible to speakers in all of the language groups. In these situations, the more complex elements of spoken language fall to the wayside, and, in this case, it was the gendered grammatical structure of Old English which gradually fell into disuse. By the eleventh century, spoke Old English was approaching a gender neutral noun structure.

But then this little thing called the Norman Invasion happened.

Any speaker of modern English who has encountered the French language can surely see the impact of Norman French (specifically Old Norman) on the language. In fact, if you look at English words, you will find many sets of synonyms in which one term is derived from French and the other from German. (And as a side note, because the Normans were the ruling class, even today the words in the set which are derived from French have more prestige than those derived from German. For example: mansion v. house.)

Norman French was spoken by the ruling classes and eventually developed into an English-influenced language called Anglo-Norman. However, this language never eclipsed English. While the ruling classes held cultural capital, they were a minority in the British mainland and were often separated from each other by hundreds of miles. This distance gave them no choice but to learn the spoken language of the people. Thus, while Norman French certainly had a gendered grammatical structure, the status of its speakers as a ruling minority negated the impact that grammatical structure had on the English language.

This move to the neutral gender truly took hold in the thirteenth century as speakers of Middle English, while still technically retaining grammatical gender, began to use the neutral “the” or “thee” as a pronoun.

By the fourteenth century, London English had shifted almost entirely to the neutral gender. Because this grammatical alteration began in the North, linguistically conservative areas, such as Kent and the Midlands, retained gender until as late as the 1340’s. However, by the 1400’s, English was a mostly gender neutral language.

Anna Comnena: Historian, and Chronicler of the First Crusade

“Whenever one assumes the role of historian, friendship and enmities have to be forgotten.”

Anna Komnene/Comnena (1083-1153) was a brilliant scholar. Her writing remains the most important source of information we have about the twelfth century Byzantine Empire and the First Crusade.

She was born in 1083 to Emperor Alexios I and his wife Irene Doukaina. When she was born it was assumed that she would inherit the throne, and she was given access to an amazing education in order to prepare her for this. She was trained in history, math, the sciences, and philosophy; she had been forbidden from studying ancient poetry, as her parents objected to their often sexual themes, but she studied it in secret with a court eunuch. As a result, Anna was one of the most brilliant and educated women of her time.

Because she was presumed to be the heir at the time of her birth, she was betrothed in her infancy to Constantine Doukas, the son of Emperor Michael VII—because the Komnene family had obtained the Byzantine throne under decidedly questionable circumstances, it is likely that this betrothal served to legitimize the family’s rule.

However, in 1087 a son named John was born to Alexios and Irene, and Alexios favored John for the throne over Anna. Soon afterwards, Constantine died, and Anna was instead married to a nobleman with claims to the throne called Nikephoros Byrennios at the age of 14. Byrennios was a respected politician and historian. The marriage lasted until Byrennios’ death 40 years later, and produced four children.

John’s birth and status was a major source of conflict between Anna’s parents; Irene supported Anna’s claim to the throne while Alexios supported John’s. When Alexios fell ill in 1112, it seems as though things were going to work out in Anna’s favor. Irene was put in charge of the government, and she put Byrennios in charge of administrative duties. It is probable that she put him in charge in order to pave the way for Anna’s assumption of power.

However, John decided to take matters concerning the throne into his own hands. The story goes that one day John visited his sick father. While embracing him, John removed the emperor’s ring from his father’s finger, and when Alexios died in 1118, John used the ring to back his bid for the throne. It worked, and John was crowned emperor in the same year as his father’s death.

As John was crowned and proclaimed the new emperor, Anna felt that she had been cheated out of the throne. She took part in several plots which aimed to murder or overthrow him, however, those plots came to nothing and she was forced into exile along with her mother.

Byrennios died in 1137. After his death Anna entered and spent the rest of her life in a convent founded by her mother. She was 55 at the time of her entrance.

Anna was not alone in the convent; she surrounded herself with some of the most brilliant minds of the time and was praised by many, including the Bishop of Ephesus, for her brilliance. Despite this, her writings show that she experienced loneliness and isolation, saying that, though she was hidden from view at the convent, many hated her, and that she in turn hated the isolated status that had been forced upon her.

It was in the isolation of the convent that Anna began her life’s work. Byrennios had begun to write a series of essays called Materials for a History–which focused on the reign of Alexios I. Before his death, and Anna picked up the writing where he left off. Eventually this chronicle of the reign of Alexios I and the history of the Comneni family grew into the 15 volume work we know today as The Alexiad.

Anna, understanding the importance of objectivity to the writing of history, attempted to remain objective in her writings on her father and mother. However, despite her best attempts, because of her fondness for her parents, and because many of the events she spoke of in the work occurred in her youth, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the The Alexiad is equal parts journalism, memoir, and history.

All of that aside, her account of the First Crusade in The Alexiad is the only Hellenic eyewitness account of that event available. And truly, her point of view is indispensable to our understanding of the First Crusade, and to our understanding of medieval Europe. In addition to its status as an invaluable historical resource, The Alexiad also gives us an extraordinary insight into the experience of elite women in the twelfth century Byzantine Empire.