Book review: ‘The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages’

Chris Wickham’s A1eOBexiX+L._SL1500_ is a very good and witty survey of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages that shatters many kinds of misconceptions on the period, even if I think it’s at some points overrated. Let me also add that this “enlightening” of the period is exactly what in many ways was promised (and even required) from this work, yet I think there’s a partially missing field, as we’ll see.

In part I, Wickham exposes many features of Roman society and economy while also evaluating the impacts of the Christianization of the Empire and of its collapse in the western provinces in the 5th century. His exposition was very interesting, namely from the point of view of social and economic history, yet I think his revisionism of the late antique Roman Empire regarding its overall power goes a bit too far and there are a few “weaker” details, but perhaps the biggest issue is that it lacks an accompanying political/military perspective that might have been useful in analyzing the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire (these weren’t covered enough in my opinion when these were mostly needed, or were a bit disregarded, namely in the case of the hugepost-Diocletianic bureaucracy).

In part II, the early medieval West from 550 to 750 is investigated and unraveled wonderfully before the reader, from the “shadowy” regions of Britain and Ireland to the Lombard and Visigothic kingdoms. I also loved his emphasis on the study of the peasantry “in opposition” to the aristocracy of all those medieval societies (namely the Frankish), when the book could have easily have become just a history of the elites and the church. I also loved his ponderation of the “continuity vs. transformation” problem. Yet I must say that the comparison between the late Visigothic kingdom and the late Merovingians, although it’s true we can’t see events teleologically (the greatest fault of much books and even some good scholarship around), ends up being unfair since the Visigoths were in a period of unusual relative political stability in the second half of the 7th century. Moreover, the Visigothic kingdom was also starting to disagregate by the late 7th century (the duchies are one of the greatest signs of this), with royal authority not being respected in practice in several regions, namely on the northern mountains.

Part III was probably the hardest to write for the author, since it dealt with areas almost completely out of his area of expertise (early and high medieval Italy), but he suceeds anyway in making a good introduction. He manages to make a nice, even if a bit stereotypical account of the medieval Roman Empire that suits just fine for a general survey and doesn’t fall into the worst prejudices regarding this polity (he only shows some typical, old and baseless prejudices by “Byzantinists”, but again, nothing that bad for an introduction). The Islamic world is treated a bit worse as Wickham just relies too much on later 9th century accounts which form the traditional narrative of the period, which has been challenged in the last decades by Arabists, so its value is a bit reduced, although it’s decent as an introduction.

Part IV is one of the best and worst of the book, depending on the chapter. Carolingian Francia, England and post-Carolingian Latin Christendom are very well explored in the period between the years 750 and 1000 on both political, cultural, religious and socioeconomic histories, yet the chapters on “Outer Europe” should have been better explored. I’ll return to this issue at the final paragraph, since my wider critique is general to the work.

Generally, this work has already a great scope and, considering it was written by a single man with a limited expertise (regional rather than continental, which would be practically impossible due to the impossibility of someone having a very deep knowledge of such vas a subject as late antique and early medieval Europe), it’s a work of tremendous overall erudition and a monument of knowledge, that gives to the reader a very different picture from that promoted by popular culture. It also has the advantage of being written both as a potential university textbook and as a book of scientific divulgation,yet there are some flaws which I specified along the review that take one star, but I’ll now develop my biggest objection to Wickham’s effort. I hope that a Penguin History of Europe written by a great scholar (the author is clearly one) should try to leave the typical bias of writing mainly about western Europe (often accompanied by teleological history). While Chris Wickham powerfully manages to shatter the idea that western Europe, namely its northern and central regions, was destined to thrive and even rule the world during the much of the modern period, and manages to include the Mediterranean and the eastern polities in his narrative, still doesn’t leave enough the old paradigm of looking mostly to western Europe, since eastern and northern Europe aren’t adequately focused. There’s just a single chapter on “Outer Europe” that tries to somehow compensate for it, but that isn’t enough. Cultures like those of the Slavs, the Northmen (I refrain from the term “Viking”), the Huns, the Khazars,the Magyars, the Avars and also the peoples of pre-Frankish Germany (not in any chronological order, of course) should be much better covered given their overall interest to the History of the period and the fact they “occupied” most of the continent. It’s true that written records are much smaller for these regions if existent at all (often these records come from more sophisticated neighbours who wrote down biased accounts of them), yet a different kind of history, an archaeological, social and, when possible, religious one, should be written and I didn’t see much effort at making it. I admit a single small chapter is already good for histories of this period, yet more is demanded of a brilliant work.

Four solid stars.

Castle of Montemor-o-Velho

Montemor-o-Velho - Castelo 01          The area of Montemor-o-Velho, in central Portugal, is inhabited since pre-History, but the first references to the castle date to the 9th century. Being securely under the kingdom of Asturias by 878, it was disputed between Christians and Muslims between the late 10th and the early 12th centuries between Christians and Muslims due to its strategic position along the Mondego and its proximity to Coimbra. The Christians only managed to take the castle definitely in 1034 by Gonçalo Trastamares and was one of the castles which formed the defensive line around Coimbra that defended the city from Almoravid attacks in the early 12th century until the second “taifas” period and Afonso Henriques’ conquests in the Tagus valley in the 1140’s.

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Aerial view of the castle.

Architecturally, the original 9th century castle was repaired in 1085-1091 and probably in 1109 precisely because of its position along the border. In the transition from the 12th to the 13th century the keep tower was built and in the  early 14th century, besides reparation works, the castle also received a new ring of walls and a barbican.

The castle (which guarded the medieval settlement) belonged in several periods to princes in Portuguese medieval history like the infantas D. Sancha e D. Teresa (who gave the town its first “foral” in 1212, confirmed in 1248 by Afonso III), princess Branca (daughter of Afonso III), Afonso IV (before he became the King of Portugal) and the infante Peter, Duke of Coimbra. It was one of the favourite places of the court in Afonso IV’s reign precisely due to its strategic place and, according to tradition, this was the site where Inês de Castro’s execution was decided in 6th January 1355.

In 1516 Manuel I gave to Montemor a new “foral” and the town reached a peak of development thanks to the agricultural activities on the Mondego’s valley (namely of corn) and the trade that was made using it. New palaces, churches and nunneries were built or remodeled; the town also was the place of origin of Fernão Mendes Pinto ( explorer, adventurer and the author of Peregrinação) and Diogo de Azambuja (important Portuguese noble and the conqueror of Safi, in Morocco, in 1508). That prosperity lasted until the 17th century, but the river shored up with time and the town (especially the castle, which hadn’t any defensive role anymore and had strict rules for the people who lived inside it) declined, which was made worse by the rise of the town of Figueira da Foz in the 18th century.

Why did Count Henry gain the County of Portucale?

It’s a known fact Henry of Bourgogne gained the county of Portucale around the year of 1096, together with the hand of Teresa of Portugal,a bastard daughter of Alfonso VI of Léon and Castile, but the fact it was gained from the domain of his cousin Count Raymond (the husband of Alfonso’s daughter Urraca and the count of Portugal and Galicia) raises the following question: why was the region taken from the control of the supposed heir to the Castilian throne and given to Alfonso Henriques’ father?

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According to traditional Romantic accounts, Henry was a knight who helped Alfonso VI and the county together with the marriage to Teresa were
the “rewards” for his brave actions against the Almoravids, but, if this was true, why would be given Raymond’s lands to him? This simply doesn’t explain historical facts (if the King was kind in giving lands, he wouldn’t surely take lands from his son-in-law, besides the fact “there aren’t free lunches”).

Many Portuguese historians see this appointment as a result of the inability of the Galician count in holding the border against the Muslim attacks, resulting in the losses of Sintra and Lisbon in 1094, but there are two commonly forgotten but important facts which in my view undermine this theory: Portugal was part of Urraca’s dowry (so Alfonso VI couldn’t hope to take it out without annoying his son-in-law and daughter) and the military record of the Leonese king and his court, including count Henry (who would fail several times as count of Portucale and royal commander), in the border skirmishes against the Almoravids was very mixed.

Now that all these theories were discarded, I’d like to present one I saw which explains everything: the cession of the county of Portugal to count Henry was a political manoeuver to weaken Bourgogne’s faction at the Castilian court. The new “Portuguese” count was a royal agent at that time (as his early rule clearly shows) and a grandson of Duke Robert I of Burgundy through his older son Henry, while Urraca’s husband was the 4th son of Count William of Burgundy, which meant that Henry’s status was superior to that of his cousin, thereby creating rivalries between the two for lands and any potential succession rights.

Why would Alfonso VI want to create such troubles in his kingdom? It seems the answer lies in the succession issue: the Leonese king’s concubine Zaida (who converted later to Christendom and possibly married with the monarch under the name of Elizabeth) had given to birth an illegitimate son called Sancho Alfónsez and Alfonso started preparing his succession to him instead of his legitimate daughter Urraca and her husband Raymond. We mustn’t forget succession in medieval Hispania (until the early 13th century in Portugal and the end of the century in Léon and Castile) was much more open than in late medieval France, as all sons (including sometimes bastards) had right to part of their father’s inheritance (even resulting in the splitting of kingdoms in the case of several sons, like in 1065 or 1157) and dynastic claims could also be transmitted by female or bastard lines (royalty was seen as shared by the whole family and not something exclusive to the monarch and his/her consort). In fact, this wasn’t the whole move and made part of a wider strategy of weakening Latin influence at the court, especially from Cluny.

The only problem with this plot (notwithstanding the Succession Pact between Raymond and Henry) is that Prince Sancho, who was proclaimed as the heir to the Castilian throne in 1107, was murdered in 1108 by mudéjars after the battle of Uclés, ruining it completely. Another evidence for this theory is precisely what Alfonso did next: he married Urraca (her first husband had died in 1105) with Alfonso the Battler of Aragon and nominated them as their heirs in 1109, in an attempt of avoiding the succession of either the future Alfonso VII or Count Henry and Teresa.

Was Queen Beatriz of Castile the legitimate successor of king Ferdinand of Portugal?

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To commemmorate the battle of Aljubarrota, here’s a contribution that presents the other side of History: a “real” (that’s its name) coin with the effigy of Queen Beatriz of Castile, Léon and Portugal, coined at Santarém in 1384. There are only 3 specimens of this issue. By the way, does someone know what happened to the specimen held by the Espírito Santo bank?

In my opinion, she was the “de iure” Portuguese queen from 22nd October 1383 until 14th August 1385, since she was the legitimate heir of King Ferdinand I of Portugal according to the sucession laws of the kingdom. The treaty of Salvaterra de Magos was worth less than the paper it was written here during the sucession crisis of 1383-1385, since many of its complicated dispositions could never be followed and the party of John, headmaster of the Order of Avis, overthrew Leonor Teles’ power at Lisbon on 6th December 1383, to don’t refer the fact medieval treaties were only in vigour as long as they were useful to both parties. This meant that afterall the main argument of João das Regras (a at the “Cortes of Coimbra” of 1385 (illegal as a regent couldn’t call the “Cortes”, which were equivalent to the Estates-General in other realms at this time) was afterall heavily flawed and his other argument the John I of Castile was schismatic isn’t exactly worth anything if we remember the constant switches of side by Ferdinand I regarding the Great Schism of 1378. Also the arguments of a salic law were baseless in 14th century Portugal and a manipulation by the famous jurist, while as far as we know Count Andeiro wasn’t yet Leonor Teles’ lover in 1372-early 1373, so we can safely assume Beatriz was legitimate.

This means that afterall we could make the case John I’s invasions in 1384 and 1385 were completely legitimate in order to defend his wife’s claim to the throne and keep the social “status quo” in Portugal (we must remember this crise also involved a “social revolution” as the result of the socioeconomic pressures accumulating in the kingdom during the 14th century).

Moreover, John I of Portugal was an usurper who slowly used the popular discontent against the Portuguese elites and the queen Leonor Teles to slowly gain power over the kingdom and gained the throne through the right of conquest. In this he was aided by sectors of the lesser nobility, including Nuno Álvares Pereira, who was really in many ways a king maker in his help to John (although the latter also deserves credit for his patience and political skills, as well as for the rearguard charge at Aljubarrota that saved the day for his side), and the bourgoisie and clergy of Lisbon and Porto (the latter was coerced at Lisbon after the death of archbishop Martinho). This doesn’t mean that what we’d call “illegal” or “nasty” (in a more colloquial way) acts didn’t have “positive” effects from a Portuguese point of view, since it guaranteed Portuguese independence, yet it wasn’t clear Portugal would lose its independence in anyway since Henry III of Castile was the Castilian heir, so if Beatriz had a child we’d see a change of dynasty, but not the loss of independence (assuming her offspring didn’t die), so we could have a similar case with that of Ferdinand I of Aragon or a case closer to the one of Jogaila in Poland. The future of the Portuguese throne was completely open by 1383 with Beatriz (and probably would end the first way, in my view, if Beatriz had her claims triumphant at Aljubarrota, since she lived until at least 1412, if not until 1431, and I don’t know any claims of infertility).

Finally, I want to add that, although the discussions on the rights of the several sides of this dispute might be endless, by August of 1385 this didn’t matter: the country was in civil war with a Castilian intervention and there were 2 persons claiming to be the heirs of Ferdinand I of Portugal (3, if we count Beatriz’s husband) who had resources to stake their claims. Both sides thought themselves to be righteous and there was no turning point: the Portuguese throne and the future of the kingdom had to be decided on the battlefield. That’s the importance of Aljubarrota, on the sunny day of 14th August 1385.