Welcome to Your Historical Compass

"The purpose of this blog is to generate discussions about historical issues. Students, enthusiasts, and friends are all welcome to join by reading and participating with comments. I hope to generate interest in history and offer help to the perplexed." Caleb Johnson

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Ottoman Empire and the Modern Middle East Pt.2

Welcome back. In our last post, we looked at the early history of the Ottoman Empire and how it rose to power. We saw how the empire declined after the battle of Lepanto, and how it made an effort in the early 20th century to reassert itself through the first world war. Let us now discuss the war and aftermath.
World War I Alliances
When World War I broke out, the Ottoman Empire sided with the central powers, namely Austria-Hungary, and Germany. Although this came as a surprise to the British and French, some might have seen it coming. The Ottomans had by this time had a long relationship with Germany. German engineers and manufacturers had helped the empire break into the industrial revolution. German military officers had been influential in mechanising the empire's armies. There was even talk of a great Berlin to Baghdad railway. One other major factor, was that the allied powers (Britain, France and Russia) had more territory that the Ottomans wanted to conquer than the central powers. Britain had taken Egypt from the empire and Russia had always looked at the city of Istanbul with a hungry eye. From a territorial perspective, the central powers were the obvious choice.

T.E. Lawrence
At the beginning of the war, Germany sent military advisers to the Ottomans and many German generals actually commanded Ottoman armies. A fierce campaign was waged in the north as the Ottomans and Russians battled over the Caucasus, but after the Communist revolution of 1917, that front quieted down. The most action was seen in the South where the British launched attacks from their bases in Egypt and India. After hard fighting, the British eventually took Baghdad, and secured the flow of Iraqi oil for the allies. Perhaps the most romantic episode, in an otherwise bleak and desolate war, occurred in the Arabian peninsula when a British captain named T.E. Lawrence inspired the Arabs to revolt against their Turkish overlords and wreak havoc on the empire. Lawrence helped the main British forces in Egypt by destroying Turkish railways, bridges, and communications. The British took Jerusalem in 1917, and when Damascus fell in 1918, the Ottoman government surrendered to the Allies.

What followed was a division of the Ottoman Empire by the allied countries of Britain and France. These countries received mandates from the newly created League of Nations to govern the Middle East. Britain got Palestine (Israel), Iraq, and Arabia. France got the Lebanon, and Syria. Very soon the native Arabs of these countries grew impatient with the Europeans. During the British mandate of Palestine, a large number of Jewish immigrants started to arrive and build their own communities. This trend was increased during and after World War II as the Nazis expelled and persecuted the Jewish people. Eventually the British relented to international pressure and relinquished its control of Palestine and turned the matter over to the newly formed United Nations. The UN divided Palestine between the Arab and Jewish peoples with Jerusalem as an international city. Needless to say, the partition didn't last long. After a fierce war of independence, the Jewish (now called Israelis) people formed the modern state of Israel. The tension between this state and the Arab states surrounding it has been the source of much, though not all, of the tension of the Middle East.

Modern Middle East

Although the regions of the Middle East have large reserves of natural resources and labor pools, the area remains poor due to the instability caused by internal as well as external strife. None of the Arab countries can fully accept the Jewish state of Israel. All of the countries in the region have tense relations with some, if not all of their neighbors. Corrupt and despotic regimes control most of the countries which causes great suffering for the inhabitants and retardation of their economies. Indeed, much of the money that the Middle Eastern countries make, come from petroleum exports. For countries with no petroleum, such as Lebanon and Jordan, the economies remain even smaller. With such a history, peace seems far and elusive for the Middle East. The way that the region went from such glory and riches at the height of the Ottoman empire, to the division and poverty of the current times should serve as a lesson for other countries to study and learn.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Dear readers,
I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. The next post will be on the 31st.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Ottoman Empire and the Modern Middle East Pt. 1

Much discussion has arisen about the Middle East, and how it became the way it is. How the modern borders were drawn, why the area seems rife with conflict. These things can, in many ways, be summed up in one phrase: The Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman Empire at its Height
The Ottoman Turks were a nomadic tribe that migrated to the west in the early middle ages. They settled in modern day Turkey -Turkey meaning land of the Turks- outside of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. After centuries of conflict with the Byzantines, the Ottomans conquered the Byzantines and changed the name of the capital from Constantinople to Istanbul. From there, the Ottomans expanded their empire into the Middle East and Europe, conquering much of the Balkans and even laying siege to Vienna twice. They moved east and conquered Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula. At its height, the Ottoman Empire was the most powerful state in the western hemisphere. The Empire was a very autocratic state run by the Sultan and a group of administrators, or Pashas. This autocracy had the effect of tying the prosperity of the empire to the Sultan himself. If the Sultan was strong and wise, then the empire would prosper and expand. If the Sultan was weak, then the empire tended to fall into decline.

A significant event occurred when a league of European kings and princes formed an armada to curb the growing power of the Turkish navy. At the battle of Lepanto 1571, the European naval forces heavily defeated the Turkish navy and altered the path of the Empire as a whole. From that date the Empire fell into significant decline and was know by other nations as "the sick man of Europe." By the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had fallen behind Europe in the industrial revolution and had seen the British, Russian, Italian, and French nations pick away various parts of the empire. Indeed, the only reason the empire lasted so long was that the French and British could not see the Russians in control of Constantinople.  However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the empire made one last attempt to reassert itself and regain some of its former glory. In 1914, it joined World War I on the side of Germany and Austria. Whether they lost or won, the Ottomans had tied the fate of their empire to the outcome of the war.

Next week's post will feature part 2 of this series and will relate the events that followed the beginning of World War I.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dec. 10 Post Canceled

Dear Readers,

I have decided to cancel the blog post for December 10. I have a final due and my attention must go to it. Regular postings will recommence next week. Have a good week, and God bless.

Friday, December 2, 2011


It has been said that Hawaii is the paradise of the Pacific. This small island chain represents the fourth smallest state in the union, and the only one that used to be a royal kingdom. From its wonderful selection of tropical fruit and beautiful array of flora and fauna to its dangerous volcanic mountains, Hawaii is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. But what do we know of the history of this state?

Historical speculation suggests that Polynesians crossed the Pacific and settled Hawaii at least a thousand years ago. There, the Hawaiians lived in a simple society of fishermen and farmers. Some research suggests that the islanders traded with the people of Easter Island as well as other Pacific communities. English Captain John Cook discovered the Hawaiian island chain in 1778. In a tragic accident, communications broke down between the islanders and Cook’s crew. A battle ensued, which left Cook and four of His Majesty’s marines dead. King Kamehameha I united the islands in 1810, and his grandson, Kamehameha III, did much to unify and promote Hawaiian nationalism. When westerners started to populate the island, epidemics broke out as Hawaiians had no defense against western illnesses. Western settlers started planting sugar fields and building mills to process their crops. The sugar trade grew immensely and added much to the islands’ prosperity. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the sugar barons had so much wealth that they took control of the government and ended the monarchy. Five years later, Hawaii was annexed by the union in 1898.

During World War II, the islands suffered the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Following the event, Hawaii served as the launching point for all US offenses in the Pacific arena. After the war, Hawaii became a state in 1959 under President Eisenhower.  Since then, Hawaii has been a popular destination for geologists, botanists and travelers. Its rich history, tropical scenery, and delicious cuisine secure the island chain’s place as one of America’s greatest treasures.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Special

Thanksgiving 1621
If we could look back to the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts, 1621 AD, what would we see? We would see a huge outdoor gathering with tables for eating and fields for playing. The pilgrims from England and the Wampanoag Indians from Massachusetts all gathered to join in a great feast. William Bradford, Myles Standish, and William Brewster were there, as well as Squanto and Chief Massasoit. All day everyone engaged in sports, hunting, playing, and cooking. When it was time to eat, they sat down around the tables to the sumptuous feast they had prepared. Turkey, bread, pumpkins and apples, as well as the three sisters: corn, squash and beans, all had their place. Sour cranberries complemented the turkey and a great assortment of other berries served to color the mound of culinary splendor.  However, before the hungry gatherers could dig in, they stopped to give thanks to God for the many blessings they had received. They gave thanks for those who survived the passage from England across the treacherous Atlantic aboard the tiny Mayflower. They gave thanks for the blessing of Squanto, whom God had provided to help the pilgrims through their first winter in the new world. They gave thanks for the Indians who had helped them by bringing them food rather than fighting them. Last, but not least, they gave thanks to God that he had brought them to a new world that was free. It was a new world where no king, pope, prince, or judge could tell them how to live or whom to worship. In this spirit and this knowledge, they celebrated the first Thanksgiving with each other.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

An Appeal to Visual and Audio Aids in the Study of History

It is recommended the the following sound clip be listened to while reading this post:

Dear readers,

It has been communicated to me that history is generally a boring subject. But why is it that some people find history boring? Do the deeds done by our ancestors in ages past inspire us less than the events that shape our modern world today? I say no! I believe that the problem can be traced back to the disconnection between text and visual aids. If I were presented with a full page of small text, I might lose my train of thought and read multiple lines multiple times. In addition, I may lose interest in the subject matter.  However, I submit to you that an increase in visual and audio aids substantially helps keep people's interest and thereby sharpens their understanding of deeds done in ages past. Art, architecture, paintings, modern representations, reenactments, sound recordings, even historical  movies can help. I encourage each of you if you are struggling with a certain period to explore the visual and/or audio sides rather than just the text of a subject matter. I hope this helps my readers and reduces the “boringness” of the historic record.
The following is a string of images that inspire my interest in history:
Interior of Chartres Cathedral
Pilgrims start a new world

Christ before Pilate

Friday, November 11, 2011

Swiss Pikemen

Switzerland is a small, mountainous country that is hard to access and has been avoided by many conquerors in history. It is for this reason that little is mentioned about this country's past until about the 14th century.  At that time, the Holy Roman Emperors held control of the regions south and north of Switzerland. As trade and traffic grew, it became worthwhile to build roads through the mountain passes and tax those who used the roads. However, when the Emperors tried to levy taxes on their Swiss subjects, the Swiss revolted. The leaders of the Swiss knew that their armies could never match imperial forces on the field since the Swiss had no mounted knights among them. However, they knew that if they could force the knights into a narrow valley where the knights couldn't out-maneuver them, they might have a chance. There wasn't a lot of steel for swords in Switzerland, but one thing they did have was trees for pikes. When the imperial knights came to punish their recalcitrant subjects, the Swiss defeated them at the feet of their mountains and drove them off.

Holy Roman Empire with Switzerland in Brown

This began a new era of Swiss independence. No one could conquer the Swiss and their pikemen were undefeated in battle. So fierce were they, in fact, that it became common for the princes of Europe to hire them as mercenaries. The major battles of the 16th and 17th centuries were dominated by Swiss Pikemen. It even came to the point that the princes made an agreement that no one should hire the Swiss anymore and that they should partake in no more wars. The Swiss acquiesced and Switzerland has been neutral ever since. However, Swiss Pikemen continued to serve as bodyguards to the King of France and to the Pope. The guarding of the King ended during the French Revolution when the guards died defending Louis XVI from a mob. In the Vatican, the Swiss continue to guard the Pontifix Maximus in their traditional garb, though their weapons are as modern as those of the US Secret Service. It is through honors such as the Papal Guard that the heritage and valor of Swiss Pikemen endure.

Papal Guard at Vatican Hill

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Once a week postings

Dear readers,

Due to various reasons, I am limiting my blog posts to once a week. The Posts will continue to be posted on Friday evening in time for Saturday morning.

Thank you

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Gun Powder Plot 1605

"Remember, remember the 5th of November,
the gunpowder, treason and plot,
I see no reason why the gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot."

On the 5th of November, 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed underneath the Palace of Westminster. He was caught holding a fuse in his hand....

James I

17th century England was a tumultuous place. The Protestant Reformation had convinced only most of Englishmen to become Protestants; a little under half were Catholic. Catholics had suffered persecution under half the Tudor dynasty and were looking to restore the throne to the Church. Mary, Queen of Scots, was their first choice, but she was executed by Queen Elizabeth Tudor. The Catholics then placed their hopes for a restored Catholic monarchy in her son, James VI of Scotland. When James became James I of England, he suprised people by remaining a staunch Protestant. The Catholics were fed up and had found a new favorite, but first James had to go.

The conspirators, Guy is third from the left.
A group of assassins plotted to kill not only James and his family, but the whole Protestant Parliament. They decided to wait until all Parliament was in session and blow up the building with gunpowder. The word went out to all Catholics to stay away from Parliament on the 5th of November. However, as the date neared, one conscientious Catholic sent a letter to a friend who was a member of Parliament. He warned his friend not to go that day, "lest some harm befall you." This friend proceeded to warn the guards of Westminster. They scowered the cellars and basements looking for the terrorists. They found Guy Fawkes almost ready to light the fuse.

Needless to say, the conspirators were rounded up and executed. King James was terrified to learn that the explosion would've blown up not only Parliament, but most of the buildings around it. Catholics in general did not suffer under James, but he was a little more wary after the 5th of November. Fawkes' dramatic plan and the famous way in which he botched it has earned him his place in history as one of the world's great idiots.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Viking Attack on Lindisfarne

793 AD

In this fierce year, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons  seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and on January 8th the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne.
- The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Lindisfarne Castle, where the old Abbey used to be.
The text above is an excerpt from a medieval chronicle describing the first major Viking raid on the English Abby of Lindisfarne. If we were there on that Summer day, what would we have seen? A monk on that day might have been working on one of his obligations at the island Abbey when a gray mass would have been noticed on the horizon. The Vikings would have lowered their sails and relied on oars for speed and surprise. If the tide were in at the time of the attack, the Abbey would have been completely cut off from the mainland and approachable from the sea on all sides. The reaction time for the monks would have been less than an hour, as Viking ships could make 8 knots in good weather. The ships could run right up to the beach with the Viking landing parties jumping into the waves and sand. Full of fury, the raiders engaged in the full scale slaughter of the inhabitants and the spoiling of their goods. Lindisfarne was a local pilgrimage site, which made it a treasure house for relics, expensive books, tithe from the diocese, and donations. In short, in was the ideal target for a Viking raid.  As for the survivors of the attack,  they were left to pick up the pieces of their ruined lives.

Viking Longboat

The attack on the Abbey of Lindisfarne sent shock waves throughout Europe and ushered in what historians now call "The Viking Age." The next hundred years or so saw the whole continent fall victim to these warriors and their ships. From Lindisfarne in England all the way to Constantinople in Asia Minor, the Vikings raided and pillaged the Christian inhabitants of Europe.

If my readers would like me to write more posts about the Vikings, please send in a comment and request a continuation in this saga of history.

Monday, October 31, 2011

All Saints Eve

On October 31, 1517 AD, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the doors of the cathedral in Wittenburg. The theses would not have been alone, for many people posted notices on the doors. Yet, these theses stood out in one major respect, because they criticised the Holy Mother Church.

Among the many abuses listed in the theses was the sale of indulgences by church officials. Indulgences were sold to people on the basis that they could buy years out of purgatory. John Tetzel, a Dominican cleric, had launched an indulgence campaign to help pay for the building of St Peter's Church in Rome. Luther started writing criticism, not only of Tetzel, but of the many extra-Biblical practices of the church. For his criticism, Luther was summoned to Rome to answer to the inquisition. However, Fredrick, Duke of Saxony, refused to let Luther be tried outside Germany and even got Luther a promise of safe conduct to the new hearing location, Worms. At Worms, Luther was asked if he would recant his writings and works. Luther refused and after explaining why said, "Here I stand, so help me God."

Luther was condemned as a heretic, but it was too late. The printing press had distributed his work and he gained much popular support. Luther advocated the printing of the Bible in German and set to translating it himself. Meanwhile, Emperor Charles V had summoned the German princes to Augsburg to unite against Luther and suppress his teachings. The princes, however, stood up to their emperor. There they confessed their faith and refused to suppress the new teachings of the protesters, now called "Protestants." The movement grew, fueled by the media and printing press; it spread to England, Holland, Sweden, and assorted parts of Germany.

Luther is responsible in many ways for the break with the Catholic Church and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Others would follow, but Luther's cause and resolute determination helped reintroduce Christ and the Bible to Christians everywhere.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Temporary Absence

Dear readers,

Due to the demands of my family's current schedule, I have suspended my posts for this week. I plan to have an irregular article posted in time for Reformation Day, or October 31st. This post will feature Martin Luther and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.

I hope I can give you all an inspiring read,
 on this year's night of Hallows Eve!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Three Estates Pt. 2

Boniface VIII and Cardinals

-The Clergy

In the Middle Ages, the only institution that held more sway over the common people than the nobility did was the church. As it was the ordained arbiter between God and an ignorant flock, the church not only held spiritual power, but political, as well. Kings were crowned by bishops and emperors by popes. The church also wielded what was called the double-edged sword. In effect, this idea meant that the church was a check on secular power. Excommunication was the main force of the pope's temporal power. By excommunication, the pope denied the targeted sovereign the right to rule and encouraged other kings to seize his lands. Not only were the pope and his clergy powerful, but they were also rich. Its members constituted 2% of the population, but they controlled 30% of the land and wealth. Inevitably, this led to abuse and the pursuit of clerical office merely for money. As though this were not bad enough for the lay people, worse was yet to come.
Political split between the two Papal factions

In 1378 two rival popes claimed the Papacy, dividing the Catholic Church in two. Both simultaneously excommunicated each other and their respective flocks. This meant that everyone in medieval Europe at this time was under excommunication from one pope or the other. While the two factions fought it out for 39 years, the common people were left to doubt and worry. They were uncertain that their child could really be baptized by an excommunicated clergy, or that last rites and burial would save them from eternal damnation. In this way the church lost the faith of the French people. Although the schism was healed in 1417 and the church was able to regain some sense of legitimacy, deep currents of discontent were brewing that would come to a head in the late 18th century.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Purple, the Royal Color

In our modern day of mass production, distribution, and chemical engineering, we often forget how the value of things has changed. For example, the Washington Monument in DC was once capped with aluminum at a very high price because at the time, aluminum was very difficult to mine. However, once mining engineers discovered a revolutionary way to mine the ore, the shear abundance of aluminum allowed us all to have a disposable roll in our own home.

Bolinus Bandaris
The same is true for the color purple. Up until the 1900's, purple was an extremely expensive dye. Its tradition goes back to the ancient city of Tyre in the Lebanon. There, off the coast, lived a certain species of clams, the Bolinus Bandaris. These clams produced mucous which, once extracted, could be used to create purple dye. It took as many as 600 clams to produce one drop of purple from their mucous. In this way, Tyre and other Lebanese cities became rich and famous. For years their trade supplied the world with the rare purple dye.

Tyrian Purple
The royalty and nobility were the only ones who could afford purple for their clothes. In many cases, they controlled and restricted who could even wear purple. In Byzantium, the emperors monopolized the purple trade and allowed only the imperial family to wear the stuff. Indeed, when an emperor was born to the throne, and this excluded usurpers, he was called "prophyrogenitus" which is Greek for born of the purple. Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, and Latins all admired and treasured purple. So the next time you buy a particularly deep purple cloth, you can be free to feel a little touch of royalty, as they did who once were born of the purple.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Templars Pt. 3

The fall-

1307 A.D.

The French King, Phillip IV the fair, has run out of money. His wars with Flanders and other principalities have emptied the treasury. Phillip went to great lengths to acquire funds where ever he could. In 1306, he expelled the Jews and seized their property. He even taxed the clergy, an unprecedented move that eventually claimed the life of the Pope. Yet the King's finances had not improved. Desperate, Phillip decided to come down on one of the richest institutions of the day, the order of the Knights Templar.

The Templars were easy enough targets. They held secret meetings, answered only to the Pope, and grown rich from their banking industry. Many contemporary chroniclers accuse them of greed and avarice. For Phillip, it seemed all to easy. He set to work trumping up charges of heresy, sorcery, perversion, and demon worship. It would appear that the Templars got wind of the plot because on September 7, 1307, a convoy left the Templar house in Paris and made its way to La Rochelle. There the convoy met up with the Templar fleet. Once the cargo had been loaded, the fleet disappeared and was never seen again.

The Temple in Paris
Jacques deMolay's execution
On Friday the 13th, the original black Friday, the King acquired an excommunication for the Templars from the Pope, and the arrest warrants went out. In the country side, Templar holdings were seized without resistance as there were no warriors but stewards there. In Paris however, the Temple was well armed. The Kings men lay siege to the great castle inside the city and it eventually fell. The grandmaster of the order, Jacques deMolay, was arrested and imprisoned. During the forthcoming inquisition, the Templars were tortured and coerced to confess to their charges. Many confessed and were released, going on to join the Hospitalers, or Teutonic knights (two other military orders). But a few recanted their confessions were burned at the stake. At his execution, Jacques deMolay cursed the Pope and the French dynasty, saying he would meet the Pope and King within a year to answer to God. As predicted, both Phillip and the Pope died within a year.

But what of the Templar treasure? The kings men found nothing but documents and coded messages in the Templar house. No gold, no silver, nothing. In sum, the most money was made from the Templar lands the crown seized. Popular speculation suggests that the fleet that left La Rochelle six days before the arrests took the treasure to Scotland. There, the excommunicated King Robert the Bruce would have given them sanctuary as fellow excommunicates. Though none of this has been proven, it remains a possibility. Other stories have sprung up about the Templars as well. Of how they found the philosopher stone, the diary of Christ, or the most popular, the Holy Grail. Whether they found the Holy Grail, practiced heresy, or were unjustly accused because of their wealth, they make great subject for study. Although the myriad of theories about the Knights Templar are captivating, this author recommends that in the end they are disappointing. The historical record is the best source of information about this great order.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Christopher Columbus

It is recommended that you listen to the music at the attached link while reading this post. Enjoy! http://grooveshark.com/#/s/1492+Conquest+Of+Paradise/3SKWoa?src=5

We all know the old saying, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." It's one of history's most memorable dates featuring one of its most important figures, Christopher Columbus. We all know how he convinced the king and queen of Spain to fund his expedition, of his "radical" idea of a global sphere, and of his wonderful discovery of America. But let's ask a critical question of this fellow from Genoa. Why was he sailing? Why do we remember him instead of the others that came before him? It's easy to say money from the East Indies, but what made him sail west instead of east? To answer that, we have to wind the clock back 29 years to 1453.

During the Middle Ages, the Byzantine city of Constantinople controlled the spice trade from east to west. In the year 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans then went on to conquer Alexandria, effectively cutting off all Europe from the East Indies and their spices. This left many in Europe in want of the basic spices that they had come to enjoy. Medieval beef was no good without pepper to cover up the rotten odor. In the years between 1453 and 1492, the Portuguese found a way around Africa to get to India. This was great for the Portuguese who could monopolise the spice trade, but the rest of Europe wanted competition. It is for this reason that Columbus planned to under-cut the Portuguese and find his own way to the Indies.

So off he went in his three ships: La Nina, La Pinta, y La Santa Maria. Picture for a moment, if you will, the fate of the billions of souls to come that rested on those three small ships striking their way across the Atlantic Ocean. How amazing it is that history can be changed by so few men. I won't ask you to imagine what the world would be like if 1492 didn't happen, but try to appreciate that it did happen and that is why we are here now in America. Columbus might not have technically "discovered" America, but he was the first one to tell everybody that he did. That is why we remember Columbus instead of the others that came before him.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Templars Pt. 2

The turning point-

Templars surrounded at Hattin
1187 A.D. The peace between the crusader states and Saladin had collapsed due to the marauding acts of a renegade knight, Reinald de Chatillon. Reinald had captured a caravan with Saladin's sister, whom he killed. In response, Saladin mustered the combined strength of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt to drive out the crusaders and recapture Jerusalem. King Guy de Lusignan also mustered the strength of the kingdom, including the Templar forces. At the battle of Hattin, Saladin drew the crusader army out into the desert and peppered them with arrows until there was nothing left. The king, the grand master of the Templars, and Reinald de Chatillon were captured. Saladin spared the life of the king, but killed Reinald and the grand master. The captured Templars suffered a universal fate, as Saladin knew they would always return to fight him. Saladin then went on to capture Jerusalem. All but a few coastal cities remained of the crusader states as they waited for reinforcements. By now, the Pope had called a new crusade.

The Third Crusade, or King's Crusade, led by Richard the Lion Hearted, dealt Saladin several blows, but failed to reach its ultimate objective, the recapture of Jerusalem. The Templars, now deprived of their headquarters, set to work promoting crusader fervor back in Europe. However, as the years went on, the repeated attempts to recapture the Holy City failed and people began to wonder why they should give their money to a lost cause.

Pilgrims depositing funds at a Templar house
One place the people were interested in giving their money was the Templar pilgrim fund. In a way, the Templars invented our modern banking system. Pilgrimage was a dangerous undertaking and the road was fraught with robbers. Pilgrims needed someone they could trust to keep their money safe. Being the strongest institution around, the Templars had the arms and material to transport gold and silver. However, the Templars decided there must be a more efficient way than shipping the gold all around Europe. They invented a deposit system where a pilgrim could deposit their funds at a Templar house in Europe and receive an encoded check with an account number and amount. The pilgrim would then go to the Holy Land and present their check to the Templar house in one of the crusader cities. A Templar clerk would then decode the check using a certain machine, the details of which were lost to posterity, locate the account, withdraw the money from the vault and give the money to the pilgrim for a small fee. In this way, the Templars accumulated great wealth and the envy of the kings of Europe. In the next and last installment, we'll see how the Templars fell from grace and into myth and legend.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Three Estates Pt. 1

During the Middle Ages, France was the centre of the continent. It far surpassed its neighbors in population, culture, strength of arms, and power. Its cities held the tallest cathedrals, its kings and nobles lead most of the crusades, and its clerics were second only to the Italians in ecclesiastical matters. Back then, French society was divided into what we now call the Three Estates.

A knight and lady
The first Estate was the nobility, or Chevaliers (knights). They owned most of the land in France and all the revenues thereof went to their benefit. They were the ones who answered the king's call to war, though often they rebelled against him. Their castles dominated the landscape, except for the towns which defiantly maintained their autonomy. In the south of France, ideas about courtly love, poetry, and manners sprang up. These ideas came together to become what we now call chivalry. However, chivalry became more of an idyllic, rather than a practical, way of life. Vanity, licentiousness, avarice and vice dominated the First Estate. The lofty code of chivalry was all right to display at tournaments when everyone was looking, but for the everyday, it was considered too inconvenient.

The First Estate, while touting their chivalry and way of life, often oppressed the peasantry. With no representation, education, or means of communication, the peasantry was easily isolated and subjugated. In this way the First Estate lost the faith of the people of France.  Though the First Estate was able to keep their hold on society for a long time, that time was soon to come to an end.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Templars Pt. 1

Whether you've seen them in National Treasure, The DaVinci Code, or one of  the many other popular books and articles featuring them, the Templars have caught the popular imagination. But strip away all the mystery, symbols, rumors, and legends and what do we really have? Who were these warriors in white and red whose legacy has endured the test of time? In this three-part series, we'll look into this ancient order and try to separate fact from fiction.

-The Beginnings

Hugh de Payns
When crusader forces captured and sacked Jerusalem in 1099, they ushered in a new era in the Holy Land, or Outremer as they called it. Among the many needs of the newly found kingdom was Christian manpower. Heavily out-populated by their subjects, the Christian kings of Jerusalem pleaded with the Pope and the other magnates of Europe for reinforcements to strengthen their tenuous position. Not only were knights needed to protect the borders from hostile neighbors, but also to aid the pilgrims that flooded the land after its capture. In an attempt to solve said problems, one knight, Hugh de Payns, petitioned King Baldwin II to allow him to form a new monastic order. Baldwin granted Hugh his request and gave his order the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Since the mosque was on the Temple Mount, they were given the name "Knights of the Temple of King Solomon" or Knights Templar. The order started out with just nine knights who patrolled the pilgrim roads and aided the poor and the helpless. However, nine knights were not enough for a man of Hugh's vision, so he set out for Rome to promote his new order.

After Hugh received the blessing of Pope Honorious II in 1129, the order enjoyed the good press of one of the most influential clerics of the time, Bernard de Clairvaux. Clairvaux was influential in promoting the order to the rest of Europe, and soon the Templars were blessed with great patronage. Manors were donated, properties entrusted, and nobles' sons, deprived of the hope of inheritance, flocked to the new monastic warrior group. Soon the Templars had control of many lands and properties around Europe, the revenues of which were used by the order for the defence of the Holy Land. In Jerusalem the order built castles and hospitals, giving a shot in the arm to the fledgling kingdom. The pride of the military force of the kingdom was the crack troops of the order of the temple.

For many years the Templars aided in the success of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but on the horizon storm clouds were forming. In a dizzying string of events, Saladin, the sultan of Egypt, brought Syria and Iraq under his control and the crusader states were surrounded. A tenuous peace was maintained with Saladin while the leper king Baldwin IV was alive. When Baldwin died, his sister, Sibylla and her husband Guy deLusignan ascended the throne. Unfortunately for the peace, Guy was unable to control his war-mongering friends and Saladin declared war.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011



Ever wonder why they say history repeats itself? One of the reasons they say this is geopolitics. But what is geopolitics? In short, geopolitics is how geography affects the way nations, armies, and people groups interact. For example, England has avoided many of the conflicts that plague the continent of Europe. Why? The English Channel. This narrow piece of water separates England from the rest of Europe and has served as its greatest defence against invaders. Most recently, it featured as the largest anit-tank ditch of World War II that ever stopped the Nazi Blitzkrieg. The point is that the English Channel isn't going away. It is constant and dependable. The English Channel, then, is a geopolitical phenomenon.

If we look on the other side of the continent, we'll see Russia. Russia has several geopolitical features, but one that has greatly influenced its history is the fact that almost all of Russia's seaports freeze over in winter. This leads the Russians to seek out and conquer warm water seaports like the ones on the Black Sea. However, there is one problem for the Russians with their Black Sea ports. In order to get to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, every ship must pass the Dardanelles Straits through the old city of Constantinople, or Istanbul,since its fall to the Turks in 1453. The Turks often block the Mediterranean off from the Russians when they disagree, which is often. This leads the Russians to seek the conquest of Istanbul as a matter of national interest. In this case, the Dardanelles and Istanbul are the geopolitical feature. Not much is going to change the fact that the Russians want control of those straits in order to secure their trade routes.

It is important to understand geopolitics in order to understand the world and its history. The more you understand how the earth itself guides the course of history, the less you'll have to ask yourself why this, or why that. If you can get the constants down, then you can pick up on the consistencies and repetitions. So the next time someone says history repeats itself, you can tell them one of the reasons why.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Battle Sequence 1: Bouvines

Dear readers,

Welcome to the first installment of my series "Battle Sequence." This series will feature the exploits of warriors and armies from the annals of the historical record. Each sequence will include such items as the cause of the battle, weapons technology, field deployment, etc. Let the battles begin!

King Phillip accepting the submission of his barons.
Where: Bouvines, Flanders
When: 1214
Who: King Phillip II of France vs. allied forces consisting of Germans under emperor Otto IV, French rebel barons, and an English contingent.
For What:  The fate of France as a united kingdom, or a divided feudal state.
How many: Approximately 15,000 (King Phillip) vs. 20,000 (Allies)

In a classic episode of Medieval politics, several French barons decided to rebel against their feudal king, Phillip II. Always eager to undermine the French crown, the English King John decided to seize this opportunity to expand his dynasty's holdings in Gascony and Normandy. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV also decided to capitalize on the confusion, so all the magnates got together and made common cause.

Phillip, on the other hand, was grateful to God for the opportunity to subdue his rebellious nobles and seize their lands. This is due to the state of France at this time. Many parts of the country were ruled semi-independently by various nobles, while other parts were under English control because of political marriages. The French king only had direct control over a small area around Paris called "Ile-de-France," so this was a perfect opportunity to expand his power.

The belligerents mustered their armies and marched roughly toward each other. They met in Flanders near the town of Bouvines. After hearing mass, the French king prayed to God for victory over the rebels. The king was flying his special banner, the "oriflamme."  This was used only when fighting heretics, rebels, and Saracens. The armies were drawn up in a simple deployment of two lines divided into three battles. In other words, they were going to charge straight at each other in one climactic clash. With the emperor and the king at the center of their respective armies, they directly engaged each other in the field. Both men were thrown from their horses, recovered their mounts and resumed fighting. In a vicious struggle for the centre, the French and German nobles fought with the tenacity of their class. Eventually, the Germans faltered and the French won the center. The allied line started to crack and soon the whole army was in a route. The nobles and knights rode over the fleeing lines of the allied forces, capturing many. The French had won and only the emperor managed to escape capture.

Despite the length of the battle, only two hundred horsemen were reported killed. This is a testament to the equilibrium of offensive technology against defensive technology. The armor of the knights and foot soldiers had reached the point of almost complete protection from swords, arrows, and lances. This would eventually change with the advent of the longbow and handgun. For the soldiers engaged at Bouvines, however, it seemed to be a mere exercise of their martial livelihood. Significantly, only  crusades included as many representatives from so many different countries, making Bouvines one of the most international battles of the age.

For the rebellious nobles, a large ransom was gathered to buy their release. Bouvines is an excellent example of how medieval battles were a lucrative affair for the victors. Phillip not only seized their lands, but also reaped huge revenues from the ransoms their families paid. The English Barons lost all their lands in France and King John was held accountable. A year later in 1215, he was forced to sign the Magna Carta and the English formed their first Parliament. In the end, France was put on the road to a more centralised and unified state and King Phillip was given the cognomen "Augustus" for his bravery and valor.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Russian Literature

Dear Friends,

Allow me to recommend to you the great literary works of Russia. Deep within the forests of the Russian hinterland, or perhaps tucked away in one of the onion-shaped domes of the Kremlin, are some of the best pieces of prose this world has to offer. My favorite Russian authors are Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They concentrate mostly on Russia's unique perspective of the human condition. Life, love, war, and death are the most common themes. These men eloquently relate the lives of Russian people during the mid-19th century. Some of the books have even been made into movies and I can recommend War and Peace (1956, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda). If you're looking for a happy ending, choose War and Peace. However, if you're looking for a deeper, darker journey to a greater truth, I would recommend reading Letters from the Underground by Dostoyevsky. In it, Dostoyevsky shows how Jesus Christ is the great inequality, as he was the son of God sent to save the underground man.

Love them or hate them, but please read them. Don't feel intimidated by the size of the works. If necessary, find an audio copy at your local library. I promise you that you'll never view Russia the same way after reading one of these great books.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Welcome to Your Historical Compass

Dear readers,
Welcome to my new history blog. This blog will feature historical posts, songs, links to my favorite historical websites, illuminating photographs and more. I look forward to the discussions, laughs and thoughts we'll share together through this blog.

For my first post, I decided to write about a Medieval topic. The Middle Ages will feature heavily in my posts since it is my favorite period of history. The topic? The globe. Contrary to popular belief, people in the middle ages knew that the world was round. Astronomy did not disappear after the fall of Rome and the well educated  knew just as well as the ancients that the world was flat. The myth rises from the stories that sailors told in order to scare avid listeners. Many told stories of sea monsters, and falling off the edge of the world in order to inspire fear and amazement. This is why many of the common people believed that the world was flat.