Ibn Fadlan was a tenth-century Arab chronicler. In 921 C.E., the Caliph of Baghdad sent Ibn Fadlan on an embassy to the King of the Bulgars of the Middle Volga (present-day Russia). Ibn Fadlan wrote an account of his journey: the Risala. During the course of his journey, Ibn Fadlan met a people called the Rus, acting as traders in the Bulgar capital.
Smyser, H.M. "Ibn Fadlan's Account of the Rus with Some Commentary and Some Allusions to Beowulf." Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. eds. Jess B. Bessinger Jr. and Robert P. Creed. New York: New York University Press. 1925, pp. 92-119.
Abd al-Hamid, al-Ghazali
Born in 1058 to a family of spinners and sellers of wool in a small village in eastern Iran, Ghazali became one of the most prominent expounders of Islamic theology of his day. Traveling widely, from Persia to Baghdad to Damascus, he mastered a wide range of disciplines, and he energetically engaged in arguments with those he considered extremists. When he died in 1111, he left behind a series of treatises, many of them incorporating autobiographical material, particularly the discoveries he had himself made and was fully capable of defending.
Abū Hāmid Muhammad al-Ghazzālī, The Alchemy of Happiness, trans. Claud Field (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1991), 6–7 and 11–13.
Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) was a Florentine poet who bridged the artistic cultures of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance. Dante’s approach to his poetry foreshadowed the Renaissance with his use of vernacular Italian rather than Latin, and his frequent allusion to classical Greek and Roman literature and history. However, his subject matter was typically Medieval; the Divine Comedy trilogy concerns questions of salvation and of humanity’s relationship with God. It is designed as an imagined explorations of Hell (Inferno), Purgatory, and Paradise, set in the year 1300. Echoing some of the issues of the Investiture Controversy, Dante was also troubled with the church’s continued interest in secular matters, and the continued influence of secular leaders over the church. The following Canto from the first part of the Divine Comedy is about priests (especially popes) who bribed their way into office. To buy one’s office is the sin of simony, named for Simon Magus who in the New Testament Book of Acts attempted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Inferno of Dante Alghieri (London: JM Dent and Co. 1900)
Composed in Arabic and translated into Persian in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Chachnama details the Arab conquest of the Sind (a province corresponding to northwest India and Pakistan) in the eighth century. The work details the most successful of the many attempts by Muslims to conquer the region, which was led by Muhammad Ibn Qasim, a cousin of the governor of Iraq. In this history of the campaign, Ibn Qasim is both a conquering hero and a defender of Islam, subduing non-Muslims and imposing new religious values in his wake.
The Chachnamah: An Ancient History of Sind, trans. Mirza Kalichbeg Fredunbeg, available online at http://persian.packhum.org/persian/main?url=pf%3Ffile%3D12701030%26ct%3D0.
Ibn al-Athir was a Muslim scholar whose most important work was al-Kamil fi at-tarikh (“The Complete History”), a history of the world. Born in Jazirat in 1160, he lived most of his life in Mosul but traveled widely in the Muslim lands of southwest Asia, including several trips to Baghdad, and later lived in Aleppo and Damascus. As a young man he spent time with Saladin’s army in Syria as Saladin fought the Crusader states. He died in 1233 in Mosul. Here he tells the story of the origin of the Crusades as he had it and then describes the Frankish conquest of Jerusalem in 1099.
From Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades. University of California Press (1957): 3–4, 7–9, 10–12. Copyright © 1957 The Regents of the University of California.
Abd al-Hamid al-Ghazali
Originally from Persia (Iran), Abd al-Hamid al- Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) was an educated scholar living and working in Baghdad, the cosmopolitan center of the Muslim world at that time. Midway through his career, however, Ghazali changed course and took up the Sufi mystic path of contemplation and writing. His scholarly background helped him reconcile orthodox Islam with the individualism of Sufism.
Abd al-Hamid al-Ghazali, Confessions (1100), trans. by Claude Field (E. P. Dutton, 1909).
The Roman Empire in the West dissolved under the twin pressures of external invasion and internal decay, but the richer, more urban eastern half of the empire survived. Transformed by Christianity, truncated by the early Islamic conquests, and predominantly Greek rather than Latin in culture, what became known as the Byzantine Empire was nonetheless the direct heir of Rome and preserved Roman wisdom about dealing with peoples like the Huns—peoples Byzantine writers often referred to as Scyths, using the Classical Greek name for the steppe nomads of Herodotus’s time. In short, Byzantine dealings with steppe powers was informed by a combination of practical politics and learning based on literary tradition. And the need for successful relations with the steppe powers north of the Black Sea was pressing between 600 and 900, a period when Byzantium was largely on the defensive against the vastly superior power of the Islamic caliphate while also facing threats in the Balkans and in Italy. Alliance with the nomadic power of the moment in order to provide a counterthreat to Arab power was a necessity of survival. One of the best examples of Byzantine official culture, containing a clear statement of these diplomatic imperatives, is the treatise called De Administrando Imperio (“On the Administration of the Empire”) by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905–959). Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”—that is, the legitimate heir of a reigning emperor—and Constantine took his heritage seriously. He came to the throne early in life, but achieved full power, free from the domination of regents representing the military aristocracy, only in middle age. In the meantime, he had become a student of classical literature and a prolific writer and compiler, mostly of treatises such as this one. Composed between 948 and 952, the treatises were aimed at educating his own son Romanus in the duties and intricacies of running the empire. The selections here focus on the Pechenegs, the dominant steppe power north of the Black Sea in Constantine’s time, and form part of a survey of the lands and peoples surrounding the empire.
Selections from Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, ed. Gy. Moravcsik, trans. R. J. H. Jenkins, rev. ed., 49–55, 167–71. 1967 Dumbarton Oaks.
A Latin scholar, poet, and biographer, Boccaccio (1313–1375) is most famous today as the author of the Decameron. This compilation of 100 tales, by turns serious, bawdy, and irreverent, purports to be a rendition of the stories told over the course of 10 days by 10 young men and women who had fled Florence to escape the Black Death. Many of the tales are based on older legends, and they frequently reflect the humor of the common people of the era, often at the expense of their spiritual and social betters. Religious authorities were frequent targets of this sort of satire, reflecting their ubiquitous presence in the lives of medieval Europeans, as well as, perhaps, a deep undercurrent of resentment regarding their privileges.
Giovanni Boccaccio, “Putting the Devil Back in Hell” (3.10), from The Decameron: Selected Tales / Decameron: Novelle scelte, trans. Stanley Appelbaum (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000), 87–93.
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī
Al-Bakrī was born in Spain, and it appears that he never left that country. However, he collected information from people he met who had traveled to the Sahara and the Sudan, and he published his findings in a work called The Book of Routes and Realms (Kitāb al-masālik wa-’l-mamālik). Al-Bakrī, who died in 1094, was famous for his curiosity about the geography, languages, and natural landscape of places he had not himself visited. The greater part of his major book is still unpublished, but the following section provides insight into the changing religious landscape in Ghana in the early eleventh century.
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī, “Ghāna and the Customs of Its Inhabitants,” trans. J. F. P. Hopkins, in N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 79–81.
The model for Einhard’s Vita Caroli Magni was Suetonius’s biographies of the first twelve Roman emperors, and particularly of Augustus, composed in the second century CE. The biography is thus an example of the general attempt to revive interest in and appreciation for pre-Christian Roman antiquity in the midst of the “Carolingian Renaissance,” of which Einhard was both a product and a driving force. Educated at the Palace School at Aachen (Charlemagne’s capital), Einhard established a close personal and professional connection with the man himself. Due to his intimate knowledge of Charlemagne’s behavior, habits, and outlook, Einhard was ideally placed to write his biography, which was composed after Charlemagne’s death but contained pointed advice to the man’s successors.
Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1969), 78–80.
In the medieval period Ethiopia became a multiethnic, multilingual, and multireligious state in which the kings limited the church’s conversion efforts. Nevertheless, the kings continued to emphasize their Christian identity, and this factor is reflected in their adoption and endorsement of the Fetha Nagast, or Law of the Kings, in the mid-fifteenth century. This legal code had originally been written in Arabic by a Coptic Christian in Egypt, probably in the mid-thirteenth century. While living under Muslim rule, the Copts were allowed to adopt portions of Justinian’s law code and the resolutions of church councils for their own governance. Translated from Greek, and with many Biblical passages added, the code connected Egyptian Christians to their Byzantine, Roman, and Judeo-Christian heritage, founding the basis of law squarely in that tradition. The Ethiopian monarchs had the Arabic source translated into Ge’ez (the state language of Ethiopia at the time), and the translator added a section on kingship, a portion of which is offered below. The Law of the Kings remained the law in Ethiopia until 1930, when Emperor Haile Selassie I issued the country’s first modern constitution.
Excerpt from The Fetha Nagast, trans. Paulos Tzadua, ed. Peter L. Strauss (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2009), 271–273.
In the catastrophe brought on by the assaults on all their borders, some European midieval Christians were forced to devise new means of self-protection. Into this vacuum of governmental authority came new “feudal” relationships between lords and vassals. Over time, these contractual relationships became increasingly regularized. The terms of these relationships can be reconstructed through documents describing the ceremonial and formulaic aspects of feudal obligations.
James Harvey Robinson, Readings in European History, vol. 1 (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1904), 178–180.
Robert of Avesbury
Although flagellation (beating oneself with a whip) had been practiced as a means of spiritual discipline by monks long before, it did not emerge as a public group activity until the thirteenth century. While Europe was besieged by the Black Death (1348–1352), the Brotherhood of Flagellants (which also included women) resorted to ever more spectacular public flagellation. The movement probably originated in eastern Europe and took root most deeply in German-speaking areas, as the account below demonstrates. As we see from the subsequent report of Robert of Avesbury, however, they had also crossed into England, offering some sort of solution to the plague crisis.
“52. The Flagellants,” from the Chronicon Henrici de Hervordia and from the Concerning the Miraculous Deeds of King Edward III by Robert of Avesbury, in Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994), 150–154.
Amda Seyon was a fourteenth century king of the Solomonid Dynasty, which ruled Ethiopia from 1270 until 1974. The name of the dynasty, Solomonid, derives from the Ethiopian belief that the kings of Aksum (whom the Solomonids believed were their ancestors) were descended from King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. The kings of Aksum and the later Solomonids were Christian, and their king Amda Seyon, led them into warfare in 1329 against Muslims in the neighboring state of Ifat (in north-east Ethiopia). The Solomonids also fought against other neighboring states, including Christians and animists; however, the Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon portrays the war between the Solomonids and Ifat as a religious war between Christians and Muslims. The following excerpt features the king encouraging his army to fight on, paraphrasing the book of Psalms in the process.
The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon, King of Ethiopia, trans. and ed. G. W. B. Huntingford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 67, 69-71.
The archaeological site of Mapungubwe, first discovered and excavated in the 1930s, spans the borders of present-day South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. It was one of the most powerful African Iron Age states, dominating southern Africa from 1070 to 1300 and establishing trade contacts with the Middle East and India. The source of its influence was the gold mined in the territory, fashioned into objects, and then exported far beyond the borders of the kingdom.
University of Pretoria Museums, South Africa, Mapungubwe Collection, copyright University of Pretoria
The Lives of Eminent Korean Monks is a compilation of biographies of Buddhist monks from the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (first century BCE through the tenth century CE). It promotes Buddhist piety by stressing the (often supernatural) deeds of these monks, and it is also a valuable source for Korean history. In spite of its importance, the work was long thought lost until portions of it were found at a Buddhist temple in the early twentieth century. This passage of the Lives deals with the introduction of Buddhism as the national faith of the Silla Kingdom in 527 CE, under King Pŏpkong.
“Pŏpkong Declares Buddhism the National Faith,” in Peter H. Lee, ed. Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, vol. 1, From Early Times to the Sixteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 75–77.
Gregory Bishop of Tours
Over the course of the fifth century, the Franks became one of the most powerful of the Germanic successor kingdoms. While some other Germanic rulers converted to Arianism, a Christian heresy, perhaps to distinguish themselves from their subject Roman populations, the Frankish kings remained pagan until 496, when their king Clovis converted to Catholic Christianity. This event was therefore a crucial turning point in the political and religious history of the medieval West, building an alliance between the Church and the Frankish state that benefited both sides. There are several accounts of Clovis’s conversion, including this one by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks. Gregory (539–594) was a prominent churchman—as bishop of Tours he was the leading prelate in what had been Roman Gaul—and a representative of the old Roman aristocracy of the area. He was personally acquainted with several of the Frankish kings of his own day, and he wrote his history partly to flatter them. Despite this bias, he is generally a reliable, if somewhat naïve, chronicler.
From Gregory Bishop of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. Ernest Brehaut. New York: Columbia University Press (1965): 38–41.
By the era of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the prevailing orthodox philosophy was Neo-Confucianism, and its master was Chu Hsi (1130–1200). Neo-Confucianism held that there was an underlying, immaterial principle (li) inherent in all things, which gave all things (including human beings) their essence, form, and meaning. Chu Hsi taught that knowledge of this principle could be achieved through a critical analysis of nature and the classic texts, using the powers of observation, analysis, and reflection. Known as the “School of Principle,” Chu Hsi’s philosophy became the official interpretation of Confucianism in China, and its precepts were a central component on the imperial civil service examinations.
A radically different interpretation of li was proposed by Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529), whose philosophy became known as the “School of the Mind.” Born in the village of Yu-yao in the Chekiang province, Wang Yang-ming shocked his tutor at age eleven by declaring that the purpose of learning was not to pass an exam or to win an official government post but to become a sage. Wang was initially a fervent believer in the teachings of Chu Hsi, but his faith was broken when he attempted to follow Chu’s methods of investigation. According to legend, Wang sat down in a bamboo grove determined to discover the li (essence) of bamboo, but after seven days and nights of observation and thought, he only succeeded in making himself ill through exhaustion. This defeat threw him into a deep spiritual crisis, which continued until he experienced a sudden flash of insight into the cause of his failure. Because the immaterial essence of li is found in humans as well as in all things, it was this essence that united mankind to all of nature. Moreover, Wang realized that this essence was best recognized and understood not from the study of bamboo or other objects in the external world but in one’s awareness of one’s jen (humanness) that resided within each person. An awareness of jen was the ultimate key to understanding the unity of all things, an awareness that created a “clear character” and a code of ethical behavior based on one’s innate knowledge of right and wrong. Consequently, the path to knowledge and self-perfection was attainable by all, for it was based entirely on self-awareness without the need for external study or rational thought. Although Wang Yangming’s teachings never gained official status in China, they were important in the philosophical development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China and Japan.
Wang Yang-ming, “Inquiry on The Great Learning,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, ed. William de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1960): 571–81.
Marco Polo (1254–1324) was a member of a clan of Venetian merchants, who had been active in trade in the Middle East for some decades. Polo claims to have accompanied his father and uncle on an extensive trade and diplomatic excursion to China in 1271, and in this account he describes the voyage as well as the people and places he has seen. He further claims to have lived 17 years in China and to have met with, and even served as an official for, Kublai Khan (1215–1294), Genghis Khan’s grandson. While some historians have suggested that the account may not be reliable, it demonstrates, at the very least, Western curiosity about Asia and the catalyst of trade in driving some Europeans into hitherto unknown parts of the world.
Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Ronald Latham (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1958), 115–118.
Many foundation myths around the world link a dynasty or nation’s founder to the divine or magical. The foundation myth of Korea is no exception. Korean mythology dates Tangun to the year 2333 B.C.E., when it is said he became the first ruler of Korea, known then as Choson. Chronologically, this was before the peninsula was divided into the “Three Kingdoms” and thus refers to a unified Korean kingdom. Records from Zhou China refer to this state, although Chinese records enable us to date it to only 1000 B.C.E. Because there was at that time (c. 1000 B.C.E.) no written Korean language, historians have to rely on either Korean myths such as this one or on records from neighboring states, particularly China. However, the Chinese sources have inherent problems, as the relationship between China and Korea has often been fraught with tension. The version here is from the thirteenth century.
“Tangun: Founder of Choson,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 4