History’s Heroic Failures

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold
Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold

I like to keep you up to date when I read a book I think is worth your time. I’m now reading Marc Morris’s The Norman Conquest, which is very good. I recommend it. At the simplest level it’s just a good read on a subject of immense historical importance and one with sufficient drama to allow a good writer to keep the reader engaged. But what I really like about it is how Morris approaches a comparatively ancient period with the uncertainty of our knowledge not simply addressed or hinted at but made part of the story itself.

History is always open to interpretation. What is happening today right in front of our eyes is open to a vast degree of interpretation. But for most of the past what we know is inherently suspect and limited. Think of our knowledge of the distant past like a rope bridge stretching across a great chasm. The bridge probably gets you to the other side. But almost every step is a potential weak link that can bring the whole thing down. We have this documentary source or chronicle, this history that was written three or four generations later, a few coins that have very limited information but are firmly tied to a specific date, letters that were written by people who may or may not have known what they were talking about. From these shards of information historians weave together what happened by weighing relative reliability, the character of the sources, how close they are in time to the events in question, how reliably they have been passed down to the present day – all to create a reliable chronology of events.

I have my own experience with this from research and writing on 17th century North America where we have a fair amount of extent written records but also great gaps in our knowledge. But where my interest has focused over three decades is in ancient history and especially the first century of Christianity. Here we have very, very little historical information. But in the nature of things people’s desire and motivation to know as much as humanly possible about the earliest origins of Christianity is almost limitless. So it creates a fascinating laboratory and testing ground for human intellect and ingenuity, seeing how much knowledge can be wrung from such limited and problematic source material.

If you’re familiar with the field it is remarkable just how much has been pieced together through textual analysis, study of redactions and sources, archeology, the study of coins, stone inscriptions and more. My interest in this topic and the particular kind of historical examination it requires was first sparked in college by a professor of mine named John G. Gager. And it’s one I’ve returned to again and again year after year and decade after decade.

My fascination with this topic more recently led me to a companion interest. Scholars have been applying these source critical tools to the origins of Christianity and Judaism for going on two centuries. But it is only within the last couple decades that scholars have begun to apply them to the origins of Islam. Many still believe that Islam was, as the historian Ernest Renan once put it, “born in the full light of history.” But this is far from the case. Montgomery Watt’s standard short biography of Muhammad is the product of deep scholarship but operates largely within the canonical historiography of the Islamic tradition. The level of detail we seem to know about Muhammad’s life in Mecca and Medina, his prophetic call and early battles is astonishing. But there is a big problem. This level of detail is based on source traditions that don’t meet any kind of modern historical muster. Our earliest written accounts of who Muhammad was, what he did and how Islam began come more than a century after his death. This is an authorized, canonical biography written by ibn Ishaq in Baghdad in the mid-8th century. But even that book has been lost. It only survives in editions and excerpts from two other Muslim scholars (ibn Hisham and al-Tabari) writing in the 9th and early 10th centuries, respectively.

These narratives come far too long after the events in question to be taken at anything like face value in historical terms. Memories of who Muhammad and his milieu were and what they did were passed down as oral traditions for three or four generations before being written down. They then passed through new rounds of editing and reshaping and recension for another century. We know from ancient and contemporary examples that such oral traditions usually change radically over even short periods of time to accommodate the present realities and needs of the communities in which they are passed down. To get your head around the challenge, imagine we had no written records fo the American Civil War and our only knowledge of it came from stories passed down orally for the generations until the the US government had a scholar at the library of Congress pull them together and create an authorized history in say 1985. We can only imagine the distortions and reshapings that would have occurred over the intervening century. Unsurprisingly, recent studies using the tools and standards historians apply to other eras suggest that the beginnings of Islam were quite different from the traditional or canonical accounts most of us are familiar with.

But it is a fascinating challenge to take the records we have, and much that it still likely to be literally unearthed, and piece together what we can reliably know or at least infer about what actually happened in those decades in the early 7th century. As I say, this effort is only just beginning and many of the efforts are necessarily quite speculative. In part this is because the work is just beginning but also because the seal of the canonical histories of the 8th and 9th centuries have such a tight seal over the past they speak for.

(For reading on this topic see Robert G Hoyland In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of the Islamic Empire and also Stephen J Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam. The latter is a more challenging read and more deeply revisionist study. But it is fascinating.)

The Norman Conquest almost a thousand years ago comes about four centuries after the dawn of the Muslim era but we have a reasonably large body of immediately contemporary documents – writs and royal charters, a vast tabulation of land ownership and taxation (the ‘Domesday Book’). Still we are highly reliant on a relatively few narrative sources to put together what happened. Most of these were written relatively close in time to the events in question but each still has its own biases and challenges. Morris, the author, begins with a discussion of just this issue, how the historian can balance the need for comprehensible narrative of William’s conquest of England with a candid explanation of how little we know with certainty and how much we don’t know at all. This is a literary challenge of the first order, simultaneously building your narrative and undermining it, or perhaps better to say, pointing out as we go just how wobbly some of those evidentiary slats we are walking over actually are.

Just like with a wobbly bridge, it can be a lot easier not to look down. But, done well, the detective work and evidence sifting inherent in the reconstruction of the distant past provides its own drama and fascination. If these two things, the conventional narrative of events and the process of making sense of the sources and weighing their credibility, can be woven together the end result is fascinating and more compelling than a more cinematic narrative. This Morris accomplishes very well.

If you want the whole story, of course, read the book. But there is a relatively minor part of the Conquest story that captured my attention because it reminded me of something from four centuries earlier in the eastern mediterranean.

The basic facts many of us know. King Harold II of England was England’s last Anglo-Saxon King. William, the Duke of Normandy, crossed the English Channel in 1066 with an invasion force to claim the Crown for himself. The two met in the Battle of Hastings where William defeated Harold and Harold lost his life. This pivotal battle began the Norman domination of England which lasted for centuries and dramatically changed the course of history. Much of the English language we speak today in the United States sounds like it does and uses the vocabulary it does because of the outcome of that battle. But it’s what happened in the month before Hastings that interests me here. Less than three weeks earlier Harold repelled an entirely separate invasion in the far north against another guy trying to claim his throne. This was the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada (Harold Hard Ruler).

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 23 : Harold prête serment à Guillaume
The Bayeaux Tapestry is a near contemporary visual record of the Conquest, stretching over 200 feet in length. It is a key, though challenging, source for the events just before and during William’s invasion of England.

Hardrada invaded England and won a major battle against the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria in the far north of England at Fulford. That battle looked likely to set him on a course to conquer the whole country and claim the Crown. But Harold had received news about the impending battle and made a forced march which got his army from London to York (almost 200 miles) in a mere four days. That speed allowed him to catch Hardrada and his army by surprise, literally only half armored, just five days after the first battle. Harold achieved a shattering victory in which Hardrada himself was killed.

On its own, this second battle, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, might have gone down as one of the great military victories ever achieved by an English King, perhaps providing legitimacy for a long reign. Vikings and Scandinavian Kings had been raiding and invading England for centuries. None would ever again win a victory on English soil.

But the story didn’t end there. Harold’s victory was immediately followed by an equally devastating defeat with incalculably greater consequences for English history right down until today.

Right after his victory, Harold learned that William and his army had crossed the English Channel and landed in Kent. Harold made another forced march south and met William only two weeks later at the Battle of Hastings where he was not only defeated but was killed. His great victory was relegated to a mere footnote or set up to his epochal defeat which even many schoolchildren a thousand years later have heard of.

When I read about this chain of events I was immediately reminded an uncannily similar reversal of fortune four centuries earlier and three or more thousands of miles away. The man at the center of this earlier drama is Heraclius, in a way the last Roman Emperor.

We know that “Rome” fell in 476. But this is largely an arbitrary date. The last Western emperor, a teenager named Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in that year. But by this time virtually all of the Western Empire – what’s now Spain, France, parts of Germany, Britain, North Africa and more – had been overrun and were governed by Germanic successor kingdoms – Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Franks and so forth. The rest of the Roman empire in East, however, remained more or less intact for another 150 years. Indeed recent studies suggest new levels of prosperity through the 6th century.

Long before the fall of the Western empire the Romans had been fighting back and forth with the Persian Empire under the Sassanian dynasty – as far back as the 200s AD. The border would shift east and west without shifting too dramatically in either direction over several centuries. But in the early 600s things took a decisive new turn. The final war between the Romans and Persia kicked off in 602 much as earlier wars had. But over the next twenty years the Persians managed to conquer most of what remained of the Roman empire, rolling up all of what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Turkey. By the early 620s the Persian empire again stretched more or less to the bounds the old Persian empire had maintained almost one thousand years before on the eve of Alexander the Great’s invasion in 334 BC. The Persians managed to get to Constantinople itself from the east while Roman weakness spurred Avars and Slavs to menace Constantinople from the north.

I’m jumping around a bit here with events that occurred between 602 and 626. But the salient point is that this was the logical moment when the Roman empire might finally have come to decisive end. This is where Heraclius comes in.

Heraclius came to power in 610, in a revolt he and his father led from Byzantine North Africa. Heraclius replaced the Emperor Phocas whose own usurpation had provided the Persians pretext for war. By that year the war against Persia was already going badly and it would only get worse. But over the coming years, as defeat stacked upon defeat, Heraclius reorganized his rump empire, its finances and its army and eventually launched a counterattack which brought the Persian empire to its knees. Heraclius first reconquered what is now Turkey. Then, instead of attempting to reconquer the lost provinces of the Near East directly, he chose a vastly more dangerous and daring flanking maneuver which cut him off from his supply lines and the sea. He marched his army through Anatolia and up into the Caucucus mountains and then swept down into the Persian heartlands where he won a decisive battle at Nineveh (in modern Iraq) in 627.

As a consequence of this battle Heraclius won back all his empire’s lost provinces in a stroke. He also compelled the Persians to restore the “True Cross”, supposedly the cross Jesus was crucified on, and other relics they had taken as war prizes when they captured Jerusalem in 614. Heraclius returned the Cross to Jerusalem in a triumphal ceremony in 629.

Here in a sense we find Heraclius at much the point Harold found himself after his victory over Hardrada in September 1066, albeit on a scale vastly greater. Had Heraclius died in 629 his reign would have ended as one of almost unimaginable triumph, the greatest Roman military victory in centuries, perhaps the greatest since the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar almost 700 years earlier. But it did not end there.

In 629, around the time Heraclius was returning the True Cross to Jerusalem, the Romans won a minor battle against Arab raiders at Mu’tah on the other side of the Dead Sea. This was three years before the death of Muhammed in 632. Little would have seemed exceptional about such an attack at the time. But this was the first of many attacks by the Muslim Arabs into what is now Jordan and Israel, escalating to a decisive battle at Yarmouk, just south of the Golan Heights, in 636. Here a numerically superior Roman army was decisively defeated by the Arab Muslims in a battle that left the entire region open for conquest. Unable to field a new army, Heraclius was forced to withdraw back through Syria into Anatolia.

After the unparalleled triumph of 626-29, Heraclius spent remaining years of his reign trying futilely to turn back the series of devastating defeats through which the Muslims conquered almost all the territory he had won back from the Persians in the 620s. By the time Heraclius died in 641 most of Egypt had also been conquered. Unlike the brief Persian occupation, this conquest would never be turned back.

Like the Norman Conquest but on a vastly greater scale, the victory at Yarmouk would have a profound linguistic and cultural impact which lasts down to today. It is why the Levant, Syria and Egypt now all speak Arabic. It is also why the Middle East is dominated by Islam rather than Christianity. History has a small number of these critical linguistic inflection points. Alexander the Great’s conquests made Greek the lingua franca and the language of government and most cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean, which it remained for almost a thousand years. The fact that the Arab conquests so rapidly erased Greek from this region is a clue that its roots never ran that deep and that the Semitic languages that remained the spoken language of the rural masses, particularly Aramaic, may have been more porous and receptive to the related language of Arabic. Heraclius’s victory had already knocked the Persian empire into instability and civil war. The advancing Arab armies would destroy it completely over the next two decades. The Roman empire survived but in a radically diminished form.

Earlier I referred to Heraclius as perhaps the last Roman Emperor. This is because most historians mark the change from the Roman to the Byzantine periods at the Muslim conquests. The people we call the Byzantines never called themselves that. They remained “Romans” for the next eight centuries until the Ottoman Turks finally conquered Constantinople in 1453. But after the Muslim conquest, the Roman state starts to look less like a smaller Roman empire and more like the other post-Roman successor states in the West. It is smaller and more compact, more tightly integrated in language, religion, economy and culture. From here what we can now call Byzantium enters into a dark, smoldering and more opaque period lasting some two centuries of holding on against repeated Muslim incursions and threat.

For our purposes, just why this happened, what preconditions were required for it and what trends made it likely are not the point. What captures my attention is this peculiar kind of reversal of fortune, spectacular victories which are not so much erased as rendered moot because they are rapidly followed by far more cataclysmic defeats.

It is tempting to see Heraclius’s and Harold’s as worlds apart. But a closer look shows that is not entirely the case. Our two stories weave into each other in more literal and unexpected ways.

Starting in around 800 AD Viking raiders burst out from Scandinavia to raid virtually everywhere they could reach with their longships – the British Isles, France, the Baltic and down into the Slavic lands that would become Russia. The Normans who invaded England in 1066 were themselves Vikings (“Norsemen”) who had settled down in northeastern France a couple generations earlier and essentially become French, converting to Christianity, speaking a variant of the French language. But William and his Norman followers weren’t the only Normans invading and conquering new territories in this period. First as mercenaries and then as independent warlords, Norman were conquering southern Italy. Here these other Normans, subject of William, come into conflict with the Byzantines who still ruled parts of southern Italy centuries after Heraclius and the first Muslim conquests.

This map illustrates incursions and invasions by Viking, Magyar (Hungarian) and Muslim raiders and invaders in the late 8th and 9th centuries.

Here let’s jump back to the Byzantine side of the story.

I mentioned above that after the original Muslim conquests Byzantium went into a period of sharp decline and crisis which last through the 600s and 700s. But in the 9th century Byzantium began a period of resurgence which lasted into the late 11th century. Byzantine armies reclaimed Anatolia (Turkey) and went on the offensive against a now weakened Abbasid Caliphate based on Baghdad. Byzantine armies clawed back territories as far east as Syria and Mesopotamia. They also expanded their military and cultural dominance over the Slavic peoples to the north and reconsolidated their rule in southern Italy to west.

Here that other player in our story, Harald Hardrada, comes back into the picture. After getting booted out of Norway in the early 1030s Hardrada makes his way to Kiev and from there to Constantinople where he and a few hundred fighters he’d been able to collect together entered the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine army made up mainly of Scandinavians and Rus from Principality of Kiev. The precise outlines of Hardrada’s fifteen year exile and career in the empire are a bit obscure. But he appears to have had a successful career as a warlord, amassing a vast fortune he used to fund his bid for the crown of Norway in the 1045-46. He fought on behalf of the Byzantines not only in the Byzantine’s Anatolian heartlands, but Mesopotamia and even southern Italy before heading back to Norway to become King in 1046.

In just these years one of those groups of Normans, the sons of the Hauteville clan, began traveling to southern Italy as adventurers and would-be warlords fighting in southern Italy like Hardrada but on the other side against the Byzantines. Just two or three years after Hardrada left Constantinople for Norway apparently just ahead of some sort of scandal, one of the most famous of these sons, Robert Guiscard, arrived in Italy. He would fight not only against the Byzantines in southern Italy but began the conquest of Muslim Sicily. Here we have the Normans taking part in a great wave of renewed Christian attacks on areas of Muslim control that included the Byzantines in northern Mesopotamia, the Normans in Sicily and only a few decades later a host of Europeans from Western Europe in the First Crusade.

Here you have one of the gifts of history, moments when the interconnections between seemingly disparate or unconnected events come into view. The Viking Era and the Arab conquests differ vastly in their origins and outcomes. But they are each peoples on the far, distant margins of the great empires of antiquity who suddenly burst into the more settled, richer heartlands with a brutal power and a shattering impact in regions that had little regarded them and been only dimly aware of their existence. The Vikings harry Northern Europe and beyond for most of two centuries. Then they break out in a second, feudalized, Christianized, francophone wave in their Norman guise, overthrowing Anglo-Saxon rule in England, Byzantine rule in southern Italy and beyond. Here they collide with and overthrow an extremity of the Muslim empire, now fragmented and weakened after four centuries dominating the Near East and Mediterranean.

We have Harald Hardrada trying and failing to conquer England as numerous Scandinavian kings and warlords had done in previous centuries. Two decades earlier we find him in the service of Greek-speaking Roman emperors fighting in Syria to reclaim provinces lost in the Arab Muslim onslaught four centuries earlier and in Italy to maintain the empire’s foothold in the region in began in fifteen hundred years before. There he fights against other descendants of the Vikings fighting on the other side of these battles.

A third of the words I’ve used to describe these events I use because about that percentage of English words stem from the three and a half centuries French-speaking Normans dominated England. Little more than a quarter of our vocabulary derives from the more Germanic version of English spoken before the Conquest. All history clamors down through the past to shape our present.

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