Why Follow Someone?

Granted, sometimes it is a case of following someone out of morbid curiosity to see what disaster is about to ensue, so that either plausible deniability may be ensured, or to see just how bad it could possibly be . . .

[Speaking of which, NO POLITICS! Please.]

I was thinking more about “What motivates the Hunters to follow a certain leader?” When you have a generally merit-based society, what causes some people to start turning to a particular individual and treating that person as a leader? I do not think of myself as a leader, but other people do. I freely admit, I’m not entirely certain why, save for the “morbid curiosity and entertainment value” aspect of things. But why do the Hunters follow Skender and Arthur? Why do they follow Danut Adrescu? What motivates people to follow, when other options are available?

In Danut Adrescu’s case, blood ties play a role. He’s the clan leader, descended from clan leaders (or their sisters, depending on who was born first and who outlived whom) going back a long way. He and his half-brother have been trained to be leaders, and the others in the larger group have a set of expectations about what the clan chief is supposed to do, how he’s supposed to behave, and how he will reward virtue and punish vice. Adrescu’s going to have to do a bit of the latter, assuming he survives whatever the Ottomans seem to be hatching, assuming that Codrin’s vision is truly precognitive. Radut has also earned the respect of the other men and women, in his case partly because he refuses to allow a crippling injury keep him from doing what needs to be done. His skill as both a horse trainer and horse rider also play a role. Kinship as a tie of military service was found in feudal Japan as well as other places. When in doubt, follow your kindred, circle around the center of the larger family’s property, and protect those related to you – that’s one of the oldest loyalties in the books, literally.

There’s not as much opportunity for loot with the Hunters as in traditional armies. You could argue that the Fruits of the Hunt are loot, and it’s true that the Hunters in Adrescu’s time were not averse to confiscating the goods of people who were proven to be getting into mischief, be it mundane or esoteric. Should Adrescu have to face the Ottoman Turks, his soldiers and Hunters will grab what they can if they win. It’s tradition, and a good reward. In our world, even into the early modern era, there were people who fought with, oh, Prince Eugene of Savoy, because he had a record of winning and rewarding his men very well. Or of letting them reward themselves from the enemy. When the monarchs and princes couldn’t pay their hired soldiers, the men found loot on their own – see Rome, 1527, and Charles V’s problem with losing control of his troops. In Eugene’s case, it also tied into charisma. He took care of his troopers, even when he considered them swine. He tended to win more often than he lost, he ended up with loot at some point during most campaigns, and he tended to be impartial when it came to discipline.

Skender and Arthur proved themselves to the Riverton clan as Hunters first and foremost. Then Skender began quietly taking on more and more duties, especially the lesser duties of the senior Hunter. The then-leader was old, in poor health, and couldn’t do those things. Skender showed that he had the needed skills, sense of duty, and training to lead, should the opportunity arise. Arthur supported his brother, and may have on occasion dealt with other Hunters who might have posed threats to Skender. Perhaps. Maybe. No one ever admitted to doing such, and Skender could more than take care of himself. So when the old clan leader died, the Elders and Hunters agreed that Skender was a reasonable choice. It wasn’t without challenges and fights, as series readers have probably surmised. And every so often a Hunter would push things, leading to injuries.

Now? Skender and Arthur have both proven themselves, and no one is suicidal enough to take them on as a pair. Arthur served as head of the Hunters, overseeing training and ensuring order more-or-less. The other Elders and retired Hunters knew about Arthur’s injuries and how hard he pushed himself, and admired him. The younger Hunters respected him profoundly, feared him, and occasionally challenged him. Once or twice, a younger Hunter went to Arthur for counsel, and he provided it without demeaning the younger man or telling others. When it appeared that he’d been mortally wounded on the Hunt, it hit the “puppies” hard. Skender was the senior Hunter, true, but Arthur was their leader. At the same time, when Skender took full responsibility for his brother’s injuries, Skender gained more respect as well (although it didn’t stop some of the youngsters and Elders from growling about it, well away from the rest of the clan.)

Why follow? There are a lot of reasons. Experience, family ties and tradition, the hope of reward, the desire to be present when the dreadfully creative disaster unfolds (because great stories sometimes start with, “Ya’ll won’t believe what Bubba did this time.”) Me? I like a leader who gives me a long leash and who states clearly what needs to be done, what is being done, and why (when possible), and who supports subordinates when the chips are down.


“Black Paths” and Trade Routes

In Barry Cunnelif’s Desert, Steppe, and Ocean, he makes the observation that trade routes never disappeared completely. Even if something had not been available for generations, as long as a sample remained, someone would say, “You know, I wonder if we/I can get more of that,” whatever that happened to be—lapis lazuli, fancy weavings, spices, unusual metal alloys, odd pottery. Movement of food also seems to have followed a similar pattern, although there were other complications, most notably the question of bulk transport of a perishable good.

I just finished reading a rather different book entitled Oceans of Grain. I’ll do a full review later, because I need some time to chew on the author’s ideas, pun intended, and decide what I think about them. The book is fascinating, and useful. One thing the author points out over and over is that the “black paths,” the trade routes for grain from the Russian and Ukrainian steppes to other places never went away. Come plant disease, come Black Death, the trade routes might fade from use, or be avoided, but they always came back. Just like the older routes across Central Asia, and I suspect in other places as well. People remembered that something good or useful came from “over that way,” and once demand returned, then transportation also restarted.

People always seem to want what we don’t have. Some thing different, something Odd, catches our eye and we dig it up, or trade for it, or (a very few per generation) go to see where it came from and if we can get more. Doing that for food is obvious, and appears over and over in history. Mesopotamian records, Chinese records, the Books of Genesis and Ruth, the decline of “Old Europe” and the arrival of the Proto-Indo-European speakers, the end of the Anasazi and the rise of the Rio Grande Valley peoples, they are all part of the constant story of finding food and bringing it home, or going to where the food is. But what purpose does lapis lazuli serve, or raw copper that is not made into tools? Obsidian made excellent sharp arrowheads and knives, although it is a bit more fragile than flint, and passed from hand to hand across continents, or at least across regions. But what about carpets and cloth? Apparently a market has always existed for “like what we make but different,” even if it is the same material? It seems to be part of being human to want unusual things, either for status, or just because they are “not like what we make.”

German highways overlay Roman roads, which often used or paralleled older routes, some of which might be animal trails to salt or good grazing or shelter. English roads follow Roman roads, but not always, because the Roman used roads to show power as well as to get there from here the fastest way possible. Ancient routes across the steppe connected grain-consumers to grain growers, and later railroads ran along the foot paths and cart-roads. To the east, old, old ways ran from oasis to spring to sheltered valley, from the Black Sea or even the Balkans east to China. Other routes branched off to the south, to Mesopotamia, the Oxus and Indus Rivers, and the Amur. Trading cities rose and fell with climate and culture, but despite multiple interruptions over the centuries, ideas and things passed back and forth. Domesticated horses, wheeled chariots, bronze technology, barley and other grains, silk and gems and spices, back and forth they went.

Perhaps, instead of Homo ludens or homo faber, we should use homo commercium. Man the trader instead of “man who plays” or “man the maker.” Because we swap everything and anything, and do it over the same paths for thousands of years.

What’s that Sound? Why Did it Stop?

A comment on Wednesday’s post reminded me of a recent experience. Humans lack the super hearing of things like bats, felines, and prey animals. Some of us, for various reasons, lack even the quality of hearing we were born with – exposure to loud noises, illness, age, all of the above. I can tell the amount of background noise I ignore by how loud I have to turn up my car radio in order to understand the words. The louder the day at work, the louder the car. If there’s no heater/AC blower on at home? Much quieter music. Retreating to a quiet environment can help re-sensitize us, to a point, but it can’t undo damage.

Sounds that shouldn’t be there, and that then stop, set off all my alarms. Sounds that should be present, and then stop, also mean possible trouble. “Why did the birds just go silent?”are famous last-words-before-the-fight and used often in novels and movies. I’ve become more than a little wary over the past year or so as strangers have become more common around RedQuarters, and small crimes increased. And attempted big crime. I listen more at night, especially if I have a window partly open.* I know what sounds I should hear, which dogs go off at random and which alert to someone in the alley or on the sidewalk.

It was around two in the morning, and Nature had called, so I got up. I opened the window a whisker bit, and planned to close it again once I finished what I needed to do. As I came back to the bedroom, something rustled and crunched, as if it walked through the leaves and so on outside the house. Then the sound stopped. I stopped moving and listened harder. Go for the gun before peering out the small gap in the curtain? Was it the fox, or a cat, or a person? Based on *coughcough* years of past experience, the odds are that a cat, fox, opossum, or other nocturnal, four-footed creature made the sound. That’s usually the case. But trouble has been growing in the city, and I couldn’t rule out a possible human intruder. So I listened very hard, peered as best I could through the gap in the curtains without allowing myself to be seen, and waited.

Nothing. The nothing stretched longer and longer. Had the person also frozen, waiting as well? Did he know I was listening? Or had the animal moved through the area of leaves and now trotted up the block, oblivious to the concerned human peering into the darkness? Still I waited.

After five minutes, the sound had not resumed. I risked closing the window (and possibly alerting a watcher to my presence) and went to bed. Where I lay for several more minutes, listening, wondering, waiting.

I’ve been stalked by four-footed predators in the past, once by a bobcat, once by something I did not go plunging into the tall grass (two meters tall) and brush to identify. Likewise by two-footed. The four-footed have not yet hurt me. The same cannot be said for the two-footed (assault with bruises, nothing more serious). Was it an overactive imagination, paranoia, or experience that kept me up that night? Or all of the above?

Sound, then the sound stopped, save for the pounding of my heart in my ears as I listened hard for what might be Out There.

*Not when I go to sleep, no. I fear those days are past when it was safe to leave a window open a tiny bit for fresh air during the night.

Book Review: Defenders of the West

Ibrahim, Raymond. Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes who stood Against Islam. (Bombardier Books 2022) Kindle edition

I’ve read Ibrahim’s other history book, a study of battles, so I picked this one up as well. I’d heard of El Cid, both from the movie and from a (very hagiographic) older young reader biography I read a long time ago. Richard the Lionheart? Crusader and the good guy in Robin Hood, who was dumb enough to think irking the Duke of Austria was a good idea and then trying to sneak through the duke’s home territory. Jan Hunyadi? The not-a-king king of Hungary. I’d crossed paths with a number of the individuals highlighted in this book, which spans the years 1000 to 1600, more or less. However, other individuals are less well known, or are strangers to the western tradition (Skenderbeg), or have an afterlife unrelated to their real life (Vlad III).

Ibrahim is blunt about where his preferences are. He also uses primary sources from all sides in the conflicts, giving a good view of what the Berbers, Arabs, and Ottomans thought about the different men. He frames each mini-biography with the events of the time, giving the reader context often skipped in modern studies. This can make for odd reading, because often the primary sources are far more laudatory than modern accounts can be, or dare to be, or are supposed to be. Dispassion and balance were NOT considered critical attitudes for historians to have in the Middle Ages or early modern era. That lack of distance might be offputting to some readers. It took me a bit to adjust my mental frame, so to speak, to get past my Historian’s Bristle at effusive descriptions of people’s virtues (and vices, although that’s not something lacking from many current works.)

The biographic chapters are in chronologic order, from Godfrey of Bolougne and Rodrigo de Vivar “El Cid” to Skenderbeg and Vlad III. One thing Ibrahim points out on a regular basis is that these men fought defensive wars. The First Crusade and subsequent were launched in answer to the conquest of the Levant by the Seljuk Turks and the enslaving, robbing, and killing of native Christians (and Jews) and pilgrims from Europe. El Cid and Fernando de Leon y Castile (descendant of El Cid) fought to regain land occupied by the Berbers since the early 700s. Hunyadi, Skenderbeg, and Vlad III challenged the Ottoman Conquest of southeastern Europe, pushing back against Ottoman attacks and aggression. It’s easy today to forget that until 1689, Western Christianity fought a defensive war against Arab/Berber/Turkish forces.

The stories are great reads. Ibrahim lets the material speak for itself, with some additions to clarify places and to put events in the larger context of European politics. He’s not unbiased, but he is upfront about that, so you know what you are getting. I found his reminders about “yes, this lord/petty king turned his coat to survive, but that was normal. What Skenderbeg/Hunyadi/Vlad did was the exception” to be useful.

I’d recommend this to people interested in the various military figures, those curious about primary sources and where to find more (the bibliography and notes are extensive), and people looking for solid role-models for boys (and girls, but now days, especially boys.) Ibrahim does a good job working with the primary sources, and the book is quite readable once you get used to the various styles of the original material. I found his defense of Vlad III a bit intense, but then I remembered that I’ve read the books, and I know the history and politics of that region. Normal people don’t. They know either novel-Dracula, or Vlad the sadistic b-stard of an impaler.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the publisher or author for this review.

Use Names and Magic Workers

“I don’t want them getting my home address, so to speak,” to paraphrase several characters in the Familiars and Familiars Generations series. Using a real name, one that is linked to a person directly, is considered a Bad Idea. Names have power. Thus magic workers and some key nulls take on use names. These are not fixed, as several characters in the Familiars and Familiars Generations stories show.

Some go farther, changing their names completely if they no longer fit. This happens twice this far in the series – Arthur and Jude. André/Garry is another possible case, although he does not legally change his name to André Lestrang. For one, the paperwork mess with the military would be epic. For two, his family would start asking questions he’d prefer not to answer. And having an everyday name as well as his on-duty name and use name is another buffer and deflection. Arthur changed his name to one that was not related to his original “outside the clan” name after he and the others fled to the Riverton clan. His old name no longer fit, at least in his mind. Arthur was different, and so what if it didn’t “match” a Hispanic last name? “Pisicagheara,” claw of the cat, also better fit his way of fighting and personality. He’s the concealed blade, the weapon hiding in plain sight. The younger Hunters, well behind his back, came to call him the Dark One for his style of dress and his personality. Well behind his back, in whispers, with a look-out posted.*

Jude is estranged from his family, so to speak. He truly is dead to them, blood price paid, and so keeping the family name doesn’t make sense. Jude – the patron saint of hopeless causes – fit him better, or so he felt. He still does. His last name, Tainuit, is a long-disused name meaning “solitary” or “outside.” His use name as a Hunter died with Karol, his old self, so he uses “Tenebriu” meaning “one in shadow.” His Familiar’s name, “Pasaru” translates “bird.” It has no specific use as a name per se, so it provides further deflection. “Shoim” in the clan’s speech can refer to a type of hawk (not a harrier), which should have been a CLUE. It was for Arthur. Jude wasn’t in any condition to realize how odd that was, and by now, Shoim just refers to his Familiar. (At the rate things are going, Shoim may become one one of the words Jude uses when, oh, he drops a carton of eggs or when Martha’s car dies at a bad moment.)

Thomas Arthur “Art” uses “Letters” as an inside joke. Arts and Letters often refers to a subdivision of a university, as in “College of Arts and Letters.” Mike grabbed “Red” because it was short, fit his coloring, and easy to recall. However, Rich managed to point out that it was also blatantly obvious and tied to him. So Mike uses “Defender,” something which caused both Arthur and his brother to raise their eyebrows in the lead up to the Terrible Hunt. No, Mike doesn’t know anything about the Hunter clans aside from what André and Lelia have told him. Morgana’s use name was also an inside joke, requiring someone to have the Arthurian word of Morgana Le Fey and the Lady of the Lake in mind. Deborah’s use name translates “flat-leaf parsley.”

*He probably knows anyway, since he’s Arthur. He’s the intelligence officer for a reason. But of course he’d never let the youngsters know that he knows. Because he’s Arthur.

Everything I Need to Know About Catholic Traditions I learned from John Bellairs

OK, maybe not, but his books were the first time I heard about the mystical traditions associated with the urim and thumim, about the Blood of Hailes, and a lot of other things that are not part of the modern school curriculum. Which tells you that Bellairs did not write down to his young readers.

I first encountered his books either through the PBS TV show Once Upon a Classic or the Saturday morning book dramatizations on one of the Big Three networks. It was The House with the Clock in its Walls, which was published in 1973. I remember it being creepy and cool, the story that is. I didn’t read the book until later, and then to my delight, the public library had a lot of Bellairs’ books with the Edward Gorey covers and interior pictures. (I met Gorey through Mystery on PBS, and then crossed paths with his Odder work here and there.) Bellairs had three main series for younger readers, all of which were Gothic mysteries with a touch of horror, and all of which I enjoyed. I suspect that’s where my “eccentric relative of main character with esoteric knowledge” sort of characters originally came from.

His three main young reader series all feature a boy and either an eccentric relative (uncle who just happens to be a wizard) or mentor (Miss Eels the librarian in the Anthony Monday books; a slightly odd professor in the Johnny Dixon stories). In each case, something has happened to the boy’s parents that either they are out of the picture (death, deployment to Korea for Dixon, financial problems so that the boy has to work for Anthony Monday). The boys rise to the occasion with some help from their mentors, and from minor characters with even more eclectic knowledge. There is spiritual danger, physical risk, mystery, all sorts of neat stuff. Evil is punished, and the merely irritating get what they deserve.

Through the books, I learned important things like, oh, how to make a Hand of Glory (please don’t try this at home), what certain relics might do, how the gems of the High Priest’s ephod related to the Ark of the Covenant (don’t try that one at home, either), the joys of dropping a drawer of a card catalogue (which I knew already, alas), and so on. Granted, some of those were probably not all that relevant to a kid growing up in the Great Plains, but one never knows.

I highly recommend the original books, those written between 1973 (House with a Clock in its Walls) and 1991. Bellairs died young, and although others have finished his existing manuscripts and expanded some of the story ideas, the reviews for those are mixed, and I have not read most of them. His adult stories are also dang creepy, well written, and fascinating.

*It turns out I was not far from Hailes Abbey. If only I had known . . . Roslyn Chapel had to suffice my itch for the Esoteric. (Go for the Katherine Kurtz stories. Skip Dan Brown. Please.)


St. Michael and All Angels

September 29th is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels in the western church. Originally, Gabriel and the others had their own feast days, as did Michael, but with changes in the Western Church, the feasts were consolidated. Michael is the only angel with the title of saint, and vice versa. Why is interesting, and has more to do with popular understanding than pure scripture. And then there’s the Hunters’ understanding.

Luci Giordano “St. Michael Archangel”

Michael is one of three (or two) angels named in the Bible. His name means “Who is like unto G-d?” [Correct answer: no one.] He appears in Danial, Jude, and Revelation, and his appearance in Revelation 12:7-9 is probably what inspires most art. Technically, he’s not a saint like Francis or Thomas Moore or Florian, but that doesn’t stop him from being called “saint.” His duties are to fight against the forces of evil, to escort the recent dead to heaven (if the deceased were good), and defend all Christians. Thus the phrase from the invocation, “Defend us in battle against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.” In Medieval art, he is sometimes shown holding scales, weighing the souls of the dead on judgement day. I’ve heard that the guilty soul sinks, and also that the guilty soul rises. I suspect the artists were not entirely certain, either.

Hans Memling “The Last Judgement” 1467-1471. National Museum, Gdansk. Stolen by a pirate, donated to a church. St. Michael has the scales in his left hand.

One interesting thing in all depictions of St. Michael is that he is always calm and tranquil, never losing his cool, always somewhat detached from the conflict raging around him. Orthodox, Catholic, medieval or modern, always quiet and meditative.

Most Baroque art, which is what we tend to think of, shows Michael beating up on devils or Satan himself.

The High Altar of the Michaelerkirche in Vienna. The church is in the wall of the Hofburg, on top of Roman and probably even older ruins. Photo by Edgar Hohl, December 18, 2008. Creative Commons Fair Use: https://www.flickr.com/photos/74072720@N00/3152888459
A closer view. Creative Commons Fair Use: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/415949715586029531/

In western Europe, especially France, you find St. Michael chapels and churches on high places, like, oh, Mont St. Michel. In eastern Europe, they are associated with former pagan sites, as in the Michaelerkirche in Vienna, elsewhere in Austria, and Poland, and Hungary, and Croatia, and . . .

Guido Reni “The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan” 1631

I’ve been fond of St. Michael since my adopted grandfather (a paratrooper and devout Southern Baptist) gave me a St. Michael medallion. Tracking him all over Central Europe has also been fascinating, and Christmas Eve mass at the Michaelerkirche in Vienna was the highlight of that particular trip.

Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, the three Biblical archangels.


Plot Bunnies! Arrrrrgh!

So there I was, minding my own business, when a gang of plot bunnies showed up and chased me into an alley.

OK, maybe it just feels that way.

For non-writers, the term “plot bunny” refers to ideas that show up and won’t leave you alone, demanding to be written, or added into as story they have no, zilch, zero place in. Some people say “plot kittens,” with the mental image of the (in)famous video of “popcorn kittens.” I think of plot bunnies the same way as I do dust bunnies – I wish they’d go pester someone else.

I’m trying to get the draft of the next Familiar Generations stories done. I know where one is going, I’ve got chunks of the second one done, and the third and fourth (both shorter) are sketched out. Except . . .

That story I began that’s based on Dark Ages Scotland is pestering me, and I’m finishing the last research reading on it so I can really dig into the tale proper. No, I don’t know what role Myrdden-the-Wild is going to play, but I’m starting to get an idea as I read this book, as well as locking in geography. I’d thought the story would be set in the Pictish lands, but it wants to happen mostly in Dal Riata. OK, fine. Be that way. Dun Add here we come.

And then, as I was driving back from the Metroplex, listening to Avantasia (the next album releases in late October), plot stuff attacked. It started riffing off of a scene in Preternaturally Familiar, then spun into a completely different direction that only fits the “Blue Roses” short story. Short story? Novella? Not novel, I know that much. And it is the end of the story, not what I need. And it sort of wants to have a moody Gothic atmosphere, which completely breaks what I thought it would be. Maybe. Or maybe the main character is playing Byronic Hero just to jerk my chain. Twit.

Oh, yeah, and Paulus and Attila from the Elect are poking me to get that book done, too. Because it is dark, and spooky, and it’s a dark and spooky time of year, yes?

So, at the moment, I am going to finish the main story of Familiar Generations, get “Blue Roses” out of the way, do the Elect thing, go back to Familiar Generations, and then the Indus Valley fantasy book.

Unless more plot bunnies mug me.

Why Did it Even Work? Holy Roman Empire 2.0

A loose agglomeration of cities, territories, church lands, and imperial personal possessions, all held together by . . . Well, by a shared faith, a shared understanding of what an emperor’s role generally should be, and the need to defend against outsiders. Yet it lasted from the late 800s to 1806, surviving the Black Death, Thirty Years War, other wars, and was dissolved by mutual consent, to protect it from Napoleon. Critics claimed that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” to use Rousseau’s sneer, and that it held back the development of a proper Berlin-centered sense of Germanitas and of empire. Except . . . people kept it around, and must have found something of value in it.

In some cases, the title of Holy Roman Emperor was preserved just because someone else wanted to hold the title. That seems to have been the case in the mid 800s, in the semi-gap between the more powerful Carolingians and the first Ottonians. However, by the 1100s the Emperor had come to have the role of mediator and first-among-equals, someone who was (often) above the fray and could hear all sides, then provide possible solutions. Or he could answer calls for help from inside (and sometimes outside) the empire. The emperor was the secular balance to the pope, the sword of the state and of the western Church. He had to balance a lot of things, and much rested on the personality of the individual. Otto I managed it, Frederick II preferred to focus on Sicily and Italian/Roman politics, the Habsburgs kept their eyes fixed in the north . . .

One very important role of the emperor, and of the imperial courts and counsels, was to set standards for city creation and independence. Many cities ended up using the law code developed for Magdeburg, which made a lot of business easier. The free cities had to have walls and had to be able to defend themselves if attacked. No walls – no freedom. The emperor was their final gurantor, in some cases. In others he and his counsel served as mediators and neutral parties when a city or group of cities and a prince-archbishop or noble collided. Cities could buy their freedom, and that was a source of revenue for the emperor. Freiburg in Breisgau (southwest Germany) is one example. They forced out the local bishop from political power and built walls, defended them, then petitioned for independence. It was granted after some wrangling and fee paying.

After the wars of the Reformation (which were as much about Charles V having too much power as they were about theological differences), the Holy Roman Empire turned into a critical place for nobles of both denominations to solve disputes. The counsels were carefully balanced, half Lutheran and half Catholic, to ensure that theological differences were minimized. It worked well until Frederick of Rhineland-Palatine, a staunch Calvinist who came to believe that G-d was calling him to dethrone the Antichrist (Holy Roman Emperor and Pope) and bring about the Second Coming, upset the balance and contributed to the start of the Thirty-Years War.

The Westphalian System of states that developed out of the 1618-1648 period might have been the end of the empire, except that it remained very, very important as a symbol of unity and as a place for mediation and dispute resolution. The threat from the Ottomans was real, and tangible, and wasn’t just a Habsburg or Polish problem. France’s ambitions also contributed to the desire to keep the empire in place as a bloc, even if the emperor couldn’t always muster everyone to work against France as a group (he did at times, as the adventures of John Churchill the Duke of Marlborough and Eugene von Savoy showed.)

When the members of the empire voted to dissolve it rather than allow Napoleon to claim the title, it truly was the end of an era. Later historians tended to dismiss the H.R.E. as a dead weight that kept Prussia from taking over as the rightful leader of the northern Protestant (and Catholic) German speakers, and as a useless relic that should have disappeared even before 1648. The last 30 years have seen a reappraisal, as a new generation ask, “Why keep it? What did people see of value in the empire that led them to preserve it, even symbolically?” It was a link to the past, to the legacy of civilization and Christendom, it served as a place to talk and sort things out before the became war (sometimes), and held deep meaning in the identity of various parts of the empire during fast-changing and scary times.

Relic? Yes. Dead? Not really. Useless? The people of the time felt it served a vital purpose, no matter what later historians declared.

NOTE: I am on the road, and clearing comments or answering questions will be slow, or after Sunday afternoon. Thanks for your understanding.

Who Runs the Place?: Holy Roman Empire 2.0 Edition

The first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, ran the empire. No one contested that, or if they did, apparently it wasn’t for long. He had, let us say, a dominant personality and decisive way of settling inter-personal disputes. However, after his great-grandsons divided the empire (the Franks had partiable inheritance, so each male had to get land), the role of the emperor dwindled as more powerful nobles gained territory and control, and the internal politics of Rome started to resemble a Mafia soap opera. It took the Ottonians, and what I half-jokingly call Holy Roman Empire 2.0 for the emperor to return to a place of political prominence and authority, and even then he had a lot of challenges from nobles who preferred their feudal overlord to stay both weak and far away.

With the Ottonians came several changes. The kings of France, or rather the Frankish kings, had grown strong enough that they stood on their own, outside the empire. The Ottonians were from the German-speaking lands, and their power base was the middle Rhine Valley, the Main River lands, and over around the Harz Mountains. Like Charlemagne and his successors, the Ottonians moved around a lot, but their “base of operations” was in Goslar, in the mountains to the east, where the newly-converted Saxons and the Slavs resisted imperial rule. The east had no memory of Roman leadership, not really. The Romans never stayed very far north of the Danube, and the Slavic tribes had pushed the Germanic peoples west and either north or south in the 600s-700s, as best we can tell. Or they intermingled with them (Austria, Hungary, Croatia). So the empire now faced east as much as south, fighting and establishing diplomatic ties, and fighting with, the Slavs and Saxons, and starting to move civilization north, into the wet, cold areas of what is now Lower Saxony, Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein, and Mecklenberg-Vorpom. And parts of modern Poland.

Because the emperors were always on the move, more or less, and occasionally had to go down to Rome to settle things at least temporarily, the local nobles and imperial servants were tasked with running things on a daily basis, and had to be the first on scene when, oh, the eastern Saxons decided to revert to paganism and attack someone (not always in that order), or the Magyars invaded, or the Byzantine Empire deflected someone north and west. Also, most of the nobles were related through marriage or ancestry, and at any time, several had possible claims on deserving the title of Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation. Depending on the personality of the emperor and which nobles had risen to power, this could lead to collisions, or to cooperation. Occasionally, the popes would wade into the fray, as Gregory VII did with Henry IV in 1075-76.

After the Ottonians came the Salians, another dynasty from the Rhine Valley, of whom Henry IV is the most famous, although he’d probably have happily relinquished that distinction. He ended up fighting with the major nobles, his son, the pope twice, and pretty much everyone else. Conflict management and resolution was not one of his strong suits. All this is a bit of a fog for most English-speakers, because we tend to focus on what was going on in Britain at the time – the Norman Conquest and other minor excitements. Also going on was the conversion of Poland to Catholicism, more or less*. Poland became Catholic as opposed to Orthodox, but because they were officially brought into Christendom directly by a Papal missionary from Bohemia, instead of from one of the Holy Roman Empire’s bishops, they were not considered part of the Holy Roman Empire’s lands. The relationship with the Emperor varied from “great friends” to “here we go again, call out the army.”

The emperor was supposed to be a neutral party above the nobles, someone who could mediate, settle arguments before they got out of hand, and who could balance the demands of the free cities with those of ecclesiastic nobles (like the Archbishop of Mainz) and the secular nobles (Saxony, Austria, Bavaria, Swabia, and so on.) He was also tasked with defending Rome and the pope (not always the same thing). Again, since the emperor was always on the move, and sometimes south of the Alps, that left a lot of wiggle room if a noble got ambitious.

Enter two real characters in every sense of the word. Frederick von Staufen and Heinrich of Saxony had nearly equal claims to the imperial throne. Heinrich came from the Welf family, Frederick from the Staufers**. They were almost the same age, and both tended to be, let us say, pugnacious. Frederick of the Red Beard (Barbarossa) ended up on the throne, and Heinrich swore feudal vows of vassalage, promising to help the emperor if needed and to obey – mostly. Their first collision came fairly early, when Frederick had Heinrich’s first marriage annulled after several years, in part because the property owned by the bride’s family surrounded Frederick’s own home base. Heinrich agreed, but he was not entirely pleased. He married the daughter of Henry II of England, which was OK. Yes, that Henry II. Family get-togethers must have been entertaining to watch from outside stabbing range.

The far north of the German lands, notably along the Baltic and eastern North Sea, and been depopulated by the Northern Crusades, and years of Viking raids. Heinrich turned his attention north, and while Frederick was going to Jerusalem and doing things in Italy and elsewhere as well as in the German lands, Heinrich refounded Lübeck, founded Luneberg and Braunschweig, and encouraged other settlements to expand. He established Braunschwig (Brunswick) as his main base. Once or twice, Frederick deputized Heinrich to deal with things while Frederick was tied up in Italy or dealing with Seljuk problems. However, Heinrich grew very powerful, and rather independent. Eventually the two collided. Heinrich lost and for a while ended up in Normandy, acting as diplomat and ambassador for his father-in-law. One can imagine the imperial court getting a little tense when Heinrich came back with diplomatic papers. Heinrich ended up outliving Frederick, then defeating Frederick’s son in battle and retiring to Braunschweig where, to the surprise of everyone, he died of old age.

Heinrich wasn’t the only noble to collide with the emperor. But most others don’t have summer pageants dedicated to the fight. Given Frederick Barbarossa’s personality, and the times he lived in, someone probably would have poked him the wrong way. Rudolph “the Founder” von Habsburg would butt heads with several people, and would resort to dirty tricks to defeat the prince of Bohemia. (Dirty tricks meaning having a rested reserve launch, surround, and beat up on the Bohemians. That was frowned upon by the rules of chivalry. Rudolph was a pragmatist, and a survivor, and didn’t really care.)

First among equals, sword of the Church (sometimes), keeper of order, settler of disputes, and feudal overlord of the lands north of the Alps. The Holy Roman Emperors walked a bit of a tightrope, and it’s probably more surprising that they didn’t have more, greater conflicts with the other men of the empire.

* Parts of Poland remained pagan, or kept lapsing back into paganism, until at least the late 1100s. Then the union with (pagan at first) Lithuania distracted the missionary priests.

**If you are thinking “Welf sounds like Guelph as in Guelphs and Ghibillines in Italy, Dante’s mess” you are correct. In English, we used to say “Staufen” for the family, but the Germans started moving toward “Staufer” for the larger group and “Staufen” for one later branch, as in “von Hohen-Staufen.” English-writers have picked up that usage.