Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Empires: Medieval Venice & Google

Great excitement! Roger Crowley's new book "City of Fortune, how Venice won and lost a naval empire" has just arrived. We had previously touched on the Venetian empire when talking about the medieval crusades as well as the siege of Constantinople. These articles had really just mentioned the "serene republic" in passing. Now we hope to look at it in more detail.

So why the reference to Google in this title of this post? Well, let us start by viewing the rise and fall of Venice. Venice was built on the wealth which came from the sea. In fact the bottom p
icture in this post, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, shows Neptune surrendering the wealth of the seas to Venice. Trade and commerce was all they had. Venice itself, whilst beautiful, was just an Island in a lagoon. To quote Roger Crowley:

"The City's prosperity rested on nothing tangible - no land holdings, no natural resources, no agricultural production or large population. There was literally no solid ground underfoot.Physical survival depended on a fragile economic balance.Venice was perhaps the first virtual economy,whose vitality baffled outsiders. It harvested nothing...and lived in perpetual fear that if its trade routes were severed, the whole magnificent edifice might collapse

So what we had was an extremely wealthy empire which dominated the eastern Mediterranean.
Without a dynasty (it was ruled by doges) there was less risk of the habitual problems from inheritance and royalty and who could have foreseen its demise? When the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 the main trade route to the east was cut off. Traders started to pursue alternative trade routes and in 1493 Christopher Columbus arrived in North America.

From this point on Venice started to become a side show and when Napoleon Bonaparte dealt the final blow to end the republic in 1797 all that remained was for Venice to quietly settle to a future as a tourist destination.

Now back to Google. These days the search engine seems omnipotent. It is part of everything which people do online and it becomes increasingly difficult to see a world without it.

However, just as Venice did nothing "wrong" other than to eventually be in the wrong place to take advantage of the New World, so there will possibly come a time when a change in technology or historical direction will sideline the empire built by Google. We can't know what that change will be but it will come and the world will move forward.

This is the flag of Venice

Here is the front of Roger Crowley's book

The painting referred to at the start of this post

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Norman Medieval Castles & Byzantium

In terms of medieval history, most English school children traditionally learn about key medieval battles and medieval kings. At the top of the list is the Battle of Hastings, William The Conqueror and the Norman Conquest. The Normans came from Normandy in France so everyone assumes that they were French. However, the truth is somewhat different - and interesting!

The Normans were in fact descended from the Vikings who invaded that northern part of France and assimilated into the local community. Indeed, their ancestral Viking blood and thirst for conquest of new territories meant that England was not the only country to suffer their invasion.

The Normans were active right across the medieval world and in particular in Southern Italy, along the Dalmatian coast, fighting for and against the Byzantine Empire. As pilgrims made their way to and from the Holy Land there were resulting, seeminghly inevitable disputes into which stepped Norman mercenaries and the time they spent in this part of the world left its mark.

Take a look at the picture below: a Norman medieval castle with characteristic walls and strength but it is not a castle in France or England! This is an early Norman castle in Adrano, Southern Italy.

Image courtesy of wikicommons.

The key point here is that the medieval world was much more fluid and fragmented than we think.

It is easy for us to be swayed by the headlines of history. The truth of all history, not just medieval history, is that there is always a lot more to it than at first meets the eye.

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