This Month In History: October 2006

  By Komnenos
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On October 6, 891, Formosus, the Archbishop of Porto, was elected to the Papacy as successor of Stephen V.  Formosus’ assumption was something of a surprise.  He could look back on a distinguished, but also very checkered, career in the Church. He was installed as Bishop and Cardinal of Porto in 864, but , two years later, was sent by the reigning pope as a legate to Khan Boris I, with the difficult task of converting the Bulgarians to Christianity. Boris was also courted by the Byzantine Church to pacify its troublesome neighbors. 

As the Patriarch of Constantinople was more prepared to accommodate the Bulgarians’ wishes for an autonomous Bulgarian Archbishoprics, and for the right to celebrate liturgy in their own language, the Byzantines succeeded where Formosus failed. The Pope in Rome would not tolerate a Bible translated into the Bulgarian language, so Formosus went home empty-handed. Nevertheless, he was sent on a couple of more  diplomatic missions.  In 875,  he successfully negotiated with Charles the Bold over the possible crowning of the Frankish King by the Pope.  A year later, however, Formosus fell out of favor with Pope John VIII and was accused of heading a conspiracy against the Papacy.  He was excommunicated,  banned from Rome, and sent into exile.

In 883, the excommunication was revoked and Formosus was restored as Archbishop of Porto.  In 891, after a rapid succession of various Popes, Formosus was unanimously elected as the Patriarch of Rome. He spent five turbulent years on the throne, constantly trying to balance his spiritual duty as the head of the Western Christendom with his worldly responsibilities as the political power broker in Italy. He quarreled with the East-Roman Church, quite understandably, after his experiences in Bulgaria, and got caught in the struggle between the Franks and Lombards over the supremacy in Italy.  Formosus came out in support of the Frankish Du

ke Arnulf of Carinthia, who had invaded the peninsula, and in 896 crowned him King of Italy.

Arnulf died a few months after, and so did Formosus, after a short but eventful reign, but his troubles were far from over.  Formosus' immediate successor died after a couple of weeks, and Pope Stephen VII was elected.  By then, the Lombards, under their Duke Lambert, had taken control again, and they hadn’t forgotten Formosus’ betrayal of their cause.    In January 897,  a synod was convened in Rome, with the only purpose of putting Formosus on trial for his political crimes,  not without inventing some religious pretext.  The fact that Formosus was already dead proved to be a minor inconvenience.  His corpse was dug up, clad into their Papal regalia, placed back on the throne and put on trial.  Pope Stephen VII hurled his accusations at the dead man, who, quite naturally, didn’t put up much of a defense. To no great surprise, Formosus was found guilty, especially as he admitted to all his misdemeanors, by proxy it seems. The penalty was severe, he just escaped the death penalty , but his Papacy was annulled.  He was stripped of all titles and garments, three fingers of his right hand were hacked off, and the body was thrown into the Tiber.

The spectacle of Formosus’ trial has become known as the “Cadaver Synod”, one of the more undignified moments of the Catholic Church’s history, but the story didn’t end here.  Formosus came back, and, this time, it was personal. Soon after the trial, rumors began to spread that the body, salvaged from the river, would perform miracles. Rome’s citizens rioted against  Stephen VII, who had desecrated his saintly predecessor, imprisoned the Pope,and, shortly after, strangled him.

On October 10, 732, a Frankish army, led by their King Charles Martel, defeated an Umayyad force, commanded by the Arab governor of Al-Andalus , Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, in the Battle of Tours.

The Battle of Tours( sometimes called Battle of Poitiers) is another of these alleged “What if….” moments in history. What if the Arabs had won the battle and advanced into Central Europe to establish their rule and religion? Would the Europeans be speaking Arabic now? Would they be observing Ramadan at this very hour and fear the spread of Christian fundamentalism?  The opinions about the true historical significance of Tours are somewhat divided.  The old school historians believe that it was a pivotal moment, while others state that the Arabs had no plans in 732 to invade Central Europe at all, but were just simply out on, what has (here in AE’s pages) been called, a “mere raiding party” and a quick excursion into Frankish territory in the search for loot and women. 

Whatever their intentions, in 732, an Arab army of about 50,000 set out from the Iberian peninsula, which, for the past twenty years, had been under Umayyad control. The last Visigoth King Roderic had fallen in the Battle of Guadalete in 711, and, by 720, the Arab conquest was virtually completed.  Only the very North of Spain and the Basque country had preserved their independence.  In 717,  Cordoba was established as the seat of the Governor of Al-Andalus , and, in 730, the Yemenite, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi,  was appointed by the Caliph as governor and commander of the Arab forces.

At first, Abdul Rahman’s expedition was a great success.  Odo, Duke of Aquitaine, who in 721 had completely annihilated an invading Arab force, was less fortunate this time around.  He was defeated in a battle near Bordeaux, and had to watch helplessly as the Arabs pillaged his towns and the surrounding vineyards, making 732 a bad vintage year for Claret.  Odo appealed for help to the only man in Western Europe who could possibly muster an army strong enough to halt the invaders.

Charles Martel was the “majordomo” of the Frankish kingdom.  He was the son and heir of Pippin, who, in 687,  had re-united the Frankish kingdoms of Neustria and Austrasia.  Although in title only, and as the second man in the Empire after the King, Pippin was the first in a line of “majordomos” who held the real power in their hands, reducing the King to a puppet on the throne.  After his father’s death in 714, Karl had some difficulties in establishing his power, but, by 725,  he was the undisputed de-facto ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.   In 732, he was ready for the Arabs. He marched his army, in the longstanding struggles with unruly rival Germanic tribes, from Austrasia into France. 

In the beginning of October, the two forces met somewhere between the two cities of Tours and Poitiers in the Loire valley. For ten days, the two armies waited, facing and occasionally harassing each other.  Finally, on October 10, Abdul Rahman attacked. Why he had hesitated so long is a bit of a mystery.  On paper, he commanded a far superior force. His army consisted almost entirely of heavily armored cavalry, while Charles Martel commanded a not so well-equipped infantry troops. 

Waves of Arab horsemen rolled onto the Frankish troops,  who stood in  a large square formation, and, again and again, the Arabs failed to break through. For hours,  the battle raged on without any side gaining  advantage, and the decision only fell when Abdul Rahman was killed. After the commander’s death, quarrels broke among the Arab camp over the succession in command.  When the Frankish cavalry, small in numbers, threatened to recover the loot the Umayad army had collected in Aquitaine, the Arabs grabbed everything they could carry and simply left the battlefield, and the fight was over.

Charles Martel’s victory didn’t put an end to Arab attempt to advance across the Pyrenees.  It took another few decades to confine them in the Iberian Peninsula, but it was a significant moment in the struggle over the rule of Southern France. It is difficult to say If the Battle of Tours really was the defining event in European history that decided the fate of Europe for centuries to come.  Even if Abdul Rahman had  the intention not only to raid, but also to rule Aquitaine and the Frankish territories, it is questionable if the Arabs had the logistics and staying power to reign over a vast country with a large population that might have been hostile to the idea of being ruled by people with a very different religion and culture. Unlike the Visigoth, the Frankish Kingdom was a more consolidated unit, rooted in Western Europe and with vast reserves of manpower. An Arab win at Tours might not have been the last chapter.

Charles Martel was the hero of the hour.  Like the East-Romans in 718, he had defended Europe against the invading Arabs, taking the role of the West-Roman Emperor whose throne had become vacant. Five years later,  he deposed the Merovingian King, and, a few decades later, his grandson was crowned Emperor of the Romans.

On  October 13, 1307 the Knights Templar of France were arrested and imprisoned on the orders of the French King Philip IV.  The possessions of the order were confiscated and its members were accused of heresy.  More of a mystery is why this event, which by medieval standards was not an exceptional occurrence by any means, should become the mother of all conspiracy theories or come to engage the fantasies of modern fiction writers. The motives of the French King and his rather drastic measures are only too understandable and not in the least bit mysterious.

The Knights Templar Order was founded in 1118 by the French Knight, Hughes de Payens, in Jerusalem, which had recently been captured by the First Crusade. Its stated purpose was to be the protection of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and the defense of the Kingdom of Jerusalem against its Muslim neighbors. Structured like a monastic order that would demand all the usual vows and duties from its members, the Knights Templar soon became the most organized and equipped Christian fighting force in Palestine, building and manning a number of castles and fielding a considerable army. It has been argued that both the idea for structure and purpose of the order had been influenced by the similar Muslim organization, the Assassins, with whom the Christians had come in contact with in the early 11th century.

From its humble beginnings,  the Knights Templar Order soon became a powerful and all-present force in European politics. It branched out, not only by founding subsidiaries in all major European countries, but also in the range of its activities, to which banking was added in the mid 11th century. Lending money and collecting interests on loan was a delicate topic in Christian religion, and the fact that a religious order was engaged in such transactions was bound to attract attention and envy.

The Knights Templar Order was ideally suited to the banking business. It collected a huge capital stock from its members, who had to donate their worldly possessions when they entered the order.  It was equipped with enormous Papal privileges, it was an international organization with clear lines of command, and it could cloak its activities under a religious pretext. This sideline of the Templars' activities became the most important.   The more their initial task,  the more obsolete the defense of the Holy Land became.  There was hardly anything left to defend by the mid 13th century.

Naturally, with regards to their roots as an organization founded by French knights, the order acquired a huge presence in France. By the end of the 13th century, it had numerous branches in France.  It owned a large real estate in the country, undertook a lively and successful banking trade, and by all accounts had become a state within the state, in its activities largely independent from the French King.  Philip IV, on the other hand, had largely become dependent on the order’s money that financed his government, and, like all debtors, was desperate to find a solution for his financial problems.  The obvious answer was to get rid of his creditors altogether.

That wasn’t as easy as it seemed, even for the French King.  The Knights Templar were influential, well connected, and, of course, presented a formidable military enemy. What was needed, was a good and convincing pretext.  Over time, the Knights Templar had become the target for all kinds of rumors. Its secretive hierarchical structure, its mysterious rites, and its numerous contacts with the Islamic religion had given rise to speculations that all kinds of deviations, both spiritual and physical, were rife in the order. The order had in past been accused of arrogance, extravagance, of homosexuality amongst its members, and of heresy.  The last, of course, was the medieval default accusation when it came to get rid of inconvenient enemies, and Philip IV decided to use the old hat once again.

On October 13th, 1307, all French members of the Knights Templar, among them their Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, were arrested at the same hour in what must have been a well planned and precisely executed act. Although some managed to escape, the vast majority were imprisoned, tortured and many of the Knights, not surprisingly, admitted to all accusations brought against them. Philip IV seized all the order’s properties in France, and, in one stroke, not only could write off all his debts, but also gained a considerable increase in royal power over his own country. Jacques de Molay and many other members of the order were executed by the Inquisition, and the Knights Templar Order was subsequently dissolved by the Pope.  Its possessions were given to rival orders and many of its members outside of France sought refuge in other orders.

The Knights Templar  were defeated in a political and financial power struggle with Philip IV.  It was seemingly too simple for whole generations of conspiracy theorists, and fiction writers who have explained the events of October 13 with a wealth of fantastic stories will continue to do so in the future.

On this very day, more than six thousand years ago, on October 23, 4004 B.C., the universe was created by God. We have to thank the Irish Anglican Archbishop, scholar and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, James Usher(1581-1656), for this vital piece of information. In his seminal work, ]“Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world”., published in 1650, the good Bishop attempted to put the historical and the apocryphal events of the Old Testament in chronological order. Working backwards from the birth of Jesus, he came to the conclusion that the universe must have been created about 4000 years before the first coming of Christ. 

Usher made use of the genealogical information of the list of Kings, Jewish or other, given in the bible, and, if no records were to be found in the good book, he even relied on information from profane sources that were available to him, such as  the chronicles of the dynasties of the ancient Middle-East Kingdoms. After some thorough research and some nifty astronomical calculations, he was able to provide the dates for some significant events in human history:  the Great Flood took place in 2384 B.C., God’s approach to Abraham in 1921 B.C., and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt in 1491 B.C.  Having established such order in history, it became relatively easy to determine the day when it all started:  In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth, Gen. 1, v. 1. Which beginning of time, according to our Chronologie, fell upon the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of Octob[er] in the year of the Julian [Period] 710. The year before Christ 4004.

There have been many other attempts to pinpoint the date of creation, but, apparently,  Usher's is the only one that somehow matches the chronology of the Bible.  His given dates were used to accompany later editions of the English King James Bible. Howver,  Usher’s version of events became the most prominent.   We can only speculate what Usher would have said of his later critics, who with some arrogance and persistence still maintain that the world must be slightly older than he insisted, and even provided some conclusive evidence for it. He certainly would be pleased to hear that there are still some Creationists out there who adhere to Usher’s chronology. And as God himself never confirmed Usher’s calculations, we can either believe the Irish Bishop, or not.