The times of El Cid. Between Europe and Asia: the Byzantine Empire (9th to 13th century)

The dawn of the 9th century witnessed the end of the Isauric dynasty (whose reign commenced in 717 and ended in 802). The Roman-Greek Empire lasted from 641-1204, during which period it was moulded by eastern and Greek influences.

The first iconoclastic crisis that led to a ban on religious images and worship had been overcome by the empress Irene, who restored them. However, the coup of Nicephor, in 802, led to a period of instability during which a council was held in St. Sophia (815).  This gave rise to the second iconoclastic period, which lasted until the synod held, also in St. Sophia, which ended with the crisis of 11 March 843.

During the year 820, the Amorian dynasty ascended to power, consolidating the conquests made by the empire.  The most serious problem was perhaps the Photian Schism, which again forbade religious images and led to the rupture of relations with Rome. Fortunately for the empire (as we will see), the support of Rome was vital and that was quite clear, in particular as Byzantium lacked that support, and the Schism was rapidly ended, and good relations with the Holy See restored. 

In 863, the victory of Petronas led Byzantium to march on Asia Minor.  That advance resulted in several victories, including the destruction of Tefriké (872), which was already under the rule of the Macedonian dynasty initiated by the usurper Basil I in 867. However, the military campaigns in Asia Minor caused others to win victories, apart from the Byzantines.  The Arabs invaded Malta in 870, followed by Syracuse in 878.  During the 10th century, Taormina and Sicily fell, and Thessalonica was sacked between 902 and 904.

Bulgaria had maintained relations with Byzantium since the year 864 through Boris of Bulgaria. However, upon the death of the Simeon, Czar of Bulgaria (927), Byzantium decided to attack eastern Europe, expanding its rule throughout that part of Europe and the near East during this century and the next (in 975, Ionannes Tzimisces conquered part of Palestine). The Russians, too, decided to attack the eastern flank of Europe and took Bulgaria in 968.  They were once again defeated by the Byzantium war machine (as had occurred on the previous two occasions, with Constantinople, in 860 and 941), and Basil II opened up the path to the great victory of the ports of Clidion (1014), and succeeded in annexing Bulgaria to the empire, giving it its maximum extension.

As had already occurred on many occasions, the Macedonian empire began to fall into decline due to a lethal combination of events, i.e., due to the intervention of external enemies and also internal problems.  In fact, upon the death of Basil II (1025) the first symptoms of fragmentation started to take place, without doubt due, in great measure, to the incompetence and lack of interest in matters of state shown by the ruling class of the empire between 1025 and 1055, who, furthermore, adopted many unpopular measures, several of which were related to tax collection. All this led to several revolts.  In addition to this situation, the frontiers were under attack by the fearsome Selyucid Turks and other tribes such as the Normans and the Pechenegs.

However, an additional factor led to the empire becoming permanently weakened: the Schism of Michael Cerularius in 1054, which ended with the creation of the Orthodox Church, left the empire without the support of the rest of the other Christian realms, as we will see later, during the crusades (for instance, the case of the terrible fourth crusade). All the above led to the disappearance of the Macedonian dynasty, which occurred during the reign of Theodora (1055-1056). Two factions were formed; a military one and a civil one, and the civil faction proclaimed Michael VI head of the empire. He, in turn, was overthrown by the general Isaac Comnenos, from the military faction, who failed in his attempts to improve the situation. The civil faction again placed one of its leaders in power, Constantine X, who paid little attention to military affairs. This fact was used by the empire’s enemies to launch an attack.

Romanus VIII Diogenes tried to repair the military harm inflicted on Byzantium, but the empire was already extremely weak and without doubt the disaster of Mantzikert was the clearest proof of this. During the rule of Michael VII Ducas, the Selyucids invaded Asia Minor, whereas the Normans took the Byzantine part of Italy (Bari). This led to an enormous military and economic crisis.  During this situation, Alexander Comnenos came to power with the hope of improving things as soon as possible.

Alexius I masterfully combined diplomacy with military tactics to halt the enemies on all sides, in addition, the fortunate presence of the crusaders, who relieved the empire from the pressure exerted on it by the Turks. Alexius I was also able to renovate the state by reorganising the government and the economic crisis was eventually halted by devaluing the currency, although the tax burden increased as a result of the money spent on diplomacy and war. Ioannes II Comnenos (1118-1143) successfully combated the military enemies of Byzantium.

However not even the Comnenos dynasty was able to emerge unscathed from the final fall of the empire. On one hand, certain campaigns ended in disaster, such as the attempt to conquer Italy, which, despite the taking of Ancona, Bari and Taranto, ended with the intervention of William of Normandy, who destroyed the Byzantine fleet in Brindisi; on the other hand, some victories, such as the taking of Antioch by Emmanuel I in 1158, caused great harm to the relations between Byzantium and the Catholic Church; finally, the coming to power of the brutal Andronicus Comnenos, with his savage ways, unleashed the anger of his people, who, during the uprising of 12 September 1185, dismembered him. He was succeeded by Isaac II Angelus (1185-1195), under whose reign total anarchy broke out, making it very easy for the empire’s enemies to strike again.

With the coming to power of Alexius III (1195-1203) the empire finally collapsed, and on the succession of Isaac II, the terrible events occurred, that ended with crusaders attacking Constantinople during the fourth crusade (see the section dedicated to that subject) and the empire was dismembered, and divided into the Latin Empire of the east, the Byzantine Empire of Nicea, the Byzantine Empire of Trebisonda and the Byzantine Despotate of Epirus.

The Princedom of Nicea was the most important of all the kingdoms that emerged following the division, as it succeeded in restoring the former Byzantine splendour, to a certain extent. It was founded by Theodorus Lascaris on fleeing from the conquest of Constantinople by the crusaders.

The example of the once glorious Byzantine Empire was used to convert it into a powerful princedom, and the result was a succession of military victories that allowed the princedom to extend its domains, and an excellent trading policy that led to a treaty between Nicea and Venice, a traditional competitor of Byzantium in Mediterranean commerce.

From then on, the princedom maintained a continuous ascent in power that reached immense heights following the victories and conquests of Ioannes II Vatatzes (1222-1254) and the great victory of Pelagonia (1259) with the triumph of Michael Palaeologus, which left the route to the capital unobstructed. In this way, with its enemies practically vanquished and virtually without having to fight, Michael VIII took Constantinople again. Unfortunately, the war with the Latin tribes, who still maintained their positions in the Peloponnesian, forced Nicea to leave Asia Minor unprotected and it fell to the Turks.

The new rise of the Empire of Nicea led to the other countries considering it a dangerous rival, especially in the case of Charles of Anjou, who wanted to defeat Byzantium at all costs.  He eventually forged an alliance between his country and the kingdoms of Serbia, Bulgaria and Venice, but Michael VIII was able to overcome this problem. This rivalry, together with the empire’s external enemies (mostly the Turks who took Constantinople on 29 May 1453 and Trebisonda in 1461) eventually led to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. 


The times of El Cid: Europe (9th to the 13th century)

The 11th century, the one during which El Cid lived, was one of the most agitated in the entire mediaeval period. This was due to the culmination of a series of events that had taken place during the previous centuries, and like these, the 11th century also formed the basis for subsequent centuries. For that reason, it makes no sense to analyse the times of El Cid without considering what Europe was like from the 9th to the 13th century, during the time of Rodrigo Díaz, a man who, like others, was shaped by the circumstances in which he lived, the same circumstances that gave him the opportunity to become a hero who would leave an indelible mark on collective memory that he was able to exploit during previous centuries.

We now come to Mediaeval Europe, the time that lent its name to the entire period of the Middle Ages as has been previously mentioned. Despite the fame of the mediaeval period as one of great darkness, war and superstition were not the only factors that the people of Europe faced. Culture and art were also present in that Europe during the times of El Cid.



Feudal society has traditionally been represented as being base don a pyramid structure, with different strata or layers formed by different social classes, with the privileged classes being at the top of the pyramid and the least fortunate ones at the base or on the layers nearest the base. The ranks of its members were hereditary and since they indicated the position of each individual in the pyramid, they also bore a series of rights and obligations, which involved a series of lord-vassal relations.  In fact, an individual could be lord over individuals who were below him on the social ladder, but in turn, also the vassal of someone above him, to whom he owed obedience and service.  In turn, he had to help his vassals, for instance, by protecting them in times of war.



The mediaeval period was a period of theocentrism (as opposed to the anthocentrism that followed it during the Renaissance). This shows the importance of religion for the people that lived during those times.  The Roman Catholic Apostolic Church held supreme power in Christendom, i.e., all Christian countries. Indeed, the Pope was the figurehead of the feudal pyramid, above kings and emperors. It was quite appropriate to be the representative of God on earth in a time when faith was so important, not just in everyday life, but when invoking a superior power that would protect Christians from the Muslim invaders (in the case of the Spanish Reconquest or the Crusades in the Holy Land). 

In turn, this concept of different countries united by the papal power explains the importance of religious schisms, which shook the very foundations of Christendom and its the structure through divisions that above and beyond merely religious issues, weakened Christendom by giving rise to conflicts within it, due to the territorial division separating relations between the Catholic countries from those in which the schisms triumphed (for instance, the case of the Schism of the East, which ended with the founding of the Orthodox Church) and due to the methods used to combat those creating the schisms, usually by murder or fire.

The crusades were waged on all enemies of the faith, and it can thus be affirmed that wars against heretics were also a kind of crusade, as occurred during the war against the Cathars, defended by Pope Innocent III in 1208, whose two most dramatic moments were the Battle of Muret, in which the monarch Peter the Catholic died, and in Montsegur, where the heroic resistance of the Cathars made that bastion a site that was well remembered over the ages.


9th century

The 9th century dawned with the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor by Pope Leon III during the Christmas of 800. The Carolingian Empire was a perfect melting pot of all the mediaeval traits described above: war, political and military power, and also culture, hence the well-known term Carolingian Renaissance, in reference to the cultural splendour of the court of Aix-la Chapelle. The cultural achievements of learned men such as Alcuin of York were of the same importance as those of the powerful empire whose frontiers were almost exactly those of Christendom.

Of course, this extraordinary extension of its domains inevitably led to the need to protect its boundaries, which were constantly threatened by different invaders who assaulted the borders of the empire at different points. The western coasts, for example, required special protection since they were often attacked by the Vikings. In addition to the classic defensive strips with the fortresses, vast areas of land were used to protect the frontiers of the empire.  One obvious example was the creation of the “Hispanic Mark”: in 801, Charlemagne conquered Barcelona and marched on towards the south.  He was halted by the Muslims between Tortosa and Huesca.  Following this, the north-east remained in French hands and was incorporated into the “Mark”, which consequently became an important area of defence against the Muslims, and of course, was converted into much more than just a defensive strip. 

The reign of Charlemagne lasted until approximately September of 813, when he himself crowned his son and heir, Louis the Pious, as king. Without doubt, Charlemagne realised that his death was only a matter of time and in effect, on 29 January 814, he passed away. In 817 an Imperial Order was decreed through which the empire was divided between the sons of the king. It was not the fault of Louis the Pious that this division, which his father himself had ordered in Diedenhoffen (806) was frustrated by the death of his sons Charles and Pippin, but it is no less true that the division of the empire, executed through the Treaty of Verdun (843), and the Treaties of Meersen (870) and Ribemont (880) weakened the empire, despite the attempts of reunification carried out by Charles III the Large and the resurgence of the Ottoman period (starting with Otto I, in 936, under whom the Holy Empire reached its apogee of splendour). 

The 9th century also witnessed the unification of England, since Egbert of Wessex obtained the homage of all the English monarchs. Life in England was not easy, and not only due to the conditions in which the people lived during the feudalism period. The islands were viewed by the Vikings as an interesting prey and so attacks of the Men of the North were frequent, to the point that they invaded Northumbria in 866. The Vikings not only advanced through Western Europe (including, among others, an attack on Hamburg in 845), but also reached other areas, such as Lisbon, in 844. In the year 800 another Viking tribe, the Varegans, had advanced towards the east, carrying out mainly trading activities.  Their presence in the east would later be fundamental for Russia, since they founded the kingdom of Kiev, and the Grand Duke Oleg of Kiev, who descended from the legendary Rurik (founder of the princedom of Novgorod) unified Russia by dominating all the Slavs on both sides of the river Dnieper.


10th century

The 10th century was marked by two important events, and some were decisive in what happened over the next centuries: firstly, the ascent to power of the old Carolingian empire of the Capetos (under Hugo Capeto, 987-996). This dynasty was the one responsible for the final disintegration of the empire, in the 12th century, and eventually replaced the Carolingians.

On the other hand, in 910 the Order of Cluny began to take on growing importance.  Its members belonged to the Benedictine order, following the reform of St. Benoit of Anian, and their philosophy was based on work and prayer.  Since it was first founded, the order of Cluny had the privilege of exemption, i.e., it depended directly on the Pope, which meant it was exonerated from paying taxes or tithes to feudal lords. On the contrary, it was granted several monasteries that contributed to its expansion, and finally became the most influential order of the Late Middle Ages, and eventually, the most powerful order of its time, without doubt, by expanding throughout all the countries of Europe (for instance, in Spain it substituted the Mozarab rite during the 11th century). 


11th century

During this century, there was a substantial improvement in respect of the supply of food, thanks to improved farming techniques, particularly the crop rotation system, based on which the plots to be cultivated were divided into three, and two were used to produce different types of food (winter cereals in one and spring cereals in another) and the third was left as fallow land, which meant that food was available all year round, with a slightly higher production than what had been achieved until then.

The 11th century was an agitated period throughout all of Europe, without exception, mainly in terms of religious and military affairs. This was seen principally in three fundamental events: the invasion of England by the Normans, the schisms and the crusades.

The militarism of the 11th century was also evident in the events that befell England, where William the Bastard defeated the Anglo Saxons at the Battle of Hasting (14 October 1066) and was renamed William the Conqueror, after being crowned king (Christmas of 1066). The French took over all the ranks of power in the English feudal pyramid and their influence had a considerable effect on all aspects of England, from its customs to its language, thereby changing the course of history for ever.

However, although the conquest of England can be understood merely as the ambition of one man to possess his own kingdom, war usually seeks powerful reasons of self-justification and in the 11th century, one good reason for going to war was religion. One important problem in Christendom was the schism of Michael Cerularius (1054), (the famous Schism of the East, from which the Orthodox Christians emerged. However, the most important religious, political and military event of the 11th century and one that was to last several centuries, was the birth of the crusades. 

The First Crusade started at the petition of Pope Urban II in Clermont-Ferrand (1095), urging the Christians to march on the Holy Land to free the sacred sites from Muslim rule. The theocentrist attitude that was prevalent at the time would explain the reason for Christians giving such fervent and unanimous support in undertaking campaigns such as the Crusades as proof of their faith, above and beyond political interests or the desire for wealth that were the driving force behind the crusades, and it is clear that a deeply religious emotion encouraged those men and women to voyage to the Holy Lands, either in pilgrimage or to take part in war.

Thus, the crusaders armed themselves and troops from all over Europe travelled to the Holy Lands, some for religious reasons and others in search of adventure and with the hope of winning riches. The triumphant siege of Nicea was the first important step in achieving the main objective, of the crusaders, which was accomplished following the victories won in Dorilea and the important Battle of Antioch (1098).

The first crusade reached its apogee of splendour when the final objective was achieved: on 15 July 1099, in one of the bloodiest battles ever waged in medieval times, due to the cruelty with which the Crusaders treated the defeated, Jerusalem fell to the crusaders and Godfrey of Bouillon became the Protector of the Holy Sepulchre, a title that was used instead of the title of king, since as he himself said, he did want to wear a crown of gold in the place where the King of Kings had worn a crown of thorns. During the course of the crusades, many military orders emerged, such as the Hospital Order or the legendary Templar Order.


12th century

This was the century that put an end to what is known as the High Middle Ages. During this century, certain aspects underwent important changes or developments, from trade to war, as well as including politics and religion.

The religious world was about to undergo changes that would affect the future of the universe from this century onwards. At the beginning of the century (1115), Bernard of Claraval launched the Cistercian revolution, which finally replaced the Order of Cluny, and still exists in modern times. In addition, universities such as Bologna and Oxford were set up in monastic circles. In effect, the world of culture and particularly, philosophy began to be influenced by the first translations of Aristotle’s works, which were made in this century, displacing the Platonic theories.

As regards trade, important new events took place. A new social class emerged in cities, the bourgeois class, located outside the feudal pyramid, which did not consider this new group, due to the fact that, since it was formed by traders,  it had no need to serve anyone. The emergence of this class brought with it the guilds, through which the members of different branches of artisans and tradesmen in a city formed associations. Even today, it is still possible to find some streets once housed the sites of these guilds. All this, of course, strengthened the economic development of cities, and banks started to be created, and the first wages were paid to workers. Agriculture, too, underwent important changes, such as the development of farming utensils (ploughs, yokes), which led to an increase in production and with it, economic improvements.

In the middle of the 12th century (1146-1149), following the taking of Edesa by the Turks (1144) a Second Crusade was organised.  After a difficult march through Asia Minor, the crusaders decided to finally try and win back Damascus, instead of Edesa, but failed miserably. Unfortunately for the Christians, Jesusalem fell into the hands of the magnificent Saladin (1187), which led to the Third Crusade two years later, which lasted until 1192, when Saladin managed to keep the city until his sway. The crusade leaders were Philippe-Auguste II August of France, Frederick I of Germany (known as Redbeard) and the legendary Richard the Lionheart of England. In the absence of the latter (the fact is, he hardly ever lived in England during his rule), his brother, John (nicknamed Lackland due to the fact that he owned no land) took control of the country.  Legend has cast John as a villain (unjustly, in our opinion, since at that time England was experiencing a time of prosperity and improvements that would most certainly not have existed if John had not governed the country, whose rightful heir was more interested in the Holy Lands than in the welfare of his fellow citizens).


13th century

This century marks the start of what is known as the Late Middle Ages. At that time the European population continued to grow, as it had done during previous centuries, and despite the improvements in agriculture, they did not guarantee a substantial improvement in living conditions, due to the fact that there were also more mouths to feed due to the demographic growth. In addition, the system that had emerged during the 11th century, by which the farming plots were divided into three parts for different types of food had expanded throughout Europe, and afforded greater protection at first, but as the soil became exhausted more rapidly than with the earlier farming systems, the increase in food was not all that important, in the long term.

Due to the increase in the population, it was necessary to enlarge the croplands but, despite great efforts, available land started to become scarce during this century, and this led to an increase in tithes due to the demand for land, forcing many peasants to eventually leave the country and settle in the cities where the guilds and the bourgeois class continued to prosper.

The 13th century was also the one in which the highest number of crusades took place:  all those remaining, from the Fourth to the Seventh. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was caused by the failure of the Third, which was unable to win back Jerusalem. The Ayyubids, led by Saladin, were in control of the Jewish capital, and so it was decided to attack the country where the Ayyubi power was established (Egypt). The crusaders marched on Venice and Enrico Dandolo, Doge of the city, was asked to take care of transport, as the crusaders would be crossing by sea to Egypt. Unfortunately, the crusades did not have enough money to pay. To pay for his service, the Doge asked them to conquer Zara, in Hungary, in the name of Venice.

One month later, the crusaders did so, but while they were there, they were informed of the serious events occurring to the Angelus family, who governed Byzantium, for the emperor Isaac II was blind and his brother Alexius III had seized the throne. Prince Alexius IV, son of Isaac, asked them to help him recover the throne, and offered to end the schism, in exchange for their help, and to assist the crusaders and hand over a large sum of money to Venice. The crusaders did this, but instead of doing what had been agreed on, they sacked Constantinople. This bloody crusade dismembered not only the Byzantium empire into four smaller ones (see the section on Byzantium), but failed to achieve its primordial objectives.

The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) was aimed at striking Egypt, centre of the Ayyubi power, in order to win back Jerusalem. From the start, it was absolute chaos, and without a clear plan, but finally the objective established was to invade Damietta, a city on the coast of the Nile Delta. The siege, executed by John of Brienne, king of Jerusalem, and by the papal legate Pelagio, was a savage blow for the Muslims, to the point that the Sultan al-Kamil offered to exchange Damietta for Jerusalem, which would have ended in the reconquest of the Holy City.  However, the crusaders did not accept the proposal and after taking the city, they decided to continue marching on Egypt. The delta, which was very difficult to cross in the summer, due to the floods, put them at serious risk, and they were defeated in El Cairo, which led them to abandon Egypt and, also Damietta.

The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) was a success, at least temporarily, as Frederick II of Germany manager to reach an agreement with the Sultan al-Kamil by which Jerusalem would be returned to the Christians, but the Muslims were allowed to remain on the esplanade of the Temple. This situation lasted until 1244, when the Tartars won back Jerusalem (23 August 1244).  

The Seventh Crusade (1248-1250) was promoted fundamentally by Louis IX of France.  The crusaders took Damietta with no trouble (1249) and marched along the Nile, with great caution, as they had not forgotten the punishment that the river had inflicted on the contingent during the Fifth Crusade. A military defeat in al-Mansurah forced the crusaders to retreat, which ended in disaster, to the point that the king was captured by the Muslims, and released on 6 April 1250, in exchange for the city of Damietta.

Based on this situation, and in view of the fact that recovering Jerusalem appeared to be impossible, Western Europe looked to the east, in a search for new solutions, with the idea of establishing alliances with the Mongol empire, whose incredible military strength would no doubt help them win the Holy Land. But this brilliant idea did not prove successful, and so it was decided to undertake a new, exclusively European crusade.

In 1270 the Eighth and Ninth Crusades took place, with the aim of not so much recovering Jerusalem but due to the losses sustained, such as that of Antioch (1268). Louis IX left for Egypt and tried to convert the king of Tunisia to Christianity, but died before the walls of Tunisia on 25 August 1270. His death marked the end of almost two centuries of crusades.


Author: Alfonso Boix Jovaní

Rev. JGG 02.08.16