Thursday, October 17, 2013

Medieval Travelers: Finding Safe Routes

Just as many people anticipated with dread the year 2000, wondering if a world-wide computer crash would devastate human civilization - or speculated even more wildly about the end of the world - so also the round number of the year 1000 caused concern among the superstitious. Although almost of Europe had been exposed to Christianity by that year, enough pre-Christian influence remained to fuel irrational superstitions. While we may laugh at the idea that a mere round number like 1000 would cause the end of the world, similar fears arose a millennium later, among people with the technology of the modern world.

Such fears were not only irrational and superstitious, but even contradicted by the obvious empirical evidence available to the eyes of most Europeans. Not only was the world not going to end in the year 1000, but things were actually getting better for Europe in that year. After approximately three hundred years of attacks, the aggressors were beginning to back off. It had started in the year 711, when Muslim armies had invaded Spain. They would kept the Spanish under their occupational forces for several centuries. Having solidified its hold on Spain, Islam turned its armies toward France. Muslim armies made not one but numerous attempts, marching over the Pyrenees to invade Gaul, as France was then called. Each time, the Franks, the Germanic tribe which protected France, made heroic defenses. In the year 732, Charles "the Hammer" Martel made the most famous such defense, defending not only France, but all Europe, at the battles of Tours and Poitiers. Finding no success with a land invasion, Islam attempted a sea route, sending raiding parties and small invasion groups along the southern coast of France. There they established occasional footholds, occupying seaside towns and the surrounding farmlands, sometimes for years at a stretch. The inhabitants of southern Gaul lived in terror of the Muslims, who could appear at any time, burning towns and fields to the ground, slaughtering some inhabitants, and taking others as slaves.

The town of Fraxinetum was a base for Islamic pirates and raiders. Around 889 A.D., Muslims invaded the area and established an occupational headquarters. From this base, Islamic soldiers were able to move inland northward, terrorizing villages and confiscating supplies. They also moved east and west along the coast, raiding ports to commandeer supplies from the locals. Muslim pirates based from Fraxinetum kept the waters of the northwest Mediterranean insecure for nearly a century. Finally, the Franks reclaimed their land and pushed the invaders out, and in 973 A.D., reclaimed Fraxinetum. No longer inhibited by the occupational forces, the passes between Italy and France were open and safe again, and travel and commerce could resume.

But by the year 1000, this danger was fading. Southern France was becoming more secure, and Islamic attacks less frequent. Southern Italy, which had likewise been occupied by Muslim armies, was liberated, and its inhabitants once more safe. Muslims no longer had occupational forces on Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, and their attacks on those islands became less frequent. Historian Marjorie Rowling writes:

AD 1000 was a date much dreaded in Christian Europe as the year of doom. Yet by then the savage attacks of Moslem, Norse and Magyar upon her were beginning to lessen, though only the Magyars - by the German victory at Lechfeld (955) - had been finally staved. Byzantine sea-power had also revived and Fraxinetum, the Moslem pirate stronghold in Provence, had been destroyed in (975). The Moslems had lost ground also in Spain and on the Mediterranean, while the sea-power and trade of Venice, Naples and Amalfi had increased.

Feeling more secure, Europeans began attempts to reconnect with the broader world. Having been on the defensive for three centuries, connections to India and other parts of the East had been weakened or lost entirely. Europe looked for ways to reconnect with the East, but land routes were not safe: they led through Islamic territories. The Spanish and Portuguese would begin looking to the sea. The first voyages to the Canaries and southward along Africa's west coast were promising. There were no Muslim pirates in these waters. They discovered new trading partners, and new routes to old trading partners. Although it would take another century or two before the great voyages of Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama, the age of exploration had begun.

The land route between Europe and India was not safe. But Europe sought to renew its trading relationship with India, and discovered the sea routes around Africa's southern tip - the Cape of Good Hope - to make that connection.