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Crisis in the Middle Ages

To celebrate this year’s International Medieval Congress taking place at the University of Leeds in the UK, we have brought together some key resources that explore the complex theme of crisis during the Medieval period.

Crises in the Middle Ages took a multitude of forms ¬ political, religious, environmental — and occurred across the globe. The fascinating scholarly resources explored below interrogate both the cause and impact of each crisis, demonstrating the diversity of experience within different Medieval cultures.

Environmental and Demographic Crisis in Seventh Century Mesopotamia

This enlightening chapter from The Decline of Iranshahr, examines the series of disasters that ravaged Mesopotamia, post the completing of the great Nahrawan system: civil wars, invasions, floods, and epidemics. The Arab conquest did not usher in an era of growth and prosperity, and Pete Christensen highlights the significance of the natural disasters, previously overlooked in historical narratives. The mortality of the terrifyingly regular plagues impacted on the labour-intensive agricultural system, and the swamps that were a result of the flood of 628, swallowed up the entire al-Tharthur district in Kaskar and expanded further in the years to follow. Preoccupied with fighting the Arabs, the dihqans failed to oversee the dikes and repair the breaches, lacking both the labour and stable administrative framework due to the recurrent outbreaks of plague. These coalescing forces confirmed a prolonged crisis.

➜ Click here to learn more about this fascinating period.

Intellectual Crisis in China during the Eleventh Century

This chapter from Urban Life and Intellectual Crisis in Middle-Period China, 800–1100 CE explores in depth the crisis facing the Song Literati, which led to their eventual withdrawal from the city. As the imperial examinations gained in prestige and scale during the eleventh century, the study of the classical canon intensified, and the moral pattern set by the ancients started to hold sway among the Literati officials. They envisioned that by stimulating the circulation of money, draining floods and containing fires, they would promote the health of the population, and the empire. Whilst the New Laws had classicist threads, they were not categorically successful and thus provoked intellectual crisis. As de Pee aptly surmises: ‘The city resisted the moral order that literati attempted to impose on it, and instead drew them into the relative values of fashion and competitive consumption.’

Crisis of Knighthood Identity in Song of Ice and Fire series.

This enthralling chapter from Memory and Medievalism in George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones examines Knighthood in Westeros, the fictional world of George R. R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series. Knighthood is presented to exist in flux; Westeros has undergone structural transformation towards centralisation and social diversification, leaving chivalrous codes clouded. A crisis of government challenging chivalric values pervades, since the gravitational centre upon which chivalrous virtues hinge – the lord – is consistently destabilized, leaving knighthood a matter of individual ethics. Brienne of Tarth is presented as a multi-dimensional female form of knighthood, where chivalric habitus is practiced without devotion to a lord, whilst Ser Jaime exemplifies the warrior knight’s struggles whilst residing in a society where warrior values are obsolete. In re-negotiating his knighthood, Ser Jamie is forced to do battle with conflicts of the mind, not of the sword.

➜ Click here to explore knighthood in its myriad of forms.

The Byzantine Response to Crisis

Over a decade in the making, this chapter from Byzantium and the Crusades details how the Byzantines used their diplomacy, wealth and innovative thinking to dissipate the unrelenting crisis of attack they faced throughout the mid eleventh century. In the 1050s an approach was made to the Fatimid caliph of Egypt for an alliance against the Seljuk Turks, with an inducement of shipments of grain to alleviate a food shortage. Byzantine diplomacy was equally active in the West, with the bid to neutralize the threat from the Normans of southern Italy. The pragmatic Byzantines initially tried to find terms with the Normans themselves. Then in August 1074, with the assistance of Michael Psellos, Michael VII Doukas made a treaty with Norman leader Robert Guiscard. The Byzantines also recruited Western European mercenaries. In the face of attack from all directions, the Byzantines adopted ingenious methods to avert crisis.

➜ Click here to find out more about the Byzantine tactics to alleviate crisis.

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