Christianity: 1200 to 1300AD

Political Milestones: 1200AD to 1300AD

More civilizations were destroyed during this chapter of world history than at any other time in up until the Twentieth Century, and the destruction can be summarised in two Words: Genghis Kahn. Born around 1160AD, the Great Khan united the Mongolian tribes by 1206AD. He then initiated an era of relentless and sustained Mongolian conquest that would create the largest and most feared empire the world has ever seen. His conquests, and the conquests of Mongolian leaders who followed him, are so numerous that in an essay of this length the only justice I can give them is to briefly list them. In 1207 he invaded Northern China and in 1211AD he conquered China proper. In 1218-22 he conquered Persia. Between 1227 and 1241AD Mongolian armies defeated Christian armies in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bohemia. In the same era they subjugated Kashmir, Pakistan and parts of North India. In 1242-3 they defeated the Seljuk Turks and by 1260 they had conquered Mesopotamia, Syria and Iraq. Mongolian armies then launched an offensive into Israel and Egypt in 1260AD that proved to be one of their very few military defeats. In 1260AD Kublai Kahn, Genghis Kahn’s grandson, conquered the Song dynasty of south China before launching invasions of Vietnam in 1257AD, Japan in1273AD, Burma (1277AD) and Hindu Indonesia (1293AD).

The Mongolian invasions were so destructive and bloodthirsty that entire cities were put to the sword within a week of losing to the Mongols. It is estimated that between 30 and 70 million people lost their lives violently or through starvation caused by destruction of irrigation systems and food supplies. China alone lost up to 20 million. Persia’s population dropped 90% to 250,000. Hungary, Russia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Ukraine lost between 25% and 50%, of their populations…and the list goes on…and on…and miserably on. Any city, no matter the population, that resisted his armies was systematically and completely massacred and wiped from the earth. It was said that heads were piled meters high in orgies of decapitations after a victory. The destruction of Bagdad, the epicentre of Islamic culture, was so complete that Islamic learning has never recovered to this day. The Islamic golden era of the Middle Ages was now brought to an abrupt end. Triumphant Islam had been utterly humiliated through scorched earth tactics, superior military discipline, and the first large scale use of gunpowder in war.   

In the end the Mongolian empire was so large that it disintegrated into factions by the end of the century. Yet it was the re-unification and commercial trust engendered by a single Euro-Asian empire that enabled a 15 year old European by the name of Marco Polo to travel a re-vitalised Silk Road (1271AD) with his father and uncle to live for fifteen years in the service of the Chinese Emperor Kublai Kahn. This visit, and the book Polo wrote of his adventures stimulated a great desire in Europe for further trade with the Orient. This eventually led to the great age of European exploration, which was initially inspired as a means of side-stepping Muslim control of the continental trade routes. It also brought the plague to Europe sixty years later.

On the western fringe of the Mongolian Empire, saved by the accident of geography, was European Christendom, still struggling to impose its will on the Middle East, Northern Europe and Southern Spain. The crusades were still occurring with rapid succession. There were a total of seven between 1204AD and 1291AD. Some were militarily successful, such as the retaking of Jerusalem in 1228AD in the Fourth Crusade. While others were a disaster, such as The Children’s Crusade, where 30,000 children were kidnapped on their way to the Middle East and sold as slaves to Muslim traders. Another involved the extermination of a perceived heretical group called the Cathars in France. In the Iberian Peninsula Catholic advances left little to the Muslims but Grenada by 1248AD. All of these crusades had a common motivational element after the Pope in 1215AD decreed in the Fourth Lateran Council that any Christian who takes up the sword in a crusade has their sins automatically forgiven. This was the greatest of all heresies! 

One of the lasting and least expected results of the crusades of this era was the beginning of an era of learning in Europe. The Renaissance movement was a combination of the re-discovery of the wisdom of ancient Greece preserved in the Byzantine culture, of the astronomical, engineering and mathematical genius of the Islamic world, and the advances occurring in European Christendom itself. It was this flowering of knowledge that brought Europe from the periphery of the world to its centre, and would open the way for the emergence of spiritual rebirth during the Reformation. It is hard to over-estimate the role of the crusades in shaping the modern western world, starting from this period. Perhaps a single example will suffice. In 1202AD Leonardo Fibonacci published his famous “Liber Abaci”, or book of calculations. It introduced the Hindu-Arabic decimal counting system to Europe for the first time and showed them far superior ways of calculating. The result was a complete transformation in banking and finance in the Italian City States over the next two centuries. This one breakthrough alone is the key foundation of the worlds banking system.

Over in England, powerful barons forced King John to give up some of his absolute powers and sign the Magna Carter in 1215AD. This document was a product of a deeply Christian era and was largely framed by the chief negotiator, Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton.  This led eventually to the convening of the first parliament in 1265AD, putting England, and eventually the Western world, on the road toward parliamentary democracy.

Spiritual Milestones: 1200AD to 1300AD

Christians of all stripes were not spared the bloodletting of the thirteenth century. It was to see the greatest number of martyrs in all of Christian history up until the era of modern Communism.  Some 15% of the 30 to 70 million that perished were culturally Christian. The vast majority were Nestorian Christians in Asian, Middle Eastern and Central Asian regions, precious lives snuffed out in an orgy of blood. This proved to be the beginning of the end for the Nestorian church. Many of its urban leaders perished, leaving mainly rural and less educated followers to fend for themselves. 

Christendom suffered in many other parts of the world as well. Throughout the century the Biblically faithful Waldensians in France and Italy were being burnt at the stake by the Catholic Church as heretics. The Cathars saw over half a million followers executed in the Albigensian Crusade, called by Pope Innocent the Third in 1208AD. Heresy back then was a state law punishable by death. The Bogomils, another sect fighting against Catholic control in Bosnia, were also destroyed. In response to these reform movements, the Synod of Toulouse even banned bible reading for the laity in 1229AD, a ban that would stay in place until the time of Martin Luther. In the eastern edge of Christendom Catholic crusaders massacred 30,000 orthodox Christians during their sack of Constantinople in 1204AD on their way to a crusade. For the next 50 years the Catholics ruled the city and translated many ancient Greek texts into Latin. Catholic soldiers themselves died en-masse fighting the Mongols in Hungary and Poland, and many others died fighting the Muslims in the seven crusades of the 1200’s. It is a sad fact that only a handful of those millions of people calling themselves Christian were actually practicing believers, following the true teachings of Jesus Christ.

In Western Europe, thanks to the freer flow of ideas generated by the Medieval Renaissance, humble Waldensians in France, devout men such as Francis of Assisi (1182-1226AD) in Italy, and others like the Beghards and Beguines (1200-1500AD) of the Dutch lowlands, started preaching a message of spiritual forgiveness and relationship with Christ. In the process they fanned a slowly growing flame of true Christianity across the continent. Europeans were once again eating from the tree of life.

Pietism was not the only new stream of thinking generated by the Medieval Renaissance. This was the century of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274AD), the towering intellectual monk working out of the University of Paris. Thomas’s philosophical thought built on Peter Albelards new discipline of theology. Aquinas now combined all Aristotelian natural philosophy and Christian theology in a rational relationship, and it was a dangerous marriage of intellectual equals. His texts would exert enormous influence on subsequent Christian theology, Renaissance thinking, and the rise of secularism. Intellect now trumped obedience in the pursuit of godliness, a problem the modern church has still not addressed. By the 16th century, Aquinas’ concept that “reason is the gateway to divine truth” would had morphed into “reason is THE gateway to truth.” The tree of the knowledge was now growing alongside the tree of life.