فصل 24

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In these fairy-tale times, full of colour and adventure, there was a new family of knights ruling in Germany. They took their name, Hohenstaufen, from their castle. One of them was the emperor Frederick I, nicknamed Barbarossa by the Italians on account of his magnificent fiery-red beard. Now you may wonder why history should choose to remember him by his Italian name ­ after all, Frederick I was a German emperor. It is simply because he spent much of his time in Italy and the deeds that made him famous happened there. It wasn’t just the pope and his power to bestow the imperial crown of Rome on German kings that attracted Barbarossa to Italy. He was also determined to rule the whole of Italy, because he needed money. ‘Couldn’t he get money from Germany?’ I can hear you asking. No, he couldn’t. Because in those days in Germany there was almost none at all.

Have you ever wondered why people actually need money? ‘To live on, of course!’ you say. But that isn’t strictly true. Try eating a coin. People live on bread and other foods, and someone who grows grain and makes his own bread doesn’t need money, any more than Robinson Crusoe did. Nor does anyone who is given his bread for nothing. And that’s how it was in Germany. The serfs cultivated their fields and gave a tenth of their harvest to the knights and monks who owned the land.

‘But where did the peasants get their ploughs from? And their smocks and their yokes and the things they needed for their animals?’ Well, mostly by exchange. If, for example, a peasant had an ox, but would rather have six sheep to give him wool to make a jacket, he would exchange them for something with his neighbour. And if he had slaughtered an ox, and spent the long winter evenings turning the two horns into fine drinking cups, he could exchange one of the cups for some flax grown by his neighbour, which his wife could weave and make into a coat. This is known as barter. So in Germany people managed perfectly well in those days without money, since most of them were either peasants or landowners. Nor did the monasteries need money, for they too owned a lot of land which pious people either gave them or left to them when they died.

Apart from vast forests, small fields and a few villages, castles and monasteries, there was almost nothing else in the whole great German kingdom ­ that is to say, there were hardly any towns. And it was only in towns that people needed money. Shoemakers, cloth merchants and scribes can hardly satisfy their hunger and thirst with leather, cloth and ink. They need bread. But can you see yourself going to the shoemaker and paying for your shoes with bread for him to live on? And in any case, if you aren’t a baker, where will you find the bread? ‘From a baker!’ Yes, but what will you give the baker in return? ‘Perhaps I can lend him a hand.’ And if he doesn’t need your help? Or if you have already promised to help the lady who sells fruit? You see, it would be unimaginably complicated if people who live in towns were to barter.

This is why people agreed to decide on something to exchange which everyone would want and therefore accept, something easy to share out and carry around, which wouldn’t go bad or lose its value if you put it away. It was decided that the best thing would be metal ­ that is, gold or silver. All money was once made of metal, and rich people went around with purses stuffed with gold coins on their belts. That meant you could give the shoemaker money for shoes, and he could use it to buy bread from the baker, who could give it to the peasant in exchange for flour, and the peasant might then use your money to buy a new plough. He wouldn’t find that for barter in his neighbour’s garden.

However, there were very few towns in Germany in the days of chivalry, so people there had little need of money, whereas in Italy money had been in use since Roman times. Italy had always had great cities and many merchants with bags of money on their belts and even more stowed away in great chests.

Some of these towns were by the sea, like Venice, which is actually in the sea on a cluster of little islands where the inhabitants had taken refuge from the Huns. Then there were other great harbour towns such as Genoa and Pisa, whose ships sailed far across the seas and came back from the Orient with fine cloth, rare spices and weapons of great value. These goods were sold off in the ports, to be sold again inland in cities like Florence, Verona or Milan, where the cloth might be made into clothes, or perhaps banners or tents. These then went to France, whose capital city, Paris, already contained almost a hundred thousand inhabitants ­ or to England, or even to Germany. But not much went to Germany because there was very little money there to pay for such things.

People who lived in towns grew richer and richer, and no one could give them orders because they weren’t peasants and didn’t belong to anyone’s fief. On the other hand, since no one had granted them land, they weren’t lords either. They governed themselves, much as people did in antiquity. They had their own courts of law and were as free and independent in their cities as the monks and the knights. Such citizens (called burghers in Germany or the bourgeoisie in France) were known as the Third Estate. Of course, peasants didn’t count.

This brings us back at last to the Emperor Barbarossa, who needed money. As Holy Roman Emperor he wanted to be the actual ruler of Italy, and to receive tribute and taxes from Italian citizens. But the citizens would have none of it. They were used to their freedom and didn’t wish to give it up. So Barbarossa took an army over the Alps to Italy, where he summoned a number of famous jurists in 1158, who solemnly and publicly declared that as Holy Roman emperor and successor to the Roman Caesars, he had all the rights his predecessors had had a thousand years before.

The Italian cities took no notice. They still refused to pay. So the emperor led his army against them, and in particular against Milan, the town at the heart of the rebellion. It is said that he was so incensed by their refusal that he swore not to wear his crown until he had forced the town into submission. And he kept his oath. Only when Milan had fallen, and was utterly destroyed, did he hold a banquet at which he and his wife appeared with their crowns once more on their heads.

But no matter how many great and successful campaigns he led, Barbarossa had only to turn his back and head for home for the rumblings of revolt to start up again. The Milanese rebuilt their town and refused to recognise a German ruler. In all, Barbarossa led six campaigns against Italy, but his fame was always greater than his success.

He was seen to be the very model of a knight. He was extremely strong ­ mentally as well as physically. And he was generous and knew how to hold a feast. Today we have forgotten what a real feast is like. Everyday life, compared to ours, may have been mean and monotonous, but a feast in those days was unlike anything you could imagine. It was indescribably lavish and magnificent, like something out of a fairy-tale. Barbarossa held one in Mainz when his sons were dubbed knights, in 1181, to which forty thousand knights with all their squires and attendants were invited. They stayed in brightly coloured tents and the emperor and his sons had the grandest one of all, which was made of silk and stood in the centre of the encampment. Fires blazed all around with whole oxen, wild boar and innumerable chickens roasting over them on spits. People came from far and wide dressed in all sorts of costumes ­ jugglers and acrobats and wandering minstrels who sang all the great songs of old in the evening while they feasted. What a sight it must have been! The emperor himself displayed his skills, jousting with his sons, while all the nobles in the land looked on. A feast like this went on for days. Long after it was over the minstrels continued to sing about it.

As a true knight, Barbarossa eventually went on a crusade. This was the Third Crusade, in 1189. King Richard the Lionheart of England and the French King Philip also took part. They went by sea. But Barbarossa chose to go by land and was drowned in a river in Asia Minor.

His grandson Frederick II of Hohenstaufen was even more remarkable, even greater and altogether more admirable than Barbarossa. He was brought up in Sicily, and while he was still a child and unable to rule himself there was a lot of trouble in Germany between the great rival families over who was to be the new sovereign. Some favoured Philip, Barbarossa’s youngest son, while others had elected Otto, whose family was called Welf. This gave people who already couldn’t endure each other yet another reason to squabble. If one was for Philip then his neighbour would side with Otto, and the happy custom of these rival factions ­ known in Italy as the Guelphs and the Ghibellines ­ persisted for many years. Even after Philip and Otto were long gone.

Meanwhile Frederick had grown up in Sicily. And I mean grown up. Both in body and in mind. His guardian, Pope Innocent III, was one of the most important men there has ever been. What Gregory VII ­ the German king Henry IV’s great adversary ­ had fought so hard for, and had failed to achieve, Innocent III had accomplished. He really was lord of all Christendom. A man of exceptional intelligence and culture, he ruled them all ­ not just the spiritual leaders of the Church, but all the princes of Europe. His power even reached as far as England. When, one day, King John refused to carry out his orders, he excommunicated him and forbade any priest to celebrate Mass in England. The English nobility became so angry with their king that they took away almost all his power. In 1215 he had to solemnly swear that he would never again oppose their will. This was the famous Magna Carta, the Great Charter to which King John put his seal, in which he granted his barons a whole host of rights which English citizens hold to this day. But England still had to pay taxes and tribute to Pope Innocent III, so great was his power.

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen wasn’t only highly intelligent: he was an attractive and likeable young man as well. In order to claim his crown as king of the Germans, he set out from Sicily, virtually on his own, on an adventurous ride which took him through Italy and over the Swiss mountains to Constance. However, when he arrived he found that his rival Otto was marching towards him at the head of an army. There seemed little hope for Frederick. But the burghers of Constance, like all those who met him and came to know him, were so charmed by him that they rallied round and hastily closed the city gates. When Otto arrived exactly one hour later, all he could do was turn round and go away.

Having similarly won over all the German princes, Frederick suddenly found he had become a mighty ruler, lord of all the vassals of Germany and Italy. So again the two powers were in conflict, just as in the days of Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV. But Frederick was no Henry. He did not go to Canossa, and he didn’t intend to beg the pope for mercy. Like Pope Innocent III, he was convinced that he had been called to rule the world. Frederick knew everything that Innocent had known ­ after all, Innocent had been his guardian. He knew everything the Germans knew, for they were his family. And finally, he knew everything the Arabs knew, for he had grown up in Sicily. He was to spend much of his life there and in Sicily there was more for him to learn than anywhere else in the world.

Sicily had been ruled by everyone: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Italians and Germans. Soon it would be the turn of the French. It must have been just like the Tower of Babel, except that there people had ended up understanding almost nothing, whereas Frederick ended up by understanding nearly everything there was to know. Not just every language, but many whole branches of knowledge. He wrote poetry, and he was a superb huntsman. He even wrote a book on falconry, for people hunted with hawks in those days.

Above all, he knew about religions. But there was one thing he could never understand: why people were always fighting. He liked to have discussions with learned Muslims, even though he was a devout Christian. When the pope got wind of this he was angrier than ever. And in particular a pope whose name was Gregory. He was just as powerful, but perhaps not as wise as his predecessor, Pope Innocent III. He wanted Frederick to undertake a crusade at all costs, and threatened to excommunicate him if he didn’t. So in the end he did. But what all other crusades had achieved only through great sacrifices and loss of life, Frederick did without any fighting at all: Christian pilgrims were allowed to visit the Holy Sepulchre without fear of being attacked and all the land around Jerusalem was held to belong to them. And how did he do that? He just sat down with the sultan who ruled there and they came to an agreement.

Both sides were happy that things had gone so well, and that war had been averted, but the bishop of Jerusalem was not content, for no one had consulted him. So he complained to the pope that the emperor was too friendly with the Arabs, and the pope became convinced that Frederick had become a Muslim. But Emperor Frederick II didn’t care. He just rejoiced that he had achieved more for Christians than anyone else had ever done and crowned himself king of Jerusalem, for no priest could be found who was willing to crown him against the pope’s wishes.

Then he set sail for home, taking with him presents given to him by the sultan: hunting leopards and camels, rare stones and many other curiosities. And he made a collection of these in Sicily and engaged great artists to work for him, and took pleasure in beautiful things whenever he was tired of ruling. But he certainly did rule. He disliked the custom of granting land as fiefs. Instead, he appointed officials and, rather than give them land, he paid them a monthly salary. For this being Italy, they already used money. And he ruled justly but also with great severity.

Frederick was so different from everyone else around him that nobody understood what he was trying to achieve. Least of all Pope Gregory, who called him the Antichrist, while others called him stupor mundi, which means the wonder of the world. In far-off Germany few people paid any attention to their strange emperor with his odd ideas. And because people didn’t understand him, he had a hard life. Even his own son turned against him and stirred up trouble among the Germans, and his best-loved adviser went over to the pope, leaving Frederick entirely alone. Of all the ingenious and practical schemes he had hoped to show the world, very few saw the light of day. Unable to carry them out, he became increasingly bitter and ill-tempered. And so he died, in the year 1250.

His son Manfred died in the struggle for power when he was still a young man, and his grandson Conradin was taken prisoner by his enemies and beheaded in Naples at the age of twenty-four. Such was the sad end of that great ruling family of knights, the Hohenstaufens.

But while Frederick was still reigning in Sicily and quarrelling with the pope, a dreadful misfortune overtook the world which neither could prevent. New hordes of mounted warriors arrived from Asia. This time it was the Mongols, the most fearsome of them all. Even Shih Huang-ti’s great wall could not restrain them. Under their leader, Ghengis Khan, they first conquered China, looting and sacking with appalling savagery. Then came Persia’s turn, after which they took the path of the Huns, the Avars and the Magyars towards Europe. Sowing terror and destruction, they raged first through Hungary and on through Poland. Finally, in 1241, they reached the German frontier town of Breslau, which they seized and burned to the ground. Everywhere they went there

This was the size of the warlike Mongols’ mighty empire when they threatened the whole of Europe after the destruction of Breslau.

was slaughter. No one was spared. Their empire was already the greatest the world had ever known. Just imagine: from Peking to Breslau! Moreover, in the course of their invasions their troops had changed from savage hordes to well-trained warriors with very cunning leaders. Christendom could do nothing to stop them. A great army of knights fell before them. And then, when the danger was at its height, their emperor died somewhere in Siberia, and the Mongols turned back, leaving nothing but wasteland behind.

In Germany the death of the last Hohenstaufen led to greater confusion than ever. No one could agree on a new king so none was chosen. And because there was neither a king nor an emperor, nor anyone else in control, everything went to the dogs. The strong simply robbed the weak of everything they had. People called it the right of might, or ‘fist-law’. Of course, might is never a right, nor is it right. It’s simply wrong.

People knew this well enough and despaired, and wished they could return to the old days. Now you can wish, and you can dream. But if you keep on wishing and dreaming you sometimes end up believing that what you want has come true. And so people began to persuade themselves that the Emperor Frederick wasn’t really dead, but under a spell in an enchanted mountain, where he was sitting and waiting. And this in its turn had a remarkable effect. I don’t know whether you have ever found yourself dreaming of someone who appears first as one person and then as someone else, and then, somehow, as both at the same time? Because this is what happened. People dreamed that a great, wise and just ruler (this was Frederick II of Sicily) was sitting deep down under the Kyffhنuser mountains and would one day return and make his purpose known. And yet, at the same time, they also dreamed that he had a great beard (this was now Frederick’s grandfather, Frederick I Barbarossa), and that he was all-powerful and would vanquish all his enemies and create a kingdom as wonderful and magnificent as it had been at the time of the great Feast of Mainz.

The worse things got, the more people expected a miracle. They pictured the king asleep inside the mountain, where he had slept so long that his fiery red beard had grown right through the stone table on which he leant. Once in every hundred years, he would wake and ask his page if the ravens were still circling the mountain. Not until his page replied ‘No, Sir, I can’t see them’ would he rise and split the table with his sword and shatter the mountain in which the spell had imprisoned him and ride out in shining armour with all his men. You can imagine what people would make of that today! But in the end no miraculous apparition came to set the world to rights, just an energetic, able and far-sighted knight, whose castle, the Habsburg ­ or Hawk’s Castle ­ was in Switzerland. His name was Rudolf. The princes had elected him king of the Germans in 1273, hoping that a knight so poor and obscure as he would be biddable and weak. But they hadn’t reckoned on his intelligence and shrewdness. He may have started out with little land ­ and therefore little power ­ but he knew of a very simple way to obtain more, and with it more power.

He went to war against the rebellious King Otakar of Bohemia, defeated him and confiscated part of his kingdom. As king he was entitled to do this. Then, in 1282, he bestowed the same lands ­ which happened to be Austria ­ on his own sons. This formed the basis of his family’s power. The Habsburgs were able to increase this power with a succession of new fiefs, and by marriage and inheritance, until they had become one of the most esteemed and influential noble families of Europe. It must be said that they ruled more over their vast family fief (by which I mean Austria) than they did over the German empire, despite their title of German king and emperor. Those lands were ruled by other lords ­ dukes and bishops and counts ­ all of whom lived like princes, enjoying almost unlimited power over their domains. Nevertheless, with the last of the Hohenstaufens the real Age of Chivalry had ended.

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