Catriona Luke: Cuckoos, Magna Carta and sufi love poetry - why Liam Fox was wrong to knock the 13th century

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The Independent Online

Dr Liam Fox’s remarks about Afghanistan may have caused a diplomatic incident, but he was wrong to pick on the 13th century. To be kicking around in 1200-1299 wasn’t such a bad deal. Your diet in Europe may have been limited to barley and rotten meat, the fashion stakes a little low on wool and flax; but out east they were living the good life on spices, wine, fireworks, high-tech waterclocks, silks, cottons and sufi love poetry.

In England, you could marvel at the building sprees going on at Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral, speculate about the expenses scandals that would erupt from Simon de Montfort’s new fangled parliament, giggle at King John being beaten by the barons to sign away autocratic powers at Runnymead over Magna Carta and discuss philosophy with Roger Bacon. In Italy they produced spectacles, Dante and the peripathetic land-lubber Marco Polo. The Middle East enjoyed superior health care facilities, which included inoculation.

Here are 12 reasons to love the 13th century:

1. It was pleasantly, naturally warm. This was the last blast before the ‘little ice age’ that rolled in in 1290 with cold, heavy rains, crop failures and famines. By 1309 people were eating cats and dogs, there was a major eruption of Mount Etna, the Hundred Years war was beginning and Europe would be chilly as hell for the next five hundred years. But meantime, in the 1250s life was sweet enough climatewise that ‘ Sumer is icumen in’ (loudly sing cuckoo) was first written down. They were short of the essential CO2 emissions, but they thought the warm weather would last forever.

2. King John, who was not a good man, was forced by his barons and the church under Archbishop Langton to sign the Magna Carta (great charter) at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. King John hated i because it was the first step in curbing excessive use of royal power, with enough of a dab at human rights to keep it in the news today.

3. Simon de Montfort defeated Henry III at Lewes and as head of government in 1265 summoned the first parliament, in which the barons represented England ’s towns. Their descendant is Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool .

4. In the next century, Europe would be poleaxed by the Black Death, brought by the rats carrying pesky Y.Pestis out of Asia. But for the moment, it was relatively disease free, although rife with running sores and running noses. While in central Asia, the Middle East and China they had been practising inoculation against smallpox since 1000 BC. The scabs of pustules were taken from small pox surivivors, dried, ground and inhaled up the nose like snuff. In Turkey they had gone one better in the 13th century and were inserting infected matter into the blood stream. It worked. Lady Mary Wortley Mongague was to observe it in 1718 and brought it back to London .

5. Much of southern Europe and central Asia was on a big love-in. Dante (1265-1321) saw his Beatrice Portinari in 1277 and turned her into a world classic of literature by using her as his muse for the Divine Comedy.

6. Rumi (1207-1273) was Jalal al-Din Muhammad, an Afghani poet, jurist and sufi mystic who founded the Mevlani Sufi order, or Whirling dervishes. In one poem, he says that we should look for God in our hearts, rather than a church, temple or mosque. When Harper San Francisco published The Essential Rumi in the 1990s, it sold more than half a million copies, making him the bestselling poet in the US . They’re still whirling in Turkey and all over the Middle East and his odes have been chanted and sung by crowds from Tangier to Lahore.

7. Persia and Afghanistan had the world’s top time keepers. Omar Khayyam, a poet with a Mozartian sense of how to live well, whose rubaiyat was translated by Edward Fitzgerald in th 19th century, was also a wizard mathematician and astronomer. Alright, this is a cheat because he lived in the 11th century, but they were still using his time-keeping across the Persian empire in the 13th. In 2001, the Institute of Physics gave their proper approval: Khayyam developed a calendar superior to the Gregorian calendar (and five hundred years earlier) that had an error of one day in 3770 years. It was based on his accurate determination of the length of a year as 365.242199 days. The length of the year calculated by atomic clocks today is 365.242190 days.

8. Wine was big. The backward English and Scots may have been drinking john barleycorn and fermenting mead, but across the Mediterranean and into Afghanistan they were tippling wine like there was no tomorrow. Omar Khayyam is today commemorated in an Indian white wine, but Rumi and the early Moguls favoured the red: ‘Today I will shed my robe of restrain; Let trails of red wine my white beard taint...a love of wine is never far away in the Rubaiyat and with it a wonderfully defiant finger in the eye for conventional piety and religious platitudes...I am my own man, whatever I am.’

9. They learnt to see in Italy. Salvino d’Armate of Pisa (1258-1312) and Alessandro da Spina of Florence (c. 1313) invented spectacles for the Italian market in 1284. Glass blowers in Venice started producing lenses, one for each eye, with a frame made of wood or horn. But Marco Polo had seen the Chinese wearing spectacles who said they had stolen the idea from the Arabs in the 11th century.

10. Marco Polo, named after a square, a travel company or a game played on horseback, depending on which source you read, set out on foot over the central asian steppes to mee the great Khan. He liked it so much he went back three times. His stories were called ‘tall’ and his nickname was ‘Marco Millions’, but once Europe had caught sight of the gems, clothes and spice he brought back, it was never the same again. The next chapter of Europe was called: How to lug all this booty back from the land of lotus eaters who don’t deserve it to cold, grey, drab Europe (This is a shipping forecast).

11. Roger Bacon (1214-1292) wasn’t known for puffing on his pipe - unlike his namesakes Francis (1561-1626) and Francis (1909-1992)-, but he was England’s first proper philosopher, whose work Opus Maiur suggested science, philosophy, mathematics and the ancient languages might be the route to enlightenment, instead of angels on a pin head. He was also a Franciscan friar, so expect something explosive. Like fireworks: he recorded his experiments to make it go with more of a bang. Fireworks had first been seen at the battle of Kai-Keng in 1232 between China and Mongolia in which the Chinese attacked with ‘arrows of flying fire’.

12. There is evidence of teaching at Oxford from the 11th century but in 1260, the university got its first proper recognizable college foundation. Walter de Merton, chancellor to Henry III found a way to fund teaching through an endowment system and chose a nice spot behind the High Street. The university continued to grow right up to the establishment of St Anthony’s college in 1950 and the Said Business School in 1996. (Dr Fox’s alma mater, Glasgow university was founded in 1451, but what a different 200 years can make).

Three 13th century warnings to the 21st century:

1. A fourth and last crusade to the Middle East set out in 1204. Afther that their goals became more modest – Cordoba and Seville, and by the end of the 13th century they had been defeated in the Middle East and having caused permanent upset with Islam, gave up.

2. A mighty horde came out of the east: Genghis Khan’s assault on central Asia, Russian and Europe began in 1213.

3. The Chinese invented land mines in the 1270s to use against the Mongol invaders.