- Sep 13, 2008
The Known World in 1443
The known world of the mid-15th century was dominated by four great Empires. In the North, the English had adopted Imperial regalia in 1437 – taking on the title Emperor of Great Britain. The British ruled over all of the British Isles, Iceland, most of Scandinavia, Lotharingia and much of Northern France
In the South-West the Shia Caliphate, now under the rule of the Melguelids, had fallen upon troubled times. With a far weaker central monarchy that the other superpowers of the age, Shia power in France was notably threatened by the independence of the Azamids (based around Paris and the border with the British Empire) who had taken a step further than the Caliphate’s many other vassals in totally breaking from Cordoba.
In the North East, Byzantium went through a rejuvenation far greater than even that experienced by Egypt during the 14th and early 15th centuries. Anatolia had been restored whilst Roman power stretched further North than ever before – into the Hungarian Plain, Carpathians and even as far as Kiev in Ruthenia. Beyond this the early 15th century had seen one very worrying loss for the Byzantines as Germany had wrestled free of Constantinople’s control.
The Last of the great powers was Egypt. With lands on three continents, Egypt straddled the border between East and West. Despite the recent coming unification of the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches Byzantium and Egypt remained clear political rivals – the two most powerful realms in the world in 1443 were in clear rivalry for dominance in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean. It remained to be seen whether Byzantine military might would triumph over Egyptian economic power in this contest.
Beyond the great powers there existed five Mongol successor states, relics of the Golden Horde’s power. In Italy the small inland state of Susa – clutching to the Alps, West of British ruled Milan and Genoa. Alongside Susa, Bavaria and Poland made up the rest of the contingent of Orthodox (formerly Rome influenced Oriental Orthodox) Christian Mongol successor states. In the Baltic Lithuania competed with the Russian based Golden Horde itself for power – both states following Sunni Islam.
To the East of the Horde lay the Timurid Empire, already in decline by 1443, its lands in India were lost and its power over Persia and the Steppe was already fragmenting. Deeply divided religiously between Shia and Sunni Muslims, sedentary Persians and nomadic Turkic peoples – and between the enemies and allies of the Timurid dynasty the Empire was no longer strong enough to compete with the likes of Egypt and Byzantium that lay on its Western frontiers.
In central Europe the only other Catholic power of note aside from the British was the Kingdom of Bohemia. Ethnically Polish, Bohemia was amongst the first states to rebel against the almighty Golden Horde in the mid-13th century. Emerging from a faction of the Polish nobility that had resisted the country’s attempts at imposing its Slavic faith across its large pre-Mongol Conquest Empire the Bohemians had enjoyed a remarkable comeback. From the brink of oblivion when the Mongols arrived these Polish Catholics benefitted greatly from the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire to build a large realm of their own stretching from a Bohemian heartland, Northwards towards the Baltic Sea.
Finally, to the South of Egypt the Egypto-Norse Kingdom of Abyssinia ruled. Whilst the Egypto-Norse first conquered Abyssinia in 973, the Kingdom had enjoyed a century and a half of independence since breaking free in Hakon, the Bold’s rebellion in 1283. Ever since then the Kingdom had been deeply involved in the politics of the Empire to the North – frequently intervening in Egyptian affairs both politically and militarily. In 1443 the future of Abyssinia was very uncertain indeed with the 72 year old Queen Birgitta lacking a clear heir, the African state is divided between a pro-Egyptian faction backing a reunification with Egypt and a pro-Byzantine group hoping to place a local noble on the throne to prevent an Egyptian takeover.
Religiously Orthodox Christianity was dominant. With the Church divided into three the Greek rites ruled in Byzantium, Coptic in Egypt and Latin across Italy, Germany and Poland. The aggressive expansion of the faith into traditionally Muslim Hungary (which had not had a substantial Christian population since the Seljuk conquest of Carpathia, which was followed in later centuries by Mongol and Timurid invasions) and Slavic Ruthenia saw the faith reach further than it had ever before.
The other great Christian community was that of the Catholics. There was a time during the mid-Medieval period when it appeared that Catholic Christianity was bound to collapse altogether. Huge heretical movements like the Cathars (who ruled Lotharingia and Scotland, for a time threatening to take power in France) and Lollards (who remain the largest Christian community in Spain) dominating whilst the Greeks and Copts took over Italy and Germany, the Muslims France and Spain and the Pagans the British Isles. But the conversion of the English and revival of the Bohemians saw the faith find new life. With the British Empire and Bohemia solidly Catholic, the Pope (now based in Canterbury and a close ally of the British Emperor) had seen many old heretical movements of Western Christians return to the mother Church. The majority of the Christians of France and a narrow minority of those in Spain were Catholic by 1443. It was an impressive revival for a variant of Christianity that looked certain to plunge into oblivion only a few centuries before.
Islam can be divided between a prosperous and sedentary West, and a troubled, backward and nomad dominated East. In the West the Shia Caliphate ruled, allow having suffered from political instability of late the Caliphate was a genuine great power. Despite the prestige, power and prosperity of the Caliphate – the Shia still ruled over a huge non-Muslim population. Despite centuries of rule there were still large numbers of Christians in Spain, whilst in France they greatly outnumbered the Muslims. In Algeria there remained substantial numbers of Coptic Christians, and in Sub-Saharan Africa local forms of Paganism continued to hold sway over the majority of the population.
In the East the situation of the Shia Caliphate appeared enviable. Although the Muslims of India were also almost exclusively Sunni, the monopoly of Sunni Islam East of Spain had started to crack during the 14th century. In Central Asia supporters of a version of Shia Islam, that although friendly to the Shia Caliphate in Andalucia was very much independent of it, began to rise in numbers and prominence. The conquests of the Timurids – who supported this Ismaili variant of Shia Islam – spread the faith far and wide. The success of the Ismaili left Eastern Islam deeply divided between the traditional Sunnis and the new and vibrant Ismailis.
Beyond the Islamic and Christian world there still existed large communities of Pagans – especially in Eastern Europe. North of the lands of the Golden Horde traditional Finnish forms of Paganism continued to rule, whilst in isolated parts of the British Empire as well as in Karelia old Norse Paganism was still practised. But the most significant Pagan community were the Slavic Pagans. In the last years before the Mongol Invasions the great Slavic Pagan rulers of the day in Poland had formulated a structured Slavic church. In 1443 that structured church survived largely in the old heartlands of the Kingdom of Ruthenia – where its adherents had ruled on and off since the Horde’s collapse began, but also in Gelre where the only fragment of the old Polish Empire to survive the Mongol invasion remarkably survived. Elsewhere traditional forms of Slavic and Baltic Paganism dominated the Baltics and Russia – although these groups seemed ever more willing to accept the structured Slavic Church if it meant protection from forcible conversion to Islam.
Into the 15th century the cultural impact of the Mongol invasions could still be felt with substantial communities of Turkic peoples settling from Persia and the Steppe, across Eastern and Central Europe – even existing as far away as Italy (in more limited numbers) and the Alps. Italy itself was perhaps the most intriguing and culturally diverse region on earth – deeply affected by the wave after wave of invasions that had afflicted the country since the fall of the Roman Empire. The peninsula was majority Greek speaking with large communities of Egypto-Norse, Italian, French and German speakers and with smaller Turkic communities. Egypt meanwhile was, on the whole, Egypto-Norse speaking with a very substantial number of Arabic speakers (especially in Mesopotamia and the Eastern parts of the Arabian Peninsula) with smaller Berber and Greek communities. In 1443 the three most widely spoken languages in the known world were Egypto-Norse, Greek and Andalucian Arabic – followed by Anglo-Norse, Polish, Russian and various Turkic tongues.