The discovery of the New World sent shockwaves throughout Medieval Europe. Sure, the Vikings had discovered the continent several centuries earlier, and even set up a few colonies there, but no one could understand what they were saying so they didn’t really count. Explorers were quickly sent across the ocean to exploit, or rather, to “chart” the territories, accompanied by missionaries to spread the word of God. Scores of settlers followed behind as well, starting villages and towns where they could escape old debts and build a new life for themselves.
The Conquistadors, meanwhile, just wanted to obtain as much gold as possible, and didn’t care who they had to go through in order to get it. They looked quite ridiculous in their funny hats, but they had firearms, and horses, and an odd tendency to swing their swords back and forth. They also carried quite a few virulent diseases with them that had never been experienced by the indigenous people before (among them, smallpox). As a result, a massive number of Aztecs, Incans, and other Meso-Americans were completely wiped out, and the once great empires were reduced to ruins. All in the name of progress, of course, though it’s funny how often that and merciless destruction seem to go hand-in-hand.
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The Old World looked quite a bit different in eleventh century than it does nowawdays. For one thing, there was the Byzantine Empire, a Christian nation which had lost a great deal of territory (including North Africa, Palestine, and Spain) to the Imayyid Caliphate. There were also a lot of Medieval peasants sitting around on their hands with nothing much to do. Pope Urban II was troubled by this fact, and so decided that something had to change. His solution? To launch a crusade against the Muslim world, and retake the stolen holy land of Jersualem.
It didn’t take long for the armies to be filled with young, idealistic soldiers, though this was mostly because the only other choice in those days was to be apprenticed to Cedric the Barrel Maker. They were soon divided into two camps: the People’s Crusade, which was made up of ordinary townfolk, and the Turks, who actually knew what they were doing. Neither side liked the other very much, but they still marched to Asia Minor together, where they discovered that it was quite a bit hotter there and that air conditioning hadn’t been invented yet.
The Crusaders were immediately met by harsh resistance from the Seljuk defenders. The vast majority of the People’s Crusade was massacred, though the main army remained intact. They started anew and attacked various cities, but consistently fell to the Muslim soldiers. Perhaps it was the unfamiliar territory, perhaps it was the difficulty with fighting an entrenched population, but for every man they managed to kill, they lost at least two in their place. Still, they were finally able recapture the city of Jerusalem, though they lost it again a short time later.
Since people are doomed to never learn from history, a second crusade followed in 1147, and then a third crusade in 1189, and a fourth in 1200, all the way to a ninth crusade in 1271. Each of these holy wars was the result of a powerful rally call from a charismatic leader and bloody desire to lop off some heads. Families would be torn apart, soldiers suffered from horrific injuries, though the trebechet industry did pretty good with the whole thing.
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The Roman Empire was probably the greatest bastion of human civilization and achievement of the era. Sure, it would significantly overextend its reach, and the government was absolutely rife with corruption, and Emperor Nero liked to set fire to the city from time to time, but it still had a code of laws, and theater, and roads. This naturally made the nation a target for barbarian hordes, unruly sorts who despised all forms of progress and smelled like a dog that’s rolled around in a refuse pit. The city of Rome would thus be attacked on no less than seven separate occasions.
The first sack occurred in 387 B.C. when Rome was attacked by the Gauls (aka the French). They had just lost the Battle of the Allia, and attempts to flee to the city merely resulted in the enemy following behind. All Roman records were destroyed during the citywide assault, and the city was pillaged horribly. Rome would next be sacked in 410 A.D. by Alaric, King of the Goths. He wasn’t too difficult to deal with, though, because they simply advertised a sale on black nail polish across the sea in Egypt, leading to a hasty departure.
Not so easy was the third sack of Rome in 455 A.D., when the Vandals attacked. As one might surmise, these barbarians liked to deface public property and spent a lot of time carving obscene words into the sides of buildings. The next sack would occur in 546 A.D. when the Ostrogoths decided to invade. Attacking the city was almost an afterthought for them, and occurred while the blonde-haired barbarians were on their way to battle with the Byzantines. It is some small compensation that they would be completely wiped out during the next couple of decades.
By this point, Rome was pretty well sacked, but the attacks were not yet through. The Saracens would attack in 846 A.D., where they successfully managed to loot St. Peter’s Basilica (a public building believed to hold his remains). This would be followed by a sixth sack by the Normans in 1084 A.D., and another in 1527 A.D. by the Roman troops themselves. Apparently they had gotten tired of everyone else looting and plundering all the time, and wanted a chance to sack the city as well. There was very little left worth taking by this point, though, so they were forced to return to duty empty-handed.
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Under different circumstances, Benedict Arnold would be a celebrated figure in American History. He was one of the greatest generals of the time, having managed to capture Fort Ticonderoga, an extremely difficult endeavor, plus was key to winning the battle of Saratoga, during which he damaged his foot (thereby ending his career as a fighting soldier). It’s entirely possible that if he had continued on in this manner, he would be ranked as high as George Washington by historians, and gone on to a prominent career in politics.
Instead, he decided to switch sides for a small bit of cash. Benedict was reportedly frustrated with having been passed over for promotion by the Continental Congress, and so hatched a plot to obtain command of West Point and turn it over to the enemy. He probably would have succeeded too, if the American army hadn’t accidentally stumbled upon a British Major who was carrying papers that laid out the secret plan in detail. Benedict Arnold learned of the capture and immediately fled, and since the plot failed, only received $6,000 for his trouble.
Even worse for the former general, the British never really trusted him after he joined their side. He helped capture Fort Griswold, but they just patted him on the shoulder while keeping their hands close to their flintlock pistols. He later attempted a career at shipping after the war ended, but didn’t succeed too well, and finally retired to London in disgrace. His name would become synonymous with betrayal, though a monument would eventually be built for him in Saratoga National Park. You can still visit it to this day, and it’s dedicated to his injured foot.
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