Sunday, October 11, 2009

Runciman on Mistra and the Peloponnese

I suppose the economy must be improving a little. I felt confident enough to splurge on a few books from the good people over at Eighth Day Books (facilitated by their 20th anniversary sale.) I had vowed to buy no more books until reading those remaining on my book table--and I held firm to that resolution for four months. I was down to Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanaugh, and made it the first 100 pages or so. Nureyev was a gifted artist, and his biographer's account is well-written. But his story I did not find to be compelling, and so, I laid it aside.

My first read from EDB is The Lost Capital of Byzantium: The History of Mistra and the Peloponnese by Sir Steven Runciman. This is a 2009 reprint of the original 1980 edition published as Mistra: Byzantine Capital of the Peloponnese (I suppose adding the word "Lost" sells these days.) Sir Steven is perhaps my favorite historian--his 3-volume work on the Crusades can only be described as magisterial. Gore Vidal--not given to dishing out compliments--observes that "to read a historian like Sir Steven Runciman is to be reminded that history is a literary art quite equal to that of the novel." And I might add, one will find no more sympathetic treatment of all things Byzantine than from Runciman.

In 1204, Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade, though the Empire continued on in the mini-states of Epirus, Nicaea and Trebizond. The Seljuk Turks, the Franks and the Venetians moved in to scoop up as many of the spoils as possible. Venice and the Frankish princes of Villehardouin ended up with the Peloponnese. Near ancient Sparta, the Villehardouin established their favorite palace at La Cremonie, as well as a neighboring mountaintop citadel, the beginning of Mistra. In 1261, the Greeks returned to Constantinople, and slowly regained control of the Peloponnese, as well. In time, Mistra emerged as the capital of the semi-autonomous Despotate of Morea, with a brother of the Emperor usually serving as Despot.

(the Despot Demetrios as depicted by Italians)

The last great flowering of Byzantine culture occurred during the waning days of the Empire.

Long before the end of the fourteenth century it was clear that the free Greek world was doomed....The Emperor ruled over a small and dwindling domain; and in Constantinople the population was impoverished and declining in numbers. Yet never before had the imperial city been so full of distinguished scholars, theologians, historians and scientists. It remained an intellectual centre which attracted not only all Greek men o learning but also Italians, eager now to study the old Greek lore than Byzantium had guarded down the centuries....And at the close of the fourteenth century Mistra emerged as a cultural capital. Not only had it already attracted many of the best artists from Constantinople, but now it became a haven for scholarship.

Runciman paints a vivid picture of medieval Hellene culture through his depiction of the court of Despot Theodore II Palaeologus and Despoena Cleofe Malatesta. The intellectual Theodore revelled in the relative obscurity of assignment to Mistra, where he could pursue his interests outside the confines and obligations of Constantinopolitan court life. He was not particularly pleased to hear that his brother the Emperor had arranged for him to marry Cleofe Malatesta. Though from a junior branch of the family, the Malatestas were not without connections. Her uncle was Pope Martin V, and her kinsman was Pandolfo Malatesta, the notorious "Wolf of Rimini" (to be labeled notorious in Renaissance Italy took some doing.)

Pandolfo Malatesta, the "Wolf of Rimini"

Their marriage was tempetuous, at least at first. Theodore was moody and difficult, and was seriously considering taking monastic vows just before he learned he was to marry. Cleofe was, well....a Malatesta. In time, Theodore came to realize he had a kindred spirit in the beautiful Cleofe. And under their patronage, artists and scholars flocked to Mistra. Cleofe adapted herself quickly to her new home--so much so that her uncle the Pope sent her a severe letter, threatening excommunication and damnation if she should become Orthodox. But the threats of a far-away pontiff did not sway her, and as the scholar George Gemistus Plethon wrote "she discarded the soft and decadent habits of the Italians to learn the simple modesty of our own manners, in which she was not excelled by any of our ladies." The Despoena Cleofe died young, and was much-mourned by her husband and subjects. Their only surviving child, Helena, married the Frankish King of Cyprus and titular Prince of Antioch, John II. (John was the last legitimate male heir of the old Crusader, Raymond of Toulouse. Helena greatly strengthened the Orthodox Church in Cyprus until her own early death.)

This is the sort of history I enjoy--obscure events in obscure places among people now largely forgotten. And I suppose there is a certain amount of escapism to it all. While immersed in the details of 14th-century Mistra, one can ignore, for a while, the realities of 21st-century America. But even in so doing there are lessons to be learned. A good friend of mine--a true intellectual--recently asked me to explain the uniqueness of the Byzantine Empire--why was it so different and why did I place so much importance on it? He is perhaps the most well-read person I have ever known, but the Byzantine East has just never been a particular area of study.

There is much that could be said in response to this question. Runciman's account offers one particular insight. Frankish troops poured into the Peloponnese soon after 1204, with the land soon divided into fiefs apportioned among the knights and noblemen. Most of the men were unmarried, and among the married, only the wealthiest could afford to bring their wives from France. The poorer soldiers took their wives from among the native Greek populace. In short order, there emerged a half-caste element, the gasmoules. The ruling Franks looked upon them with contempt and disdain. Over two generations, they became a sizable minority. In large part, the gasmoules adhered to the Orthodox faith of their mothers, while maintaining the martial abilities of their fathers. These half-castes suffered no slight from the Greek community, and became an important element in the restoration of Byzantine control. In this, Runciman gives no little credit to the gasmoules, "whom the Franks despised but whom the Byzantines, who were lacking in racial prejudice and were willing to welcome as equals anyone who accepted the Orthodox faith, regarded as fellow-citizens."

No doubt many Byzantines were as haughty and proud of their Empire (and their Church) as their compatriots in Western Europe. But this culture, which spoke Greek but thought of themselves as Roman, had little in the way of racial or ethnic prejudice. Greeks, Bulgars, Serbs, Albanians, Georgians, Armenians, Syrians, Russians and other Slavs, all bumped shoulders in Constantinople, not only doing business with one another but marrying as well. Even the most noble families were often multi-ethnic, with no stigma attached. This attitude and approach to life seemed particularly foreign and incomprehensible to visitors from the West. As Runciman observed, these East Romans found these distinctions to be of little consequence, as long as all were within the Orthodox faith.

It seems to me, that this would be something to contemplate today, not only for society in general, but also as a reminder to the Holy Orthodox Church, as it finds its place in America, and where jurisdictional and ethnic "issues" can oftentimes play too large a role.

For those interested in learning more of the story of Theodore and Cleofe, I highly recommend the following links:
Theodore and Cleofe: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5


Makarios said...

I agree with Vidal. My first encounter with Runciman was the 3-vol. history of the Crusades. I read it about the time I was becoming, or had just become, Orthodox. His perspective is one I have appreciated ever since. His book titled "The Eastern Schism" is another of my favorites.

orrologion said...

Definitely agreed on Runciman. He's a joy and pleasure to read.

As to the matter at hand, I wonder if that same level of racial and ethnic tolerance would have been found were the various non-Greeks mentioned not being absorbed into grecophone Roman culture, but rather absorbing said culture. That is more the case in the 'diaspora' where Greeks are assimilating into the local culture (much as they did in the dispersion to the West and in much - thought not all, by far - of the Muslim world).

That is, it's one thing to welcome others to join your tribe, it's another to join a tribe. This is especially true of cultures with grand pasts.

John said...

Orrologion, good points. Obviously, one can only go so far with these comparisons. What struck me in Runciman's account was the stark contrast between the Frankish and Byzantine mindset. The Franks rejected the gasmoules out of hand due to their ethnic prejudices. The Greeks, on the other hand, accepted them as a matter of course, with the caveat that they followed the Orthodox faith rather than the Latin. One gets the idea from Runciman that even Frankish culture was acceptable to the Greeks, with the one exception mentioned above.

Now in applying this to today--where I agree one has to tread carefully--I suppose the point I was really trying to make is simply this: In the Byzantine East, ethnicity seemed to be a minor concern.

Mimi said...

Interesting, I've only read one Runciman, but have his Crusades trilogy on my "wish list".

Samn! said...

An interesting example of Byzantium's relationship with 'Greeks' assimilating towards another culture is the situation in the region of Antioch during the 10th and 11th centuries. So, while Antioch had been captured by the Muslims in 637, it and the surrounding region were reconquored by the Byzantines in 969 and held until 1084. What's interesting, culturally, during this period is that, other than one important monastic figure, Nicon of the Black Mountain, and the official letters of the patriarchs to Constantinople, there's hardly any Greek literature produced there during this century. Instead, there's a massive translation movement of biblical and patristic texts into Arabic-- St. John of Damascus, the Cappadocians, St. John Chrysostom, St. Isaac the Syrian, all have most of their works translated into Arabic during this time (a similar movement went on in Georgian at this time both around Antioch and on Athos). So, while there was a sustained movement to convey Orthodox Christian culture to the local, Arabic-speaking Christians, there seems to have been little effort made to Hellenize them. Additionally, one of the major translators, the deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl, composed a theological-philosophical compendium ('the Book of Benefit') in Arabic that makes equal use of Greek philosophical sources unavailable in Arabic and Arabic philosophers, both Christian and Muslim, who were never translated into Greek. I think we're really pretty hard-pressed, when we look around the southeastern edge of the Empire to find much evidence of linguistic prejudice in favor of Greek. Where there is prejudice, such as with regard to the Armenians, it's usually expressed by criticizing the doctrines and practices of their church...

John said...

Thanks, Samn for another good example. I find it interesting to try and visualize the Byzantine world as they saw it. Broadly speaking, I think they still very much thought in terms of the Roman Empire, where the jostling among disparate cultures and peoples was commonplace and expected. This is best seen when compared to the behavior of the Crusaders, the kingdoms they established, and their heirs (such as in my post on the Peloponnese). From my reading, the Franks insisted on a harsh and inflexible imposition of Frankish culture--in all areas of administration, religion, land distribution and society. And it is in large part why they cold not survive in the region.

BJohnD said...

Thanks for this. I know Norwich picks a bone or two with Runciman's account of the Crusades, but I also rememember how astonished and pleased I was to read the last line of R's excellent *The Great Church in Captivity*: "And the gates of hell did not prevail against it."