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8-08-2015, 00:34

Cultural life

The intellectual and artistic production of the fourteenth century is impressive in terms of quantity and in quality. Modern scholars have routinely contrasted these achievements to the weakness of the state; but we have seen that there was both strength and vitality, especially in the first half of the century, not surprisingly the period when intellectual and artistic activity was at its highest. Whether one calls this a renaissance or a revival,56 the main traits are clear. There were a considerable number of people whom one may term intellectuals. Many were acquainted with each other, corresponded with each other as the voluminous epistolography of the period shows, were teachers of the next generation (as was the case, for example, for Theodore Metochites and Nikephoros Gregoras). Most, though by no means all, of the intellectuals came from the ranks of the clergy, the aristocracy and officialdom as, more predictably, did their patrons. These were people with a first-rate classical education in Greek; some, like Demetrios Kydones and the monk Maximos Planoudes, also knew and translated Latin. They were polymaths, who wrote on a large number of subjects, including theology, mathematics, astronomy and geography. The latter was of particular importance in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries: Planoudes is responsible for commissioning the first extant Ptolemaic Geography with the full twenty-seven maps.57 They were also editors and commentators of texts. Finally, the period has considerable literary production, both in high Greek and in the popular language. The great centres of intellectual life were Constantinople (until the 1330s), Thessaloniki and Mistra. But smaller cities could also boast of intellectuals, and artistic production of high quality may be found in the provinces. The causes of this revival are multiple. The recovery of Constantinople was in itself a stimulus, although there were highly educated people in the empire of Nicaea.58 Political vicissitudes also influenced attitudes. The profound interest in antiquity, responsible for classicising styles both in writing and in art, may well be connected to new concepts of selfidentification which included identification with the ancient Greeks, the Hellenes; this was already clearly evident in the late twelfth century, when intellectuals posited a cultural identification with ancient Greece, to contrast themselves to the westerners.59 Patronage played an important role. Emperor Andronikos II was deeply interested in intellectual matters, and his most important officials (Nikephoros Choumnos and TheodoreMetochites) were among the major scholars of the day. There was, besides, still sufficient money to permit intellectual and artistic production. Until the end of Andronikos II’s reign the imperial court functioned as an important patron. Michael VIII called himself a new Constantine, and he was the first to invest in the rebuilding not only of the walls but of the city which had greatly suffered during the Fourth Crusade and the Latin occupation. The Deesis mosaic in St Sophia is thought to have been made just after the reconquest (fig. 58).60 Members of the highest aristocracy, relatives of this emperor and his successor, participated in the rebuilding, primarily through the restoration and expansion of monasteries and churches; women were important patrons. The mosaics and frescoes of the period, both in Constantinople and in Thessaloniki, were of the highest quality. Perhaps the best among them are the mosaics and frescoes in the church of the Chora monastery (Kariye Djami), the result of the patronage of TheodoreMetochites (fig. 59). It seems that building churches and palaces was considered an important attribute of the aristocracy. The production of manuscripts also flourished, again with some women as patrons. Aristocratic patronage was also important in other parts of the fourteenth-century Greek world, Thessaly for example. By contrast, it has by the Ottomans. Raids were soon followed by the conquest of cities, Didymoteichon falling in 1361, Philippopolis in 1363 and Adrianople in 1369. With the fall of the latter, the road to Macedonia and Bulgaria was open. In 1371 theOttoman victory at the battle of theMaritsa destroyed the Serbian state of Serres; the city passed into Byzantine hands, but only until 1383. At the same time, the Byzantine and Serbian rulers became tributary to the Ottoman sultan; John V and later his son, Manuel II Palaiologos (1391–1425), were forced to follow the sultan on campaign.63 After 1371, the Byzantine emperors could rule only with the help or forbearance of the Venetians, theGenoese and theOttomans. The struggles for the throne among members of the imperial family only exacerbated their dependence, as each sought the help of one or another of these powers.True, there were some efforts to resist these trends. Thus Manuel Palaiologos, later emperor, at a time when he was at odds with his father, went secretly to Thessaloniki, where he established what Demetrios Kydones called a ‘new authority’. For a short time he was able to launch expeditions against the Turks; but his successes, though heartening to Byzantines and western Europeans alike,64 were short-lived, as may be seen by the fall of Serres to the Ottomans in 1383 and of Thessaloniki in 1387. The city, cut off from its hinterland, suffered from lack of food and its population was rent by social tensions and factional disagreements. Even its archbishop abandoned it in 1386–7, along with some of the clergy. Manuel, too, was forced to leave Thessaloniki. He eventually returned to Constantinople, where, in 1391, he succeeded his father on the throne. The first Turkish conquest of Thessaloniki lasted until 1403 (see also below, pp. 857–8). The other avenue of resistance that some Byzantines could contemplate was cooperation with and help from western Europe. There were sufficient economic and political ties to make such hopes possible, and furthermore by now some of the leaders of western Europe, especially the papacy, were considering the Ottoman advance a threat to Christendom. But Venice and Genoa, weakened by the crises of the mid-century, were pursuing their own interests; France and England were engaged in the Hundred Years War, and the papacy made its help contingent upon a union of the churches, on its own terms. But although there were people in Byzantium who worked actively for the union, the church in general and a large part of the population opposed it. Successive Byzantine emperors (John V, John VII and Manuel II) went to the west in search of aid, but in vain. John V even made a personal conversion to catholicism; an official union was not proclaimed until the Council of Florence (1439) but by then it was much too late. Expeditions such as that of Count Amedeo VI of Savoy were mere palliatives, and the crusade of Nikopolis (1396) was a disaster. The political crisis was attended by a general economic crisis, as well as a redistribution of dwindling resources and of political power. As in western Europe, there is a general reduction of the population, both in the countryside and in the cities. The picture of the countryside of Thrace and Macedonia is one of devastation and depopulation. The contribution of the Black Death remains an unknown factor. While there is evidence of plague in Constantinople,Macedonia, theMorea, the islands of the Aegean and Mount Athos, there are no particulars that might permit a study of its effects on various segments of the population. In 1384, Patriarch Neilos spoke of the flight of peasants from church lands, attributing it to the invasions.65 The aristocracy as a group underwent significant changes in this period. The civil war had impoverished many of them, while the successive conquests of Macedonia by Serbs and Ottomans resulted in a redistribution of property into the hands either of the conquerors, or of those members of the aristocracy who were favourable to them, or of the church. When Byzantine power was temporarily restored in such areas, there were long disputes over the recovery of lands lost by particular families or individuals. 66 Secondly, the aristocracy now became much more involved in trade than it had ever been before, a trend that continued into the fifteenth century.67 Powerful men who bore aristocratic names invested in commercial and banking activities, closely tied to those of Genoese and Venetian merchants. Emperor John VII seems to have exported grain to Genoa in the 1380s, through his agents. Indeed, despite the great political uncertainty and periodic acute crises in foodstuffs, the grain trade was an active one; some Greeks even brought grain to Caffa in 1386. Moved by hardship, and also by the possibilities trade offered, aristocratic Constantinopolitan ladies invested in commerce with funds from dowry property, despite legal strictures on the use of dowry goods in risky ventures. A third characteristic of the aristocracy is an increase in the importance of the local aristocracy or gentlefolk, the archontopouloi or archontes of the Greek sources, the gentilhomeni picioli of the Venetian sources.68 In Serres, they formed part of the ecclesiastical and civil administration of the city under Serbian rule, and some reappear during the first stages of Ottoman rule; so also in Thessaloniki during the firstOttoman occupation. In Ioannina in 1411 they, along with the higher aristocracy, decided on the fate of the city. The emergence of the ‘gentlefolk’ may be connected with the final stages of decentralisation, which, by cutting the cities off from the capital, placed more decisions in the hands of their inhabitants;69 it is also a further sign of the redistribution of power among the upper class. While the enhanced role of the gentlefolk is probably a long-term development (these are families with significant continuity, at least during the fourteenth century), the increased independence of the city populations took place in conditions of crisis, and was typically exercised in decisions to surrender the city to various conquerors. The most enduring transfer of power of all kinds was to the church collectively, and the monasteries of Mount Athos in particular. Long circumscribed by the existence of a strong central imperial power, the church now expanded its authority and activities and in some ways supplanted the state. The resolution of the hesychast controversy gave the conservative and fiercely orthodox part of the church spiritual and moral power (see also below, p. 857). The weakness in imperial government can be seen in the increase of the church’s role in judicial matters and also in what may be termed relief functions, such as caring for the poor, the refugees or the inhabitants of cities in distress. As for economic resources, the monasteries of Athos profited from donations by the Serbian andWallachian rulers and from privileges granted by theOttomans; in return,Mount Athos accepted Ottoman overlordship early, perhaps before the conquest of Macedonia.70 The monasteries also profited from transfers of landed property on the part of aristocratic lay landowners, who could no longer exploit their lands successfully. The state was well aware of the fact that the church was now the only institution which had resources capable of being tapped. Several times in the course of the century, emperors tried to persuade either the patriarch or other churchmen to give or rent to them church lands, so that soldiers could be compensated from the revenues. But this was usually refused, andManuel Palaiologos’ attempts to confiscate church property in the first phases of the siege of Thessaloniki occasioned a violent outburst on the part of the archbishop. In 1371 Manuel, in desperate straits, took away from the monasteries of Athos and the church of Thessaloniki half their properties, to turn them into pronoiai and give them to the soldiers, ‘so as to avoid the complete loss of everything’.71 Part of these lands were restored to the monasteries after 1403. The church, then, wealthy, powerful and with a moral and spiritual sphere of influence that transcended the Byzantine state, encompassing as it did the entire orthodox world, was poised to play a primary role after theOttoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. As the century drew to a close, the only compact Byzantine possessions were in the Peloponnese, where Manuel, the son of John Kantakouzenos, had formed a small but viable state, the despotate of the Morea. Although it, too, suffered Turkish raids, it was relatively prosperous, with a powerful and independent-minded aristocracy, and its capital, Mistra, had considerable intellectual and artistic achievements.72 It was to survive the fall of Constantinople by seven years. Constantinople, on the other hand, was blockaded by Sultan Bayazid I (1389–1402) for eight long years. Neither the efforts of John le Maingre, Marshal Boucicaut, who had been sent by Charles VI of France with 1,200 soldiers, nor the journey of Manuel II to western Europe to seek aid, would have been sufficient to save the City from the siege and the attendant hunger and suffering. Many inhabitants fled the City, and some were ready to negotiate its surrender.73 Only the defeat of the Ottoman forces by Timur at the battle of Ankara (1402) granted the Byzantine capital, the despotate of theMorea and the empire of Trebizond another half-century of life (see below, pp. 839, 852).

 

 

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