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8-08-2015, 00:32

Social groups and social relations

Aristocrats and landed estates Palaiologan society was more structured than at any other time in the history of the Byzantine empire. The aristocracy emerges as a group with considerable power and a high degree of consciousness of its social position; at the same time, and continuing until the end of the formal existence of the state, merchants hold an important economic position and, for a moment, lay claim to political power. These groups prospered economically, certainly until the 1340s.22 The development of the Byzantine aristocracy has a long history, in some ways continuous since the tenth century. When the throne was captured by two of the most powerful families (the Komnenoi and the Doukai) in 1081, some important features were consolidated, and continued into the fourteenth century. By then, this was an aristocracy dominated by a few families, linked by intermarriage: their numbers were fewer than in the twelfth century, but most could claim descent from the twelfth-century aristocracy, and those in the highest ranks could name at least one ancestor of imperial stock. Many aristocrats (and the wealthy generally) had fled Constantinople for Nicaea upon its capture in 1204. In Nicaea their power and influence had been somewhat challenged by the policies of John III Vatatzes and Theodore II Laskaris (1254–8). The first had initiated a policy which made some of the army independent of imperial (mostly aristocratic) commanders, and even issued sumptuary laws directed against the aristocracy, 23 while the second had appointed George Mouzalon as regent for his young son. George and his brothers can appropriately be termed the king’s men: men from a relatively humble background, who owed their power and loyalty only to the dynasty.24 The power of the king’s men was brought to a bloody end when a conspiracy of aristocrats, led by Michael Palaiologos, murdered them. In the fourteenth century, men who did not initially belong to the highest aristocracy but became powerful through office, civil or military, tended to acquire social prestige by marrying high, and only the most status-conscious person, such as the empress Yolande-Irene of Montferrat, could find fault with their social origins.25 The most important exception to this statement is Alexios Apokaukos, who progressed from tax-collector to megas doux (commander of the fleet). A king’s man in some respects, he followed a policy which pitted him against the most vocal representative of the aristocratic class, John Kantakouzenos, and was never considered by that class to be anything but a parvenu.26 One significant difference between this high aristocracy and that of western Europe was that the Byzantines did not have a nobility. There were no official prerogatives, no official rights and derogations, no privileges legally guaranteed to a specific class and passed from one generation to the next. Undoubtedly, there were attitudes which could eventually have led to the creation of a nobility. High birth counted for a great deal: in the twelfth century, the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143–80) had legislated against m´esalliance;27 and while in the fourteenth century there was no such state control of marriages, nevertheless matrimonial alliances were very carefully arranged. So much was intermarriage regarded as a feature of the aristocracy that one text dedicated to social reform, the Dialogue between the rich and the poor of Alexios Makrembolites, proposed marriages between poor and rich as a remedy for the ills and inequalities of society.28 This suggestion also indicates a certain opposition to the stratification of society and to the place of the high aristocracy in it. Aristocratic women played an important role in politics and society. They were the medium through which alliances between aristocratic familieswere made and since they had property of their own, in the form of both dowry and patrimonial property, they had considerable economic power. Names, lineage, property and family connections were transmitted along the female as well as the male line; and aristocratic women were as acutely conscious and proud of their lineage as their male relatives. As in the twelfth century, the administration of the family property seems to have been in the hands of women; and although literacy may not have reached very low in the social scale, some women of the high aristocracy were learned indeed, and patrons of literary men, scholars, theologians and artists. A number of women, mostly those close to the imperial family, became actively involved in the political and religious controversies of the period, for example Michael VIII’s sister and his niece Theodora Raoulaina; the wife and mother of John Kantakouzenos (respectively Irene and Theodora); and Irene Choumnaina Palaiologina.29 The aristocracy, both in its highest echelons and at lower levels, was less of a Constantinopolitan group than it had been in the twelfth century. This was partly the result of the rise of regional aristocratic foci of power. Thus the KomnenosDoukas family in Epiros and Thessaly had formed independent states, as did the Grand Komnenoi in Trebizond. There were other important regional magnates, such as the Maliasenoi, the Gabrielopouloi, the Raoul in Epiros and Thessaly, and a number of families in the Morea; many frequently opposed the authority of the central government. Furthermore, with the reconquest of the European provinces, the great families of the reconstituted Byzantine empire acquired lands in Macedonia and Thrace. Typically, members of these families might also be appointed governors of one of the areas where they held their properties, so that regional economic power and political authority were often concomitant. Thus, for example, in the rich agricultural region of Serres, the Tzamplakon family had held estates since the days of the Nicaean empire; in 1326, Alexios Tzamplakon was governor of the city, and in charge of its fiscal administration. 30 The family of John Kantakouzenos, later emperor by rebellion and usurpation, had large estates near Serres; his relative, Andronikos Kantakouzenos, became governor of the city, and Andronikos’ successor, Angelos Metochites, likewise belonged to a family with estates in the area. The aristocracy remained an urban one, preferring residence in the cities to residence on their estates. But, especially in the first half of the century, it was a group whose economic power was based on land.Money was also made from abuse of imperial office and trade in foodstuffs; but land remained both an actual source of wealth and ideologically sanctioned. Despite the fact that the aristocracy was stratified, its members had in common landownership and a degree of privilege, i.e. fiscal privileges granted by the government for all or part of their estates. The other great landlord in this period was the church. The monasteries, especially those ofMount Athos, acquired very considerable estates, which were also tax-exempt. Urban monasteries also had property and revenues, although nothing to approach those of the great monasteries of Mount Athos. The political power of the church in this period, as well as its moral authority, went hand in hand with economic power. The countryside was complex and variegated. Proprietors of mediumsized holdings with production that could be marketed are known to have existed. These might hold imperial privileges, and thus qualify for the label ‘gentleman-farmer’, like Theodosios Skaranos in the late thirteenth century. They could also be city inhabitants with rural holdings but no visible privileges, such as Theodore Karabas, inhabitant of Thessaloniki, who in all probability was also a merchant, marketing his own products along with those of others.31 Independent peasants, who paid taxes to the state, and cultivated a plot of land primarily to provide for their families, also appear in our sources, but for the most part when they sell or donate their properties to monasteries; they are under economic stress, at least in Macedonia. In Epiros, the small landowner seems to have been more frequent. Nevertheless, the large estate, held by laymen or clergymen, is the dominant aspect of the countryside. It was cultivated in indirect exploitation, by tenants, including dependent peasants.32