This is the 341st post for Surprised by Time since we began in June 2008 and there is a finite amount of material for the fifteenth-century Morea, the
focus of Surprised by Time. I have been finding it more and more difficult to
identify topics, and long-time readers will have noticed recent
repetitions. Today I thought I had written a satisfactory entry, until something made me look back and I found I had already published it a month ago. Circumstances have made it difficult to have the time
to research topics not in my direct line of writing, and there is a
dearth of art catalogs that excite me.
have decided to take a leave of absence until early April. Perhaps
more material will come to hand, perhaps it will be time to end, but time will continue to be surprising. I
am grateful to my readers. Many of you have made yourselves known to
me, and some of you have become close friends.
of writing this, Google tells me I have had 256,669 page views.
Google started counting some months after I began, while the counter
I have used from the beginning tells me I have had 226,043 page
views. That is a difference
of 30,000-plus. Either way, Surprised
has had a generous share of the viewers who have a choice of some 239,000,000 blogs. I average more than 150 viewers a day. The blog with the most viewers as been "Nick the Greek," mostly because of searches for Magellan's ship Victoria. Because Nick was from Nauplion and a survivor of the first sailing to circle the globe, I had hoped Nauplion might be prompted to make a gesture in his honor. Nauplion has so far appeared impervious to any of the many entries I have written about this small city I love. The second most-viewed blog has been "Africans in Renaissance Europe: Black as Accessory, Black as Human." The third is "Rooms with a View," one to which I return weekly for the exceptional lyricism of those paintings.
spring is coming in Seattle. A surprise iris has been blooming for
two weeks. The front yard has a mass of yellow crocuses to the left,
purple to the right. The south-west corner is dense with snowdrops,
and all the flowerbeds are crowded with the green shoots of bulbs.
There are minute buds on the grape vines, and the olive tree has new
leaves the size of eyelashes.
pair of young crows has been courting beside the house, and the
crow-calls have become more musical. A brilliant Townsend's
warbler has reappeared at the feeder. The Bewick's
wren has been singing his heart out from the tops of the two
hawthorn trees. We are deeply concerned because the Anna's
hummingbird has not appeared for a month. We saw her daily during
the weeks when the temperatures never got above freezing, but since
it has been warming, we have missed her.
Pierre is having a birthday party. I am making a Reine de Saba cake and an onion tarte.
This wonderful Bellini iris seems to represent a great question-mark. I don't know what the question is, but it is much more profound than just what happens to this blog. I will return in April. I welcome any ideas and questions you want to offer.
a book is not easy in the normal course of events. Several years ago
I needed to dispose of a disintegrating Bible. Understanding that
burning was the respectful way to deal with it, I pulled up a stool
to the fireplace and started putting pages into the fire. Only a few
pages would burn at a time: even a small stack of pages was too dense
for the fire to get adequately into the fine paper. It took a very
long time, and I became intensely anxious, because it was as if this
book had its own will and it was not willing to be destroyed.
Gemistos Plethon did not have such fine paper: his paper would have
been easier to burn, particularly if a page or two were ripped out at
a time and ceremoniously deposited in a brazier. We don't know how
Mehmed took his Mistra guests -- Demetrios Palaiologos and Theodora
Asanina -- with him to Adrianople in 1460, they took in their luggage
the formal copy of Plethon's Laws. There is no reason to think
that Demetrios had a problem with Plethon -- his sons were members of
the despotate administration, but Theodora certainly did and when
they stopped in Serres, she sent it the book off to Scholarios who
was living as a monk on nearby Mt. Menoikeon.
read the Laws, he said, in four hours, a tremendously
upsetting experience that left him in tears, though that four hours
allowed him time to make a list of chapter headings, and a summary.
He sent the book back to Theodora directing her to burn it. Theodora
had lived long enough in Mistra, six years while Plethon was still
alive, to have a sense of his authority, and she couldn't bring
herself to do so. She sent the book back to Scholarios who looked at
it again to see if he might preserve the sections on logic and
science. Even those sections, he claimed, were too bound up with
paganism, and he burned it himself, in a public ceremony. That's why I thought of a brazier, and used one to burn the photocopies. Scholarios kept a
few pages for evidence, should it ever be necessary to justify his
behavior. He also wrote that any other copies or parts of the Laws
should also be banned, and anyone who refuses to cooperate should
also be banned from the Christian community.
they burn books, they are likely to burn people. A few years before
this Scholarios -- also safely in a monastery -- sent a letter to
the Morea vividly describing how a heretic should be tortured and
then burned. He was circling in on Plethon's followers.
yet, and yet . . .
had, in the Laws, recommended burning for those guilty of
bestiality, pederasty, rape, incest, and men guilty of adultery.
(Notice that these are all perversions of the sexuality
he considered divine.) And the sophists who attack our beliefs.
But these judgments need to be discussed by a tribunal, and the
circumstances of the accused investigated, because maybe he wasn't
properly educated, and maybe he could be straightened out by a time
of the information here comes from John Monfasani, "Pletho's
date of death and the burning of his Laws," Byzantinische
Zeitschrift 98/2 (2005) 459-463.
Fatti e le Prodezze di Manoli Blessi, Strathioto
by Antonio Molino,
seen two blogs in the past month that went on at some length about
Manoli Blessi, stratiote and poet/song-writer, I find it
necessary to say that Manoli Blessi never existed.
Manoli Blessi is a character invented by Antonio "Burchiella"
da Molino who wrote a very long account in verse of Blessi's life and
writings (Sathas 8: 78 pages of 8-line stanzas in double columns, and
who also created an extremely long marching-song by him (Sathas 9: 82
pages of 6-line stanzas in double columns.)
are written in greghesco, a 16th-century stage
impression of the Greek-Venetian dialect. We cannot know how closely
this represents the normal expression of second- or third- or
fourth-generation Greek-Venetians, but it is great fun.
è thora el gran Clemende,
chel Gerbessi valende
tremar feva ’l Turchia,
chel Gigni del Fraschia
de inzegno, e del secretti?
e1 Stigni, e chel Canacchi,
Lopossi, et Berbatti,
Andruzzo dal mustacchi,
Bua, com Stamatti,
andama como ’l gatti
buscade andavan stretti?
is particularly striking to me here, is that these are all names of
individuals (and villages) from the Nauplion area (and mostly from
the period of Bartolomeo
Minio), and it is fascinating to find a work by a Venetian in
1561 that remembers Petro
Bua who died about 70 years earlier. These names certainly suggest something about Molino's informants.
is also striking is that Sathas (8: 471-2) prints the dedication of
Molino’s book which makes it very clear that Manoli Blessi is his
creation. Very few have noticed that. Sathas didn't notice it (4: lvii-lix; 7: liv-lxiii, which includes the image above). The
Ελληνική Βιβλιογραφία(Athens, Grafeio dimosievmato tis
akadimias Athenon, 1984-86) didn’t notice it.
The dedication of Molino's book seems to have been written by a Lodovico Dolce. It assures the Magnifico e Valorosissimo Signore Giacomo Contarino, who probably paid for the printing, that Molino is a most honored citizen of Venice, ornamented with many virtures, and that since boyhood he has endeavored to master all the abilities of a civilized man. Molino has spent much of his life as a merchant, and while in Corfu and Candia he became interested in comedy. On his return to Venice, he started an academy of music, and to finance the academy, he took up writing comedies. There is more, about art purifying the soul, and the importance of Petrarch, Virgil, and Homer, and such, but that really has nothing to do with the life and works of Manoli Blessi.
entry has made use of Marc D. Lauxtermann,
"Linguistic Encounters: The Presence of Spoken Greek in
Sixteenth-Century Venice," in Renaissance Encounters: Greek
East and Latin West, edited by Marina S. Brownlee & Dimitri
dynatoi at dinner. Outer narthex
of the Katholikon,
Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos.
or Manager: Power and Political Ideology in Byzantium before 1453,
Antonia Kiousopoulou has collected a list of 80 court
officials and 44 ambassadors for Constantinople in that period. Twenty-five, or 17%, of these have the name either of Palaiologos or
Kantakuzenos or of both, and fifteen more, or 28%, have other
imperial names. Twenty-four, 16.6%, have the names of archons on the
list of Moreotes giving allegiance to Mehmed. Some of the names on Kiousopoulou's lists overlap, but that reinforces her point: the administration of the Eastern Empire depended on comparatively few people, used over and over .
I have made attempts at a similar list for the 15th-century Morea up through 1460, though not classified by position, and have compiled a preliminary, experimental list of 172 individuals who
could be considered the dynatoi
of the Morea in the fifteenth century -- archons, court officials,
church officials, landholders, and wives. The 39 individuals with names from the archon list (twelve
individuals, thirteen names) count for 22% of the total (another
indication of the representative status of the group which made an
arrangement with Mehmed), while 35 individuals named Palaiologos and
20 with other imperial names (Angelos, Asan, Doukas, Kantakuzenos, Laskaris) count for 31% (Kiousopoulou has 28%).
The largest number of non-imperial names is the 10 Rallades (some
were first cousins of the Palaiologos brothers). These groups
overlap, and some individuals have names from more than one category
or imperial families ,
while one extraordinary name has five imperial and four archon
components (Ioannis Doukas Angelos Palaiologos Rallis Laskaris
Tornikes Philanthropenos Asan who died young, commemorated in a
burial icon at Megaspilion, now destroyed). There are two imperial
names out of the thirteen on the archon list. Again, this is by no
means intended to be a definitive list of names, but it gives a broad
indication of how power clotted within a self-reinforcing group of
I doubt that I could put together a list of even 50 names of non-dynatoi Greeks from the same period.
Writer after writer in the last 80 years of the Morea mentioned the rapaciousness and brutality of the dynatoi. Gemistos gave them the responsibility for the pathetic condition of the Morea. Bessarion thought there were a few good men among the dynatoi, but that their efforts were far outweighed by what the rest had done. Michael Choniates was writing on the same topic 250 years earlier. I will not continue on that theme now: I have written about their actions in a draft chapter for my book.
I have found a single effort toward change. When Constantine made Sphrantzes governor of Mistra, he said:
You are to stay
here and govern your command well. You are to put an end to the many
instances of injustice and reduce the power of the numerous local
lords. Make it clear to everybody here that you are in charge and
that I am sole lord (ὡς ἐμὲ μόνον αὐθεντην).
recently come across some fascinating articles (see below) by Sophia
Kalopissi-Verti which have given me another glimpse of the Morea villages and people I have written about several times here (see, for example, "Mapping the Territory," Part 1 & Part 2) These articles concern the evidence to be found in church
inscriptions, specifically inscriptions of church foundations and donations by entire villages. Most of them are from the 13th
century with a few from the 14th, and very very few from the 15th -- following the pattern of inscriptions and records of donations to churches from individuals. The two illustrated here are from churches in Mani, single-aisled, barrel-vaulted little churches like those we see off to the side of the road or up on the hillside. Nearly all the village inscriptions are found in similar churches.
In a few cases, all of the villagers are named, as they are in the Polemitas inscription (above), which gives the names of thirty individuals and their families, and lists their donations: a threshing floor, vegetable gardens, fields, olive trees. We get a clear picture of the modest economic situation of the villagers when we see the small size of the patches of land offered, most often 1/4 to 1/2 of a modios (or stremma) 1000 square meters. Or when we see that one gift was 1/2 of an olive tree. At the same time, as Kalopissi-Verti points out, the gifts give an idea of the cost of constructing and maintaining a church that is 6.7m x 3.25m. We know the name of the church's painter: Georgios Konstantinionas.
The inscription at Kepoula (below), is more specific about costs, detailing the coinsgiven by twelve villagers and their families. The village lector and notary together donated 8 nomismata, while the rest of the villagers gave from 1/4 to 1 nomisma, for a total of 14 1/2 nomismata which seems to have been the cost of constructing a similar church that is 3.95m x 2.43. The painters were Nikolaos and Theodoros.
Archaeologists have reported finding medieval Moreote villages that do not appear to have had a church at all, but Kalopissi-Verti has a 1372-3 inscription from Crete which commemorates "the contribution, labour and expenses of the Christians of the turma of Kityros," for constructing and painting the church of Ag. Paraskevi, and lists the seven villages belonging to the turma. This could well account-for the missing Moreote churches.
Social distinctions are maintained. Ag. Ioannis Prodromos in Magali Kastania Mani was built and painted by the "prokritoi and the common people." An inscription in Epiros refers to the "donors small and greater." Another social distinction can be identified: the paintings in these collectively-financed villages churches are more conservative and their painters not usually as good as those in churches financed by government officials. The church in Platsa sponsored in 1337-8 by Konstantinos Spanos, tzaousios of the area, apparently was painted by an artist from Mistra.
I have just begun with this material, and am waiting for the library to obtain for me some of the articles with the full inscriptions, but I have been remembering a trip to Greece with my youngest daughter in 1994. After two or three days sitting patiently while I kept jerking the rental car off on another unpaved road to chase down another little church surrounded by thorns, she snatched the keys out of my hand and said, "I'm driving from now on. Enough churches."
of George Gemistos Plethon, Marciana, Venice.
great deal of twaddle has been written about Mistra and Plethon (a
name he never used) by people who ought to have known better:
. . the imagination offers a splendid choice, whether it be of
warriors or artists, of gracious ladies or learned philosophers, of
the Villehardouin lords revelling in the loveliness of the
countryside, of the dark-bearded Despots in their ceremonial robes
discussing with their architects and artists how to add to the city's
glories, or of the great philosopher Plethon himself talking to his
pupils, while the Lady Cleope leaned from her litter to greet him as
she passed . . .
strolled Plethon, the famous philosopher, surrounded by students who
had journeyed from the four corners of the Byzantine world to listen
to his teachings.
fact, most of the scholars, theologians, philosophers, artists, and
architects melt away with the snows of Taygetos if you attempt to
find out who they were, or how many. Consider
Plethon's "students from the four corners of the world."
We have, in fact, evidence for only two individuals as his students
-- Bessarion and Mark Eugenikos, and possibly Scholarios. Some claim
Laionikos Chalcokondyles was a student, but the source used to prove
that comes from Cyriaco of Ancona who merely used both names in the
same paragraph. Undoubtedly most of those who encountered Gemistos
took away ideas and learning, but this is something that happens in
serious conversation, and serious conversations in themselves are
not normally considered school.
We have no evidence that Gemistos was
Theodoros' tutor and we have no evidence that he led any kind of
pagan cell: given the intense religiosity of Theodoros II and his
closest associates, it is difficult to imagine how such a deviant
organization could have been maintained. That was invented by Scholarios who seems to have come to despise Gemistos, despite both being anti-Union. Scholarios, ever the opportunist, likely resented Gemistos for being so honored in Mistra. He had wanted a position at Mistra himself, feeling inadequately valued in Constantinople, and had written a whining letter to Theodoros begging for an invitation. Even Demetrios honored Gemistos, despite his political alignment with Scholarios, and Scholarios' correspondence with his wife.
Gemistos arrived in the Morea is unknown. His introduction to
Manuel’s funeral oration is an indication of a close relationship
to Manuel, not of residence in the Morea. Gemistos may well have
traveled with Manuel in 1407-8 and 1415, at which time he is
identified as one of the four καθολικοὶ
κριταί, the members of the highest
court of Constantinople. His letters to Theodoros, between 1416 and
1418, and Manuel in 1418, about the reorganization of the Morea, do
suggest that he had been in the Morea, at least for a while,
but they are no proof of residence: he could well have studied the
situation on trips and from documents. That Doukas identifies him as
a member of the Senate in Constantinople in 1438 means little beyond
the survival of the title: there was no Senate, and no action
recorded for it since 1204, and in 1438 Gemistos was in Florence at
the Council of Union.
A great many writers put him in Mistra by 1410, based on the theory that since he was judged dangerously influential in Constantinople, Manuel sent him to Mistra where he could contaminate the adolescent Theodoros. This too is twaddle, if you stop to think about it.
While we have manuscripts from Gemistos, all we know that he actually did at Mistra was to speak at Cleofe's memorial service, and have a conversation with John.
source that comes closest to indicating a date for Gemistos' arrival is Theodoros'
statement in 1433, after Cleofe died, that George Gemistos had been
sent by Manuel a few years earlier "to be in our service"
and "our" would then have made his arrival after early 1421
when Theodoros and Cleofe were married. Manuel died in late July
1425, which would be the latest possibility for Gemistos’ arrival
in the Morea. He was clearly at Mistra in 1427, as the 1433
statement confirmed and extended the gift of land Theodoros had made
Gemistos in November 1427, in which he was"to serve our rule."
problem here with this as evidence is the use of the first-person
plural. Is this the royal "we" or does it have a more
personal meaning? These grants to Gemistos are the only two extant
Greek documents from Theodoros I have found (please let me know if
there is another), and both speak of "our" service, one use
of the plural in each where the singular -- τὴν
βασιλείαν μου/my rule ‒ is
otherwise the norm. Both John and Demetrios adjusted the land grant:
neither used the
plural. In the four personal grants Constantine made in the Morea,
there are twenty singulars and five plurals. In the grant to
Demetrios Mamonas Gregoras, which survives in a seventeenth-century
copy, there are four singulars and three plurals, one of them "in
our service," and all four include Theodoros in "our." The
fourth grant, for Gemistos -- there are five different Palaiologos
documents for the same land -- uses two plurals where it refers to
Constantine and Theodoros. The evidence indicates a strong
tendency towards a use of the plural to indicate more than one person
and, on that basis, provides a reason for thinking Gemistos took up
permanent residence at Mistra after Theodoros and Cleofe were
writings allow the idea that some of the service he provided Theodoros and Cleofe had to do with gently educating Theodoros regarding the matter of sex (he denied Cleofe a sexual relationship for the first six years of their marriage) and it may be important
that the first land grant to Gemistos was made shortly before the
birth of their first child. Even if the written text comes from the Laws, considered a late work, there is no reason the ideas could not have been discussed years earlier. Ironically, when Scholarios praised Theodoros as a ruler, speaking at his memorial in 1448, he described him as guided by ideas of justice which can also be found in the Laws.
To judge from the
survivals of documents from Mistra concerning Gemistos and his
family, we assume a particular closeness to the Palaiologos
family. Had other documents survived for other families, perhaps
they would be seen as equally close, or closer, but there are fewer
than ten survivals for other individuals in comparison with five for the Gemistos family. These five documents record gifts of land, first to
Gemistos, and then to his sons. The first, from Theodoros in late
1427, two months before Cleofe gave birth, gave Gemistos a kastro
and village at Phanari, making him the governor of a small territory
for life, which could be passed on to his legitimate sons (γνήσιοι
παῖδες)Demetrios and Andronikos.
A year later, John VIII confirmed
this gift and added to it a property at Bryse, possibly considering
that Gemistos had two sons who should each have his own inheritance, and probably as a gift of appreciation for the practical advice
John had received from Gemistos on the annoying question of Church
Union while he was at Mistra. (In FlorenceGemistos recalled that when he discussed the council with John during his trip to the Morea in 1428, he warned that "your visit will accomplish nothing and get nothing for us.")
The Gemistos family, like the Sphrantzes family, was intertwined with the Palaiologos family over at least two generations: Theodoros, John, and Constantine use οἰκεῖος (member of the household) for George Gemistos, and Demetrios uses οἰκεῖοι for his sons. There
may be a slight hint that Demetrios and Andronikos Gemistos were
young at the time of the first gift of land in 1427, and that they
were both of age by 1433, as that year, after Cleofe’s death,
Theodoros issued another document in which he made Demetrios governor
of Phanari, and Andronikos governor of Bryse and a place called
Kastri. In early 1449, just before leaving Mistra
for Constantinople, Constantine issued an argyrobull confirming
Theodoros’ gift of lands, quoting heavily from the 1433 text.
Finally, in July 1450, Demetrios Palaiologos -- conventionally
assumed to have been antagonistic to Gemistos -- issued an argyrobull
to Demetrios and Andronikos again confirming that of Theodoros. Gemistos was over 90 at this point: does this document indirectly suggest that he was failing severely?
essentially disappear in 1460 with the Ottoman conquest. The term
was used for Greek merchants and the more-privileged Greek citizens
of Venetian terre, there were no archons in the Byzantine
sense in the Venetian territories, before or after 1460 -- with the
an Andronikos Palaiologos, and though the Venetians never granted
that title, records indicate that he behaved in the autocratic,
anarchic tradition of the previous generations of archons.
archons we can trace in the Morea after 1460 are the men identified
by Venetians as capi, or
Recall that Mehmed called Kladas re'is
It is probable that Petro Bua, the Rallades, and the other archons
who moved into the Ottoman system also received that title. The
letters of the Venetian, Jacopo Barbarigo,provveditor-general
of the Venetian military in 1464-65,
describe elements of the transformation of the archon
class into a mobile and salaried professional military class which
came into its full flower in late fifteenth- and early
sixteenth-century Italy with Theodoros Palaiologos and Mercurius Bua.
comparison of the list
of twelve archons who gave allegiance to Mehmed, with Barbarigo's
lists, makes the change clear. Twice Barbarigo lists men who he says
leading men of the Morea – homini
da conto, zentilhomini, i molti principali, le persone de i
condition – for
a total of 22 names half Albanian, half Greek. The
small number of names is striking. Where
are the rest of the archons? Doukas
gives a straight-forward explanation as of 1460:
After taking all
of the Peloponnesos, the tyrant installed his own administrators and
governors. Returning to Adrianople, he took with him Demetrios and
his entire household, the palace officials and wealthy nobles from
Achaia and Lakedaimonia and the remaining provinces.
Bua, Kladas, and others reappear by 1462 or 64: they were neither
taken away nor killed off. But this removal, combined with
emigration, is a reasonable and efficient way to explain the
remarkable disappearance of what appears to be very nearly a whole
class of people. Meanwhile, in the Morea Mehmed installed not
only Turkish administrators and governors, but men of quality he had
acquired in previous conquests. The list of timar holders includes a
Russian, an Albanian, two men from Ioannina, brothers from Thessaly,
and individuals from Lamia and Veria. With
a very few exceptions, we lose sight of those Moreotes who might
have been absorbed into the Ottoman land-holding system in the Morea.
Outside the Morea, we know of only two Moreote archons: Matthaios Asan, kefali
of Corinth who surrendered Corinth and arranged for the surrender of
Mistra, was given Ainos, and a military command in Mehmed's Bosnian
campaign. His brother-in-law Demetrios Palaiologos, former Despot of
the Morea, was given Imbros and Lemnos, and half of the income from
Thasos and Samothraki -- a total of 300,000 aspers annually, plus
another 100,000 aspers from Mehmed's treasury.
calls the men on his lists stratioti,
and says that their support will guarantee Moreote support
for the Venetian effort. Since he calls them both kapetanioi,
it is not clear what he understands by stratioti.
Twenty years later, stratioti
had become the general term for Greek and Albanian horsemen on
contract and their leaders provisionati
but within the Byzantine system, stratiotai
were the men who held pronias,
or what the Venetians called provisioni.
What we see is a certain number of
large families – Kladas, Bua, Rallis – who formerly had
authority over large areas of land and taxpayers and troops,
continuing within the Venetian system where they primarily commanded
bands of troops. This was wartime and the land they had previously
held was for the most part changing back and forth between Venetian
and Ottoman control. Most of the land in the small Venetian
territories -- Methoni, Koroni, Nauplion, Monemvasia -- was rented
out for growth of cash crops. Some was used as payment for for
they farmed and kept their horses -- they were responsible for their
own food supplies and equipment.
Thus a small number of the landholding class became a professional
salaried military class within the Venetian system. With the Ventian
conquests early in the war, a few kapetanioi
had taken over control of various areas. Manuel Rallis, followed by
his son Michaeli, had taken over Chlemoutsi and Clarentza which had
formerly been under the control of George and John Rallis, their
relatives and first-cousins of the despots. The more specific records
are of landholdings in Mani.
Kladas revolt, with no war at hand, the Venetians had to keep the
pacified. This is illustrated over and over in the letters of
Bartolomeo Minio who reports his helplessness when kapetanioi
seized extra land they were not supposed to have, and then refused to
pay taxes. The kapetanioi
the anarchic tradition of the archons but they still needed cash and
a protective umbrella. That is what they kept saying – they wanted
to be under the shade of Venice, but they really wanted to do what
they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. Similar pacification
of certain Cretan archons, such as the Kalergis family, had been
necessary for two hundred years.
Williams, my brother Peter (age 6) and me (nearly 12) in King Tom,
Freetown, Sierra Leone (between White Man's Bay and Kroo Bay), April 1955.
want to pay tribute to Captain Williams, one of the most beloved and loving people in my life.
sailed from New York in late March on the Sulima
of the Elder
Dempster Line, one of those wonderful 12-passenger freighters. The ship was immediately in bad weather: my parents were laid-out flat in
their cabin, unable to care for my brother and me who were laid-out
flat in ours. At some time on that first miserable day, a small
bright-eyed man appeared at our cabin door and took over as our
nurse. That was Captain Williams who had asked one of the stewards
why we were not at the table.
or three days later, he bundled me up in blankets and had me outside
in a deckchair with a cup of tea. Then he pulled another deckchair alongside and began
to read to me. As he told me, in bits and pieces, he had grown up in
the London slums -- just look at his height -- and had run away to
sea on a whaling ship when he was 15. He did well with ships, came
to work for Elder Dempster Lines, and was eventually one of their
captains, having captained the Sulima a few years earlier. He
married, and had two sons, Reginald and Robert. He gave them an African Grey parrot that scolded them when they made too much noise. At the time he
rescued us, he was retired, living in Sierra Leone, and collecting
animals for American zoos. (In the picture above, my brother is holding a brochure for the NY company.)
up in blankets in a deckchair, I listened to Captain Williams (who had run away to
sea on a whaling ship) read Moby Dick. I loved it, loved
his parallel stories and explanations, and have no idea now what he
told me and what Melville wrote. For years I had the sense of having
lived Moby Dick, and in college was furious at my literature
professor from Harvard who so freely pronounced theory about Moby
Dick and knew nothing of the sea. Once Captain Williams woke me up early to see two whales spouting on the horizon.
The Sulima stopped at Dakar with its incomparably beautiful people, then at little Bathurst (Banjul) on the Gambia with its rose arbors, and then at Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Captain Williams left us. But first he invited us to his home in King Tom where he lived in a bungalow surrounded by flame trees that crowded the slope down to the sea. Looking at GoogleMaps I almost feel I can identify that place.
We were not there long: the Sulima needed to sail, and the captain was giving Captain Williams this time as a courtesy. We watched as he made acquaintance with a family of chimpanzees his employees had just acquired.
He walked into the cage, and squatted down, facing the largest male. He held out his hand and said, "Hello, old chap!" Presently the male came over, took his hand, and examined it carefully for a long time. Then Captain Williams examined his hand carefully. That was all, but before he came out of the cage each of the chimpanzees had willingly allowed him to stroke them.
There was another incident, when a boxed python was brought out. The chimpanzees went into a great state of alarm, even though they -- and we -- couldn't see it yet.
We had tea, then went back to the Sulima which sailed just at sunset. Flame trees covered the Freetown peninsulas, and the setting sun set them afire. We were sure we saw a small figure in white waving through the flames as we moved out into the golden sea.
it happened. That’s how stories begin: Once upon a time, In the beginning, In the days when wishing could make it so. But this storyteller can pin his story to the days of Caesar Augustus. This is not courtroom evidence: this is a story, and we are a people hungry for stories. For some of us this story is braided into our own story. We claim its lights for our candles and trees, and we add our own elements -- our crèche has a Venetian lion, an Egyptian camel, an evzone, a Massachusetts sheep. We tell it in ways that make sense to our own lives -- this is a family who, if travelling this year, could not get from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the barrier. They might be thought homeless, but my mother, the obstetrician, said, "Thank heavens that there was no room in the inn. They had clean straw and privacy and quiet in the stable."
ποιμένες ἧσαν ἐν τῇ χώρᾳ: And there were shepherds in the fields. The people whom the angels choose to tell about the baby were laborers with dirty hands smelling of sheep, ritually unclean, cold. They were in the fields because they were watching for birth. The last few days before lambing, the ewes are too heavy to walk back to the sheepfold, so the shepherds sit out to protect them until they can give birth to the lambs to be sacrificed for the coming Passover. This storyteller has a fine sense for plot.
Over the years this story became braided together with an older story which begins: Τοῦ δὲ
Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν: The birth of Jesus Christ was like this. He pins the story to the rule of Herod. He is writing for Jews, for whom Herod was of loathsome memory, while the first writer is writing for people who possibly wouldn't know Herod, but who wouldn't know of Augustus?
ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς
Ἱεροσόλυμνα: you see, magoi from the East came to Jerusalem. Scholars who studied the night sky and methodically recorded their observations. They were awake at night, looking for light, and they saw a light that told them of a new king. They left to pay homage. They could afford to be away for a long time, cross international borders, bribe customs' officials, pay for any shelter available, and they knew they would be received at the courts of kings.
The brephos (newborn)of the first writer had become a paidion (young child) when they arrived, and the family was living in a house. He was old enough to be delighted with the shiny things the magoi had in their treasure chests, thesaurous. We are only told about gold, frankincense (libanon, livani), and myrrh, but there was a great deal of value in amounts small enough to fit under the seat on the flight to Egypt.
We braid these stories with ours. When I was young, a neighbor's younger daughter was to draw for her Sunday School class a picture of some part of this story. She drew four people on an airplane, and explained, "This is the flight to Egypt, with Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Pontius the pilot." Near the same time, my younger brother was to draw for the same class a picture of his favorite Bible verse. He drew a person followed by two dogs: " It's the twenty-third Psalm, and this is Surely-Goodness and Mercy following me."
Did you notice that both groups of people who saw amazing light in the night were not out finding themselves? They were not on retreats getting in touch with their spiritual side. They were not doing a twenty-four hour cleanse. They were not in worship services. They were at work. They were doing their jobs, but jobs with the distinctive characteristic of isolation from the usual daily noise and interruptions.
Another element in the story, one we try to work around. The massacre. What in God's name did Mary say when in later years she encountered one of the mothers of those dead children? There have been a lot of massacres of small children, and painters from Giotto on give evidence in their paintings that they had seen these brutalized bodies.
We braid these stories with ours. Some years ago my daughter and I were watching a cycle of English medieval mystery plays, presented on four stages around the village green in Marlboro. I tend to truly believe what I am watching, and when the soldiers began searching for the children, I was shaking with horror and weeping. Then a slender girl with a baby in her arms tapped me, "Excuse me," trying to get by, and before I could react a soldier had snatched the baby from her.
This part of the story is unbearable. But many find the light equally unbearable.
Whatever interpretation you want to give or decline, the story is about a baby. About the joy surrounding a birth, and the spontaneous outpouring of generosity. Many of us have had babies. We have seen our newborn surrounded by radiance. None of us would find it inappropriate -- surprising, perhaps -- for angels to sing, or for strangers to bring expensive gifts.
May you be surprised by the time, by joy, by light.