01 March 2009

The Emperor in Pain

+ Ἰωάννης ἐν Χριστῷ τῷ Θεῷ πιστὸς βασιλεὺς καὶ αὐτωκράτωρ ῥωμαίων ὁ Παλαιολόγος +

This is the signature of John Palaiologos on the Document of Union in 1439 -- presumably uniting the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches--and it indicates that he signed under extraordinary duress.

John was a slight man, often ill, burdened since childhood with the responsibilities of being the oldest son and "young emperor" of an empire that had been disintegrating for generations before he was aware of his own responsibilities for it. His private life was complex and sad.

When he was forty, he was struck with a sudden illness that was desperately painful and apparently paralyzed his limbs for a while. He was moved from his shabby palace--he and his wife and attendants were crowded into a few rooms of a huge rambling collection of buildings in desperate need of repair--to the Monastery of Ag. Giorgios Manganas where the monks apparently excelled at nursing. After forty days there, more or less, but the story wants forty, he was well enough to ride his horse in the Palm Sunday procession. Other writers on John said he had gout, but this sounds more like rheumatoid arthritis, and some of the subsequent medical reports fit the profile of rheumatoid arthritis.

He was unwell in the summer of 1439 in Florence, when the Council on Union was grinding to an end, and he made a pilgrimage to nearby shrines at Pistoia and Prato. Pisanello referred to the pilgrimage on the reverse of the medal he designed. Returning to Florence, he was exhausted and needed to rest, and the account here (scroll down) was written by Giovanni di Jacopo di Latino de' Pigli whose unexpected guest he was. It is a charming account--John made his own salad and slept in the garden, but de' Pigli also says that he rode into the house on his horse because he had trouble walking. A historian who should have found more evidence wrote that this was the traditional way Byzantine emperors entered, but this was a man who was not well and he couldn't walk.

The Council was pure hell for him, but his only chance of saving Constantinople from conquest by the Turks was with Western military aid, and the only way Western military aid was going to happen was if the Eastern Orthodox church joined the Roman Catholic: Popes since 1274 had used this promise to batter one emperor after another, and yet the aid had never quite appeared. The papacy claimed, generally, that the Eastern Orthodox church hadn't joined the Roman Catholic, only the emperors had, and that didn't count.

So John took a delegation of just under 700 Greeks to Ferrara, then Florence, in 1437 for a church council--winter voyages by ship on the Mediterranean going and returning, near ship-wreck, and a stop on a deserted island for several days until John could get over his seasickness. They spent a while in Venice, being dazzled by the lovely palazzi along the canals, the evident public and private wealth, and the treasures from Constantinople they saw in Venetian churches. But when John arrived in Venice, he was unable to manage the formal welcome on the Doge's galley, and the Doge came on board his. Accounts of the voyage to and from the council, and of the council, are stippled with reports of times when John could not walk.

At Ferrara, there was endless wrangling about protocol and processions and who would sit where and whose seat would have the most prominence--WWJD was not an idea that ever concerned church councils. The council opened in Holy Week of 1438. John wore a purple robe, and a great white skiadion with a large jewel on the back.

He hunted almost constantly at Ferrara that summer. Perhaps one reason for that was that he could sit a horse when he couldn't walk, and hunting was something he could enjoy. And perhaps hunting was just about the only acceptable means he had of letting loose his anger--anger over the empire, anger over the church council, anger over Western promises, anger over the ritual humiliations of this council.

In October John could barely walk and wanted the hall cleared while he was brought in. This was not permitted. He was in such pain that the only way they could get him into the council hall, while maintaining his dignity--John was desperate for dignity, was for the core of the Greek delegation to surround him--everyone else was taller than he--and then they carried him in by his elbows.

By December he was bedridden from pain, too much pain to walk. The old Eastern Orthodox patriarch was bedridden, too, with heart trouble, and the two had to have their beds carried into the same room so they could discuss matters of the Greek delegation.

Then there was the arrival in Florence after a winter journey over mountains from Ferrara and after many delays caused by incompetence in the Italian arrangements for rental horses. His formal entrance was on February 15, the Sunday of carnevale.

John wore a white robe with a red mantle, a skiadion with a large ruby, and other jewels. The ladies of Florence were dressed in their finest, the balconies along the processional route were decorated and crowded with onlookers, people were climbing on roofs to watch, more were running along with the procession, and five cardinals were leading and following the imperial horse. All along the route bells were ringing and trumpets sounding.

It had been sunny all day, but in the afternoon clouds began to gather, and as the Emperor neared Florence a light rain began. As he entered the gate of San Gallo there was a huge thunderclap and then the deluge. The spectators vanished, the Italian members of the council ran for shelter, the canopy-bearers let down their poles, water sheeted off the canopy and drenched him. John continued riding through the city until he reached the house where he was to stay. The surrounding cardinals were drenched, the Greeks in his entourage were drenched, and anyone who saw the Emperor saw a man whose aching body was weighted down by cold sopping wet clothes and a ruined hat. Then as John stepped across the threshold of his house and out of sight, the rain stopped.

There was another incident, recorded by no one, but it can be deduced from the man's signature on the Document of Union.
+ Ἰωάννης ἐν Χριστῷ τῷ θεῷ πιστὸς βασιλεὺς καὶ αὐτωκράτωρ ῥωμαίων ὁ Παλαιολόγος+
+ Iōannēs en Christō tō Theō pistos basileus kai autōkratōr rōmaiōn o Palaiologos +
+ John Palaiologos faithful ruler in Christ our God, emperor of the Romans +

A comparison with other signatures of his makes it very clear what is happening. Physical suffering, Elaine Scarry wrote, destroys language. As John began to sign, he could barely control his pen which he could not lift for the omegas and their accents. For pistos through the first part of autōkra- he clenched his pen, printing, rather than signing. By -tor Romaiōn he was losing control again,. He forced ho Palaio- but the -logos is unreadable and he stabbed it on to the paper past where it belonged. Later signatures to duplicate copies of the document, written in private, were quite normal: it is this public signature that was forced.

[LATE NOTE: I should have mentioned here that there are other signatures to copies of the Act of Union where his signature is less disturbed, and a signature which is quite clear and different from this first formal signature to the Act of Union.  These other signatures emphasize the difficulty he had with this one.]

When he returned home to Constantinople, he found his beloved wife, Maria of Trebizons, had died two months earlier of plague, as had the wife of his brother Demetrios, who had accompanied him. The city was nearly in rebellion against him for signing the Document of Union, and the leaders were the new patriarch and his own mother. The churches dropped his name from the diptychs, which contained the names of those for whom it was required to pray. His mother, Helena, refused to pray for him. When he died, the patriarch refused him the usual church rituals. His brothers saw to it that he was buried with Maria.

For more about John's physical misery, read about his trip to Italy.


  1. Hi. You say that when John died, the patriarch refused him the usual church rituals. But how come he did? The patriarch must have been Gregory Mammas and he was an union supporter. Why didnt he make a funeral service?

  2. I do not pretend to know church history and you will have to do your own research here. I believe Scholarios is the source of this particular information. John did appoint Gregorios patriarch, but neither of them had any support within the government of the Constantinopolitan church which was firmly opposed to Union. John Eugenikos is the source of the information that John's mother would not allow prayers for John in the liturgy.

  3. Thank you! I trust your research and i think it is reliable enough.
    Thank you for your work!!!


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