19 June 2011

William of Moerbeke

The loveliest Virgin in Greece, a 13th C fresco
in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin, Merbaka/Ag. Triada

A portrait of William of Moerbeke -- or Moerbeek, Morbecca, Morbeka, Morbeto, Morbekanum, Morbecha, or Merbaka, no monotony in spelling here -- must be compiled from fragments and hints. A personality always on the verge of taking shape, he is never fully visible: identifiable because of the shape that fits the hole left at the convergence of events. Little is sure about the man, beginning with the date he was born and ending with the date he died. It is not certain that he was from Moerbeke.

William was a Fleming, born about 1215, or 1230, in the province of Brabant, (probably) in Moerbeke, now a small town in the flat farmland of central Belgium. (His father was a knight or a merchant or a stone cutter or a weaver. His mother died at his birth, or she had eight children after him, or she owned the village bakeshop.) Nothing is known of his family or of the influences that directed him to the Order of Preachers. 

He joined the Dominican order at Louvain or Ghent, in the Dominican province of Teutonica. As an exceptional young scholar, he was sent to continue his studies in Paris, and in 1243, was invited to Cologne to study with Albertus Magnus. Somewhere Moerbeke studied Greek, learned it thoroughly, and later, according to his friend Witelo, acquired a knowledge of Arabic.  He probably began his study of Greek in Paris. The Order of Preachers may have sent him to Thebes for the purpose of learning Greek -- they were highly concerned with language training -- but evidence for his residence there is not sure until 1260. If he was born about 1215, he would have been about forty-five, which is very late to begin classical Greek. (I attest to this from painful experience.)  If he was born about 1230, he would have been closer to thirty. One of his teachers may have been the Dominican friar, Bartolomeo, who wrote in 1252 a treatise for the use of Dominicans in Greece.  Not sure -- if -- may: just about everything that can be written about Moerbeke requires those words.

Moerbeke's primary reputation is for having acquired and translated various Greek manuscripts, especially Aristotle, for the use of Thomas Aquinas, and you can read about that on the interwebs. He was appointed Archbishop of Corinth and so is next associated with the lovely Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in the flat countryside of the Argolid, at the town of Merbaka.  The name of Merbaka has long been thought to have come from his, Moerbeke, but there has never been solid evidence for that until Guy Sander's recent work on the spolia of the church (first recorded by Cyriaco of Ancona).  Someone has written a dissertation on Moerbeke and the church, but this person will not allow it to be read "because someone might steal my ideas." I have been told that this person claims Moerbeke built the church as a burial chapel for himself, but if there is actual evidence connecting the burial chamber with Moerbeke, the evidence has not been made available.  We have no idea if or why Moerbeke thought he wanted to be buried in the Argolid.

What most interests me about William is what appears to be a shadow career as diplomat and intelligence agent, made possible because of his closeness to a series of popes, and because of his deep familiarity with Greek and Greece. This career is mostly speculation, and has to be teased out from coincidences of dates and places.  In April 1260, Moerbeke was in Nicea, captial of Byzantium-in-Exile. The previous year, in September 1259, Michael Palaiologos had defeated the knights and barons of the principality of Achaia in battle at Pelagonia. They followed the retreating Franks as far south as Thebes which they pillaged.  How this affected the recently-established Dominican House at Thebes is unknown. Presumably, Moerbeke saw something of events.

Very nearly all of the knights and barons of Frankish Greece, with the exception of Guy de la Roche who had been in Paris, including William Villehardouin, Prince of Achaia, were under house arrest in Nicea while details of their ransom were worked out. A major Moerbeke scholar suggests that Moerbeke was sent with a commission to negotiate the release.  That is as may be, but we do know he looked at manuscripts. Nicea was the place he would have met Greek scholars in his fields of interest: students of Niceforos Blemnmydes who taught mathematics there between 1224 and 1236, or the metropolitan, Eustratios, who wrote a commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics. He completed three translations in Nicea. The first, Comentary on the Meteorology of Aristotle by Alexander of Aphrodisias is dated 24 April 1260 “apud Niceam urbem Grecie,” and as such, is the first documented date for Moerbeke that we have. 

In Nicea, then, he would have met William Villehardouin and other Franks from Achaia, Athens, and Thebes, setting a foundation for information. He may have met Villehardouin’s (probably) half-brother Theodore, Patriarch of Antioch, an acquaintance of Michael Palaiologos. Nicea was the place to observe alliances and collect information. The Byzantines were in the midst of negotiations with Charles of Anjou and the Papacy, on the brink of their reconquests. Michael Palaiologos took Constantinople the next year, in 1261, and the dreary Latin Empire of Constantinople came to an ignominious end.  

Moerbeke returned to Thebes where he completed a translation of De partibus animalium by Aristotle, dated 23 December 1260, “anno Domini 1260 decimo Kalendas Ianuarii Wihelmus interpres.” It is likely  that he was in Thebes in May of 1262 when William Villehardouin met there with the Venetians to settle his war with his in-laws, the Triarchs of Negroponte. The next date we have for him is 1266, when we was in Orvieto. At Orvieto he came to the attention of the Dominican Pope Urban IV who had a particular interest in Aristotle and in 1263 endorsed the Church’s desire for a new and correct version of Aristotle.  Thomas Aquinas had arrived at Orvieto in 1262. 

Fortified with Aquinas’s treatise, Contra errorum Graecorum, (and certainly background information from Moerbeke) Urban IV entered into negotiations with Michael VIII on questions of political and church union. When Urban died in 1264, he was succeeded by Clement IV (1265-67), Charles of Anjou’s candidate at the conclave. Anxious about the Hohenstaufens, Clement made use of Anjou as a counterweights, appointed him senator of Rome, and encouraged him to attack Manfred. After the defeat of Manfred at Benevento in 1266, Clement recognized that Angevin ambition and aggression were more of a present reality and future threat to the balance of powers than the Hohenstaufens had ever been. 

In May 1267, Clement concluded two treaties for Charles of Anjou, now King of Naples and Sicily: one between Anjou and William Villehardouin, Prince of Achaia; the other between Anjou and Baldwin II, ex-emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Typically, these were family arrangements among the principals. Villehardouin’s older brother had married Baldwin’s older sister in 1218. As part of the two treaties, Villehardouin’s daughter, Isabelle, would marry Charles’ son, Philippe, and Charles’ daughter, Beatrice, would marry Baldwin’s son, Philippe. These treaties made Anjou Villehardouin’s overlord and eventual heir for the principality of the Morea, and gave Anjou claim to the title of Emperor of Constantinople, ultimately forestalling Villehardouin from making his own claim to Constantinople. Anjou thus controlled half of Greece and acquired the Frankish income, manpower, alliances, and ports to support his projected conquest of Constantinople. Moerbeke must have been present, for he already knew the principals. 

Clement’s death in 1268 left an interregnum which lasted two years and nine months, a conclave that threatened to continue indefinitely which was only settled when the governor of Viterbo took the roof off the cardinals' chambers and put them on bread and water. Morebeke got more work done in this period than in any equivalent length of time while encumbered with a pope. He wrote a comment on one manuscript with unusual feeling: 
I, Brother William of Moerbeke, O.P, confessor and chaplain to the lord pope, offer this, done with much physical labor and much tedious Latin, thinking by this work of translation to add to Latin scholarship. This translation was finished at Viterbo, 1271, 17 Kalends of July after the death of the fourth Clement, pope of good memory, the apostolic seat being vacant.  
 On 1 September 1271, the conclave elected the absent Tedaldo Visconti, Archdeacon of Liege, as Pope -- stay with me: this is a tangent, but tremendously interesting -- Visconti was on crusade with Prince Edward, son of Edward I of England. The Polo brothers had come to Viterbo, hoping the new pope would help them fulfill Kublai Khan’s request for oil from the lamp at Christ’s tomb, and for a hundred learned men. Pressed for time, the Polos returned to Venice, collected young Marco, and sailed for Acre. The Polos met Visconti in Acre; their travels and plans coincided with his own interests, but his position gave him neither the authority or status to communicate with an Emperor. The Polos left Acre on horseback, riding to the northeast. When notice of Visconti’s election reached Acre, he had first to be ordained a priest before he could be invested as Pope. With his credentials in order, he sent riders after the Polos with holy oil and letters to Kublai Khan explaining the delay. The two Dominicans whom he sent in place of the hundred learned men did not survive their assignment. Visconti, who took the name of Gregory X (1271-1276), asked Moerbeke to continue as chaplain and advisor. Gregory called for the Council of Lyons.  

The Council  was bracketed by the deaths of giants: Thomas Aquinas before, and Cardinal Bonadventure after. Gregory opened the Council on 7 May 1274, but the Greek delegation, delayed by a shipwreck in which half of their number were drowned and most of the luggage lost, did not arrive until 24 June. This should have been a warning to them when 1437 came around. Moerbeke was prominent in the Council and on 6 July a letter from Michael VIII Palaiologos was read in which he declared his acceptance of the Roman version of the faith, and papal primacy. 

Gregory died on 12 January 1276, the year of four popes.  The last was Nicholas II who appointed William Archbishop of Corinth on 11 November (he must have so wanted to get away from all the politicking), but he did not actually confirm the appointment until 9 April 1278. (One might note that revenues due the Archbishop during those 20 months or so went to the papal treasury.) Nicholas sent a letter to William Villehardouin, commending the See of Corinth to his care.  Corinth was a family possession of the Villehardouins, although William's father had granted the tolls from the Isthmus traffic as a fief to the Duchy of Thebes and Athens which had their own archbishops.  The Archdiocese of Corinth supervised churches in the Principality of Achaia.  

William Villehardouin died on 1 May -- he probably never saw the letter -- and Achaia came into direct Angevin control.  (The Argolid and Athens were not included in this.) Given the papal antipathy towards the Angevins over the previous ten years, I see Moerbeke in a unique position to be able to observe and report on Angevin actions.  Moerbeke may have visited the Dominican houses in Thebes, Negroponte, and Modon, and -- at least because of his rank -- Nicholas II de St Omer who had married Villehardouin's widow, the Greek princess Anna.  All the lines of acquaintances keep curling back among themselves. 

Beyond more translations, mostly of Proclus, we have no information about his life as Archbishop in Greece. Corinth was hot in summer, wet in winter, crowded, rife with disease, susceptible to contagions spread from other Mediterranean ports. Twenty-six members of the Latin colony, twelve of them small children and infants, died in one summer’s epidemic. A Byzantine chapel was taken over for their burial

William returned or was recalled to Italy and carried out a specific mission for Martin IV. In December of 1283, he was at Orvieto, with a mission to Perugia to settle an issue involving the excommunication of the captain, counsellors, and certain individuals in the city because of “their detestible disobedience and notorious contumacy.” His diplomatic handling of the crisis made it possible for Martin to move the papal household and curia to Perugia for an extended visit.  This is the most direct evidence for his diplomatic activity -- all the rest has been speculation. While in Perugia, Moerbeke apparently dictated a will to a certain Bartolomeo.  

The next date we have is 26 October 1286, recording the election (by the cathedral chapter of Corinth) of a new archbishop.  William could have died any time in the previous 34 months, but it was probably very soon after the will.
. . . in te tunc archiepscorum Corinthiensem direximus oculos nostre mentis, quem nobis et fratribus nostris de litterarum scientia, morum maturitate, religionis honestate, prudentia spiritualium et temporalium provedentia, familiaris, experimentian noscitur approbasse. Nicholas III, 1278.
William of Moerbeke's handwriting from a Vatican manuscript.

The picture of the Virgin was found on the internet, on a site I cannot now locate.


  1. Barbara M G Ilott (b.ilott@btinternet.com)Tuesday, 21 June, 2011

    All history is an iceberg. We try to guess at what is lost to sight by what we see on the surface.

    All written history is an interin report. We put forward hypotheses and another will come from scrabbling in another duty archive and say, "Yes, but ..."

    The fascination in endless.

    The detective work without final solution.

    And there is no end in sight, only the relentless journey.

    "Not fare well, but fare forward ..."

  2. You say: "Someone has written a dissertation on Moerbeke and the church, but this person will not allow it to be read "because someone might steal my ideas." I have been told that this person claims Moerbeke built the church as a burial chapel for himself, but if there is actual evidence connecting the burial chamber with Moerbeke, the evidence has not been made available".

    That's an interesting theory. Who is that person?

  3. I believe it inappropriate to give that information to someone I do not know personally.


I will not publish Anonymous comments.