09 December 2011

Bessarion calls for a crusade

Cardinal Bessarion, detail from manuscript.

In 1458, Mehmed entered the Morea to obtain surrender of the territories formerly held by Constantine.  Corinth, Kalavryta, and Patras were surrendered to him.  He left the Morea ostensibly under the control of Thomas and Demetrios Palaiologos who were to pay him tribute.  Their incoherent administrations were fighting among themselves with adherents changing sides while Thomas clawed for the ascendency.  In 1459 in Italy, the newly-elected Pius II called a congress at Mantua for the purpose of forming an alliance of Christian princes against the Ottomans.  Cardinal Bessarion was given heavy assignments toward this goal.  In May of that year he wrote a letter about the proposed crusade to Fra Jacopo de Marchia, a Franciscan professor. It took four and a half more years before the crusade sailed in August 1464.

Bessarion decribed the Morea as a land flowing with milk and honey, but he had not been there for 25 years. Some of his numbers are extraordinary, though the Isthmus is all right, and they should be taken not as untruthfulness but as a measure of his desire for its recreation as the heart of a restored Eastern Empire. I am not convinced of his view of Thomas, but he was trying to rally the troops.****

This is my draft translation of part of the letter:

 * * * * *

In Greece there is also this large province, commonly called Morea, about 800 miles in circumference, with most the most fruitful, fertile fields and a great abundance of everything, not only providing that which is necessary for human use, but also for producing bread, wine, meat, cheese, wool, cotton, linen, silk, kermes, cochineal, small berries for making dye. Everything is found in abundance.  Grain is two stera for one ducat .  . . wine costs nothing, eight castrones a ducat.** Hay and straw for horses without number so that, in addition to the inhabitants and locals of the place, the country can feed 50,000*** horsemen without having to get food from any other source. Last year the Turks came in with 80,000 mounted soldiers, and innumerable foot and wagons, and they stayed five months and still had an abundance of food, and even after they left everything was very cheap, so abundant is everything.

Further, it is almost an island, its shape is round and large and full, surrounded by the sea, with a narrow branch by which is it connected to the mainland, a width of six miles, by which protection the whole country is secure.  Also, the cities which it has, are almost 300, walled, very strong and very well fortified; also, innumerable animals, and a generous supply of men. Also, it is well situated, for Italy, Sicily, Crete and the other islands, Turkey, Albania, and Macedonia, and other parts of Christendom, so that, if it is in Christian hands, it could be the means of major attacks on the Turks and a great use to Christians: if it is in Turkish hands, it would threaten great danger to Christians.  

Such, therefore is the land which the Turkish infidels almost completely occupy. Last year they entered it with a great force, in a betrayal by evil men, except for a few places, in which the lords of those places, who are both brothers of the lord, the emperor of the Greeks, the brother dead in the Constantinople war, received him.  But this year, in January last, God resuscitated the spirit of one of those lords, Thomas Palaiologos, despot of the Morea, and he took up arms against the infidels for his own liberty and that of his people, and within two months he recovered all the lost places.  Blessed be God!  The thing is great and wondrous, and was and is a miracle, and it holds out to us great hope for future things, so long as we understand how to use it well!

* In 1480, Bartolomeo Minio expected Argolid grain to be 3 stera for a ducat.
**  Castrones: castrated goats.  
***The largest semi-reliable number we have for horsemen is 10,000 in 1417 under John Palaiologos against the Principality of Achaia.  It comes from a Venetian chronicle.  A more reliable number is a Venetian document of 1418 which gives 6000.  Neither Plethon nor the Cronicle of the Morea expected more than 6000 at any one time, and in 1444 John VIII said there were 6000.
**** In fact, when the crusade actually came off, the Venetians had to arrange for Thomas to be told that he was not going with them.

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