19 February 2012

When the Palaiologos family visited Monemvasia

Dying child, fresco of King David
Voronet Monastery, Romania  

In 1400, Manuel and Helena Palaiologos left Constantinople on a Venetian galley.  Married in 1392, they now had five children and she was pregnant again. Manuel was on his way west to get aid for Constantinople, under desperate threat from Beyazid.  Manuel had come to terms with his nephew, John VII, and had left him in charge of the City, but unwilling to take the chance of his family becoming hostages, he had decided to take them to the Morea to stay with his brother Theodoros, the Despot.

There were rumor that John had already come to terms with Beyazid, that he had 10,000 Turkish horsemen, that he would give the Turks Constantinople in exchange for the Morea. Theodoros, fearful of another Turkish invasion -- there had been two in the past four years, had sold off Corinth, Kalavrita, and Mistra to the Knights of Rhodes, and had moved his administration to Monemvasia.

So when Manuel and his family arrived in the Morea -- it was a Venetian galley so they had to bypass Monemvasia which would, of course, have been a convenient stop and go on to Methoni -- Helena and the children and her suite had to travel back to Monemvasia.  I hope there was a ship they could travel on, rather than have to make that miserable trip by land, but the famous Monemvasia shipping disappears from the record in the 15th century whenever you need a ship.

These were the children: John, aged about 7; Constantine; Theodoros, aged about 3, and two sisters.  Sphrantzes tells us about the sisters, but no Byzantine -- or anyone else -- managed to write down the names of Helena's mother or of her daughters.  We know nothing about where they stayed in Monemvasia: I have climbed up that sun-blasted rock to the citadel three times in my life, though never pregnant, and I hope Helena was able to stay in the lower city.  A few people had great wealth in Monemvasia, but we know nothing of anyone's relationship to the imperial family at this point.  It would have been a fine city for small boys to explore, with swimming off the rocks, and perhaps the occasional day on a fishing boat.

Helena gave birth to a son whom she named Andronikos.  This means that she not only named him for Manuel's grandfather, Andronikos III, but she named him for the only emperor to have visited Monemvasia. Manuel's biographer, John Barker, who has an extraordinary taste for prurience, begins on Andronikos like this:
For Manuel's third son, however, we know no precise date of birth. Since Andronicus is not mentioned among the children left behind in 1400, assuming Ducas did not overlook him, he was presumably not born at that time. As there is no evidence to warrant suspecting Helena of misconduct during her husband's absence, there would thus be two possibilities for his birth date: either Helena was pregnant with him when Manuel left.
Well, duh.

Two years earlier, in 1398, the Eighth Death, as the chronicles called it, had broken out in the Morea.  In 1401, plague erupted again.  It is recorded in ports, in Methoni and Koroni.  It was still raging in 1402, so that the Venetians, planning for Manuel's return trip, would not take the responsibility of letting him stop in Methoni.  Manuel's return was delayed, and delayed again, so that it was well into 1403 before he left Venice and by that time, Methoni was clear of plague and his ship was free to stop there.

Plague had also appeared in Monemvasia.  Three of the Palaiologos children died -- Constantine, and the two little girls.  Plague is identified first of all by its devastating high fever, and their deaths would not have been clean and tidy like that of the child in the picture above. The children were buried in a church in Monemvasia. Despot Theodoros established a fund for liturgies and Manuel later gave the Metropolitan of Monemvasia the territory of Helikovounos so the income could provide  two liturgies each week -- on Thursday and Saturday -- for the children's souls. Plague would be a commonplace for the two older sons -- two of John's wives would die of plague, and so would Theodoros.

In any mention of Manuel's daughters, the subject of illegitimacy has to come up.  Barker cannot let the topic alone: "Manuel apparently had several other illegitimate children," and continues with a breathtaking sequence of assumptions about these dead daughters for which he can offer no evidence: "Whatever our ignorance about these children, however, it is still plain that they must have been illegitimate, though by whom is not known, and that they were sired by Manuel before his assumption of the throne and his marriage."* Sphrantzes is the way we know about these daughters, and nothing he says or does not say can be twisted to justify this twaddle.

Helena had to travel back to Methoni to meet Manuel, this time with three children.  The Venetians had agreed to transport a suite of 25-30 people along with Manuel, though by the time Helena and Manuel met up in May, they had a suite of 58 people. They then apparently sailed to Vasilopotamos, near Elos, at the end of the Eurotas River, and then traveled up to Mistra where Manuel and Theodoros discussed how Manuel was going to repay the Knights of Rhodes after the people of Mistra flatly refused to let them into the city.

In Feburary 1404, there was a new son who was named Constantine in place of the one who died.

The next time you are in Monemvasia, light candles for the unnamed daughters.

* No one should write me about Manuel's illegitimate daughters who has not read Thierry Ganchou's meticulous study on the subject:  “Ilario Doria, le gambros Génois de Manuel II Palaiologos: beau-frère ou gendre?" Études Byzantines 66 (2008): 71-94, which should put paid at least to the Zampia question.


  1. To have lost 3 young children to the plague (2 of them being their only daughters), must have been devastating for the parents. To have set up liturgies twice a week to pray for their souls is very, very touching. This, on top of the worry and threats to their lives must have been very hard to deal with. I don't know how they managed to cope with such devastation, because I know that I couldn't have coped in their situation.

  2. The family had an extraordinary number of threats and losses. This is something I think that historians avoid discussing because we do not have "primary sources" other than our own human experience, but it must have had a tremendous effect on the rest of the family.


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