12 November 2012

When your father is the Emperor

  The Palaiologos family, 1408.  

[Note: I have obtained new information which has changed my mind somewhat about Manuel as a father. I no longer agree with what I have written here.]

I have lately been writing a chapter on the brothers Palaiologos, one that has made me quite sad.  It is clear that John, Theodoros, Andronikos, Constantine, Demetrios, and Thomas have to be examined both in parallel -- they are always written about in isolation -- and they have to be considered within the atmosphere created by their father, Manuel II. Manuel was fundamentally a good man.  He had remarkable endurance and courage. He was an outstanding emperor. He loved his sons -- and in the addresses to John (below) he calls him φίλτατε, dearest, but he often demonstrated it in ways that must have often been imperceptible to them. I could write another chapter analyzing aspects of Manuel's life and how it might have affected his attitudes towards his sons, but that does not belong in this book.

Sphrantzes' account of his own relationship with Manuel, one he considered generous and loving, and one of which he was intensely proud, is instructive.  If, perhaps, not taken completely as gospel, it still reflects a teenager's perspective. He wrote, "When I became a personal minister to [the Emperor], [Constantine] was able to obtain through me many favors he needed from his father." Manuel could be indulgent to his young attendant where he could not be indulgent directly to his son. 

An example of Manuel's attitude as a father comes from his commentary he wrote to his compilation of dream interpretation. In a completely gratuitous comment he says, "The affection [for a small child] will be short because (as I have observed) Greek children are especially prone to lose their charm after two or three years of age."

This is the age, as parents will recognize, when children discover the use of the word, "No"; the age when they sometimes strive fiercely for the independence they are not yet capable of using. They tend to fall a lot, have tantrums, be more difficult to manage than a month or so ago when they were perfectly loveable.  This is the age when they leave babyhood and begin to become human beings.This is clearly not the first time Manuel has expressed this view, as he says, and although there is no hint as to the date of the composition of this book, or of the manuscript, the totally extraneous nature of the comment in its location supports the idea that this was in fact his view of small children.

 In his recent dissertation, Florin Leonte has made abundantly clear Manuel's style of fatherhood, although Leonte's  primary concern is with the rhetorical devices and genre to be found in Manuel's various orations and philosophical treatises. I am basing these next comments on my understanding of Leonte.

About the time the family portrait above was painted -- John would have been 16 or so and had been made co-ruler, as you can tell by his dress which is just like his father's, Manuel addressed to him a long essay, Ὑποθῆκαι βασιλικῆς ἀγωγῆς, or Foundations of Imperial Conduct. In this he referred to John as a μειράκιον, a boy, who spent more time hunting and playing than he did studying. It is striking to learn that John, whom we can see as nearly obsessive about hunting in 1438 and 1439, had already become so attached to this physical and emotional outlet. 
(I should add that by 16, John had already mastered the byways of extremely complex and formal Byzantine Greek, however much playing he had been doing.) Or that his father thought him so attached.  But then, Manuel mentions that he has given John a horse and an eagle -- wonderful presents for any boy -- and that now he is giving him more formal training. 
Then by 1410 when John was 18 and thus of age, Manuel followed the Foundations with seven Orations. Leonte thinks these orations were delivered in public, before an audience focused on John. In the sixth Manuel criticized John for mistakes, in the seventh for rudeness and being critical, never complimenting John or pointing out any strengths. (This from a man commonly known to have a violent temper.) However much John needed correction, it is painful to think of what must have been the effect of hearing himself publicly lectured and criticized by his father. There is evidence from later in his life that criticism, and conflict, would intensify an already chronic illness, while the pattern of humiliation set so early accompanied John even after death. Consider the incidents of his forced marriage to a woman extremely unattractive to him, his having to take jewels to pawn in Venice, his having to be carried in to the first session of the Council of Union, his rejection by the clergy and people of Constantinople after his return from the Council, his long illness, and the church’s refusal of Christian burial to his body -- all of them public demonstrations of inadequacy. 
Speaking both as father and as emperor, Manuel addressed the Orations to ethical concerns -- pleasure in the fifth, courtesy to courtiers in the seventh, and there is much internal evidence that these are statements about previous conversations between father and son. Manuel used Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible as his authorities, arguing that true happiness could only be found by right action and education, and humility was the highest virtue a person could attain. Despair (ἀπόγνοσις) and judgment of others’ conduct led the list of sins. There is much that is interesting in these Orations, but my concern here is the unconscious cruelty in the humiliation of a bright and sensitive boy, young man, any boy or young man, in public.

It is difficult to think that these texts, or similar letters, would not have been urged on the younger sons for study in their roles as rulers -- the second says, "it is necessary for us to say what we think about this issue for your pleasure and equally for the benefit of those who would come across this work" -- and that Manuel, when visiting Theodoros and Andronikos in their despotates, would not have spent considerable time repeating many of the points he had directed to John.

Constantine well-internalized his father's remarks on duty, not from these
Orations but from the Dialogue on Marriage: "But a ruler’s and an emperor's duty is to accept any risk in order to save his people, and to regard dying a light burden, whenever freedom is at stake and whenever the risk concerns . . . Faith." Typically, John Barker in his biography of Manuel gives great attention to the manuscript provenances of these Orations but says nothing about their contents, and certainly nothing about Manuel as a father, even while criticizing John as "mediocre."

We know nothing of the attitude of Helena towards the children at any age -- she bore ten, and saw seven of them die, five of them as children. The only clue of her feelings towards any of them comes when John returned to Constantinople, emotionally ravaged and physically ill from the Council of Union, the dangerous winter voyage, and the death of his wife -- his mother refused to pray for him as emperor because of his support of Union. Constantine has always been considered particularly close to their mother -- he was named for her father, the second child to be so named, and he seemed to have used the Dragaś name -- but she also refused to pray for him in turn as emperor because of his support of Union. 

This family isolated its children, even from each other. The boys appear to have had their own households, tutors, and staffs, at about the age of seven.  Andronikos was sent off to Thessaloniki as Despot at the age of 8, Theodoros to Mistra at the age of 8 or 10.

It is not enough to say that such treatment was typical of the upper-class late Byzantine family, or normal within the Palaiologos family.  It still created lonely children.

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