15 January 2014

George Gemistos Plethon at Mistra

Holograph manuscript of George Gemistos Plethon, Marciana, Venice.

A great deal of twaddle has been written about Mistra and Plethon (a name he never used) by people who ought to have known better:

. . . the imagination offers a splendid choice, whether it be of warriors or artists, of gracious ladies or learned philosophers, of the Villehardouin lords revelling in the loveliness of the countryside, of the dark-bearded Despots in their ceremonial robes discussing with their architects and artists how to add to the city's glories, or of the great philosopher Plethon himself talking to his pupils, while the Lady Cleope leaned from her litter to greet him as she passed . . .

Here strolled Plethon, the famous philosopher, surrounded by students who had journeyed from the four corners of the Byzantine world to listen to his teachings.

In fact, most of the scholars, theologians, philosophers, artists, and architects melt away with the snows of Taygetos if you attempt to find out who they were, or how many.  Consider Plethon's "students from the four corners of the world." We have, in fact, evidence for only two individuals as his students -- Bessarion and Mark Eugenikos, and possibly Scholarios. Some claim Laionikos Chalcokondyles was a student, but the source used to prove that comes from Cyriaco of Ancona who merely used both names in the same paragraph. Undoubtedly most of those who encountered Gemistos took away ideas and learning, but this is something that happens in serious conversation, and serious conversations in themselves are not normally considered school. 

We have no evidence that Gemistos was Theodoros' tutor and we have no evidence that he led any kind of pagan cell: given the intense religiosity of Theodoros II and his closest associates, it is difficult to imagine how such a deviant organization could have been maintained. That was invented by Scholarios who seems to have come to despise Gemistos, despite both being anti-Union.  Scholarios, ever the opportunist, likely resented Gemistos for being so honored in Mistra. He had wanted a position at Mistra himself, feeling inadequately valued in Constantinople, and had written a whining letter to Theodoros begging for an invitation.  Even Demetrios honored Gemistos, despite his political alignment with Scholarios, and Scholarios' correspondence with his wife.

When Gemistos arrived in the Morea is unknown. His introduction to Manuel’s funeral oration is an indication of a close relationship to Manuel, not of residence in the Morea. Gemistos may well have traveled with Manuel in 1407-8 and 1415, at which time he is identified as one of the four καθολικοὶ κριταί, the members of the highest court of Constantinople. His letters to Theodoros, between 1416 and 1418, and Manuel in 1418, about the reorganization of the Morea, do suggest that he had been in the Morea, at least for a while, but they are no proof of residence: he could well have studied the situation on trips and from documents. That Doukas identifies him as a member of the Senate in Constantinople in 1438 means little beyond the survival of the title: there was no Senate, and no action recorded for it since 1204, and in 1438 Gemistos was in Florence at the Council of Union.

A great many writers put him in Mistra by 1410, based on the theory that since he was judged dangerously influential in Constantinople, Manuel sent him to Mistra where he could contaminate the adolescent Theodoros.  This too is twaddle, if you stop to think about it.

While we have manuscripts from Gemistos, all we know that he actually did at Mistra was to speak at Cleofe's memorial service, and have a conversation with John.

The source that comes closest to indicating a date for Gemistos' arrival is Theodoros' statement in 1433, after Cleofe died, that George Gemistos had been sent by Manuel a few years earlier "to be in our service" and "our" would then have made his arrival after early 1421 when Theodoros and Cleofe were married. Manuel died in late July 1425, which would be the latest possibility for Gemistos’ arrival in the Morea. He was clearly at Mistra in 1427, as the 1433 statement confirmed and extended the gift of land Theodoros had made Gemistos in November 1427, in which he was"to serve our rule."

The problem here with this as evidence is the use of the first-person plural. Is this the royal "we" or does it have a more personal meaning? These grants to Gemistos are the only two extant Greek documents from Theodoros I have found (please let me know if there is another), and both speak of "our" service, one use of the plural in each where the singular -- τὴν βασιλείαν μου/my rule ‒ is otherwise the norm. Both John and Demetrios adjusted the land grant: neither used the plural. In the four personal grants Constantine made in the Morea, there are twenty singulars and five plurals. In the grant to Demetrios Mamonas Gregoras, which survives in a seventeenth-century copy, there are four singulars and three plurals, one of them "in our service," and all four include Theodoros in "our." The fourth grant, for Gemistos -- there are five different Palaiologos documents for the same land -- uses two plurals where it refers to Constantine and Theodoros. The evidence indicates a strong tendency towards a use of the plural to indicate more than one person and, on that basis, provides a reason for thinking Gemistos took up permanent residence at Mistra after Theodoros and Cleofe were married.

Gemistos' writings allow the idea that some of the service he provided Theodoros and Cleofe had to do with gently educating Theodoros regarding the matter of sex  (he denied Cleofe a sexual relationship for the first six years of their marriage) and it may be important that the first land grant to Gemistos was made shortly before the birth of their first child. Even if the written text comes from the Laws, considered a late work, there is no reason the ideas could not have been discussed years earlier.  Ironically, when Scholarios praised Theodoros as a ruler, speaking at his memorial in 1448, he described him as guided by ideas of justice which can also be found in the Laws.

To judge from the survivals of documents from Mistra concerning Gemistos and his family, we  assume a particular closeness to the Palaiologos family. Had other documents survived for other families, perhaps they would be seen as equally close, or closer, but there are fewer than ten survivals for other individuals in comparison with five for the Gemistos family. These five documents record gifts of land, first to Gemistos, and then to his sons. The first, from Theodoros in late 1427, two months before Cleofe gave birth, gave Gemistos a kastro and village at Phanari, making him the governor of a small territory for life, which could be passed on to his legitimate sons (γνήσιοι παῖδες) Demetrios and Andronikos.

A year later, John VIII confirmed this gift and added to it a property at Bryse, possibly considering that Gemistos had two sons who should each have his own inheritance, and probably as a gift of appreciation for the practical advice John had received from Gemistos on the annoying question of Church Union while he was at Mistra.
  (In Florence
 Gemistos recalled that when he discussed the council with John during his trip to the Morea in 1428, he warned that "your visit will accomplish nothing and get nothing for us.")

The Gemistos family, like the Sphrantzes family, was intertwined with the Palaiologos family over at least two generations: Theodoros, John, and Constantine use οἰκεῖος (member of the household) for George Gemistos, and Demetrios uses οἰκεῖοι for his sons.  There may be a slight hint that Demetrios and Andronikos Gemistos were young at the time of the first gift of land in 1427, and that they were both of age by 1433, as that year, after Cleofe’s death, Theodoros issued another document in which he made Demetrios governor of Phanari, and Andronikos governor of Bryse and a place called Kastri.  In early 1449, just before leaving Mistra for Constantinople, Constantine issued an argyrobull confirming Theodoros’ gift of lands, quoting heavily from the 1433 text. Finally, in July 1450, Demetrios Palaiologos -- conventionally assumed to have been antagonistic to Gemistos -- issued an argyrobull to Demetrios and Andronikos again confirming that of Theodoros.  Gemistos was over 90 at this point: does this document indirectly suggest that he was failing severely?


  1. By "people who ought to have known better" I'm assuming that you mean Runciman in his "Lost Capital of Byzantium".

  2. I have at least a dozen quotes like that.

  3. "Plethon (a name he never used)" are you sure about this?

  4. Someone asked if I was sure that Gemistos never used Plethon as a name. I was wrong there, & will try to find a useful source.


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