12 February 2014

Burning Plethon

Burning Plethon photocopies.

Burning a book is not easy in the normal course of events. Several years ago I needed to dispose of a disintegrating Bible. Understanding that burning was the respectful way to deal with it, I pulled up a stool to the fireplace and started putting pages into the fire. Only a few pages would burn at a time: even a small stack of pages was too dense for the fire to get adequately into the fine paper. It took a very long time, and I became intensely anxious, because it was as if this book had its own will and it was not willing to be destroyed.

George Gemistos Plethon did not have such fine paper: his paper would have been easier to burn, particularly if a page or two were ripped out at a time and ceremoniously deposited in a brazier. We don't know how it went.

When Mehmed took his Mistra guests -- Demetrios Palaiologos and Theodora Asanina -- with him to Adrianople in 1460, they took in their luggage the formal copy of Plethon's Laws. There is no reason to think that Demetrios had a problem with Plethon -- his sons were members of the despotate administration, but Theodora certainly did and when they stopped in Serres, she sent it the book off to Scholarios who was living as a monk on nearby Mt. Menoikeon.

Scholarios read the Laws, he said, in four hours, a tremendously upsetting experience that left him in tears, though that four hours allowed him time to make a list of chapter headings, and a summary. He sent the book back to Theodora directing her to burn it. Theodora had lived long enough in Mistra, six years while Plethon was still alive, to have a sense of his authority, and she couldn't bring herself to do so. She sent the book back to Scholarios who looked at it again to see if he might preserve the sections on logic and science. Even those sections, he claimed, were too bound up with paganism, and he burned it himself, in a public ceremony. That's why I thought of a brazier, and used one to burn the photocopies.  Scholarios kept a few pages for evidence, should it ever be necessary to justify his behavior. He also wrote that any other copies or parts of the Laws should also be banned, and anyone who refuses to cooperate should also be banned from the Christian community. 

Where they burn books, they are likely to burn people. A few years before this Scholarios -- also safely in a monastery -- sent a letter to the Morea vividly describing how a heretic should be tortured and then burned. He was circling in on Plethon's followers.

And yet, and yet . . .

Plethon had, in the Laws, recommended burning for those guilty of bestiality, pederasty, rape, incest, and men guilty of adultery. (Notice that these are all perversions of the sexuality he considered divine.) And the sophists who attack our beliefs. But these judgments need to be discussed by a tribunal, and the circumstances of the accused investigated, because maybe he wasn't properly educated, and maybe he could be straightened out by a time in prison.

Some of the information here comes from John Monfasani, "Pletho's date of death and the burning of his Laws," Byzantinische Zeitschrift 98/2 (2005) 459-463.


  1. In the Jewish tradition, old sacred books and materials are put aside in a special repository. When a reasonable quantity has been collected, it's all buried in a cemetery.

  2. Yes, but that is for a more stable population. I'm a migratory Baptist, & the American tradition recommends fire for Bibles and flags.


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