04 February 2015

The Eugenikos sons

Two and a half years ago, I wrote about the time Pepagomenos left his sons with the Eugenikos family in Mistra when he and his wife made a trip to Constantinople. This was probably in 1443. In a letter to him, John Eugenikos compliments the excellence of the two boys, calling them "that pair of ours, and especially Nicholaos." In another letter, Eugenikos describes a group that he had invited to read a letter from Pepagomenos. He included "our good Nicholaos" and his friends in the audience -- it looks as if Nicholaos was the older son. (I think the younger was Giorgos.)  After the formal reading, Nicholaos and his friends took the letter, "treating it lovingly," and tried to work it out for themselves. Their Greek had not yet become Byzantine.

So I was startled and saddened to find an exchange of letters between Bessarion and Eugenikos, written four years earlier, about the deaths of two of Eugenikos' sons. Bessarion was in Florence at the Council of Union. Eugenikos, profoundly opposed to any discussion of Union, had obtained permission to leave the previous September and had finally reached Constantinople in May 1439, nearly drowning in a shipwreck on the way. Eugenikos seems to have gone directly on to Mistra -- did he arrive in Constantinople to find his sons dead? The letters don't say. 

They had learned in Florence that there was plague in Constantinople. Bessarion, concerned about no letters from Eugenikos began to worry, but he could not imagine that his friend's household could be affected by plague. Then he learned from two boys just arrived in Florence from Mistra that the Eugenikos boys had died. The boys must have been travelling with the group from Mistra Eugenikos mentions at the end of his letter.

Here is Bessarion's loving and clumsily-written letter to John Eugenikos. The two men were polar opposites on the topic of Church Union, but they were the closest of friends. The last paragraph of Bessarion's letter indicates that the Council is still voting: given what can be worked out about travel, Bessarion letter must have been written in June of 1439.

* * * * * *
[Bessarion to Eugenikos]
I was believing that your house was safe and not afflicted by the disease, and that in your relief you would be glad to take part in the pleasures of life and so would not overlook what is right for us who left the great city and came here, and who beg for letters from there more than any other gift. When we were unable to discover them—how could we, when they did not exist—for my part I was eaten up at heart, being uneasy about your silence When I asked around, no one had even a suggestion that might dispel my ignorance until I learned directly from fellow townsmen, those who knew you best, and was told that terrible news, that the cause was much worse than anything we might have suspected, that you had lost the companionship of your children, those children whom even someone hostile to you would be ashamed not to mourn, whom an enemy, needing no truce, would have pity for, and about whom anyone seeing it would fall into the same grief as their parent. I shed bitter tears as soon as I heard of it. Those who announced it to me were of the same age, with the same beauty and symmetry of limbs, in the same first flowering of their life that gave witness to me what their condition was to be in future. I write you now with the same tears, aware of the despair that must exist in your soul, and how sharply you grieved as you sent these dear ones to the tomb before you had clearly witnessed their full heritage. And yet you know how to grieve while at the same time praising nature, and you understand philosophy, for you have in all times praised the mean as best, taught that thee fully-matured virtues lead us to the mean, and you walk along the royal road, as it is said, distancing yourself from the evils on either side.

Death, for those in hardship is a release from evils, while for those who have lived virtuously, and for children, in whom there is no villainy to be considered, being not yet aware of the unfulfilled pledges of life, it brings mourning to those left behind, as is right when they are distressed by the separation of bonds. May it be a consolation to you, that medicine of consolation that has often been to many, and in many circumstances. Contrast the life in this world with that one, as being by so much more, blessed. To have been snatched away before time is to escape the griefs of this life, which are the preponderance in it, perhaps even all of it. With not exulting in them because they have gone away despite one's prayers and the hopes that they might too become fathers of children, contrast the absence of grief and affliction of offspring who are unworthy of their parents, for, that may sometimes happen, and if the separation, and your no longer being called their father grieves you, you must remember that you must not grieve more for what you have had taken away from yourself than you must rejoice in the acknowledgement of what God has offered, for He as our Lord has taken his own, not what is ours. How could it not be so, when we have our very life from Him. If God can give us many times over what he takes from us then this is a sufficient comfort to us who remember those who have gone from us neither in a small-spirited way nor as if those departed had ceased to exist.

About you, many good things are are noted by those Peloponnesians who come here and who have voted for what is best with every vote. The law of friendship makes me regard your good reputation no less than my own with pleasure. I greet those about you who have voted with you as still being friends. But if we have lost you, and your true self, to be well-pleased with those, who take pleasure in you but are others, is to pursue the shadow and an image of pleasure, neglecting the true pleasure. Nonetheless, being deprived of this now in the tyranny of the present circumstances, we shall enjoy the second pleasure, that of hearing you well-famed, until we ourselves may more clearly enjoy your goodness. 

* * * * * *

 Bessarion wrote Eugenikos other letters about the deaths that have not survived, and Eugenikos wrote back immediately.  He does not mention the Council or the Act of Union, which had been signed on July 6, but there was a lot going on, with many letters crossing in transit.  In this next letter we learn that Bessarion's letters were carried by Gabriel, and that Eugenikos had written Bessarion (these were the letters that Bessarion was worried about because he had not seen them) letters taken to Florence by the stratopedarchos 
Frangopoulos (this is the man who built the Pantanassa at Mistra) and by Alexios Laskaris (the name shows up in other Moreote documents).  This is new information about Greeks in Florence, and it makes very personal what we already know about the transmission of letters.

* * * * * *

[Eugenikos to Bessarion]
This is clear to me, what is said by the philosophers that pleasures are fixed right next to griefs, in that no part of the present life remains unchanged, for since the joy of good men in infinite future ages will properly be matched by the grief of the unjust. Certainly, it follows that this is true for those allotted life in this uncertain order that will shortly cease to be. Just as many other opposite things occur simultaneously, as, like a wheel, the affairs of men, change and are borne along this way and that, so happiness and grief are to one another. With your good and wise letters, you have filled me with this immeasurable happiness, oh best and thrice desired friend, after I have known many distresses from many sides, and what a fresh sweetness you have poured over my despairing soul, what a medicine of consolation. 

 This is not only because of the great charm, and the longing for me in your soul, your unmixed love, and your recognition of me and disposition toward me evident for a long time before and especially now, to which I add the flowering grace and skill of your writing, but also your advice to me to offer thanks to God even for the loss of my dearest. Your letters have had such power over me that they have been longed for especially, honored when seen, and deeply treasured. It is right, according to the teachings of the church and your counsels, that we should give thanks to God from our souls, both when he gives and when he takes away, as much as it is in us, and we ask for your prayers and for the prayers of those with you who love us or, rather, who love God more than us, that they be safe and be left to us in place of the children and may be increased in accordance with His generosity to us. 

Thus as I said, following the anguish to ourselves, there was also joy for other good things, not the least of them being your wise letters in which while they lacked absolutely nothing of your kindness and honor, I found in addition to these benefits that they came together with the high-minded escort, that best and sweetest, that good and noble Gabriel, who to such an extent filled my ears with frequent praise of you that he made my longing for you, which had already reached a peak, increase and rise to an even higher peak.
So this is my joy over you and yours. 

But there is also with it a grief, and a very immediate one, heavy and great for me, that strengthens my delight in your letters and at the same time troubles and confounds it. This is that you did not receive my letters, a long one sent earlier, and one after that, owing to the indifference of those who took them. The calamity was made so much the worse because of what the most distinguished of our friends, to whom the letters were entrusted, have become. These were the good Frangopoulos, the grand stratopedarch, who took the long one, and after him, Alexios Lascaris, who took along with the one I addressed to you others for the spiritual father Isidore. If there was one more important than the other it is the one that went with the grand stratopedarch which would have been given into your two hands if he had not been indifferent to God and to the happiness of friends. If this is not the case ask him to look into his trunk, or the trunks of his closest associates, and perhaps they will appear somewhere. If not, let that stand as a part of my misfortune and wretchedness.

[The Bessarion letter is found in Mohler 3: #10; the Eugenikos is IN Lampros, Παλαιολόγεια καὶ Πελοποννησιακά, 1: 164-5. Pierre MacKay did the tedious work of translation.]

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