Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In December 1400, just in time for Christmas, the emperor of Byzantium, Manuel II Palaiologos, arrived in England on a state visit.
A professional historian tells the full story better than I can on her blog. In short, Manuel came to Western Europe to solicit aid against the Ottoman Turks who were encroaching upon his territory. He had already stopped in Italy and France, and now he sought the friendship of King Henry IV of England.
Henry welcomed Manuel warmly. But after the emperor’s departure, England (and France and the Italian states) gave the Byzantines very little assistance. The immediate crisis for Byzantium passed because of an unlikely ally: Timur, or Tamerlane, from today’s Uzbekistan, attacked the Turks from the east. But the reprieve was temporary. Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
All of this can sound like ancient history, because it is. Henry IV was already far removed enough by Shakespeare’s time for the Bard to write two plays about him as a historical figure. And what do you know about Manuel?
How different the world today is compared to the world of 1400? In 1400, this final version of the Roman Empire still existed. Timur ruled a powerful and scientifically advanced Central Asia (“the Stans,” as people today are liable to say dismissively) and much of the Middle East. The Russians still lived under Mongol suzerainty. Over in China, recently freed from the Mongol yoke, the Prince of Yan had just launched a rebellion to take the throne from his nephew. He would succeed within two years and go on to build the Forbidden City that we know today. The Americas had yet to come to the attention of European explorers and, for purposes of the Old World, did not exist.
How different, and yet how alike.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, writing about his travels in Greece, notes of a voyage between Corfu and Bari in Italy that it is at that “dotted line down the middle of the Adriatic where the filioque drops out of the Creed.”
Filioque: Latin for “and the son.” The Nicene Creed, originating in 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicaea presided over by Emperor Constantine, was meant to state the core beliefs of Christianity. But it differed depending on which side of the “dotted line” you were on. East of it, the Creed said that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” West of it, it said that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The one extra word in Latin, filioque, marked the religious and cultural divide between Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic (and later Protestant) Europe.
Consider how that line persists today. Modern Greece, the successor state of Byzantium after four hundred years of Ottoman rule, is now in the Western column. (And marvel for a moment how, before modern Greece, the previous state that the Greeks had was Byzantium, which was a direct offspring of the Roman Empire, which had incorporated ancient Greece: we are only three iterations away from the Greece of Aristotle.) But its Slavic successor remains very much divided from the West. Russia self-consciously considers itself the true heir of Byzantium. Russians call Moscow “the Third Rome,” after Rome and Constantinople. Their country is supposed to be the guardian of Orthodoxy and Christianity’s eastern bulwark against the perils of the Orient: both roles once performed by Byzantium.
So the distrust and hostility across that filioque line, which we see today between Putin’s Russia on one hand and America and Western Europe on the other, traces much further back than even the time of Manuel and Henry. The theological disputes of the late-Roman Empire, which Nicaea was supposed to resolve, planted the seeds. The Schism of 1054 permanently divided the two churches. The Crusaders from Western Europe who went to the Middle East ostensibly to fight Muslims gave Eastern Byzantines very good reason to despise and to suspect them: Instead of fighting in the Holy Land, the knights often turned their swords against their Byzantine allies instead. In 1204, at the end of the Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders sacked Constantinople and installed their own emperor in place of the rightful Byzantine ruler. The Greeks, led by Manuel’s ancestor Michael VIII Palaiologos, would not dislodge the Western usurpers until 1261.
Manuel in England, then, was like Gorbachev appealing to Bush or Yeltsin appealing to Clinton, hat in hand, after their respective predecessors had been adversaries, only to be disappointed in the end.
How different the past seems, and yet how alike. The past is not gone; it’s not even past.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."