[St. Pachomius Library]

St. Pachomius Library

Jonathan Harris: THE END OF BYZANTIUM.

New Haven: Yale, 2010.
Reviewed by Norman Hugh Redington, 2011 September 13.

That a Westerner's first task in seeking a proper understanding of Byzantium is to transcend the associations of the word "byzantine" has become an academic truism. Nevertheless, this feat of ascesis is evidently a difficult one: after a century of "positive reassessments", new ones are still deemed necessary. Mr. Harris's latest contribution to East Roman historiography defends the Empire's final generation against the charges that it was deficient in patriotism, Christian solidarity, and overall resolve, and that it preferred going down in flames to abandoning pointless internecine conspiracies and quibbles over theological minutiae. Not so, he maintains: the last Byzantines played a losing hand as well as they were able, but they were human beings more interested in getting by day-to-day than in saving Christendom from the Turk.

This would seem to be common sense; only in a field as laden with prejudice as Byzantine history would it be deemed startling to suggest that people who fail to be heroes are not thereby automatically villains. Despite the references which Harris cites to the contrary, I suspect that few professional historians would disagree. The general public, for whom this book seems primarily intended, is of course another matter entirely, and Harris does an excellent job of humanising the "exotic Easterners" of his story.

"Greeks" and Turks, on his showing, were just like each other, and "just like us". They worried more about their jobs and the welfare of their families than about peacetime foreign relations (unless, of course, they were princes, and the distinction did not exist). They might dislike foreigners and unbelievers in the abstract, but they had no great desire to make war on them. Harris introduces people from many walks of life (at least many walks of upper- and middle-class life, the experience of the poor being less well-documented), and presents many entertaining quotidian details. We learn, for example, that John VIII's hunting-dog annoyed the debaters at the Council of Ferrara-Florence by whining and whimpering, and that the gout-stricken Emperor himself, after dutifully attending the theological sessions, spent long evenings playing backgammon by his fireside.

Of course, not too many such ephemera survive, and Harris has no aversion to filling the gap with conventional political history. He retraces the whole tortuous course of the Palaeologi's diplomatic and military machinations, (which, it must be admitted, goes far toward justifying the adjective "byzantine"), and narrates the Shakespearian soap-opera of generational strife and fraternal jealousy which led inexorably to the great cataclysm. The actual destruction of Constantinople seems an anticlimax after this long build-up; Mehmed's cannon roar, and almost at once we are in the aftermath of the conquest. I suspect that many of Harris's non-scholarly readers will find this disappointing and wish for a more blow-by-blow narrative of 29 May, but they will not fail to be moved by his account of the survivors and their difficult post-war lives.

More original than the stated thesis is Harris's vision of the mediaeval world as an undivided oecumene. He likens the struggles of rival factions (whether in Constantinople or in Edirne) to the Wars of the Roses; discusses the universality of siege warfare in the East and West, and even makes the arresting comment that "all [the states of Western Europe], with the exception of the emirate of Granada in the south of Spain, were Christian"! Part of this is, no doubt, obligatory multiculturalism -- Harris is at pains to play down any substantive differences between Muslim, Orthodox, and Roman-Catholic civilisation -- but the commonalities he cites are real, and often overlooked. This account performs a genuine service in presenting the fall of Constantinople as an episode in the internal history of the Middle Ages rather than as a collision of completely alien worlds.

Obviously the great divider of the three cultures was religion, so it is unsurprising that Harris takes a dim view of it. Jihadists, hesychasts, and arrogant popes are among the few characters in his story with whom he seems to have little sympathy.

Consciously aware that mediaeval people took religion more seriously than "we" do, and indeed reminding the reader of this explicitly on occasion, Harris does not seem to believe this truth in his bones. He writes: "Although [inhabitants of neighbouring countries] might disagree over whether Jesus Christ was God incarnate or simply a prophet, even in the Middle Ages that was seldom the kind of issue over which people went to war, the First Crusade perhaps [emphasis added] being an obvious exception." Of the Orthodox liturgy he says: "These rituals must at times have been tedious"; the controversies over the Filioque and the existence of Purgatory (neither of which Harris attempts to explain in any detail) are described as "intricate and interminable theological squabbles" with "infinite opportunity for theological hair-splitting". He adds with evident surprise: "It is only to be expected that clergy and monks would be excited by a theological issue like this, but there was a strong current of anti-Unionist feeling among the poorer people of Constantinople" as well, a current he can explain only by the lingering memory of Fourth-Crusade brutality. This incomprehension of the very concerns to which the mediaeval mind devoted most of its attention makes one doubt the accuracy of Harris's modern-seeming portraits of mediaeval men: could it be they are so very "like us" only because "one of us" is describing them?

Although his Gibbonesque dislike of "fanaticism" extends to all religions, Harris seems to find Roman Catholicism the least offensive of the major faiths competing for the soul of Byzantium, and Orthodoxy (or at least its Athonite wing) the most. He writes that the Thomists developed a "rational, natural theology", while Byzantine hesychasts sought "an ecstatic state" through "controlled breathing and the constant repetition of a mantra". Harris's acceptance of the traditional (and entirely false) claim that the hesychasts were irrational, uneducated bigots leaves him at a loss when confronting the famously learned Patriarch Gennadius, and it runs against the overall trend of his argument that Byzantium was essentially the same as the rest of the world. He solves the latter problem at least in the manner of previous Western historians: he praises the anti-hesychast Unionist writers as progressive intellectuals and pragmatists who might have overcome their mystically-inclined opponents in a less-threatening political world.

In fact, of course, the political world could hardly have been more threatening for a shrinking empire surrounded by predatory up-and-comers, and the Unionists' faith in Western chariots was of no possible avail. In spite of his deafness to the spiritual, Harris tells the story of this catastrophe compellingly. The Orthodox reader will come away with much to consider, not least this unheeded advice, given to John VIII by his father, on the subject of the reunion council:

"Well then, as far as this synod is concerned, continue to study it and plan it, especially when you need to frighten the impious [i.e. Muslims afraid of a united Christendom]. But do not bring it about."