After the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the ancient Roman empire of the East was fragmented into autonomous principalities, some governed by French or Italian occupiers, others by the local Greek nobility. In 1208, Theodore I Lascaris (c. 1174-1221) established an imperial seat in Nicaea, but his dominion was not vast. Still, the Nicene empire soon became a prosperous and militarily secure realm, exercising control over most of West Anatolia, and fostering a culture of high Hellenism.
In 1259, the throne of Nicaea was seized by Michael Palaeologos (c. 1224—82), who then in 1261 re-conquered Constantinople and installed himself as Emperor MichaelVIII. In this way, the dynasty of the Palaeologoi was founded and the last age of the Byzantine empire inaugurated.
East and West
In order to restore the empire to something like its former greatness, the new emperor had to finance military campaigns to drive the Latin occupiers from the Greek islands and from the Morea in the Peloponnese, as well as to subdue the Greek provinces of Thessaly and Epirus, whose rulers viewed him as a usurper. He also had to restore Constantinople and strengthen its defences. None of this was possible without trade, and for this he was dependent upon Genoa, which was willing to provide him ships in exchange for the sort of preferential trading rights once enjoyed only by Venice. Most importantly, he had to take every measure possible to ensure that the French king of Naples and Sicily, Charles of Anjou (1226-85), did not succeed in his avowed intention of reclaiming Constantinople.
To avert this last peril, Michael took the extraordinary step of petitioning the pope for protection, promising in return the submission of the Eastern Church to Rome. And indeed, at the Council of Lyons in 1274, representatives of the emperor accepted union with Rome on those terms. The Orthodox people, however, refused to comply with the emperor's decision, and by 1281 it was obvious that, despite Lyons and despite the draconian methods employed by Michael to quell dissent, no true union had occurred. So that year Charles launched his invasion of the Byzantine empire. His forces were defeated, however, before reaching Asia Minor, and his plans for another invasion were thwarted by a rebellion among his Sicilian subjects.
At the time of his death, Michael was despised by many of the Byzantines as an apostate, even though he had restored their empire, defeated the French pretender and made provisions for Constantinople's future defence. But no doubt a great many of his subjects were also aware that his military exertions against the Latins had weakened the defences of the eastern provinces, leaving them exposed to the Turks.
[The investiture of Charles I of Anjou as king of Naples and Sicily by Pope Clement IV in 1262]
The Long War
During the 14th century, the Palaeologan emperors were engaged in a ceaseless struggle to forestall the inevitable. Rebellions, insubordinate provinces, dependency on mercenary armies, Turkish raids on Byzantine territories, economic decline, the slow rise of the Ottomans in Asia Minor, civil conflicts - in short, every imaginable turmoil and tribulation — were the constant realities of Byzantine politics.
And then there were - as there had always been - the barbarians: specifically, the Serbs and the Bulgars. In 1346, the formidable Serbian king Stefan Dushan (1308-55) — an Orthodox monarch — declared himself Emperor of the Serbs and the Greeks, and by 1348 had conquered all of northern Greece. And, but for an alliance they had earlier forged with the Turks, the Byzantines might not have been able to prevent the loss of more of the empire. In 1347, the Black Death had come to Constantinople and other areas of the Byzantine east. The human and economic toll was devastating.
At mid-century, the gold in imperial coinage had been diluted with base metals (reducing its worth as an international currency), the crown jewels had been surrendered as surety on debts to Venice incurred during a civil war, the erosion of Byzantine power in the provinces was
[Hesychasm's great defender was the Athonite monk and philosopher Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who insisted that this practice in no way denied the infinite transcendence of God; he granted that God's essence is incomprehensible and invisible, but argued that by his energeiai - his activities towards creation - God makes himself truly present in the hearts, minds and flesh of human beings. Palamas' arguments often oscillated between flashes of great insight and moments of incoherence, but his complex and profound mystical theology was affirmed by the Orthodox Church in his lifetime]
inexorable, imperial trade principally enriched Italians rather than Greeks, wars with the Serbs and the Turks were incessant, and any possibility of Roman aid was contingent upon submission of the Eastern Church to the Western. In 1369, Emperor John V Palaeologos (1332—91), returning from a humiliating embassy to Rome to profess obedience to the Roman see, was even briefly arrested in Venice by his creditors for insolvency. In 1373, after Turkish forces had seized much of Macedonia, he was compelled to accept the suzerainty of the Turks and promise to pay tribute.
In 1390, Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos (1350-1425), in fact, was forced at one point to live as a hostage vassal at the Turkish court of the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I (c. 1360-1402); and even when Manuel returned to Constantinople in 1391 Bayezid reminded him that his realm now extended no farther than the city walls. A journey Manuel made through Western Europe from 1399 to 1403 secured a wealth of promises for military aid, but promises proved rather feeble reinforcements. While he was abroad, however, the armies of Timur had descended upon the Ottoman forces at Ankara and crushed them, taking Bayezid prisoner. In the ensuing power struggles among Bayezid's sons, the military aid of Constantinople became a commodity with which the emperor could now barter. In 1413, it was with Byzantine help that Mehmet I (d.1421) defeated his last rival, his brother Musa, in Serbia. To show his gratitude, the new sultan absolved the Byzantine emperor of all further tribute and restored various territories - such as the city of Thessalonica - to the Byzantine throne. Manuel took advantage of Mehmet's clemency to rebuild the military defences of his empire and the fortifications of Constantinople, in preparation for Mehmet's death and for the disintegration of good relations with the Ottomans that would inevitably follow.
Cultural and Spiritual Renewal
During the long twilight of Byzantine civilization, even as the economy, military and government of the empire continued to decline, higher culture flourished. A rare devotion to Hellenism - antique, Alexandrian and Christian - pervaded the entire period from the days of Michael Psellus in the 11th century to the last years of the empire in the 15th. Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologos (c.1260— 1332) was a generous patron to the scholars of Constantinople, among whom few were more distinguished than Theodore Metochites (1270-1332), the poet, philosopher, astronomer and commentator on Aristotle. Still more gifted was Theodore's student Nicephorus Gregoras (c.1295-1360), a philosopher, astronomer, historian and philologist.
During this period, as well, classical and patristic Tatin literature entered the Byzantine world in Greek translations, many produced by Maximus Planudes (c. 1260—1330), the grammarian, 'Greek Anthologist' and theologian. The brilliant
Demetrius Cydones (c.1324 - c.1398), one of the Greek humanist scholars of the next generation, produced translations not only of Augustine but also of Thomas Aquinas, and was one of the first of a small circle of Byzantine Thomists (in fact, he ultimately joined the Latin Church).
The Palaeologan era, however, also saw a renewal of the Eastern Christian mystical tradition, particularly evident in the triumph of Hesychasm. Deriving from the Greek word hesychia, meaning 'quietude', this term denoted a special form of contemplative prayer that leads the devout person to an ecstatic experience of God as the Uncreated Light - a light reputed occasionally to become visible as a transfiguring radiance pouring from the body of the contemplative.
In the 14th century, Hesy chasm was the special spiritual practice of the monks of Mount Athos (a promontory on the Chalcidice Peninsula in the Aegean that had been the home of numerous Orthodox monasteries since the tenth century). The Hesychasts had many detractors - as a result of both their theology and their techniques - but they also had one great defender: Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), perhaps the most important Orthodox theologian of the Middle Ages.
THE MYSTICS OF THE RHINELAHD
In the 14th century, mystical theology enjoyed a revival not only in the Christian East, but in the West as well, most especially in the north. England, for example, produced a number of remarkable writers on contemplative prayer and the soul's union with God: Richard Rolle (c. 1300-49), Walter Hilton (c. 1340-96), Dame Juliana of Norwich (1342 - after 1416), and the anonymous author of the treatise The Cloud of Unknowing.
In the first half of the century, though, the richest mystical literature of Western Europe was produced by various German Dominicans: Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1327), Johannes Tauler (d. 1361) and Heinrich Suso (c. 1295-1366). Tauler was perhaps less purely mystical than the other two, but his descriptions of the soul's sanctification in its assimilation to Christ are as profound as any spiritual writings of the period. Suso was a student and, to the end of his life, a defender of Eckhart. This sometimes made things very uncomfortable for him, since Eckhart was among the most controversial figures in Christian history.
Meister Eckhart was both a brilliant speculative theologian and a majestically gifted writer. He was also given to expressing his more difficult ideas in almost willfully audacious language. He apparently regarded many of his teachings as entirely orthodox developments of certain central tenets, of the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, but he expressed himself in words and images that it is doubtful Thomas would have recognized.
Most famously, he asserted that the soul, in its ascent to union with God, must learn to detatch itself not only from creatures, but even from God, at least as God is conceived by the finite mind.There is a 'God beyond God', he claimed, an infinite 'desert of divinity' where no concept of the divine applies. He spoke also of an uncreated 'spark' of God within the soul, and of a ground within the soul where God and soul are one.
TO BE CONTINUED
WE SEE THE WORLD AS THE BACKDROP OF A FALSE CHRISTIANITY. OF SO-CALLED "GIFTED" MEN [MAYBE IN CERTAIN AREAS] WHO HAD ALL KINDS OF STRANGE THEOLOGY IDEAS, AND WERE REALLY TO PUT IT IN MY OFTEN PHRASED EXPRESSION I'M BECOMING QUITE FOND OF, "IDEAS FROM PLANET PLUTO."
AS THE APOSTLE PAUL SAID, THE WISDOM OF THE WORLD IS NOT THE WISDOM OF GOD. WHAT THE WORLD COUNTS AS WISDOM, GOD OFTEN COUNTS ARE FOOLISHNESS.
AND WHAT IS WISE, CORRECT, AND RIGHTEOUSNESS, THE WORLD OFTEN, MOST OF THE TIME, COUNTS AS STRANGE AND WORTHLESS.
THESE MEN "OF LEARNING" NEVER HAD THE MIND OF A CHILD, SO THEY COULD COME TO UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE. AS PAUL SAID ELSEWHERE, "EVER LEARNING AND NEVER ABLE TO COME TO THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH."
BUT AGAIN, WE MUST REMEMBER, IT IS THE LORD WHO OPENS THE MIND TO THE TRUTHS OF HIS WORD.
SO INDEED THIS AGE WAS FILLED WITH BLIND LEADERS OF THE BLIND.