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19.09.11 Van Tricht, The Horoscope of Emperor Baldwin II

19.09.11 Van Tricht, The Horoscope of Emperor Baldwin II

I can't make up my mind whether this is a heroic failure or a heroic success, but heroic it certainly is, as the author wrestles with a horoscope cast for the Latin emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II (1240-1261/1273). Intractable though it is, he is able to use it to breathe new life into the history of the declining Latin Empire, which has almost always been considered a hopeless case, scarcely worth the effort of study. Its greatest modern historian Jean Longnon described Latin Constantinople under Baldwin II as simply "vegetating without troops and without resources, but without anything much happening." The horoscope is more sanguine. It saw a bright future for the emperor in the none too distant future, even if his present prospects were less good. Casting the horoscope of a ruler was a serious matter. Van Tricht narrows the date of the horoscope to 1260. The terminus ante quem has to be the recovery of Constantinople by the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos in July 1261. The terminus post quem is more difficult. Van Tricht argues persuasively that it must be the ransom of Baldwin II's son and heir, Philip of Courtenay, by Alfonso X 'the Wise' of Castile (1252-1284), which is the most recent event mentioned in the horoscope. This Van Tricht pins down to July or August 1259. He goes on to consider the various possibilities for the exact occasion which produced the horoscope, but can find no decisive evidence that will allow him to identify that event more precisely. One possible occasion he relegates to a footnote: the failure of Michael VIII Palaiologos's siege of Galata in the spring of 1260.

Van Tricht fails to make as much as he might have of the magnitude of Baldwin II's success in driving the Nicaean armies from the walls of Constantinople. This is surprising, given that one of the aims of the book is to suggest that Baldwin II was a more considerable figure than is usually allowed. For some reason the dismissal of the Latin emperor as a "stupid boy" by Blanche of Castile, when he visited the French court in 1238, has resonated with modern opinion. This is unfair: Roi fainéant he was not; roi byzantinisant (to coin a phrase), as Van Tricht prefers, he may well have been. Could it have been the whiff of the exotic about him that Blanche of Castile did not like? As Van Tricht points out, he was the only one of the Latin emperors who, in deference to Byzantine tradition, had porphyrogennite added to his title. The author's obsession with the Latin emperors of Constantinople consciously appropriating a Byzantine model of kingship works rather better with Baldwin II than it does with his predecessors. The Byzantine chronicler Ephraim, writing some 50 years after the Byzantine recovery of Constantinople, described him as "mild-mannered, sensible and gracious" [1]. This is the only description we have of Baldwin II in the Byzantine sources, which otherwise studiously ignore him. It is also one of the few additions that the chronicler made to his sources and must therefore be taken seriously. It lists qualities that were appreciated more in a Byzantine emperor than they were in a Latin ruler. It is best understood as a reflection of the popularity that Baldwin II enjoyed among the people of Constantinople; given that by the time that Baldwin II assumed sole control of the Latin Empire it had been reduced to little more than Constantinople.

But what was Constantinople like in the last stages of Latin rule? Building on the work of the late David Jacoby, Van Tricht shows that it was not in the terrible state of decay painted by the Byzantine sources. He might have made more of the impressive settlement that Galata had become during the period of Latin rule. It had the population and the fortifications to withstand a full-scale Byzantine siege. It meant that Constantinople's centre of gravity was now firmly centred on the Golden Horn. It resembled more than ever the great city-ports of the crusader states, with their royal castle--in the case of Constantinople built over a corner of the Forum of Constantine--and their trading quarters. Constantinople even had its own military order in the shape of the Order of St Sampson. Constantinople's prospects as another Acre therefore looked very promising under Baldwin II. Van Tricht mentions the reconnaissance of the Black Sea by Venetian merchants. The establishment of Mongol ascendancy over the Russian steppes offered all kinds of commercial possibilities, which were just coming on stream, when Constantinople fell to the Byzantines in July 1261. It was a monstrous stroke of bad luck, which Baldwin II's horoscope failed to predict. The Byzantine recovery of Constantinople is normally explained as the consequence of Baldwin's gross irresponsibility in allowing his troops to take part in an excursion to the island of Daphnousia, with the result that Constantinople was left undefended. However, it was less a matter of frivolity and more one of putting Venetian interests first. Daphnousia lying off the mouth of the river Sangarios was of the greatest importance to Constantinople's trade with the Black Sea. Close to the entrance to the Bosporos, it was a danger to shipping. Now that Michael VIII Palaiologos had concluded--in response to his failure before Galata--a treaty with the Genoese (March 1261), there was a very real possibility that Daphnousia would become a Genoese base in the Black Sea, something that the Venetians could not possibly countenance.

Thanks to Van Tricht's study, we become aware of how much the history of the closing years of the Latin Empire of Constantinople has been distorted by a reliance on Byzantine sources. The shocking state of the palace of the Blachernai was not a reflection on the eating habits of the Latins, but the result of the burning down of the Blachernai quarter in July 1261 by the incoming Byzantine troops, who seem to have done almost as much damage as the crusaders in 1204. George Pachymeres, the most objective of the Byzantine historians, makes it quite clear that the population of Constantinople did not welcome the Byzantine forces as conquering heroes, but remained disaffected. The historian uses a rather odd word to describe the population of Constantinople. They are not Romans, but romaizontes. It is a word that is usually used of Greek words translated into Latin, so that "Latinisers" seems a reasonable translation. Although somewhat tentatively done, Van Tricht has collected enough material to support the conclusion that during the half century or more of Latin rule the population of Constantinople underwent a change, which produced a mixed population characteristic of the great port-cities of the Mediterranean.

Just as important as the information that can be gleaned from the horoscope of Baldwin II was its very existence, which suggests, together with its accompanying Introduction to Astronomy, a lively court culture. Both texts are in French, which was the language of the court. Both astronomy and astrology, which were not yet clearly distinguished, were held in high regard in the West, where the translation of works of Abu Ma'asar al-Balhi by John of Seville in the mid-twelfth century gave a new impetus and respectability to the study of astrology. This, it should be noted, reached a peak at the Castilian court under the patronage of Alfonso X "the Wise," with whom, at the moment that his horoscope was being cast, Baldwin II was attempting to negotiate a marriage alliance. The western influence is so palpable that there does not seem to be any need for Van Tricht to posit Byzantine influence on Baldwin II's horoscope. In any case, the popularity of astrology at the Byzantine court petered out after the death of emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180), and in the hands of Nicholas Mesarites, astrology became a matter of ridicule. However, Van Tricht cites a passage from the Introduction to Astronomy, where the ruler is described as holding the dominion of his realm from "the hands of Christ and of the 'senatours et de hauz homes'" (249). This certainly has a garbled resemblance to a Byzantine concept of kingship, but there were important differences. Coronation was of greater importance to the Latin emperors of Constantinople than it was to their Byzantine predecessors. The latter took their acclamation as emperor as the starting point of their reigns, whereas Baldwin II only dated his from his coronation in 1240, though strictly speaking he had been emperor since his brother Robert died in 1228. What distinguished the coronation ceremonial of the Latin emperors of Constantinople were not so much the robes they wore, which were Byzantine, as unction, which before 1204 had not formed part of the ordo of the Byzantine coronation. If the Latins of Constantinople borrowed the externals of Byzantine ceremonial, they imported the essential act of a western coronation, which was anointing with oil. It is interesting how resistant Byzantinists have been to the idea that something as significant as the introduction of unction into the Byzantine coronation ordo after 1204 might have had something to do with the Latins of Constantinople. Admittedly the Byzantines used the chrism of myron rather than oil; more than that, however, its introduction into the Byzantine ordo came at the end of a long debate going back well before 1204 among Byzantine canonists on the priestly status of an emperor. If the anointing of a Byzantine emperor was far from being a straightforward adoption of a Latin ritual, there can be no doubt that the trigger was the Emperor Baldwin I's coronation in 1204.

This opens up the question of the cultural influence that the Latin Empire may have had on Byzantium. Van Tricht demonstrates that the Latin Empire was not the cultural wasteland that it is often taken for. It brought to the attention of Byzantine scholars western advances in mathematics. Van Tricht makes a convincing case that the Greek astronomical treatise completed in 1252 was a product of Latin Constantinople. Its importance lies in the way that it placed at the disposal of a Byzantine audience for the first time the advances in the use of Arabic numerals made by Leonardo Fibonacci in his Liber abaci. These were picked up by Maximos Planoudes, but generally speaking Byzantine scholars were indifferent to Arabic numerals and continued to use their own alphabetical numerical system. But Planoudes--and before him Manuel Holobolos--engaged in the translation of Latin texts of all kinds into Greek. It is difficult not to agree with Van Tricht that this translating activity was rooted in the culture of Latin Constantinople. All in all, the book is a success, because it produces a much-needed reassessment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. But it is a success gained at the expense of the many blind alleys that Van Tricht's considerable ingenuity and impressive breadth of learning lead him down. It does add to the entertainment value of a book, which, I am pleased to say, is enviably well-written, though I did note on p.138 that the art of the split infinitive has been taken to new heights.

Notes: --------

1. Ephraem Aenii Historia chronica, ed. Odysseus Lampsides, Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae, 27, Series Atheniensis (Athens: Academiae Atheniensis, 1990), v. 8159. Cf. Van Tricht, 117.