Hagia Sofia
Jonathan Harris
(Royal Holloway, London)


In 1348 Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire, was recovering not only from the effects of the Black Death which had arrived in the city the previous summer but also from a protracted civil war which had left Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (1347-1354) virtually bankrupt. In its weakened state, the empire proved incapable of defending its remaining territories and in the years after 1354, the Ottoman Turks conquered all of Thrace and Macedonia. Constantinople held out until 1453 but as an isolated island surrounded by Ottoman territory.

These inauspicious times nevertheless produced a flourishing literary culture. Many of the writers of the period were connected with the imperial court and the work they produced was written in a formal Greek that imitated the language of classical antiquity. History, letters, speeches, theological tracts and scientific treatises were all penned in this learned idiom for consumption by a narrow elite who had the education to understand them. A prime example is the work of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (1392-1425) whose correspondence and orations were clearly written for the consumption of a tiny group of courtiers and intellectuals that included Demetrius Kydones, Theodore Potamios and Manuel Chrysoloras. Some authors did write in the Demotic Greek that was the everyday language of the city, producing political satire and short personal chronicles. These works, however, were much fewer than those in classicising Greek.

Although much of this literature is rarefied in tone and language and circulated in a very limited milieu, it often reflects and considers the pressing issues of the day. The major recurring themes were the controversy over the mystical hesychast practices of Byzantine monks, the schism with the western Catholic Church, the dynastic struggles among the Palaiologos family and the constant menace of the Ottoman Turks.