The Sky Cannot Brook Two Suns: Frankish Impressions of Constantinople
“Ce nos ont nostre livre apris Que Grece ot de chevalerie La premier los et de clergie,
Puis vint chevalerie a Rome Et de la clergie la somme Qui or est en France venue” (These things our books taught us: That Greece had the first honour And worldly knowledge Then it all went to Rome
And now has come to France) Chretien de Troyes, Prologue to Cliges (vv. 30-35)
While writing a book on the topographical details of Constantinople I encountered several Frankish accounts of the city. It was amusing to observe that when their attention was turned to the New Rome reality had only so much purchase. So, thanks to the fact accounts of Byzantium by the Agarenoi (Arabs) are covered here, it’s time to outline how the Phrangoi (Franks) perceived the Roman capital – a location that often taxed their imaginations more than their intelligence. Always considered part of the East, Frankish accounts tended to tar Constantinople with a thick brush of mysticism and weirdness. The Blancandin et l’Orgueilleuse d’Amour, for instance, observed how the men
“Steered their galley before the Isle of Bogie [nonsense], where no man goes [because it’s not a place], and there are none but apes [Borneo?]. They passed the land of Persie [Iran], and that of Femenie [nonsense], they left Coine [Konya?] to their left and the land of Babiloine [Babylon]. They saw the tower of Marroc [Morocco] (where King Raboat was) and the land of Jerusalem, and they navigated the River Jordan [which starts in Mount Hermon and discharges in the Red Sea – unlikely]. They coasted Constantinoble and left behind them the land of the Griffins [griffins were the guardians with divine power so this might be a compliment to Constantinople as the guardian of relics], and sailed on till they saw nothing but sea and sky [Mediterranean].”
Flora, fauna, history and geography fall victim to romantic evocation here. Franks were clearly unafraid to flirt with pure fiction. The Voyage de Charlemagne for example recounted the monarch’s crusade to Constantinople and Jerusalem, neither of which he ever visited. No “Emperor Hugh” (an improbably Frankish name, Germanic for “heart” or “soul,” for a Roman emperor) welcomed him and no imperial palace turned when the wind blew. Yet nevertheless its account claimed “Charlemagne saw the palace lightly turning in the wind. The Franks covered their faces, they dared not look. Then Emperor Hugh [of Byzantium] came and said ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Then Charlemagne asked ‘Will it never stand still?’ Before being told to wait a little longer. At supper that evening the emperor’s blonde daughter caught the eye of [the paladin] Oliver who fell in love. ‘May the glorious king grant me to take her to France or the fortress of Dun [a trope for a lofty fortification in the Celtic world] where I could do all I wished to her!’ But he said all this between his teeth so nobody could hear [these remarks are excused with the claim the peers engaged merely in “huntage” i.e. barbed banter]… The French had a fine time.” Indeed, a sharp distinction was drawn between Eastern Roman and Frankish power. When Charlemagne’s queen remarked that the eastern emperor’s crown suited him better, for instance, she was forced by her husband’s wrath to backtrack: “Though he has greater wealth than you in gold and coin, he is not so valiant or so fine a knight when it comes to striking on the battlefield or routing the enemy.”
This critique of power is taken further by assuming the further East the western traveller went the more power rested on artifice, “folie,” and enchantment rather than truth. Iran provided the perfect caricature of this view as the place where Chosroes’ power could be reduced to a Wizard of Oz performance involving a
“Silver tower… where he had placed a chariot for the sun and an image of the moon and stars, and had the water flow through underground channels, so that like a god he seemed to pour rain from above, while horses set in motion the contents of the tower and even feigned the crash of thunder.” Similarly, in Partopenopeus – which enjoyed an English translation in the fifteenth century – though the Byzantine princess Melior is a Christian (as well as the financial patron of her lover) the text insists on conflating Islamic and Byzantine culture, a fact indicated when Melior compared her powers with the magic that made Arabs believe in Mohammad: “Par ce fist mahons les vertus | Dont il fu puis por deu tenus.” (That is how Mohammad pulled off his marvels | For which he was later reckoned a god).
To return to the Voyage, much of it reads as a rebuttal of Eastern Roman history. With an eye firmly set on Constantine’s title as the “isapostolos” or “equal to the apostles,” the plot has Charlemagne encounter a church in Jerusalem with thirteen seats where nobody had sat since the days of the Messiah. Not one to miss a chance (cf. coronation in 800), he swiftly parked his rump and a Jew conveniently mistook him for Christ. This rivalry is explicitly acknowledged when Charlemagne then claimed he sought the acquaintance of the “thirteenth king” (the Roman emperor) i.e. a position very similar to his own in his (imaginary) hierarchy. Finally, the tale also has Hugo place a spy among Charlemagne’s men – a (stereotypically Byzantine) betrayal of true hospitality – an event which occasioned the Franks to make bold jests and boasts that the emperor subsequently demanded they accomplish or perish. This culminated in the fulfilment of the third jest, which involved the flooding of Constantinople, forcing Charlemagne and his peers to beg God to withdraw the waters before they were all drowned – revealing the folly of both the jest and the emperor’s ultimatum. In the end, however, it’s the Franks who hold the real high ground by, first, taking no wealth when they exited the city, second, making Oliver ooze so much chivalry that he refrains from “taking” Hugo’s daughter and, thirdly, having the western crown appear as a relic (which seems to have implied that pious Charlemagne knew the real limitations to rule in contrast to the emperor’s Caesaropapism). The Chanson de Girart de Roussillon contributed its own talking-points to these Frankish illusions, adding that Constantinople’s charms dastardly charms led crusaders astray from their honourable pledges to the Holy Land (technically imperial territory if the status quo ante was to be respected). The poor Latins and Franks in the city had the misfortune to be spiritually tortured and distracted by seeing “silk strewn underfoot,” “necromancers and their powerful games,” and finally an emperor who “burdened soldiers with costly spices and mandrake… displayed Christendom’s greatest relics, and showed them his vaulted chamber with floors strewn with brightly-coloured gems.”
It wasn’t only Franks (some of whose texts, such as the Dit de l’empereur, were wholly set in Constantinople) who got in on the act. The British hero of Peredur rather improbably travelled to Constantinople, vanquished all in a tournament, seduced the empress, married her and ruled for fourteen years. Indeed, some Frankish accounts are so fanciful that they (La Belle Helene de Constantinople for example) frame Byzantine princesses as so desperate to mount Englishmen that they flee the empire in order to pursue them. Despite the fact the Romans were framed as awfully eager to leave Constantinople, most Franks appeared equally content to sail in the opposite direction and sack the city in the fourth crusade (1204). An event that resulted in the melting of its beautiful bronze statuary, which the crusaders perceived to form imperial talismans (which bore in themselves the strengths of the Roman empire). Indeed, so fantastical was the Frankish imagination that Robert de Clari (d. 1216) claimed all the statues in the hippodrome had once been alive and had taken part in the games. Rather comically the city (and Roman emperor as cosmocrator) continued to form a symbol of utopia (“There are no thieves in Constantinople” claimed one author) and served as a model for renewal even after its sack. This might be deemed especially odd by the Eastern Romans who could reasonably protest that the Germanics hadn’t been content to merely sack the Old Rome (410) before adulating its history and identity, they had felt compelled to do the same to its later incarnation, the New Rome (1204), too.
To repeat, despite the fourth crusade Constantinople still commanded respect from the Franks as the quintessential ideal city, the font of legitimacy and largesse – an absentminded (and therefore deniable) hat-tip to eastern translatio imperii. Their accounts are replete with the language of renovatio, aemulatio, admiratio but also various (and ambivalent) translationes; they ooze wonder at the palaces of Bucoleon and Blachernae (such complexes of urban architecture were hardly known in the West and were often associated with the places where folk should prepare themselves for heaven’s “house” thanks to II Corinthians 5:1), as well as mosaics (known in Italy and Sicily but not in France), crystal (marabit) and sadonyx (seldoine). Yet despite all this the city was often despised as a pit of decadence produced by too-clever-by-half “Greeks.” Equally while Constantinople (the New Rome, the New Jerusalem) appeared at the centre of an ideology that upheld the unity of both Rome and Christendom under a single oikoumene, it could also be denigrated as a nest of [Eastern] heresy and effeminacy. An example – affirming the the political unity of eastern and western halves of the empire, and that the emperor in Constantinople was within his rights to call on the military services of the latter – of the pro-Roman position follows in Girart, which has the pope declaim before the Germanics: “Cai non vinc per aver, non per deduic,
Meis pe servise Deu faire, jo cuic […]
D’oltre Constantinoble, devers Aucir, A l’amperaire guere, non pot partir. Aichi erete Rome a captenir.” I have come here for wealth, nor for pleasure But to serve God. I affirm… Beyond Constantinople, towards Tyre, The emperor is at war, he cannot escape it. He is heir to Rome And has a duty to govern it.” A position of affinity affirmed by Drogon’s account which recounted how the emperor kindly gave him “droghemanz” (interpreters) and “neusanz” (merchants) on his journey to the Holy Sepulchre. Furthermore, he noted how pagans attacked the empire from all sides (reaching even the elder Rome) and showed that not only did the West recognise Byzantine preponderance in Italy but that Constantinople was the protector of Western rulers in the Holy Land and pre-eminent over them.
The concept of translatio could be worked against the New Rome as well as for it. While the ninth-century anonymous Versus Romae (which praised the replacement of Roma vetusta by nova Roma) was a rare paean to the city from a Western source, the idea that civilisation moved westwards (derived from Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite and Alcuin) framed the city as nothing more than a temporary staging post for the West’s manifest destiny; a kind of magical aberration to the topos of translatio militiae which always stressed “Greek” cowardice against Frankish honour and strength of arms. The topos of the translatio originum also contained ambivalence. While Rome was succeeded by the New Rome (and so New Troy [Rome] by a Newer Troy [Constantinople] when viewed in a positive light), when Franks (such as Gunther of Pairis) wanted to flip the dynamic they stressed that the Romans in the East were fake Trojans i.e. fake Romans – in reality the imposters were dishevelled “Greeks,” pale and spent shadows of themselves after their admittedly great feats at Troy. The “real” Trojans were Western Europeans like the Franks descended from Francus or the British descended from Brutus, and so on. This dialectic was transcended only rarely in moves and gestures which stressed that the Eastern i.e. Trojan origins of the Western folk made them perfectly matched for a geopolitical marriage with the Eastern Romans. The Franks, however, were not beyond framing themselves as the superlative people, bizarrely claiming the Eastern Romans (who’d fought off several far more advanced enemies in their history) were in need of some Western virility. In this view it was the former that needed renewal, not the latter. The Occident did not look to Constantinople for its cultural cues, the New Rome looked to (a fictional) Arthur’s court for its ideals (this manoeuvre took on an amusing turn when Anglos such as Richard de Bury [tutor to Edward III] then argued that the baton of power had bypassed Paris and settled on London, while Otto of Freising insisted it resided in the Holy Roman Emperor). Meanwhile, the Roman empire in the East continued as a single (static, holy and whole) entity, making the fragmented regna (with their dearth of relics) of the West and their appeals to be the destination of “Rome 3.0” sound shrill and hollow.
One of the few figures both Romans and Franks could praise together was Heraklios, famous for having rescued the relic of the True Cross. Gautier d’Arras’ Eracle, however, appropriated the emperor in a dishonest manner and erroneously claimed he was brought up in Rome (in an an odd case of translatio imperatorum) and played a homo viator rather than a dyed-in-the-wool Byzantine. Indeed, a lot of backhanded compliments were dished out. When Heraklios was adorned with virtues, for instance, they remained those associated with the West (set against the stereotypical vices of the East). Verses 1779-82 run “Grans vilounie est de mesdire, De nului blasme et desdire; Asses se blasme et juge l’euvre A cou que nus fais ne se cuevre.” (To slander, criticise or wrongfully accuse
Is a wicked thing to do. The actions contain their own criticism Since no deed can be forever concealed.) In other words, Heraklios is transformed into doughty Frankish paladin who deals only in manly action. He is constrained, however, by the bluffs, wiles and deceits of courtiers (attributes usually associated with the East) who have only words, which (thanks to the fact God prefers Frankish truths, not oleaginous rhetoric) in the end, defeat themselves. Indeed, the tale’s imperial court – which occludes rather than discloses truth – is run by the empress (a misogynistic theme repeated in Partonopeus de Blois whose hero seeks to anchor the eastern empire in western masculinity against the magical wiles of the aforementioned Byzantine princess Melior) whose deftest manoeuvre involves adulterous cunning, the opposite of Frankish honour. By this view Rome, the New Rome and Iran form a spectrum of disasters; a dire warning of what might occur to Frankia if it was not renewed (ideally by an eccentric blend of imitatio Christi and bold virtu). Indeed, Heraklios is compared unfavourably with both Christ and the finder of the True Cross, St Helena, when he is portrayed as a hubristic hero – acclaimed as the “Roi de Glore” – entering Jerusalem with the relic. The author even seeing fit to chastise him explicitly: “Compared to God’s expertise/authority, Man’s is worthless.” Despite the above d’Arras found Heraklios irresistible as a symbol of Christian unity and (incorrectly) claimed the equestrian column near Hagia Sophia (which held Justinian) was “very impressive with [Heraklios] pointing towards the pagans, threatening them to remain in their own lands as he will never stop pursuing God’s most honourable cause.”
To conclude, two poles structured the Frankish imagination. Byzantium at its finest clearly blended imperium and imperium Christi in one seamless garment. Constantinople, by this view, clearly deserved the adulation of a parent. Indeed, continuing along this vein, perhaps a folk memory still existed of Justin and Sophia sending part of the True Cross to the Frankish princess Radegund in AD 569 – an event immortalised by Venantius Fortunatus. However, at the other end of the emotional gamut – in the Frankish mind at least – when Constantinople fell short of this wondrous ideal the times called for nothing short of (self-serving) Frankish [military] intervention.