Emperor with a crown of glass paste: John VI Catacuzene

While looking for material about George Codinus, or pseudo-Codinus as we must call him, I came across a paper on Academia.edu here.[1] which gave a striking picture of the poverty of the Byzantine court at the end of the 14th century:

This picture of court life in the reconquered Constantinople, which is generally regarded as representative of the whole of the late Byzantine period from the late thirteenth century to 1453, is based on the one surviving text from the period after 1204 that contains descriptions of ceremonies, the so-called Treatise on the court titles by the anonymous author known to us as Pseudo-Kodinos. The text dates to some time in the mid-fourteenth century, to the reign of John VI Kantakouzenos, the emperor whose crown was made of glass paste gems and whose coronation banquet tableware was earthenware and pewter.

The reference given is “Nikephoros Gregoras, Byzantina Historia II, Ludwig Schopen, ed. (Bonn 1830) 788.15-789.8.”

This startling picture caused me to go in search of the History of Nicephorus Gregoras.  Fortunately p.788 of vol. 2 of the Bonn edition of the text is here, and includes a Latin translation:

Tanta porro tunc laborabat inopia palatium, ut in lancibus et poculis nihil ibi esset aurei aut argentei; sed stannea quidem nonulla, caetera vero omnia fictilia et testacea essent.   Ex his quilibet earum rerum non rudis, caetera quoque aliunda requisita, nec ita ut par erat perfecta (tyrannica quippe inopiae vi in factis, in dictis, in consiliis, tum temporis dominante) facile intellecturus est.  Nam illa quidem dicere omitto, ut et ipsa in ea solemnitate diademata et vestimenta, maxima ex parte, auri quidam speciem haberent et gemmarum pretiosissimarum; constarent autem illa corio, qualia nonnumquam inaurantur ad coriariorum usum; haec vitro, omnigenis coloribus perlucente.

For then the palace was troubled with such poverty, that in the cups and plates there was nothing of gold or silver; but while some were of tin, all the rest were pottery and earthenware. Of these things there was nothing that was not coarse, and everything else was lacking, and so it may be easily understood that nothing was correct (obviously there was desperate poverty in deeds, in speech, in advice, because of the times).  For I am disregarding this, that also their diadems and vestments in that ceremony, for the most part, had some appearance of gold and very precious gems; but the former were made of leather, of the type sometimes gilded according to the custom of the leatherworkers; the latter of glass, shining with every kind of colour.

It must have been dismal.

  1. [1]Ruth Macrides, “Ceremonies and the City: the court in fourteenth century Constantinople”, 217-236; p.218.

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