‘Like a nightingale in the cage’: City sieges in the Late Byzantine vernacular Chronicle of Morea

In the early 13th century, the armies of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) deviated from their course and conquered Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. After that, Crusader leaders split the Empire and a group of Frankish knights led by Guillaume de Champlitte set to subdue the Morea (Peloponnese), in southern Greece. 

A new society, multicultural and multilingual, emerged in Latin-occupied Morea and one of its most important literary specimens is the Chronicle of Morea[1], an early 14th century composition of about 10.000 verses that provides historical information and showcases the new ethnic and political identities. The language of the text is Greek vernacular in political verse, although the author is Frankish or of mixed Frankish and Greek provenance, a gasmoulos (γασμολος).[2] The Chronicle, besides the Greek one in several manuscripts, also has a French, Italian and Aragonese version.[3] All texts are thought to have an unknown common prototype, but the Greek version has been strongly advocated as the original.[4] 

The events narrated in the Greek version refer to the period from 1204 to ca. 1292, and the focus is on the conquest of Morea by the Franks and the creation of the most significant Crusader state in Greece, the Principality of Achaea. The Chronicle’s author is an enthusiast of the Villehardouin family, that ruled the Principality for many decades, and especially Guillaume II Villehardouin who is portrayed as a noble and brave warrior, a perfect knight.

The Chronicle, being a story of conquest, emphasizes on war and its different parameters. The establishment of the Franks in the Morea followed a pattern used by the newcomers to conquest a number of strongholds and fortified cities, making sieges the core of the narrative whereas the battles mentioned are less than a handful. The Chronicle does not introduce many novelties compared to Byzantine siege tactics—known through several military manuals—or Western warfare. It is the overall tone of the Chronicle that is particular, emphasizing in every chance the deficiency of the Byzantines that come across as untrustworthy, perfidious and false Christians, an ambiguity as it seems the text was equally popular in Greek and Frankish populations of both denominations.

Monemvasia, at the time ruled by the Ottoman Empire, Map made by Frederick de Witt (1629-1706), Amsterdam 1680, Available at:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monemvasia#/media/File:De_wit_1680_monemvasia_b.jpg (Public Domain)

The author unfolds the motif of Frankish sieges beginning with Constantinople itself and the two Crusader attacks in March and April of 1204. The necessity in using both land and naval forces is obvious, especially to overcome the formidable walls of the capital. According to the Chronicle, the Venetian fleet helped the Crusader infantry and cavalry units to enter the city by extending wall ladders from the ships directly onto the walls.[5]

The Byzantine castles already existing in the Peloponnese were twelve, as the Chronicle describes,[6] and less demanding in terms of offense, but the same MO was required nevertheless. The author mentions Monemvasia, along with Acrocorinthos, Nafplio and Argos, all in the eastern coast of the peninsula, as key but impregnable castles requiring the launch of elaborate and expensive endeavors, so the less strong fortified cities of the western coast were preferred.[7]

In most cities, the fortified acropolis (κάστρον) and the lower town (χώρα) are clearly distinguished and the siege begins with attacks in the lower part. In Corinth and Argos the acropolis is not adjacent to the lower town but a natural stronghold built further up in the mountain, while Andravida, later capital of the Principality, had no walls leaving no choice for the city’s inhabitants but to set out to meet the Franks and negotiate their surrender.

Other elements of siegecraft include the encampments of the offenders vulnerable to a sudden assault, usually at night, since the defenders had better knowledge of the area. The archers also emerge as a crucial unit for the besiegers and are placed in strategic parts of the walls to enhance the obstruction of the defenders. According to the Chronicle, the archers prevent the presence of troops in the outer fortifications and consequently facilitate the storming of the walls.

City harbors are considered extremely valuable as military infrastructures, since can be used for both offensive and defensive purposes and their bad condition is a major setback. The two Peloponnesian castles that were inland, Acrocorinthos and Argos, were conquered later mainly because the Franks could not receive assistance from their fleet, in terms of logistics and military support of the infantry.

In the Chronicle we see a standardized literary expression of a city’s surrender. The Franks either begin a siege or arrive at a city full-force, the locals are intimidated by the army’s might or can’t endure the siege and offer terms. In most cases the locals were given the choice either to surrender and keep their lives and privileges, or to resist and be killed after the conquest. However, we never see a besieged city destroyed after conquest since terms are usually agreed beforehand.[8]

Monemvasia was the last castle to remain in Greek hands and suffered the longest and hardest siege of all. A three-year long land and sea blockade forced the inhabitants to surrender after starving to death. Such was the extent of famine that the people ate even the cats and the mice.[9] The conquest of Monemvasia, in 1248, allowed Guillaume II to create a powerful nexus of newly-built and pre-existing castles throughout the Messenia and Laconia regions. The castles in Laconia, including Monemvasia and Mystras, were lost after Guillaume was captivated in the battle of Pelagonia (1259) and was compelled to give them away as ransom to the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, in 1262.

The narration in the Greek version ends during Florent de Hainaut’s leadership of Achaea. Florent was married to Isabelle de Villehardouin, whom the chronicler mentions as Zampea (Ζαμπέα), daughter of Guillaume II and heiress of the principality. During his rule, Florent launched several military operations, even outside the Morea.

Florent’s most ambitious campaign was in aid to the Despot of Epirus when the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos besieged Ioannina.[10] Despite their preparation, the Byzantines could not overtake the city protected by strong walls and provisioned by the lake around it. And while the Greek version ends describing the Prince’s victories, it is interesting to mention two sieges in the French version, the siege of Kalamata in 1293 and the siege of the castle of Saint George in 1294[11]

The castles fell into Greek hands following treason. Kalamata was taken by Slav inhabitants of nearby Giannitsa while Saint George fell after a conspiracy of a local Greek merchant. Florent associated these actions with Andronikos II—with whom had a standing peace treaty—since the rebellions were instigated by his former subjects. In both cases the intruders used the dungeon as a way in by putting ladders to its walls that were adjacent to the fortifications.

The circumstances of these sieges are indicative of the hostile ambience prevailing among locals against the Franks and the longstanding mistrust of the Franks against the Greeks almost a century after Morea’s original conquest and a few decades after the Byzantines restored their foothold in the southeastern Morea[12].

In its epilogue, the Chronicle had no tales for Frankish victories.

Cite this article as: Nafsika Vassilopoulou, "‘Like a nightingale in the cage’: City sieges in the Late Byzantine vernacular Chronicle of Morea," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 31/05/2022, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1751.

[1]τν παρακαθίσαν| τότε τν Μονοβασίαν, ς τ κλουβ τ ηδόνι. (=…and they sieged Monemvasia like a nightingale in the cage), Chronicle of Morea, ed. by John Schmitt, H 2910. This is the original version of this essay’s title.

[2] Editions of the Greek version in The Chronicle of Morea, ed. by John Schmitt (London: Metheun, 1904, Repr. Groningen: Bouma, 1967) and Το Χρονικόν του Μορέως, ed. by Petros Kalonaros (Athens: Ekati 1940). The citations here are from the Schmitt edition. An English translation of the Greek version in Harold Lurier (ed. & trans.), Crusaders as Conquerors: The Chronicle of Morea (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964). An overall assessment of the Chronicle in Teresa Shawcross, The Chronicle of Morea: historiography in crusader Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009).

[3] The Italian version in Versione italiana inedita della Cronaca di Morea, in Chroniques Gréco-romanes inédites ou peu connues, publièes avec notes et tables gènéalogiques, ed. by Charles Hopf (Berlin 1873, repr. Athens 1961), pp. 414-468. The Aragonese version with a French translation in Libro de los fechos et conquistas del principado de la Morea compilado por comandamiento de Don Fray Johan Ferrandez de Heredia: Chronique de Morée aux XIIIe et XIVe siècles, publiée & traduite pour la première fois pour la Société de lOrient latin, ed. by Alfred Morel-Fatio (Genève 1885). The French version in Livre de la conqueste de la princée de l’Amorée, Chronique de Morée (1204-1305), ed. by Jean Longnon (Paris 1911). An English translation of the French version in The old French Chronicle of Morea. An account of Frankish Greece after the Fourth Crusade, ed. & trans. by Anne Van Arsdall and Helen Moody (Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate 2015).

[4] See Michael Jeffreys, ‘The Chronicle of the Morea: priority of the Greek version’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 68 (1975), 304-350.

[5] Chronicle of Morea, H 527-550, 845-868. An almost matching description in Niketas Choniates, Historia, ed. by Jan-Louis van Dieten, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 11/1,2 (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter 1975) I, 568.88-569.1.

[6] Chronicle of Morea, H 1404-1406.

[7] Chronicle of Morea, H 1575-1602, 1651-1790.

[8] Chronicle of Morea, H 1699-1706, 1788-1790. A brief catalogue of these arrangements in Teresa Shawcross, ‘Greeks and Franks after the Fourth Crusade: Identity in the Chronicle of Morea’ in Languages of Love and Hate: Conflict, Communication, and Identity in the Medieval Mediterranean, ed. by Sarah Lambert and Helen Nicholson, International Medieval Research, 15   (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), pp. 141-57, esp. p. 149.

[9] Chronicle of Morea, H 2875 onwards. Monemvasia outlasted Acrocorinthos, despite the latter’s great advantage of having ample natural water supplies.

[10] Chronicle of Morea, H 8803.

[11] French Chronicle, ed. Longnon, § 693-746, 814-827.

[12] See in detail Shawcross, Identity, pp. 143-148.

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