Anglo-Turkish Society

Lecture by John Mole: ‘Martoni’s Pilgrimage: the Levant before the Pax Ottomana’ - flyer - slides, 17 January 2019.

Our Chairman David Shankland and John Mole at the end of the lecture.


1. During the late 14th century, at the time of our hero Nicola Martoni, just how big was Christian pilgrimage? Do we have any sense of numbers per year? How rare are diaries from this era both pilgrimage and general, from this era that have survived the subsequent centuries?

There are no reliable statistics but the numbers would have been in thousands not hundreds. It was big business for tour operators as well as locals. About 50 accounts have survived from the 12th to the 15th Century. There are three main genres. The first is ‘Lonely Planet’, factual information and advice on prices, shipping, accommodation, guides etc and the available indulgences. The second is Travel-Lit: travel diaries and memoirs for family and friends and a reminder of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. They were written by clerics and middle class laymen, professional people like Martoni or merchants. The third was inspirational descriptions written by clerics to evoke the holy places for armchair pilgrims. More survive from the late fifteenth century, after the invention of printing, than manuscripts from previous centuries. Some of the books are illustrated with woodcuts, not all of them accurate.

2. How organised were pilgrimages during the Middle Ages? Did people club around to form little groups and off they went with their limited knowledge of geography and competing powers of the time in the Levant and even more limited language skills. Or were there specialist shipping companies, complete with tour guides and people on the ground to steer them on their way? Presumably the poorer you were the riskier the task, and presumably also some were stranded in Jerusalem etc. out of money and luck?

The classic route was Venice-Jaffa-Jerusalem-St Catherine’s Sinai-Cairo-Alexandria or the other way round. The sea routes were dominated by Venice, which by the end of the fifteenth century exercised tight control over the business. By the fifteenth century pilgrims were obliged to enrol in organised groups and paid a fixed fee. The groups could number up to a hundred people, men and women. Once on land most pilgrims were guided in groups for a fee by Franciscans of the Monastery of Mount Zion, since 1342 appointed by the Pope as the official custodians of the Holy places. It was the only western institution permitted by the ‘Saracens’. Other private guides touted for business - for example Martoni’s group is taken up the Nile by an Egyptian, possibly a renegade Italian. Travelling in a group meant better security and companionship, while their guide provided local knowledge, directions and interpretation. If they were not in a formal group from their home town, pilgrims could latch on to ad-hoc groups or in some cases, as Martoni sometimes does, go it alone in little groups of three or four. For example, when trying to get home Martoni and his companion join a Hungarian group on a ship.

The biggest risk was not running out of money, but dying. In Jerusalem the Potters Field, allegedly bought by the Temple for an unbelievers’ burial ground with the thirty pieces of silver Judas gave back and therefore too tainted to be put back in the treasury, was the burial ground for pilgrims. When Martoni was there it was so full that the dead were dumped in open graves. The smell discouraged visitors.

3. Martoni kept a diary in Latin. Was this the ‘official language’ of Italy (as we can define that geography) at the time, or was there no sense of ‘Italian’ at the time?

The ‘official’ language of government, law, church and high literature throughout Medieval Europe was Latin. By Martoni’s time it was developing into the local vernaculars of the various city states. The Florentine version, thanks to writers like Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, became what we now know as Italian.

4. The geography we call Greece today was a mish-mash of states of Latin kingdom, Byzantines, Catalan company marauders and this was the land the Ottoman Turks was pushing into gradually. Do you think the Ottomans were greatly assisted by this Christian disunity?

The Ottomans were certainly assisted by Christian disunity, resulting from the schism between Catholic and Orthodox of 1054 and the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. This was compounded by the refusal of the Pope and his allies to assist the Byzantines unless Orthodoxy submitted to Rome. While a couple of Emperors were willing to do this to hold on to their thrones, the Orthodox church, especially outside Constantinople, would rather be dead than Cardinal red. On various occasions Christian states, which I think is easier to think of as dynasties or families, called on the Ottomans for help in combatting their rivals. For example the Byzantine Despot of Epirus called on Turks to help him fight the Count of Cephalonia. Again, Martoni reports that the Christian Duchess of the town and lands of Tolofon in the Morea was so angry with the Despot of Morea that she married off her daughter to the Sultan along with title to her properties. He used it as a base to attack the Christian states after, so it is alleged, doing away with the daughter because she was socially inferior.

5. Manuel II one of the last Byzantine Emperors went pleading across Europe including England. Presumably he received a lot of kind words and nothing substantial to help his crumbling empire. Do we have contemporary English accounts of how he was received and what empty promises he was sent off with?

Manuel was certainly fobbed off with promises, which may or may not have been empty at the time they were made but certainly not carried out. What we know from contemporary records and the Chronicle of Adam of Usk, is that he arrived in England on December 21 and stayed two months at public expense. He spent Christmas with Henry IV at Eltham Palace where he was entertained with sports, jousts and banquets, and then a few weeks in London, where he was lionised. The English commented that his priests were very devout and did not cut their hair or shave, unlike the English clergy. Manuel was not impressed with the dandified, extravagant dress of the English while he and his retinue wore simple white tunics and tabards. Although the Pope of Rome had offered indulgences for military support, and Henry was sympathetic, there was no appetite for a crusade. However Henry sent Manuel off to France with £2000.

6. The Hospitaller Knights of Rhodes were clearly of great assistance to pilgrims and from their base in Rhodes and they acted as one of the last Christian ports before voyagers entered the Muslim held lands to the East. Do we know what the average Knight’s motivation was to join this order and what sort of social strata they normally came from?

The Knights themselves were usually from the lesser nobility. They were a monastic order with similar motivation to other orders, with the spice of adventure and warfare. One should not underestimate the power of piety and belief that motivated crusaders, pilgrims and indeed all people of the time.

7. The Franks / Latins lost big time once Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans under Mehmet the Conqueror and the ‘native’ people such as the Greeks, Armenians and Jews were recognised as ‘millet’ by the Ottomans from then onwards. Yet the Ottomans allowed the Latins to keep some enclaves in some of the Greek islands etc. Do you think this was a deliberate Ottoman policy to still keep a line of communication with the Western powers behind these fragments of the 4th Crusade?

It’s anachronistic to talk of millets, which were only formalised in the nineteenth century. But the seeds were sown in the semi-autonomous communities.

The Latin enclaves were primarily Venetian islands. It’s not so much that the Ottomans allowed them to be kept but that Venice managed to hang on to them in the war 1463-1479. However Venice lost Negropont (Evia), Shkodra (Albania) and other cities and islands. I’m not sure the Ottomans were especially interested in friendly relations with the Western Powers, they would rather conquer them. Defeats in Central Europe kept them at bay for the time being. Rather it was the West that strove to cultivate the Ottomans for trade - as a market and also a source for luxury imports from the East. And also for strategy. During the sixteenth century protestant powers like England looked to Turkey and Morocco to counterbalance Catholic Europe.

8. For the Latin ‘buffs’, you had challenges in translating this book as it was not written in ‘classical’ Latin. Can you give a listing of the words that gave you the most trouble and what translation you come up with, relying on ‘dialect dictionaries’?

I’m afraid I didn’t keep a list. But here is a taste:

De insula Gocze. — Die veneris xxvi° dicti mensis junii circa horam vespertinam, applicuimus ad quandam insulam que vocatur Gocza, que girat in circuytu milearia xxx, cui dominatur Artbalis de Rabona; et est in dicta insula quodam castrum cum casalibus foculariorum quadringentorum, et sunt vince, et est ibi magna copia bommicis et cimini et carnium omnis generis. Sunt rotuli x carnium vaccinarum pro uno carleno; edus valet grana iiii et rotulus carnium crastatinarum valet grana duo.

On Friday 26 June, towards evening, we came to the island of Gozo, which is about thirty miles round. It is ruled by Artale Alagona of Aragon. There is a castle with about forty dwellings. They have vines and an abundance of silk worms and cumin and all sorts of meat. You can get ten kilos of beef for a carleno. A goat costs four grana and a kilo of lamb two grana.

It took just a little looking up to recognise bombyx from bommicis and cumini from cimini. Weights and measures are hard because they vary from place to place. In this sense rotulus is not a roll but a measure of grain in Naples. Closest I could get to Crastatinarum was the Neapolitan for castrated. I plumped for sheep (a wether) but it could well be pork, as male pigs are also castrated. The carleno was a silver coin issued in Naples, as was the the bronze granum of lesser value. I couldn’t work out their value or their equivalent modern names so I left them.

9. Do you think pilgrimages like this was one of the sources of information that trickled into Western Europe and perhaps was an additional impetus for the Renaissance awakening that was ushered in from about that time onwards?

The entire encounter with the ‘other’ was an impetus. But remember people were making recorded pilgrimages to the Holy Land since the third century. One of the many contributors to the Renaissance was the Ottoman expansion and fall of Constantinople fifty years later. Scholars fled to the west bringing their Greek manuscripts with them.

10. What are you working on right now?

In September 2017 I rode my 25 year old 50CC Yamaha motorcyle, max speed 25mph, from my house on Evia on the back roads to the monastic republic of Mount Athos, where I spent some time. 500 miles. A pilgrimage through the myths and miracles of modern Greece. Madness. I’m on the third draft of the book.

Questions by Craig Encer, January 2019