The history of the medieval period in Greece is extremely confusing. With the power of the Byzantine Empire partially broken and in rapid decline various foreign and Greek groups fought to control localised fiefdoms. It is not my intention to even attempt to put together any sort of synopsis - other writers have done much better than I could. Hetherington has as clear an overview as is possible in the early part of his Byzantine & Medieval Greece, Cheetham's Medieval Greece is a good longer academic narrative and Lock's The Franks in the Aegean is an excellent contemporary take on the period and has a useful chronology. See the bibliography for full details.

In the mid to late middle ages a mixture of Franks (basically French - but often a long time wandering around the Mediterranean), Italians - primarily Venetians, Pisans and Genoese - and Catalans all made their historical mark on Greece. However the underlying Greek speaking populace remained pretty constant and these conquerors and rulers have left little trace of their occupation save the medieval castles which dot the hilltops and the extremely rare examples of gothic features in churches. Of Frankish culture it is hard to find any traces whatsoever such was the hold of the Orthodox Church on the imaginative horizons of the population. One caveat - to talk of nation states in the medieval period is to project and impose modern ideologies and cultural and ethnic preconceptions back into a past where they would not be recognised.

Even our use of the term 'Byzantine' is an invention of nineteenth century French historians and Byzantium had long been called Konstantinopolis - or more commonly - "The City" - from whence it metamorphosed into the name of the present day city - Istanbul - "stin polis". The people we call Byzantines would have described themselves as "Romaio" - even though they spoke Greek - an allusion to the continuity of the Roman Empire through the lineage of its eastern half and it is not until the latter part of the medieval period that they start to refer to themselves as Greeks, or rather Hellenes. The Greek language went into a medieval phase and there are loan words, mostly in place names, from the Slav and Frankish invaders. The period of Frankish domination is portrayed by Patrick Leigh Fermor as an aberration - but in fact it seems little more than an exemplar of what was happening throughout Europe at the time with Royalty, nobles, younger sons, religious orders, groups of mercenaries (the Catalan Company, who for a while controlled Athens, are a good example) and pirates spending most of their time stealing, seizing and conniving in order to control arbitrary lumps of territory. The most the common people could hope for was some form of stability and freedom from the constant possibility of being over-taxed, looted or massacred.

Relatively contemporaneous images of medieval soldiery - left a detail from the crucifixion church of Ag. Iannis Prodromos, Kastania and St. George from Ag. Nikolaos, Polemitas

The early 13th century saw the most radical changes to the Peloponnese with the invasion of the area by a group of itinerant noblemen from France. They were hoping to catch up with the rest of the 4th Crusade. The larger part of this crusade had set off from Venice in 1202 intending to sail to Alexandria then advance to the Holy Land. Things didn't quite turn out as expected and due to a number of miscalculations, unforeseen events and a certain amount of cynical realpolitik a large army of them ended up at the gates of Constantinople in 1203 and turfed out the diffident Alexius III installing his nephew the feckless and unpopular Alexius IV as Emperor. He'd blithely promised the crusaders huge amounts of cash and military support, most of which he was, in fact, completely unable to deliver on. Things went quickly sour and relations between the Byzantines and the crusaders turned into festering if spasmodic warfare. Alexius was murdered and yet another Alexius, Ducas Murzuphlus, soon to be (equally briefly) Alexius V put himself on the throne. As everyone's tempers ran out in April 1204; the crusaders attacked, sacked, and pillaged Constantinople. After all that it seemed rather superfluous to actually continue to Jerusalem and the crusaders quickly invested one of their number, Baldwin of Flanders as Emperor of a now Latin Empire and proceded to carve up the Byzantine territories between themselves. The Greek Orthodox church has never quite forgiven the westerners for this affront and Pope John-Paul II had to make apologetic noises some 800 years later and one still doubts if this is the end of the matter.

Some crusaders had actually aimed directly at the Holy Land and hadn't got involved in the sack of Constantinople. However once they realised that their colleagues were carving up the Byzantine Empire they hurried to join in with the free for all and share in the spoils of war. One particular group was diverted by bad weather to Methoni (or Modon as it was then called) on the Messenian peninsula to the west of Mani. The leader, a French noble Geoffroy de Villehardouin, was pleasantly surprised by the richness of the area and in helping out a local Greek Archon or ruler in a local tiff quickly realised that the locals were no match for Frankish military prowess.

With the local Byzantine rulers demoralised by the fall of Constantinople the Peloponnese (or Morea as it was more commonly known until the 20th century) was a reasonably easy plum to pick. Villehardouin moved north and joined forces with another Frankish baron, Guillaume de Champlitte, and together they swept through the north and west of the Peloponnese. A 4000 strong army of Byzantines with help from the Melingi - the Slav tribe which dominated the western Taygetus - confronted the Franks in open battle at Koundoura, which is thought to be in the north of the Messenian plain, in May 1205. Although vastly outnumbered the Franks routed the Greek forces.

After some consultation with their titular rulers in Constantinople the Franks divided the Peloponnese between them with Champlitte given the title Prince of Achaia - an interesting choice of name which harked back to classical times. The absence of any strong Byzantine Imperial presence in the area gave the Franks time in which to expand their ascendancy in the Morea. Champlitte had to return to France where he died. Hearing of his death Villehardouin seized the title of Prince of Achaia, which should have gone to Champlitte's heir - Villehardouin played a legally dodgy game of hide and seek, keeping one step ahead of the heir for a year and a day until he could claim the title by default. Thus the Villehardouin family became the most powerful rulers in the Morea.

That's not to say that the Franks had it all their way. They were still numerically inferior to the local population and their expansion, after the first shock, was slow - it took nearly fifty years to hold sway over the Peloponnese and in the process the Franks had to build numerous castles to control the local populace. The imposition of western traditions, feudalism and the rule of the Roman church, had to be modified to local conditions and it is noticeable that the Franks were quick to come to accommodations with their Greek subjects. (For more detail see: Ilieva, Aneta. Frankish Morea (1205-1262) Socio-cultural Interaction between the Franks and the local population. Athens. 1991.) In particular the Orthodox church seems to have held its own - there are extremely few signs of western Latin church building in the Peloponnese as a whole and in Mani there are, as far as I am aware, none.

From the little specific knowledge we have concerning the Franks in the Mani (and most of this is topographical inference) we can assume that in the early years of ascendancy of the Villehardouin family that in the Exo Mani, the territory of the Melingi, the Franks were in some sort of control for only about fifteen years in the 1250s and 60s. In neighbouring Lakonia the dynasty established themselves at La Cremonie (Laekadaemon - ancient Sparta - and later at nearby Mistra) and created a court which, under the second and third of dynasty, Geoffroy II and his brother Guillaume, was acclaimed as one of the most chivalric of its time. The elder brother Geoffroy was particularly fond of peace and consolidation but after his death Guillaume proved to be much more warlike and impulsive.

In the 1250s he assaulted Monemvasia, the last major Byzantine stronghold in the south of the Peloponnese, which eventually succumbed through starvation after a three year siege. Villehardouin then looked to controlling the troublesome Melingi tribe of Slavs who were ensconced in the western part of the Taygetus - what today is called the Exo or Messenian Mani. He rode around the perimeter of their territory and decided the best way to enforce his rule was to build a ring of castles. Two at least we know were Mistra and Grand Magne ( To this day historians are uncertain as to the location of Villehardouin's Castle of Grand Magne. For a description of the puzzle of the location of Grand Magne and an expansion on the subject of castles in the Mani click here) and when these were built the Melingi were so impressed that they pointed out that an extra castle at Lefktro (near modern Stoupa) would really tie them down. Why the Melingi did this is unclear but sure enough Villehardouin built a castle, called by the Franks 'Beaufort', on the knoll overlooking the small plain of Gisterna near Stoupa in the Exo Mani.

A relatively contemporaneous 13th century fresco from the church of Trissakia - the Garden of Gethsemane is populated with Frankish soldiers

However a succession of weak and ineffective Frankish Emperors at Constantinople and a resurgent Byzantine Empire based at Nicea had done nothing to stabilise the area and small wars flared up all over the southern Balkans. In response to one major threat to the Franks in the north of Greece Villehardouin joined an alliance of Frankish rulers in a campaign against the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Paleaologos At the battle of Pelagonia in 1259, near present day Mostir in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Franks were deserted by their allies and suffered a disastrous defeat. Many princes and nobility were captured, Guillaume de Villehardouin was discovered hiding in a haystack outside Kastoria and was recognised by his prominent front teeth. Held hostage by the Byzantines (in, it must be admitted, some comfort) the Franks had to trade some of their conquests for their freedom. In Villehardouin's case this meant he had to forfeit large tracts of territory to the Byzantines including the castles of Monemvasia, which he had only just captured, and Mistra and Grand Magne which he'd only just built.

The Franks therefore lost Mistra and Lakonia to the Byzantines in the 1260s. It becomes obvious that they also lost their castles at Geraki and Passavas at about the same time and at some moment in the last decades of the 13th century they lost Beaufort to the Melingi. The Melingi seem to have played one side off against the other as in 1296 we hear of an alliance between a certain Frank, Florent de Hainault and a Melingi called Spany "un puissant homme des Esclavons qui estoit sire de Gisterne et des autres chastiaux entour" * to attack a Byzantine fort near Kalamata. This refers to the Spanis family who appear from a variety of sources to have been the leaders of the Melingi in the area we now call the Outer or Exo Mani. By the 1330s a certain Constantine Spanis was in charge of this area, paying some form of homage to the Byzantines in Mistra and lavishing money and talent on restoring and altering the church of Ag. Nikolaos at Kampinari (near Platsa) amongst others. The Melingi had taken on the appearance of Greeks and had probably been speaking Greek long before this time but were still maintaining some independence from centralised government. In this respect the Slavic Melingi are somewhat like the Normans in England - a conquering nation who eventually end up speaking the language of their subjects. What is interesting is that sometime during the late middle ages the term Melingi disappears from the chronicles and the area becomes Greek or specifically Maniate. The traditional independent nature of the Melingi fed into that constant theme in Mani history: the inhabitants' reluctance to pay dues or taxes to a central authority - a tradition one suspects continues to this day.

There is some proof that the Franks still had a presence in Exo Mani at least until the late 13th century. There is even evidence that a few Frankish estates survived until the early 14th century with the scattered properties of Périne de Courcelles and Pierre Joussard from Armiro (Almiros) in the north to Tsimova (Areopoli) in the south being granted to a Niccolo Acciaiuoli in 1336. But all in all the general view is that Frankish dominance in Mani was short lived although the mixture of Italian, French, Greek and Melingi interests in the western shore of Mani lead to a fluid situation for many decades. Additionally many other states and groups had influence in medieval Morea, everyone from the Catalan Company to large groups of christian Albanians who were settled in the Peloponnese by various rulers. The latter were called Arvanites (Greek) or Arberesh (Albanian)and similar family names with roots such as Arvanitika are still found in present day Outer Mani.

Mistra on the eastern side of the Taygetus became in the last century or so of Byzantine Greek rule the centre of some of the finest art and philosophy of the late Byzantine cultural renaissance. The Greek territories were named The Despotate of the Morea under the control of the Palaeologos dynasty who were one of the Imperial families of Constantinople. It appears that the Melingi, after a period of switching sides eventually decided to support the Byzantines, who at least were linguistically and religiously similar to themselves. Certainly there was much moaning by the scholars of Mistra about the warlike propensities of the Maniates and in the early 15th century the Palaeologii took the sensible step of pulling down the medieval castles in the area (Grand Magne, Beaufort and a reputed castle at Koutiphari) in order that they couldn't be used against the Byzantine state.

This in itself may not be politically significant - after all in 150 years' time all of these mixed Greek and Frankish appanages, princedoms and Despotates would go down under the Ottoman Turkish invasions. But the split between the Frankish controlled Messenian Mani and the nominally Byzantine Lakonian Mani showed itself in the possible rooting of two subtly different but significant social organisations. In the north the Franks established feudalism and in later centuries there was a marked pattern of tribal/clan leaders based on a single or group of settlements. In the southern Mani there was an overlying "aristocracy" but villages were divided between families. Equally this could be due to the traditions of the Slavic Melingi in the Exo Mani - but this is straying dangerously into the realms of speculation.

The story of the "Frankish Centuries" and the gradual decline of their rule in the Morea is told in the almost contemporaneous "Chronicle of the Morea". This seems to have been written in the late part of the 14th century and probably by a Greek speaker. There is some scholarly sniping concerning the origin of this document and whom was its intended audience as there are both Greek and French versions of it and even (later and shorter) Aragonese and Italian versions. There is a readable English translation, long out of print, by Arthur Laurier (1966). To go into detail would be beyond the scope of this modest account - but in essence the Byzantines expanded their control over the Peloponnese at the expense of the Franks whilst the ruling Cantacuzene and Palaeologi families squabbled amongst themselves - and in the case of the Palaeologi brother against brother. Hindsight allows us to observe that they would have been better combining to fend off the Ottoman advance into the Balkans.

Towards the end of the Byzantine Empire the troops adopted many Turkish weapons. This late medieval (?) painting of Ag. Georgios (Panagia - Kastania) has contemporary armour and the small composite bow typical of the 15th century.

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Mehmed in 1453 and with it any vain hope that the Byzantine Empire could survive. Mistra fell to the Ottomans without a fight in 1460 and so started a period of over 350 years when mainland Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire - a period called by the Greeks the "Turkokratia". There are stories that many of the Byzantine nobility fled across the Taygetus into the Mani including members of the imperial Palaeologos family (see Donald M. Nichol's "The Immortal Emperor". Cambridge University Press. 1992 and early sections of Fermor's "Mani"). Here they may have stayed as the combination of the ruggedness of the terrain and reluctance of the Maniates to show allegiance to any outside rule meant that it was rarely succesfuly occupied by the Turks for any considerable period of time and for large stretches of history remained, in all practical sense, independent of Ottoman laws and policy.

On to Turkokratia

For an exposition on the puzzle of the location of Villehardouin's Castle of Grand Magne - click here



"…a powerful man of the Slavs who is Lord of Gisterne and other castles around it"

Back to text