BECK index

Crusaders and Byzantine Decline 1250-1400

by Sanderson Beck

Crusaders Defeated 1250-1300
Byzantine and Balkan Decline 1250-1350
Byzantine and Balkan Decline 1350-1400

This chapter has been published in the book Medieval Europe 1250-1400.
For information on ordering click here.

Crusaders Defeated 1250-1300

Crusades to Constantinople and Egypt 1198-1250
Crusaders, Greeks, and Muslims

Louis IX of France led a crusade to Egypt in 1249, and the Franks captured Damietta in June. Though they suffered hunger and disease during the summer, Louis refused to trade Damietta for Jerusalem. The next year 290 Templars that included English knights tried to take Mansurah; but only five survived. Turan-shah succeeded his father Aiyub as sultan of Egypt and arrived from Damascus. After the crusaders lost 112 ships, famine led to dysentery and typhoid. Louis tried to negotiate a retreat for Damietta; but a rumor they had surrendered resulted in the capture of the large crusading army. Damietta became the ransom for King Louis, and after the murder of Turan-shah by Baybars, the crusaders ended up paying 800,000 bezants. Louis and the barons sailed to Acre, but the wounded left at Damietta were massacred by the Egyptians.

Louis IX still believed in the crusade in 1250 and asked for reinforcements; but the Italian Salimbene reported that Franciscans and Dominicans, who still preached the crusade, were publicly insulted. An-Nasir Yusuf of Aleppo took over Damascus, and their army invaded Egypt; but they were defeated by the army of Aybek and fled. An-Nasir Yusuf offered Jerusalem to Louis for an alliance against Egypt, but Louis used that leverage to get Aybek to release all his prisoners from Egypt by 1252. An-Nasir Yusuf kept his foes apart by taking Jaffa, and the Mamluks stayed in Egypt. Louis also used diplomacy to arrange an alliance with the Assassins. In 1253 Caliph al-Musta‘sim from Baghdad was able to reconcile an-Nasir Yusuf and the Mamluks. Troubles at home caused Louis to sail from Acre in 1254; but before he left, he made a truce with Damascus that would last two and a half years.

Egyptian sultan Aybek made a ten-year truce with the Franks in 1255, though Jaffa was excluded. The next year civil war between crusaders broke out again with the Templar and Teutonic Knights supporting the Venetians while the Hospitallers fought for the Genoese. When the Pisans deserted them, the Genoese took over the Pisan quarter in Acre until the Venetians arrived to drive the Genoese back. Bohemond V’s daughter Plaisance of Antioch was recognized as regent from 1253 to 1261, and she appealed to Pope Alexander IV to make peace. The envoys were too late to stop the Venetian and Pisan navies from defeating the Genoese at Acre in 1258, but by 1261 an armistice recognized the Genoese at Tyre, the Pisans at Acre, and the knights’ orders were reconciled. Barons led by Bertrand Embracio attacked Bohemond VI at Tripoli; but Bertrand was murdered in revenge, causing a blood feud.

In 1256 Mongols led by Hulagu, brother of the Great Khan Mongke, crossed the Oxus River and invaded Turkestan and Persia. The Grand-master of the Assassins surrendered but was put to death, and the next year thousands of the sect were rounded up by a census and executed. Their great library at Alamut had everything considered heretical burned. The Mongol army besieged and sacked Baghdad in 1258. The Caliph was put to death, and in forty days about 800,000 people were massacred; only attractive girls and boys were kept as slaves. One of the wealthiest cities of the past five centuries was looted of its treasures until the pestilence from the corpses became so bad that Hulagu withdrew the troops. The next year the Mongol army invaded Syria with the help of Georgian and Armenian allies. Turan-shah defended Aleppo and was one of the few spared for his bravery by Hulagu. The garrison at the fortress of Harenc was massacred for mistrusting Hulagu’s word. The homage of Armenian king Hetoum and his son-in-law Bohemond VI saved Antioch, though the Greek patriarch Euthymius had to replace the Latin one. In 1260 Damascus was taken by the Mongols as an-Nasir Yusuf fled and was captured returning. Hetoum and Bohemond accompanied the conquering Christian Mongol general Kitbogha as they entered the ancient Muslim capital.

The Great Khan Mongke had died in 1259, and his brother Hulagu left with most of the army, assigning Kitbogha to govern from Damascus. In 1257 Sultan Aybek’s own wife had him murdered in his bath in Egypt; but she was killed the next month, and her young son was deposed in 1259 by the Mamluk Kutuz. Mamluk means slave, and these new rulers descended from the Turkish bodyguards used by Saladin. The Egyptians would not submit to Mongol threats, and the Mamluk Baybars led their army to Gaza in 1260. Kitbogha’s Mongol army of about 15,000 fell into a trap in Galilee and was defeated by the Egyptians in a crucial battle at ‘Ain Jalut; the defiant Kitbogha was beheaded. Aiyubid emirs were allowed to return to Homs and Hamah. Hulagu sent Mongol troops to regain Aleppo, but they only managed to kill Muslims. While hunting, Baybars murdered Kutuz and took his place as sultan. While Baybars was in Cairo, the Mamluk emir Sinjar al-Halabi proclaimed his independence in Damascus. Baybars marched his army there and suppressed the resistance in 1261. Two years later Baybars raided Palestine, and in 1265 his army took Caesarea and Haifa. After the strong castle Arsouf was captured, the Templar Ricaut Bonomel wrote in despair that God was helping Baybars more than the Christians. Mongol influence in Syria weakened that year after Hulagu died in Azerbaijan.

Mamluk sultan Baybars made truces with Jaffa and Beirut in 1261, with the Hospitallers and Tyre in 1267, with Beirut again in 1269, and with the Hospitallers, Templars, and Tripoli in 1271. In 1266 Baybars conquered Galilee and Cilicia. The next year the Venetians and Genoese fought a war for control of the harbor at Acre. Baybars often claimed treaty violations, and in 1268 his Mamluk army conquered important castles, took Acre, and destroyed the ancient city of Antioch, massacring the people. Only a few Mamluk raids marred a truce with Baybars as Hugh III became king of Cyprus and Jerusalem after Conradin was executed in 1269.

The next year another crusade led by Louis IX of France was diverted by his brother Charles of Anjou, king of Sicily, to fight his enemies at Tunis. Louis died of disease, but Charles made peace with the Hafsid emir. Also in 1270 Baybars arranged for Assassins to murder the leading baron Philip of Montfort. Edward of England led a crusade and raided while the Mongol Abagha succeeded his father Hulagu and defeated the Turkomans defending Aleppo. Edward made a ten-year truce with Baybars, leaving the Franks a narrow strip of coast from Acre to Sidon. An Assassin stabbed Edward with a poisoned dagger, but he managed to survive and returned home to become king of England.

Archdeacon Tedaldus of Liege was in England when he signed up for the crusade by depositing 24 marks of gold with the King for crusading expenses in 1269, and he was in Palestine two years later when cardinals, wanting a strong crusade policy, elected him to be Pope Gregory X (1271-75). However, enthusiasm for more crusades was fading fast. A strong criticism of clerical morals entitled Collectio de Scandalis Ecclesiae (probably written by the Franciscan Gilbert of Tournai) denounced crusade practices. First, it argued that they should count the cost because they would probably lose to the Muslims. Taxing the poor to pay for crusades was a sinful abuse, despoiling the Church too. Crusades often failed because of quarrels between princes; Bernard had blamed this for the failure of the second crusade. Collecting money to redeem vows was often abused as was the indulgence of allowing people to pay for a substitute. Impostors often preached a crusade without authority in order to gain funds. Matthew Paris noted that Franciscans and Dominicans in 1240 had begun absolving crusade vows in exchange for the expenses of a crusade. The Collectio also complained about forcing sinners to take the cross as a means of penance. Some criminals even used this indulgence as an excuse to sin with impunity.

Bishop Bruno of Olmütz also offered his criticism to Pope Gregory X. He argued that crusades to convert pagans in their own region were more important, and he promoted King Ottokar II of Bohemia for election as Emperor, warning of the Tatar danger. The Dominican William of Tripoli was living in Acre and pleaded for conversion of the Saracens by persuasive missions rather than conquest by the sword. He reviewed the life of Muhammad and the history of Muslim conquests, emphasizing his recent experience in the Armenian war. William wrote that he had baptized more than a thousand, and he believed the word of God required neither philosophical argument nor military weapons.

Roger Bacon argued that crusades actually hindered conversion, and he recommended the peaceful methods of persuasion, urging missionaries to learn the language of the converts. War is especially ineffective because the Christians are often defeated, especially overseas. Rather, people and their children are made enemies and embittered against Christianity because of its violence. This faith did not enter the world by arms, and many knowing little language and with poor interpreters have made many converts by teaching. Most people no longer believed that one could gain spiritual merit by crusading, and troubadours mocked the notion that God favored the crusades. After Louis IX had been killed in the disastrous crusade to Tunis in 1270, the troubadour Austore de Segret wondered whether they had been led by God or the devil; for Christians were destroyed and lost their faith while the Saracens found support. The troubadour Guillem Daspols composed a tenzone that also asked why God honored the Saracens, and he challenged God to show the Saracens their errors rather than waste blood in crusades.

The Dominican Humbert of Romans tried to counter the rising criticism of the crusades in his Opus Tripartitum for Pope Gregory. He observed that more Christians were being converted to Islam than Muslims to Christianity. He discussed the reasons that kept men from taking the cross. First, they are enmeshed in sins of sensuality, avarice, and drunkenness. Second, they are afraid of being injured or killed. Third, they love their country more than their religion. Also worldly people give them bad advice and bad examples. Many men are more devoted to their family, friends, or a lady. Last and what Humbert considered worst, they do not believe in the crusade indulgences. Humbert placed first among the objectors the pacifists who believed that it violated Christ’s teaching to kill people and send them to hell. Others argued that the crusades must be against God’s will because the results have been so disastrous. Humbert lamented that the clergy cherished their property more than the Holy Sepulcher.

Pope Gregory X held a council at Lyons in 1274; but they could agree only on attempting to unite the Latin and Greek churches. In 1277 Charles of Anjou bought rights to the over-sea crown and sent Count Roger of San Severino as his bailli at Acre. That year Baybars invaded Anatolia with his Egyptian army, but he died of poison apparently intended for an Ayubid prince he despised. After the Byzantines regained Constantinople in 1261, the Genoese excluded the Venetians; but the slave trade from the Turkish tribes in the north was so important to the Egyptians that the Venetians could not exclude the Genoese from the main trading port of Alexandria. The Venetians did drive the Genoese out of Acre and used their influence over the Franks to form an alliance with the Mamluks against the Mongols.

In 1277 Bohemond VII of Antioch quarreled with Guy II Embriaco, who fled to the Templars. Bohemond destroyed the Templars’ buildings at Tripoli and cut down their nearby forest. Templars defeated Bohemond twice, but Guy was caught in 1282 hiding with the Hospitallers. Bohemond promised to spare their lives but blinded many and starved Guy and others to death by burying them in sand to their necks. Kalavun marched his Syrian troops to Cairo and became the Mamluk sultan (r. 1279-90). In 1281 two Mongol armies of about 80,000 invaded Syria and were met by Kalavun’s Mamluk army of perhaps 100,000. The battle was bloody; but Mongol armies retreated, and the Euphrates River became the border between their empires. The Franks made a truce with Kalavun in 1283. The ladies Eschiva and Margaret ruled Beirut and Tyre, and they gained a separate truce with Kalavun, who nevertheless captured the last Hospitaller castle at al-Marqab in 1285. That year Charles of Anjou died, and Henri II of Lusignan was summoned from Cyprus to be crowned king of Jerusalem at Tyre the next year.

The Mongol Il-khan Abagha ruled Persia 1265-82 and was succeeded by his brother, who converted to Islam and called himself Sultan Ahmed. Khubilai Khan encouraged Arghun to overthrow his father Ahmed, who was murdered in 1284. The Christian Arghun sent envoys to the West but got little response, though the Genoese sent a squadron to the Levant in 1287. After an earthquake damaged Latakia, Kalavun claimed it was not part of the truce and captured it. In 1288 the Genoese took over Tripoli, and Lucy was recognized as its countess. The Venetians warned Sultan Kalavun that the Genoese might dominate shipping and even control Alexandria. So in 1289 Kalavun marched his Egyptian army north and besieged Tripoli. The Venetians and then the Genoese departed. All the men remaining were put to death, and the women and children were enslaved. Then Kalavun had the city by the sea razed to the ground. The Genoese sought revenge; but after Kalavun closed Alexandria to them, they made peace.

Some Italian crusaders arrived at Acre in 1290; but they foolishly attacked Muslims and Christians in a riot. When the Franks would not hand over the offenders, Kalavun set out again but died. The next year his son al-Ashraf Kahlil fulfilled his promise by attacking Acre. With their forces outnumbered ten to one, some Franks escaped; but most were massacred. Yet so many girls were sold as slaves that the price in Damascus fell to one drachma. Acre was systematically destroyed so that it would never be a threat again. The Mamluk army then wiped out the remaining crusader cities of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Haifa. The Templar castles at Tortosa and Athlit were abandoned in August 1291.

Remaining Franks tried to blend in with the natives, and Christians became a persecuted minority, much more than they had been before the crusades under more tolerant Muslims. The only remaining Christian dominion in the region was Cilician Armenia. The Teutonic order left Palestine for the Baltic while the Templars and Hospitallers retreated to Cyprus. Neither Pope Nicholas nor writers such as Franciscan Fidenzio of Padua and Thaddeus of Naples could arouse a new crusade. Business concerns supplanted religious motives as weapons were traded to the East. Al-Ashraf’s plans to attack the Mongols and Baghdad were so unpopular in his Mamluk court that he was murdered in 1293 by his own emirs. When Arghun died, the Il-khan Ghazan (r. 1295-1304) proclaimed Islam the state religion. In 1299 Ghazan’s Mongol army invaded Syria and defeated the Mamluks near Homs, and Damascus surrendered the next year to Mongol sovereignty; but the Mongols could not hold Syria and soon retreated.

Byzantine and Balkan Decline 1250-1350

Crusaders, Greeks, and Muslims

John Vatatzes was succeeded as Emperor of Nicaea by his son Theodore II Lascaris (r. 1254-58), who was well educated by Nicephoras Blemmydes and the historian George Acropolites. Theodore promoted libraries that let books be taken home. Blemmydes wrote The Imperial Statue to guide his pupil with the political philosophy that the emperor should seek the highest good, consider the welfare of his subjects, and not act in anger nor listen to flatterers. He recommended preparing the army and navy for war even during peace, arguing that strong weapons are the best protection. When Bulgarian emperor Michael Asen re-captured territory in Thrace and Macedonia, Theodore sent two costly campaigns that regained land and made a treaty in 1256 that was mediated by the Russian prince Rostislav of Chernigov. Michael Asen was assassinated and replaced by Constantine Tich (r. 1257-77), whose marriage to Theodore’s daughter Irene helped relations with Bulgaria. However, Theodore alienated Epirus by seizing Dyrrachium and the Macedonian fortress at Servia. This caused his governor Acropolites to be imprisoned in the Epirus capital at Arta because he did not trust Michael Paleologus enough to give him a large army.

When Theodore died of epilepsy at 36, his son John was only seven. The regent George Muzalon was murdered in a church by a conspiracy organized by Michael VIII Paleologus, who became regent and then co-emperor. Aided by Kumans and Seljuks, the Nicaean army at Pelagonia in 1259 defeated a coalition that included the Latins, Achaean prince William of Villehardouin, and Sicilian knights of Friedrich II’s son Manfred. In 1261 Michael Paleologus signed a major treaty with the Genoese that enabled his troops to enter Constantinople, ending the Latin empire of Romania that had been created by the crusade of 1204. Michael Paleologus grabbed the power for himself by having the boy John IV Lascaris blinded, and for this he was excommunicated by Patriarch Arsenius. As Emperor he suspended the heavier taxes and trials by ordeal and judicial combat. Paleologus used 5,000 Seljuk mercenaries and Genoese ships to conquer Greece and islands from the Latins, and by 1264 Epirote despot Michael II acknowledged his imperial authority; but that year the Tatars and Bulgarians invaded the Byzantine empire. The Venetians had won a victory in 1263, and in 1265 they gained trading privileges in a treaty. The ambitious Charles of Anjou invaded Greece and got Achaean prince William to support him. While Charles gained the Serbs as allies, Michael Paleologus got the Hungarians on his side.

In 1272 Bulgarians again invaded the Byzantine empire; but this time the Tatars were on the other side and forced them to withdraw. When Charles of Anjou built a coalition of Latins, Greeks, Slavs, and Albanians, Michael Paleologus used diplomacy to offer Pope Gregory X a unified church, which was proclaimed at the Council of Lyons in 1274. Representing the Byzantine empire, Acropolites accepted the filioque clause, unleavened bread, and the supreme authority of the Pope, and Paleologus promised to support a crusade. The next year Michael Paleologus sent his brother John with an army to Thessaly; but Charles of Anjou inherited Achaea when William died in 1278. Meanwhile the Greek people were resisting the religious changes, and the imperial prisons had become crowded. When a Frank became Pope Martin IV in 1281, he supported Charles, whose allies invaded Macedonia the next year with forces led by John of Thessaly and the new Nemanyid king of Serbia, Stephen Uros II Milutin. Bulgaria’s George I Terter (r. 1280-92) also turned against the Byzantines. However, a revolution in Sicily that year removed Charles as a threat in the Balkans. Despite his clever diplomacy, by the time Michael Paleologus died in 1282 the pressure of the wars had increased the power of the wealthy land-owners in the Greek version of the feudal system by making the pronoia holdings hereditary. Peasant farmers and the economy were weakened by hiring mercenaries to police the revived empire.

Andronicus II (r. 1282-1328) reduced Byzantine imperial forces but became more dependent on the Genoese navy. Taxes raised to pay neighboring countries burdened the peasants. Nicephorus Gregoras compared this to opening one’s veins to gain the friendship of wolves with blood. Andronicus began his reign by returning Byzantine religion to the Orthodox Church. In 1290 the Byzantine army invaded Thessaly and regained Dyrrachium, which was then lost to the Serbs in 1296. The marriage of Andronicus’ five-year-old daughter Simonis to Serbian king Milutin in 1299 cemented their treaty. The Byzantine empire was drawn into a war between its ally Genoa and Venice in 1294 that lasted eight years. Since the capital had returned to Constantinople in 1261, Byzantine territory in Asia Minor gradually fell to Turkish conquest until by 1300 little but a few fortresses remained. Bithynia was taken over by Osman, founder of the Ottoman dynasty.

When Andronicus II was ruling the Byzantine empire from Constantinople, his second wife Yolanda of Montferrat (renamed Irene) urged him to let their three sons by her rule regional provinces. After he refused, she went to Thessalonica to ask the Serbian king Milutin to let one of her sons succeed there; but her son did not like the lack of culture in Serbia. The Byzantine empire was suffering from its recent military adventures that demanded high taxes to pay for its mercenaries. Andronicus cut expenses and depended on the Genoese navy as the military forces were reduced. The devalued gold coins caused inflation and widespread hunger among the poor. Andronicus made this worse by adding a tax on wheat and barley, though he also restricted some of the tax exemptions of the big landowners. With these taxes he could maintain a navy of twenty triremes and a cavalry of 3,000. One thousand of these were in Asia Minor, though by 1300 most of that region was held by the Turks. Andronicus promoted the authority of the Orthodox Church with a chrysobull, which in 1312 gave the Patriarch jurisdiction over the monasteries at Mt. Athos by letting him appoint the head of their council of abbots.

Serbia’s Stephen Milutin (r. 1282-1321) had conquered Byzantine lands, and Andronicus made peace with him by giving him his five-year-old daughter Simonis in marriage in 1299, increasing Greek influence in the Serbian court. That year Genoa made peace with Venice, which nonetheless continued to fight the Byzantine empire for three more years. Then a ten-year armistice confirmed Venetian trading privileges and gave them colonies in the archipelago. The Genoese built a strong fortress at Galata and seized the island of Chios in 1304. Andronicus married his niece Maria Asen to Roger de Flor, the German who led 6,500 Catalans from Spain. The Catalans relieved besieged Philadelphia and defeated the Turks, also in 1304. However, the Catalans plundered both Turks and Greeks, spending the winter at Gallipoli. The next year Roger de Flor and his escort of 330 were murdered by a mercenary Alan captain in the palace of co-emperor Michael IX, son of Andronicus II, causing a war between the Catalans and the Byzantines. Michael’s army was defeated, and the Catalans spent two years ravaging Thrace. Bulgarian czar Theodore Svetoslav (r. 1300-22) used this opportunity to expand his realm until Andronicus made a treaty with him recognizing the conquests in 1307. The Catalans invaded Cassandria and even plundered the monasteries at Mt. Athos, though their attack on the Thessalonica stronghold failed the next year.

In 1302 Charles II of Anjou appointed his son Philip of Taranto to govern Achaea. Philip of Savoy and Isabelle were ruling Morea but had so many enemies that they left before Philip of Taranto arrived in 1307. Charles II sent forces in 1304 to attack Epirus, which pushed them back and took Angevin territory. Charles of Valois made an alliance with Venice in 1306 and got moral support when Pope Clement V condemned the Byzantine emperor with anathema the next year. In 1308 Guy II of Athens died and was succeeded by Walter of Brienne; that year eleven Venetian ships went to Cassandria and gained the fealty of the Catalan Grand Company. However, the Catalans independently gained financial support from Thessaly’s John II (r. 1303-18) and attacked the French duchy of Athens and Thebes, conquering Boeotia and killing Walter in 1311. The Catalans ruled Athens for nearly seventy years, leaving a reputation for cruelty, though they also established a university at Athens. Charles of Valois lost his claim to the Byzantine empire when his wife, Empress Catherine of Courtenay, died in 1308. Her daughter, Catherine of Valois, married Philip of Tarentum in 1313.

Venice made a twelve-year armistice with the Byzantines in 1310. Serbian king Milutin also turned from Charles of Valois to support Andronicus. The Byzantine emperor helped Milutin fight off a challenge from his brother Dragutin. Stephen Dechanski held Zeta and also revolted against his father Milutin in 1314; but he was defeated, blinded, and sent to Constantinople. Andronicus replaced annual governors in Morea by appointing Michael Cantacuzenus and, after he died, Andronicus Asen (r. 1316-21), son of Bulgarian czar Ivan III Asen and the Emperor’s sister Irene Paleologina. After John II died in 1318, the towns of Thessaly were divided, as some submitted to Andronicus II, some were conquered by the Catalans, and some were governed by local nobility. When Milutin died in 1321, his sons Dechanski and Constantine and his nephew Vladislav fought a civil war while his widow Simonis went back to Constantinople and entered a convent. Constantine was defeated and killed at Zeta, and Vladislav fled to Hungary in 1324. In Bulgaria the Terter line died out in 1322, and its Greek population was soon taken over by the Byzantines. Stjepan Kotromanich ruled Bosnia for about 35 years until he died in 1353; Franciscans persuaded him to become a Catholic in 1347.

Michael IX’s son Andronicus III was the favorite of his grandfather Andronicus II until he grew up and became lecherous and extravagant. A follower of young Andronicus plotted to catch a rival lover and assassinated the prince’s brother Manuel, and ill Michael died soon after that in 1320. Emperor Andronicus II replaced his grandson in the succession, and the next year Andronicus III left Constantinople and joined an army which friends had gathered in Adrianople. To gain a following he promised to relieve taxes, and his army led by Syrgiannes Paleologus marched on the capital. Old Andronicus II made peace and agreed to rule only Thrace and parts of Macedonia as young Andronicus III occupied the palace and ruled the rest. Andronicus II still wanted to control foreign policy. Civil war broke out when John Cantacuzenus alienated Syrgiannes, who left and went over to Andronicus III. The old Emperor soon gave in, and Andronicus III was crowned co-emperor in 1325. Two years later conflict erupted again as Andronicus II sided with Serbia against his grandson and Bulgarian czar Michael Shishman, who married Andronicus III’s sister Irene. After being recognized as emperor in Thessalonica, Andronicus III without violence persuaded his grandfather to abdicate in 1328. The old man remained in the palace for two more years and then became a monk before he died in 1332.

Andronicus III (r. 1328-41) established four supreme judges, but by 1337 three of them had been banished for corruption. John Cantacuzenus as Grand Domestic strengthened the military and made an alliance with the Seljuqs against the Ottomans. In 1330 Serbia destroyed the Bulgarian army, killing czar Michael Shishman. The next year the Bulgarian boyars put Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-71) on the throne while Serb nobles murdered Dechanski for failing to follow up the victory and replaced him with his son Stephen Dushan (r. 1331-55). Peace was made when Dushan married Ivan’s sister Helena. The Bulgarians regained the cities which Andronicus III had taken, and the Serbs began pushing into Macedonia. In 1334 Syrgiannes fled to the Serbs, and Dushan gave him command of an army. After capturing Kastoria and other forts, Syrgiannes was killed by the Byzantine Sphrantzes, who had only been ordered to capture him. Dushan, threatened by Hungarians in the north, made peace with Andronicus. Meanwhile the Turks led by Orchan had captured Nicaea after a two-year siege in 1331, and the Ottomans took Nicomedia in 1337. By then Andronicus and Cantacuzenus had managed to gain Thessaly, Albania, Epirus, and Acarnania.

Since John V was only nine years old when his father Andronicus III died in 1341, John Cantacuzenus continued to govern. When he left the palace, this was challenged by the Dowager Empress Anne of Savoy and Patriarch John Calecas, supported by Alexius Apocaucus who was named megas dux (great leader). Cantacuzenus had himself proclaimed emperor, and another civil war ensued. The country was torn also by a religious conflict over the hesychasts, who believed in practicing silent meditation in order to experience the light of Christ. Theological controversialist Barlaam criticized this mystical practice, but the defense of Gregory Palamas, arguing for a mediating power, was approved by an imperial council in 1341. However, that summer Empress Anne and Patriarch John reversed that decision and had Gregory Palamas imprisoned. Generally the civil war was between aristocrats led by Cantacuzenus believing in hesychasm versus the revolting poor who did not and were led by Apocaucus. His insurrection of Zealots spread from Adrianople into Thrace as the sharp contrast between the wealthy and poor in Byzantine society erupted in class warfare. In 1342 the Zealots took over Thessalonica, expropriating the aristocrats’ land as well as monasteries and churches; some of the nobility were massacred in 1346. Thessalonica remained a democracy until John V and Cantacuzenus regained control there in 1349.

Cantacuzenus withdrew to Serbia for help from Stephen Dushan. Aristocrats in Thessaly declared for Cantacuzenus, who made John Angelus their governor for life, and they regained Catalan possessions. Then Dushan changed sides to the regency in Constantinople. So Cantacuzenus turned to the Turks, both the Seljuqs and Omur, and they helped him conquer Thrace by 1345. Alexius Apocaucus was killed that June by political prisoners while inspecting the dungeons in the capital. His son John Apocaucus left the Zealots and had their leader murdered before he was killed by Andrew Paleologus and the Zealots. Cantacuzenus also made an alliance with the Ottoman Orchan and was crowned emperor at Adrianople in 1346 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Anne appealed to the Seljuqs, but they invaded Bulgaria instead before plundering the suburbs of Constantinople. In 1347 Cantacuzenus returned to the capital. He called upon the people to preserve their tradition from threatened foreign encroachment, saying, “Either we save the empire by keeping our ancient virtues, or we lose it and live under the domination of our conquerors.”1 Byzantines fled when Genoese attacked Constantinople in 1349, but they gained a favorable peace treaty. The Zealots held Thessalonica until John V and John VI Cantacuzenus entered there triumphantly in 1350.

Byzantine and Balkan Decline 1350-1400

Meanwhile Serbian Stephen Dushan had been crowned emperor of the Serbs and Greeks by the new Serbian patriarch at Skoplje (Scopia) in 1346. He promulgated a new law code that was completed by 1354 over what had become a large Serbian empire. The Byzantine system of pronoia, by which land was granted for a limited time, was adopted in Serbia, which differed in that peasants paid with their labor instead of money, and sometimes the landlords were monasteries instead of the crown. In 1348 the Serbians conquered Thessaly and Epirus; but after Dushan died in 1355 and was succeeded by young Stephen Uros V (r. 1355-71), the Serbian empire declined rapidly as principalities became independent.

The civil war devastated the already weakened Byzantine society, ruining agriculture and trade so that taxes were even harder to raise. Empress Anne had pawned the crown jewels to Venice, and gold contributed by the Grand Duke of Moscow to restore broken-down St. Sophia was paid to Turkish mercenaries. The terrible plague of 1348 carried off many, and the next year the Genoese destroyed the Byzantine fleet. In 1352 the Venetians financed John V’s taking of Adrianople. John Cantacuzenus reacted with Turkish troops, who plundered the city. Stephen Dushan sent 4,000 cavalry to John V; but they were defeated by 10,000 Turks led by Orchan’s son Suleiman helping Cantacuzenus, who in 1353 proclaimed his own son Matthew emperor. Patriarch Callistus refused to crown him, excommunicated Cantacuzenus, and retired to a monastery. Turks crossed into Europe in 1354, moving into Gallipoli after a devastating earthquake caused it to be abandoned. John V turned to the Genoese, offering Lesbos, and in November 1354 John Cantacuzenus abdicated and went into a monastery, where he lived thirty years and wrote a history of his era from 1320 to 1356. Matthew Cantacuzenus held out in Rhodope until he had to renounce his claim in 1357. However, Manuel Cantacuzenus managed to govern Morea successfully until he died in 1380. He was assisted by his brother Matthew, who succeeded him.

Dushan had appointed his half brother Symeon Dechanski to govern Epirus; in 1356 its former despot Nicephorus II conquered Thessaly and regained Epirus with Aetolia. When Nicephorus was going to abandon his wife Maria Cantacuzenus in order to marry Dushan’s widow, the Albanians rose up to defeat and kill Nicephorus in 1359; Maria became a nun at Constantinople. Symeon marched into Thessaly and also reclaimed Epirus. When Symeon preferred to live in Thessaly, Albanians moved into Epirus. About 1366 Symeon founded the monasteries overlooking the Meteora plain. Uros shared his rule by having Vukashin crowned king of Serbia in 1365. Stjepan Kotromanich left a strong army when he was succeeded in Bosnia by Tvrtko I (r. 1353-91).

John V in 1355 sent a request to Pope Innocent VI for ships and soldiers, even offering to convert his Byzantine subjects; but the Pope only sent two legates. Thrace fell gradually to the Turks, who took Didymotichus in 1361 and Adrianople the next year. Bulgaria with religious strife was deteriorating even faster than Serbia. The Turks took large numbers of slaves away to Asia Minor and colonized the conquered territory. In 1366 John V went to Hungary to ask King Lajos for help, and on the way back he was captured by Bulgarians. Fortunately Amadeo of Savoy had launched a crusade and liberated the Byzantine emperor after he took Gallipoli back from the Turks. Three years later John V went to Rome and converted; but the Eastern Orthodox church resisted unification. John V was detained at Venice for his debts until he was rescued by his son Manuel, who was ruling Thessalonica.

A major battle with the Turks occurred at Maritza in 1371 when Serres despot Uglesha and Serbia’s Vukashin were defeated and killed. Both their domains were divided up. Lazar of Krushevac and Bosnia’s Tvrtko became allied with the Serbian Nicholas Altomanovich, who also negotiated with George Balshich; but threatened Dubrovnik got Hungary to make them dissolve the alliance. The Byzantines agreed to pay the Ottoman sultan 7,500 Venetian ducats. After Uros died, Marko in Macedonia could no longer govern Serbia. In 1373 Serbian prince Lazar and Tvrtko with cavalry aid from Hungary ravaged the lands of Nicholas. Two years later Lazar made peace with Constantinople by renouncing Serbia’s right to the imperial claim. However, Tvrtko conquered territory and in 1377 had himself crowned king of Serbia and Bosnia. By 1389 Tvrtko had taken over much of Slavonia, Dalmatia, and Croatia, but he died in 1391.

When John V joined Ottoman sultan Murad I (r. 1361-89) on campaigns in Asia Minor in 1373, their respective princes Andronicus and Sauji joined forces in a revolt. Murad crushed them and insisted that both sons be blinded. With Andronicus disgraced, John had his son Manuel II crowned co-emperor that September. In 1376 Andronicus had recovered from partial blindness and besieged Constantinople with Turkish approval and Genoese support, imprisoning his father and brother. Venetians helped John V and Manuel II escape, and the Turks supported their side. With the Sultan’s help they were able to return to the capital in 1379; but Andronicus IV and his son John VII had to be recognized as legitimate heirs and were given principalities. The Hospitaller Knights of Achaea had invaded Epirus in 1378 with a company of Navarrese, who took over Thebes the next year. John V’s third son Theodore I began ruling Morea in 1382 and made an alliance with the Florentine banker Nerio I Acciajuoli against the Navarrese, marrying Nerio’s daughter Bartholomea in 1385. This enabled Nerio to conquer the Catalans’ duchy of Athens in 1388; but the Navarrese violated a safe-conduct and took Nerio prisoner in 1389, forcing Theodore to surrender Argos to Venice, which got Megara after a huge ransom freed Nerio.

The Ottomans advanced to Serres in 1383, then to Sofia in 1385, Nish in 1386, Thessalonica in 1387, invading Bosnia and Trnovo along with eastern Bulgaria in 1388. Prince Lazar led the Serbs and Bosnians in their last stand at Kosovo in June 1389. Suspected of treason, Serbian Milosh Obravich pretended to defect to Sultan Murad’s camp, murdering him before he was killed himself. However, Serbia was defeated, and Lazar and the nobles were captured and executed, marking the end of Serbian nationalism for many centuries. Sultan Bayezid ordered his brother Yaqub killed; he even managed to control Constantinople and in 1390 put John VII on the Byzantine throne. However, the same year Manuel II drove out John VII and restored his father John V; but Manuel was forced to join Bayezid in the Turkish attack on Byzantine Philadelphia before succeeding his father the next year. Manuel was also a theologian and wrote many essays, including one on the Holy Spirit and another criticizing Islam.

While Bulgarian king John Shishman was appealing to Hungarian king Sigismund, the Ottomans invaded and took control of Trnovo and the Bulgarian empire in 1393. Two years later the Ottomans attacked Mircea of Wallachia for having raided their territory. The young vassals of the Turks, Marko and Constantine Dejanovich, were both killed in the battle and had their lands taken. That year the Ottomans also invaded the Peloponnesus. In 1396 King Sigismund launched a crusade against the Turks with 60,000 Hungarians, 10,000 Wallachians led by Mircea, 10,000 French, 6,000 Germans, and 15,000 from Italy, Spain, England, Poland, and Bohemia. Thousands of Christians were captured at Nicopolis and were held for ransom; Sigismund barely escaped. The Turks followed up their victory by annexing all the territory around Constantinople, which was blockaded. Thus Manuel II (r. 1391-1425) ruled over little more than the capital. In 1399 Marshal Boucicaut arrived with 12,000 French troops, broke through the blockade, and persuaded Manuel to let his nephew John rule while they went to Europe. Manuel visited Venice, Paris, and London, and he did not return to Constantinople for three and a half years. Greek learning spread rapidly in Europe after Manuel Chrysoloras was given a chair of Greek at Florence in 1396; he went on to Milan in 1400, making the humanist learning admired by Petrarch available to scholars. The Ottomans invaded southern Greece again in 1397. Theodore tried to give Corinth to Venice, but they would not accept it; so he gave it to the Hospitaller Knights of Saint John in 1400.

Greece and Hungary 1400-53


1. Quoted in Byzantium: The Decline and Fall by John Julius Norwich, p. 307.

Copyright © 2008-2009 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book Medieval Europe 1250-1400.
For information on ordering click here.


Crusaders and Byzantine Decline 1250-1400
Eastern Europe 1250-1400
Catholic Ethics 1250-1350
German Empire 1250-1400
Scandinavia 1250-1400
Castile, Aragon, Granada, and Portugal 1250-1400
Italian City States 1250-1400
Dante and Marsilius
Petrarca and Boccaccio
Low Countries and Burgundy 1250-1400
France and National War 1250-1400
England, Scotland, and Ireland 1250-1400
Mystics, Wyclif, Gower, and Chaucer
Summary and Evaluation


World Chronology 750-1300
World Chronology 1300-1400
Chronology of Europe to 1400

BECK index