Archive for August, 2011

Jeremy Irons in ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ and ‘The Borgias’ – and Some Tips for Handling Women

August 27th, 2011

I am a great admirer of Jeremy Irons. He appears, as the fictional Raymond, Count of Tiberias, in one of my favourite films, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. I had much enjoyed being directed by Ridley in his previous film, Gladiator, but hated his Kingdom when I first saw it, put off by the neo-Communist tendencies of the hero. It was hardly credible that Balian of Ibelin would have preferred the life of a common blacksmith to that of an opulent, if beleaguered, lord of Outremer. However, the film is an amazing spectacle, which seems to capture both the look and the spirit of twelfth-century Palestine.

Jeremy Irons delivers a typically magnetic performance. Regrettably, he has since been hopelessly mis-cast as Pope Alexander VI in Sky Atlantic’s current series The Borgias, from which it appears that the scandalous pope and all his family led remarkably dull lives.

Off screen, Irons has a pleasingly elegant and insouciant manner, and a tendency to be ‘tactile’ with women that occasionally lands him in trouble. In an interview with the Radio Times, he maintains that for a man to put a hand on a woman’s bottom is a form of ‘friendly communication’, with which any woman worth her salt ought to be able to deal.

This month (9 August), he has been pictured in the Daily Telegraph in an encounter with someone called Sienna Miller. He rests his hand on her shapely hip, whilst gazing admiringly at her cleavage. She seems not to mind, but one must accept that such behaviour is not generally tolerated. This sort of gesture may pass ‘in thespian environs as a camp affectation,’ writes the Telegraph columnist, Hannah Betts. ‘In the real world, though, it is regarded less as “communication” than sexual assault.’ What it communicates to Miss Betts is the message that Irons is a ‘tragic soon-to-be pensioner having a belated mid-life crisis’. (See

Irons floats a rather more interesting idea in his interview with the Radio Times, in which he admits to having ‘a salacious private life, which I hope most people have. We only live once.’ It is as well for me that Pope Alexander enjoyed a notably salacious private life, as I myself am the fruit of his loins, directly descended from his son Cesare. (See Patrick van Kerrebrouck, La Maison de Bourbon, 1256 – 2004, IV (Villeneuve d’Ascq, 2004), pp.789-96; Rupert Willoughby, ‘Cesare Borgia – his Marriage and his Descendants’, in John Campbell-Kease ed., Tribute to an Armorist: Essays for John Brooke-Little to mark the Golden Jubilee of the Coat of Arms (London, 2000), pp.102-16.) In the first episode, when the newly-elected Alexander mounts the famous hollow throne to have the said loins inspected – thereby ruling out the embarrassment of another Pope Joan – and is declared to have ‘duos testiculos, et bene pendentes’, I found myself positively glowing with pride. I shall therefore follow the series with familial interest, if only for the inevitable re-enactment of the notorious ‘chestnut orgy’.

Meanwhile, I should like to propose that Mr Irons try the following approach with women. It is harmless, and may prove more effective.

You should solemnly kiss the woman’s hand, then ask to kiss the other one too. You should then say something along the lines of: ‘Not only are you the kindest and most amenable woman in the world, but you are grace personified, and they should build temples of white marble to you in groves of myrtle. I am very much afraid that what happened to Psyche may happen to you as well, and that Venus will become jealous of you.’

At this point, join the two hands together and press them both to your lips. You may be asked whether you have learned such fine phrases by heart, in which case you must quickly say: ‘Not at all. You are certainly worth turning a fine phrase for, and lovely enough to have lyrics specially composed in your honour’ etc. etc. (After Théophile Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin (Paris, 1835), Chapter VII – the supreme Romantic novel.)

Michael Keroularios, Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Psellos, Consul of the Philosophers, and their ‘Niece’, Eudokia Makrembolitissa

August 15th, 2011

Michael I Keroularios was appointed the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1043, during the reign of the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos. He is a great figure in the history of the Orthodox Church.

The Emperor Monomachos was keen to ally himself with the Papacy against the Normans, who had overrun his possessions in southern Italy. Unfortunately, the reformed church in the West was now insisting (unhistorically) on the effective primacy of the Pope of Rome, and his entitlement to enforce religious discipline and conformity over the whole of Christendom.

Among other differences, the Westerners fasted on the Sabbath, ate strangled meat and, above all, used unleavened bread, or ‘azymes’, in the Sacrament. These customs accorded with Judaical law, but not with the tradition of the early church, which considered itself to be under a new dispensation. The reformed Papacy was nevertheless determined to impose discipline and ‘correct’ practice throughout Christendom. Keroularios rightly suspected that the alliance would come at a heavy price, and was having none of it.

In 1054, he had an ill-tempered encounter with a distinguished papal delegation, which accused him of disobedience towards the Pope. Keroularios deliberately took no notice of them. As a result, the exasperated legates handed the disdainful Patriarch a bull of excommunication in the middle of a service in Hagia Sophia. Having stormed out of the cathedral, they theatrically shook the dust from their feet. Keroularios responded to this insult in kind, with the full support of the city, and the legates were obliged for their safety to hurry home.

Each side had been careful to direct its excommunications at a small number of individuals; and to represent the affair as marking the final schism between the two churches is a fallacy. It was, however, a landmark in the process of estrangement, when each side was fully and disturbingly exposed to the prejudices and claims of the other.

For the proud Byzantines, it was bad enough to be lectured by ‘heretics’ (the Westerners had tampered with the Nicene Creed by inserting the word ‘Filioque’). It was worse still when they were ‘barbarians’. The legates had addressed a wildly inaccurate tirade against Keroularios, who, in a lofty reply, described them as ‘men who had burst from the evening shadows of the West’ and ‘attacked like some wild boar’. Constantinople, he wrote, was ‘God’s protected city, whence the springs of orthodoxy, the pure waters of the true faith, will flow like streams from a mountain peak to water all corners of the Earth and quench the souls of all men with the divine teachings’. (See Will ed., Acta et Scripta de Controversiis Ecclesiae Graecae et Latinae; Steven Runciman, The Eastern Schism.)

Keroularios was not happy when, after the death of Monomachos in 1055, his sister-in-law, the porphyrogennete (‘purple-born’) Empress Theodora, sought to reign alone. Once friendly, she now ‘abominated the man, refusing even to meet him. There was a reason for this: the Patriarch was vexed because the Roman Empire was being governed by a woman. Characteristically he was filled with wrath at this state of affairs, and he spoke his mind freely.’ (Michael Psellos, Chronographia, VI, xviii, trans. Sewter, p.269.) He was no happier with her successor in 1056, the near-senile Michael VI – a mere puppet of the court eunuchs – and helped, by inciting a riot in the city, to engineer his deposition in 1057.

The habitually forthright Keroularios soon quarrelled with the new Emperor, Isaac I Komnenos. Having presented him with the throne, he felt entitled to share in his imperial power and, again, used ‘language that was somewhat bold’. He is said also to have sported a pair of purple buskins, an act of treason, as purple garments were traditionally a prerogative of the Emperor. However, he had met his match in Isaac, a tough general with a no-nonsense approach.

In November 1058, Isaac arrested the troublesome Keroularios and exiled him to Prokonnesos, thus ‘casting the Patriarch off as if he were a load off his shoulders’. (Psellos, Chronographia, VII, 65, trans. Sewter, p.315; Skylitzes, 809, p.644.) Michael Psellos, a trained lawyer as well as ‘Consul of the Philosophers’ in the University founded by Monomachos, was instructed to prosecute him. Psellos’s detailed Accusation sets out the charges both of heresy and treason. However, Keroularios died unexpectedly, before coming to trial. Psellos says that the usually dour Isaac ‘bewailed his loss loudly and mourned him sincerely’, and – guilty at having brought down so great a personage – immediately rehabilitated his family at court.

These included the Patriarch’s niece, Eudokia Makrembolitissa, second wife of the vestarches Constantine Doukas, a nobleman from Paphlagonia. Eudokia was the daughter, by the Patriarch’s sister, of Ioannes Makrembolites, and according to Psellos was ‘a woman of great spirit, and exceptional beauty’. Interestingly, Psellos describes himself as Eudokia’s ‘uncle’ and, elsewhere, as ‘spiritual brother’ to her father, who was presumably his first cousin. Psellos was thus related by marriage, if not by blood, to the Patriarch. (D.I. Polemis, The Doukai (London, 1968), pp.28-34; K. Barzos, Ή Γενεαλογια των Κομνηνων (Thessalonica, 1984), I, p.125; Jean-Claude Cheynet, Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance (Paris, 1996), p.275.)

In the autumn of 1059, a disheartened Isaac himself became ill. Psellos, a proficient doctor among his other skills, convinced him (wrongly) that he was dying. That November, Isaac was persuaded to abdicate in favour of their mutual friend and relative, the amiable Constantine Doukas. The new Emperor entrusted the helm of state to Psellos, his wife’s uncle, who claims that Constantine drank his every word ‘like nectar’. The first duty of his former accuser was to pronounce, in the imperial presence, a glowing funeral oration, somewhat overdue, in honour of the dead Patriarch. An unashamed pen-for-hire and political survivor, Psellos now made him out to be a saint.

It is ironic that after the death of the Emperor Doukas in 1067, his widow Eudokia, niece of the misogynistic Patriarch Keroularios, should herself have assumed sole power, even sidelining her ‘uncle’ Psellos, until practical considerations forced her, in January 1068, to marry again. Her new husband, Romanos Diogenes, was the emperor who was defeated and captured by the Turks at the Battle of Manzikert. Psellos loathed Diogenes and, on his release from captivity in 1072, had him savagely blinded, an act of calculated brutality that horrified contemporaries. It enabled Psellos to resume his controlling influence in the court as chief minister to Eudokia’s son, the feeble Michael VII.

Psellos claims in his funeral oration that the Keroularioi were descended from Herakles. They had been patricians at least since the late 10th century, when a Keroularios served as a general (Cheynet, p.52, n.2), yet the family name means ‘candle-maker’. Their earlier ancestors were surely guildsmen in Constantinople, practising their craft in the hallowed environs over which Michael himself later presided. The many churches of Constantinople were, of course, vast consumers of candles.

The Pselloi were also a noble family. Their name, meaning ‘stammerer’, is most inappropriate for their most famous member, who was so renowned as an orator and conversationalist. Psellos reveals the little that is known about his immediate family in an earlier funeral oration that he had composed for his young daughter, Styliane Psellaina. She was his only child after many years of marriage, possibly to a woman called Theodote. (In desperation they had already adopted another girl, Euphemia.) In the summer of 1054, whilst Keroularios was smarting over the insults of the Papacy, Constantinople was in the grip of a smallbox epidemic, mentioned by the chronicler Skylitzes. The 9-year-old Styliane succumbed to the disease and died after 31 days of suffering.

Psellos clearly adored her and was heart-broken. He likens her to ‘a young, soft, tiny bird’. He delighted in her love of learning, in pursuit of which she would voluntarily visit school, presumably to sit at the back while the boys had their lessons; and speaks of her natural talents for weaving and embroidery. Skilled doctor that he was, he describes her illness in clinical detail; also the washing, dressing and laying out of her dead body, reduced to ‘one single open wound’. His later oration to Keroularios seems cold by comparison. (Panagiotis A. Agapitos, ‘Public and Private Death in Psellos: Maria Skleraina and Styliane Psellaina’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 101, ii (2008), pp.555-607.) It is the ‘private’ death that brings out Psellos’s innate humanity, and yet, if one thinks of him at all, it is probably not as the victim of a personal tragedy.

What lines of descent can be traced from these families to the present day? Hundreds of thousands, even millions of living people in the West can prove Byzantine ancestry from the eleventh century, through families such as the Komnenoi. Far fewer people, however, are able to establish a link with Psellos and Keroularios.

The Emperor Doukas had by their niece, Eudokia Makrembolitissa, a daughter, Zoe porphyrogennete. She married Adrian Komnenos, brother of the Emperor Alexios I. Their granddaughter, Anna Komnene Doukaina, married Alexios Palaiologos, a member of the last reigning dynasty in Byzantium.

This couple’s great-granddaughter, Theodora Palaiologina, married her third cousin, Andronikos Palaiologos, who died in 1247. They were the parents of the Emperor Michael VII Palaiologos (1259-82), from whom an exclusive number of Western families are able to trace their descent. I myself have a double descent from Michael.

In 1355, Michael’s great-great-granddaughter Maria was given in marriage by her brother, the Emperor John V, to Francesco Gattilusio, a Genoese buccaneer in his service, whom he made lord of Mytilene or the island of Lesbos. (D.M. Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium (Cambridge, 1972), p.256.) Their granddaughter, Catarina Gattilusio, married Pietro di Grimaldi, Baron of Bueil. Thence the line is traced directly, through thirteen generations, to my French great-grandmother. It is thrilling to think that I am flesh and blood with the likes of Psellos and Keroularios, and, indeed, one of their nearest living relatives.

A Day at the Dig, Part II: Further Discoveries at Roman Silchester

August 11th, 2011

The second ‘open day’ at Roman Silchester on Saturday (6 August) was as festive as the previous one. It was attended by many hundreds of visitors of all ages. Most were locals, but others had travelled great distances, including a couple from Northamptonshire, such is the fame of the event.

Professor Michael Fulford and Amanda Clarke took turns to deliver hour-long guided tours. Deftly brandishing her microphone as if she were presenting X-Factor, Amanda brought us up to date with the latest discoveries. We were encouraged to look upon the dusty contours of the site with ‘archaeologists eyes’. She pointed to the remains of the first-century roadway that cut across a corner of Insula IX. Its orientation, apparently based on the rising and setting of the sun, would have been irksome to the Romans, who later imposed their preferred grid system on the town.

The early road was flanked on one side by a wooden palisade, with a ditch beyond it. On the other side, there were rubbish dumps and ‘natural geology’, as if it were on the very edge of town. One of the houses on this street was of high status (though wooden), and the owners had buried their little dog, perhaps a terrier, near one of the corners of the building. These people are said to have eaten fancy food off imported tableware.

A still more arresting discovery has been that of a latrine on the opposite side of the road, which will tell us all about their diet. This latrine is narrow enough to have been equipped with a wooden seat – all of which leads Amanda to believe that the indigenous population were far from being the ‘grunting savages’ of legend. (She admits that the expression ‘beautiful latrine’ is unlikely to be uttered by anyone other than an archaeologist.) Presumably, though, the urban population of Silchester were not typical of Britain as a whole. In any case, were not the Atrebates tribe themselves recent immigrants from the Continent?

On the subject of the ubiquitous latrines, they have discovered that a later well was carelessly sunk over the remains of one. Poisoned water from such ill-positioned wells may explain the abandonment of the city in the fifth century. Amanda will have the winter months in which to ponder the significance of such data.

On the Reading Museum stall, visitors were invited to handle some of the fruits of the Victorian and Edwardian excavations, of which they are the custodians. These included a delicate needle, looking as good as new, and a hair-pin from one of the Museum’s loans boxes, which are available for hire by schools and other organisations. The choicest artefacts on display were perhaps this glass jar – almost mother-of-pearl in its opacity – which was an import from the region of Haifa; and this unexplained round tile inscribed with the tiler’s stamp – LLVRIVSPRO-VL FECIT (Lucius Lurius Pro[c]ul[us] made this).

The bronze eagle on which Rosemary Sutcliff based her novel, The Eagle of the Ninth – recently filmed as The Eagle – is on permanent display in the Museum’s Silchester Gallery, along with further curious examples of the tiler’s art.