A GREEK ABROAD
John Muir looks at the life and work of Andronikos
Greek visitors to England in the mid-1500s were very rare birds but one of those who came had seen wonderful things before he arrived: starting from Venice, he had travelled first to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople, and then from North Italy over the Alps into Lutheran Germany, and thence via the Netherlands to the court of Henry VIII in London. He left an intriguing account in three parts of what he saw and heard on his travels, but the account has one very odd feature. The author was a Greek patriot, much involved with Humanist employers and patrons who were enthusiastically rediscovering the ancient Greek world, and he plainly felt impelled by both national and personal pride to write in his own language – not, however, in the language he spoke and wrote every day; he chose instead what he thought was something like the language of the great Greek classical past – the Greek which for years he had assiduously copied for a living.
His name was Andronikos, though he preferred in his travel book to follow a fashionable Byzantine literary conceit and write under the pen-name of Nikandros. This was not only a near anagram of Andronikos but a chiasmus of meaning – ‘man-conqueror/conqueror of man’ (a fellow-Greek had done a similar letter/meaning switch with Laonikos/Nikolaos). He was probably born in the very early 1500s on Corfu, and there is a little evidence to suggest that his family was well-educated and quite well-to-do. However, family life was rudely shattered when the Turks attacked and besieged Corfu in 1537. Andronikos’ father took the family to Venice and, though the father later returned to the island, his son evidently stayed in the city, as did so many Greeks displaced by the Turkish advance westwards. In the early 1540s Andronikos secured a position as one of two full-time Greek copyists employed in the palazzo of the Spanish ambassador to Venice, Don Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. Don Diego was a great manuscript hunter and his considerable collection is today one of the treasures of the Escorial library. We know Andronikos’ handwriting quite well for at least eleven manuscripts in the Escorial were written by him, some with the little signing-off formula which, following mediaeval tradition, copyists still sometimes used at the completion of a task. It was a sheltered, if demanding, occupation, but in 1546 a surprising opportunity came his way. An embassy, sent by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, arrived in Venice en route for Constantinople, headed by a distinguished Flemish academic and diplomat, Gerard Veltwyck; its mission was to try to negotiate truce terms with Suleiman the Magnificent. The embassy was to travel overland and Gerard may well have thought that a native Greek speaker, already faintly known to him, might be useful in the wilder parts of the Balkans. Anyway, Andronikos was released by Don Diego and joined the official entourage of the embassy. They made it safely to Suleiman’s court, but got nowhere with the truce negotiations so they returned by another route to report to the Holy Roman Emperor in the Netherlands. Andronikos does not tell us of the journey to Constantinople – how we wish he had ! – but refers us to others who had already told that part of the story. His book therefore begins when the party reaches the Italian coast on the way back.
They set off from Aquileia in the early summer of 1546 and via Padua and Ferrara reached Verona where Andronikos admired the skilled masonry of the massive ruined amphitheatre where today audiences listen to Verdi. They went on to Trento where they were very cordially entertained by a small party of bishops starting to prepare the famous church Council which would help to power the Counter-Reformation. They had a bleak crossing of the Alps over the Brenner Pass and then went via Innsbruck into Germany. Here there is some charming local colour – beer, and the tall German wooden houses decorated with flower-paintings with coloured glass in the windows – but the thing which really made an impression on Andronikos was the religious revolution in progress inspired by Martin Luther – the violent anti-Catholic passions which were already evident even to a foreign visitor, and the new patterns of life and worship which were being so eagerly adopted. We don’t know who Andronikos talked to, but, for someone of the Orthodox faith who worked for some years in the household of an ultra-conservative Spanish Catholic, he shows quite an impressive grasp of Luther’s ideas and dogmas, and the descriptions he gives of Lutheran worship would still suit quite a few Lutheran church services in Germany today:
They do work on all the days of the week but have a very special respect for Sunday. As for images and statues of the saints, they do not wish to have them either in their churches or their homes. They have thrown out the whole apparatus of monks and monasteries and have reduced their clergy to the status of ordinary people; they have drawn up no clerical rankings, saying that things like this are the invention of the superstitious. On Sunday, as I mentioned, they come together in their churches and there men and women of all ages mingling together sit in rows; someone reckoned to know scripture well goes up into the pulpit and explains the message of the Gospel at great length whilst everyone listens attentively. When the sermon is over, they sing tuneful, rhythmic hymns in praise, as they say, of Christ ……. Simplicity of worship is their normal practice and, as much as lies in their power, they avoid strife and dispute, bringing mutual help to those in need. But they abominate the Archbishop of Rome and hurl ten thousand insults at him, written and otherwise, and in no way at all do they deign to submit to the dogmas of the Roman church. These people call themselves ‘evangelicals’, claiming for themselves what they believe is today a correct understanding of the Gospel (so I take it); they reckon that all other Christians are the victims of superstition and delusion and they are fiercely possessive of their own style of worship. No-one can alter their views by persuasive argument and they hold to them with very great determination – even to death, as one may see.
i. 11. 2 – 6
Andronikos mentions too some of the wilder consequent experiments in religious reform – the followers of John of Münster and the Anabaptists, for instance. The embassy party then moved on into more northerly parts, calling at Cologne (where Andronikos saw the heads of the Three Wise Men) and Aix-la-Chapelle, eventually reaching Brussels where ambassador Gerard made his formal report to the Emperor. They then accompanied the Emperor on a tour of some of his cities in the Netherlands – Andronikos was delighted to come upon some relics of St. Basil in Bruges and had a curious visit to the coal mines near Liège – and then the tour ended in Antwerp, and it was here that Gerard received a new commission from the Emperor: he was to go to England for diplomatic discussions with Henry VIII. Andronikos went with him. The party left for the coast via Bruges and Dunkirk, and arrived in Calais which was then of course still English territory and ruled by an English governor. And now one of the curious ironies of history: Gerard and his staff had travelled to Constantinople and back, and then across Europe with very few lets or hindrances, but, when they got to Calais, they were held up for a good few days by the paperwork required by the British border controls. All the documentation had to be sent back to England for ratification and then returned; it was all quite amicable and Gerard and his staff were handsomely lodged in Calais for some days at the British tax-payer’s expense. Eventually the royal permissions arrived and they set off across the Channel. The weather was awful and the first attempt at a crossing was disastrous, the captain being very nervous of the Goodwin Sands, but three days later the weather improved and they reached Dover safely, noting the impressive castle. They then travelled up to Greenwich where they met Henry and where the welcome formalities were observed. The King and court moved back to London, and a few days later, Gerard and his party followed and took lodgings near the centre of the city. Andronikos now had two or three weeks in which to become acquainted with England. He soon came across something he recognized: he had already encountered beer in Germany and he now discovered it in England too along with the drinking habits of its devotees:
So that I should not omit from my description anything I have seen which is unusually strange and foreign to my world, I thought I should say a few words about the drink called cervesia. For the cities of Germany along with those of Flanders, Brabant, Holland and all the surrounding territory—all those to the north, not to mention the British Isles—because they have a lack of wine, habitually consume a drink which is called in the native language cervesia or in some places beer. It is made in roughly this way: having first roasted some barley over a fire, they put it in a vessel and, adding sufficient water, cook it until the husks separate. They then filter and set aside the juice and, pounding the leaves of a wild vine, they mix it in and, putting it back on the fire, cook it until boiling has reduced it by a third; they then filter it and put it in barrels. They also add some spices to make it sweet to drink with a good bouquet. They then use it to excess to get drunk, and, since they have no wine, they frequently drink to get drunk, as if in their drinks parties and boozing they were enjoying a good wine. Drunkenness produces a splitting head just as wine does when taken to excess.
i. 37. 1 – 3
He was very taken with London and here is his description of the London Bridge of his day, London river and the Tower (the Greek text follows to give some idea of his style):
A very large bridge has been built there linking people in the city to the inhabited shore opposite, and the upper part of the bridge is supported on marble-faced arches with houses and turrets upon it. You can see a whole host of ferries and rowing-boats swiftly serving the city’s needs, and merchant-ships come to London from all over the world bringing wine, olive oil and other foodstuffs. A great many mansions have been built in the city to house the nobles and the merchants, and great halls have been constructed decorated with beautiful flower-paintings. In some areas of the city huge royal palaces are situated, exquisitely decorated and designed for luxury, surrounded by parks and cultivated gardens. The whole city is paved with cobblestones. A fortress which looks like an acropolis, very fine and strong, has been built very close to the river and is furnished with a great number of very large cannon. In it are stored collections of treasures and goods of great value which are said to surpass the legendary wealth of Croesus and Midas, so great is the limitless store of gold and silver which is kept there. They have built a dockyard for ship-building near Greenwich with ship-sheds, and it is very close to the river.
γέφυρα δέ τις μεγίστη μετοχετεύουσα τοὺς ἐν τῇ πόλει πρὸς τὸ ἀντίπεραν οἰκούμενον ἔκτισται, ὑπ᾽ ἀψίδων μαρμαροδέτων ἐσφηνωμένη, ἐπάνωθεν οἴκους τὲ καὶ πύργους ἐπέχουσα. πορθμεῖα δὲ καὶ ἀκάτια ὑπ᾽ εἰρεσίᾳ ταχυναυτοῦντα, ἐς τὰ τῆς πόλεως χρειώδη, πλῆθος παρὰ τὸν ποταμὸν ὁρᾶν ἔνεστι. τὰ μέντοι πλοῖα ἐμπορικὰ τὰ ἐξ ἁπάσης ἀφικνούμενα ἐν Λονδίνῃ, διὰ τοῦ ποταμοῦ ἐς τὴν πόλιν ἀνέρχονται, οἶνον τὲ καὶ ἔλαιον καὶ ἕτερα τῶν σιτίων εἰσκομίζουσι. πλῆθος δ᾽οἰκιῶν ἀνὰ τὴν πόλιν ἐς κατοίκησιν ἔκτισται τῶν προυχόντων καὶ τῶν ἐμπόρων, ὑψηλὰ δὲ τέρεμνα γραφαῖς εὐανθέσι κεκαλλωπισμένα ἐπῳκοδόμηνται. ἐν ἐνίοις δὲ τῆς πόλεως μέρεσιν οἴκοι βασίλειοι μέγιστοι, διαφόρως πεποικιλμένοι, καὶ πρὸς τὸ ἁβροδίαιτον ἐσκευασμένοι, παραδείσοις καὶ κήποις καταφύτοις κυκλούμενοι, ὑπέρκεινται. ἅπασα δ᾽ὑπὸ χαλίκων ἡ πόλις κατέστρωται. φρούριον δε τι, σχῆμα φέρον ἀκροπόλεως, περικαλλές τε καὶ ὀχυρὸν, ἔγγιστα ποταμοῦ ἔκτισται, τηλεβόλους ὅτι πλείστους καὶ μεγίστους ἐπέχον. ἔνθα οἵ τε θησαυροὶ καὶ τὰ τῶν κειμηλίων ἐρίτιμα ἐναποτέθεινται. λέγεται γὰρ ὡς τὸν πάλαι θρυλλούμενον Κροίσου καὶ Μῖδα πλοῦτον ὑπερβάλλειν. τοσοῦτόν τι πλῆθος χρυσοῦ καὶ ἀργύρου ἀπλέτου τεθησαύρισται. ἐπίνειον δὲ κέκτηνται πλησίον Γρανεκίου μετὰ νεωσοίκων, ἔνθα ναυπηγοῦσι τὰς νῆας, ἔγγιστα ὄν τοῦ ποταμοῦ.
ii. 40. 3 – 6
Andronikos was also fascinated, not only by the amount of commerce in the city and its concentration in one quarter, but also by what, I suppose, could be described as the beginnings of a financial services industry. He spends a while explaining how the system of letters-of-credit was now being widely used in London and was making the enlargement of European trade possible too. He admired some of the Guild Halls and was impressed by the Port of London, and was curious also about some more intimate aspects of English life—the odd habit people had of kissing women on the lips without provoking violent reactions from the menfolk, for instance. For our English language: ‘Even if their speech sounds barbarous, their language nevertheless has a touch of seductive charm, and is gentler than that of Germany or Flanders.’ As for society, Andronikos was roughed up by some London toughs, but seems to have borne no grudges. He is a bit unreliable on geography, and like others of his generation gets the orientation of the British Isles wrong; also, he mistakes the names of some rivers—for instance he dangerously makes the Thames the boundary between England and Scotland. A little is cautiously said about Scotland and the resentment the Scots feel for the English; Ireland is mentioned too, especially as a source of tall tales. There is a section on British fish, including the whale, and then Andronikos gets back to Henry VIII. He outlines previous collisions between church and King, and then launches into a detailed description of Henry’s divorce proceedings leading to the break with Rome. This account ends with Henry delivering a fine, passionate, rhetorical address to the leaders of the nation. And then Andronikos becomes intrigued – like so many since – by the story, or rather the stories, about Henry’s subsequent wives and their fates, and (like so many since) gets a little confused about the order of their succession. He then moves on to the second of his major preoccupations with Henry’s activities; the tales current about the excesses of the clerics and the steps Henry had taken to root out the greed, corruption and wickedness for which he held the monks and the monasteries especially responsible. There were evidently stories a-plenty to be heard, and Andronikos tells a lurid tale about the careful manufacture of a fake shrine at Bexley in Kent with internal holy light shining on a pseudo-ancient crucifix on which the figure of Christ would nod or shake its head according to the generosity or otherwise of the offerings made. This proved to be a champion fund-raiser until it was discovered that the whole outfit had been made to monkish order quite recently in Antwerp. Due punishment followed. There is also a version of the story of the so-called ‘Maid of Kent’, Elizabeth Barton; she was eventually hanged at Tyburn and her head displayed on London Bridge, probably one of the grisly relics Andronikos tells us that he actually saw there. Then we hear the dramatic fate of the remains of Saint Thomas Becket and his shrine at Canterbury; the saint is presented by the King’s agents as a typical example of the Pope deliberately deceiving the faithful by elevating an unworthy subject to sainthood. A thorough investigation under royal auspices unsurprisingly reveals Thomas as actually a traitor to King and country, so his shrine is broken up and his remains publicly burnt and, lest any trace remain (a detail not found anywhere else) they are fired from a cannon. There then follows a lengthy digression on previous relations and clashes between the English and the French including (though not under that name) the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
At this point Andronikos’ own fortunes took a surprising turn. He met up with a fellow-countryman, Thomas of Argos, who was in England with a troop of 400 Greek mercenaries hired by Henry to help with his raids on Scotland. Perhaps Andronikos had had enough of serving diplomacy at a humble level; at any rate he joined up with Thomas and saw some fighting on the Scottish borders, and then, when Thomas and his troops were redeployed to France to fight around Boulogne, he was there too. There are some interesting glimpses here of the different attitudes to soldiering displayed by mercenaries, the professionals and businessmen of war – uncontrollable though they could be – and the contrasting ruthless cruelty of troops driven by national hatreds.
Eventually Andronikos decided that a soldier’s life was not for him either; he was paid off by Thomas and began his journey back to Italy through France. France and the douceur de la vie attracted him—there’s a charming pastoral account of how, travelling through a forest near Cambrai, he met and greeted a very handsomely-dressed hunter on a splendid horse who was soon surrounded by a fine company. It turned out to be Queen Maria of Hungary, the Emperor’s sister, to whom he had been introduced in the Netherlands and he was duly invited to a lunch-time picnic in the woods with the entourage. Andronikos went on to Paris, and then to the palace and gardens of Fontainebleau where he managed to get a quick and apparently profitable audience with the King and where he also met Angelos Vergikios from Crete who was employed by Francis 1 as Greek librarian/copyist/book-restorer and consultant type-designer – one of Vergikios’ beautifully written and illustrated manuscripts is in the Bodleian.
At this point, though, Andronikos leaves his own travels and goes back into the past with a long digression describing the complicated relationships, conflicts and campaigns between France, the Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy and the Sultan. It does bring home just how real and imminent was the threat that the Turks posed to Western Europe then and how much dread was inspired by people like Khayr al-Din, the Barbary pirate turned Turkish admiral, known to the West as Barbarossa. But all this is actually an explanatory prelude to the event which had changed Andronikos’ own life as a young man—the Turkish siege of Corfu in 1537. He had lived through it with his family and his deep personal feelings and the description of the detailed horrors of war here cut right through the rhetoric. The last part of the book is swifter and more peaceful – Andronikos returns to Italy calling at Lyons, Turin, Milan, Bologna and Florence with pleasant accounts of each, and the sole remaining manuscript then breaks off as he visits Viterbo.
Is Andronikos worth reading today ? Well, his attempt to write classical Greek really cannot be said to succeed—morphology, vocabulary, perhaps, but his syntax is odd, wild and inconsistent. Is his book an important work of historical scholarship ? Well, no—he doesn’t add anything much to what is already known, he makes mistakes, gets confused and can’t quite decide what to be—a travel writer, a diarist, a dramatic historian, a geographer, Strabo, Julius Caesar—all of those. Yet he has a real live personality, a vigorous patriotism and an indefatigable and very Greek curiosity, two clear, realistic and perceptive eyes which saw Europe at an absolutely fascinating time, and two ears which had an almost Herodotean instinct for good stories. He is a modest part of the texture of history and he does not deserve to be forgotten.
John Muir taught at King’s College London. He has been editor of ‘Greece and Rome’ and president of JACT, and has always been interested in the by-ways of history. His most recent book was a study of letter-writing in the Greek world (‘Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World’, (Routledge, 2009)). He has just finished the first complete English translation of Andronikos’ travel book and hopes soon to find a publisher.