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Surviving the medieval Mediterranean

History hunter's report: Michael of Rhodes and Bartolomeo Minio

As I continue research for my upcoming series about the medieval Mediterranean, my favorite sources are the rare first-person accounts I’ve found. I’m zooming in on two of those sources today so you can glimpse this forgotten world, too.

Michael, an immigrant, seaman, and writer

Michael of Rhodes was a humble sailor born on the island of Rhodes when it was ruled by the knights Hospitaller. In 1401 he made his way to Venice, where he got a job as an oarsmen on a Venetian galley.

He then spent much of his life working on Venetian ships in increasingly prestigious positions, though he was never able to achieve his career goals because he was a foreigner. What is most interesting to me about Michael, though, is the fact that he wrote and illustrated two books about topics ranging from mathematics to shipbuilding to astrology. All of the drawings in this post were made by Michael of Rhodes.

I own a copy of Michael’s most well-known book, along with a selection of essays about the contents. The Book of Michael of Rhodes is a fascinating glimpse into the mind and world of a medieval man. It also gives me important clues as a novelist for details about what ships were like, what traveling on maritime routes was like, what people ate and carried on their travels, and much more.

Michael does not discuss his personal life other than brief mentions of the deaths of two of his wives, a son, and possibly a daughter. His will gives a few clues about what he possessed at the end of his life (not much). Money was tight.

Glimpses of professional frustration and a comic sense of humor come through in his writings and illustrations. His knowledge of mathematics is astonishing. His interest in astrology may seem obsessive to a modern reader, but it’s hard to overstate the influence of stars and planets on medieval Mediterranean folk. When you think about the super-charged glow of the moon in the days before artificial light dulled our skies, you can begin to imagine the power people ascribed to the heavens.

Some of my favorite passages describe the eye-popping storms and battles Michael weathered on his voyages around the medieval Mediterranean. In a rather matter-of-fact way, he recounts getting lost at sea during storms (this happened constantly, with convoys of ships being scattered across the ocean like toy ships in the wind). He witnessed massive casualties during battles with Genoese war galleys, and was gravely wounded himself.

Michael also wrote a “portolan”, which in the simplest terms means “sailing directions.” Since ancient times, mariners used mnemonic devices (like students do today to memorize formulas and facts) to remember villages, harbors, dangerous banks, fresh water, and all the other features that make for a safe voyage along a particular route. As literacy grew, seamen  inked these instructions on paper. In addition to his directions for finding one’s way around the medieval Mediterranean, Michael offered his advice about navigating the treacherous waters of the Atlantic. His accounts of the state-sponsored convoys of merchant ships that voyaged from Venice to London and Bruges share fascinating details about life at sea.

One of Michael’s most touching illustrations is his faux coat of arms. He inscribed the initial ‘M’ on a coat of arms, flanked by two turnips, topped by a rat clutching a dead cat. His entire adult life, he tried and failed to climb the highest rungs of the Venetian naval hierarchy. Each time he applied for a job as captain, Michael was passed over in favor of a Venetian nobleman. Michael’s illustration seems to acknowledge his bitterness about his lot in life, but also reflects a sly sense of humor.

Bartolomeo Minio, a Venetian man of honor

Another voice from the medieval Mediterranean that I’ve come to treasure is that of Venetian 15th-century military man Bartolomeo Minio.

Venice ruled the medieval Mediterranean during Minio’s time. In the late 1400s, at the age of about forty, Minio was sent by his superiors to oversee the outpost of Nauplion, a small boat-shaped peninsula in the Greek Gulf of Argos. This area had been ruled by Venice for a couple of centuries, then wrested away by the Ottoman Turks, then recaptured in Minio’s time. He left behind in Venice a family and a busy life as a respected citizen, and what he endured at Nauplion would have tested the hardiest soul.

Minio’s voice comes to us from dozens of letters he wrote to his superiors reporting on his activities, relaying news from his corner of the world, and begging for promised supplies, funds, and food. Two dozen of the letters are urgent dispatches about pirate attacks. Life in the garrison of Nauplion and the surrounding area is described in detail. Attacks from Turkey  were frequent. Usually such skirmishes took place at sea, or an advance warship would land nearby and terrorize local villagers. Minio would organize local soldiers to combat such attacks and ride to various forts around the peninsula, lighting signal fires and making a show of military might.

At the same time, negotiations with Turkish emissaries and soldiers were part of Minio’s job. He describes the “sky-blue silk” sash he gifted one Turkish leader, and the hundreds of mounted cavalry he organized to meet a contingent of Turks who had sailed in for talks. He also had to grapple with constant fighting between local Greeks, immigrant Albanians, and other imported mercenaries. Some of the resident Venetian colonists got unruly as well. Minio had his hands full.

His pleas to his superiors for grain, resources, and cash were often ignored. He had no choice but to make do with the limited supplies and defenses that existed on Nauplion. Although Venice was awash in gold, very little of it made its way to remote outposts like Nauplion. Minio’s frustration was clearly stated in many letters, though he always used deferential salutations when addressing his superiors. At one point he resorted to borrowing money from a wealthy local just to feed his soldiers.

In one poignant letter, his distress at his situation is plain:

“Not a single grain now remains in the storehouse, so that I find myself in the greatest distress and agony, and I do not know how I will be able to maintain these people.”

 For wonderful insights about Minio’s character, check out this blog post by historian Diana G. Wright, editor and translator of Bartolomeo Minio’s letters.  One of the gems in the post: Of the 500 Venetian governors in various colonies in the medieval Mediterranean, Minio is the only one who was named and acknowledged with gratitude by the Greeks he oversaw. He was, Wright tells us, a man of honor.

In her excellent introduction to Minio’s letters, Wright also points out that, just as in Michael of Rhodes’ book, there are scant mentions of women in Minio’s dispatches. Minio only refers to women three times in ninety letters. None of the women are named. The only reason we know this, I suspect, is because Diana Wright was looking for them.

The missing voices of women

Which brings me to my greatest frustration in doing research focused on medieval Mediterranean women: their presence is largely absent from the historical record. They lived, loved, and died alongside men like Michael of Rhodes and Bartolomeo Mineo. But their voices have been mostly silenced. I’ll keep digging for scraps that lead me to them, though. They did exist, these women—for their brief time on earth, they shone as brightly as the stars lighting up the ancient seas.

And I intend to keep bringing their stories to life.

I wish to thank Diana G. Wright, editor and translator of Bartolomeo Minio’s letters, for her generous assistance with this research.

 

2 Comments

  1. Julie Cassin says:

    I CANNOT wait to read this next series. I am already totally absorbed.

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      That’s what I love to hear! Thank you, fellow history hunter!

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