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The treacherous medieval court of Cyprus

history hunter's report, part I

Sometimes in the course of doing research for one book idea, another novel presents itself like an unexpected gift. That’s exactly what happened when I dug into history for the first book in my Sea and Stone Chronicles series, Island of Gold. The story of a French falconer and his spirited wife who seek their fortune on the medieval Greek island of Rhodes, the book focuses on the turbulent era when the Knights Hospitaller dominated that part of the Mediterranean.

I soon learned that while the knights’ headquarters was on Rhodes, they were deeply influential on the island of Cyprus as well. Without planning to, I dove headlong into the bizarre and astonishing world of the kingdom of Cyprus. It became obvious pretty much right away that I would have to write a book about the place. I did worry that no one would believe a word of the novel, because the history of this back-stabbing, murderous court defies imagination.


History of Medieval Cyprus, part I

I’m nearly finished with The Queen’s Scribe, my fictional homage to the viper’s nest that was the medieval court of Cyprus. So the time has come to start laying out the roadmap of my research for all to see. When the book launches in early 2023, I want to be ready for the questions that are bound to come.

In this first report on the medieval court of Cyprus, we begin in the early middle ages, when Cyprus was under the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire. Around the 7th century, Arab forces began invading Cyprus. A long period of instability and violence ensued. In 965, the Byzantines “reconquered” Cyprus for Christendom. In 1195, it was conquered by Richard the Lionheart. He then sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar, who turned around and sold it to Guy de Lusignan, the King of Jerusalem. He established the Kingdom of Cyprus and brought the Latin (Catholic) church to the island, where it was endowed with supremacy over the Greek Orthodox church. The Lusignan Kings would rule Cyprus until 1489.

The French Kings of Cyprus

The Lusignans made French the official language of Cyprus, taking precedence over Greek. They established a noble class made up primarily of French people. Cyprus was a very important point of trade in the Levantine area of the Mediterranean; it was also an essential stopover point for European pilgrims venturing to the Holy Land. Its main port city of Famagusta attracted merchants from all over Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Locals in this thriving culture did not take kindly to the new owners of Cyprus. The Lusignans and their elite associates were known as “Franks”. They forced local commoners to become serfs for their nobles and persecuted Cypriots for their adherence to traditional beliefs and rituals.

Construction began in the thirteenth century on grand French-style cathedrals in Nicosia (the capital) and Famagusta. The French Gothic Abbey of Bellapaix was constructed, along with several castles and forts. The Latin Church collected tithing revenues from the Greek Orthodox Church to help fund its endeavors, and due to a lack of oversight by Catholic archbishops (who tended to live elsewhere), the Latin clergy developed a reputation for debauchery. Several uprisings by locals were quashed by the Latins over the years, including one in which thirteen Greek monks were killed over a dispute regarding the use of unleavened bread versus leavened bread.

The Lusignans maintained good relations with the Knights Templar. Later, when that order was disbanded, the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St.John continued this association with the Kings of Cyprus. The Hospitallers developed a slave-powered sugar plantation and fortress called Kalossi on Cyprus that became a key source of revenue for them and ensured the Order would always have a stake in Cypriot affairs.

Pardon my French

When the Lusignans took over Cyprus, French became the language of high administration, but Greek remained the language of everyday life. In port towns, people communicated in French, Arabic, and Italian. Over the years, all of these languages converged into one “lingua franca”.

The fourteenth-century historian and scribe Makhairas of Cyprus deplored the fact that under the Lusignans, “we (Cypriots) write both French and Greek in such a way that no one in the world can say what our language is”. In fact, the French spoken in Cyprus became so distorted that native French speakers visiting from Europe could not understand it. I’m highlighting this because it underpins the plot of my forthcoming novel, The Queen’s Scribe.

There were other subcultures in Cyprus that had their own neighborhoods, churches, and monasteries. These included the Venetians, the Armenians (the kingdom would eventually become known as ‘The Kingdom of Cyprus, Armenia, and Jerusalem), the Maronite Christians of Lebanon, and the Coptic Christians of Egypt. By the fourteenth century, the Genoese became a dominant force in Cyprus, attacking port towns and attempting to overtake the island. They were mollified by tribute payments and the gift of Famagusta. From 1373 until 1489, the Genoese ruled that port city.

A playground for the rich

As difficult as life was for Cypriots under Frankish rule, the elites enjoyed eye-popping levels of privilege, wealth, and leisure. Cyprus became known for its production of luxury fabrics such as camlet (a blend of silk and wool), cloth-of-gold, and embroidered silks. Local artisans made complicated artificial birds of metal, and goldsmiths produced jewelry for export all over Europe.

The Cyprus Codex is a musical composition of the Lusignan court from the early fifteenth century. It is the largest known surviving single source of medieval courtly music. It’s made up of both sacred and secular music created by an unknown composer. Have a listen here:

Hawking and hunting

The Kings of Lusignan and their courtiers spent lavishly on falconry and hunting. The German traveler Ludolf von Suchen visited Cyprus in the mid-fourteenth century and witnessed nobles playing in tournaments, jousting, and hunting daily. He wrote that wild rams were hunted and caught with “leopards” (these were likely cheetahs). He observed one nobleman who owned more than 500 hounds; 250 servants were in charge of the animals. He described mountain hunting expeditions that lasted over a month. King Jacques I of Cyprus reportedly owned 300 falcons and 24 “leopards” (probably cheetahs), some of which he took hunting on a daily basis.

Cyprus’s falconers were legendary during the medieval era. The French hospitaller Jean de Francieres, recorded in his late fifteenth-century hunting manual that two Cypriots were among the three best falconers in the eastern Mediterranean. Two of the characters in The Queen’s Scribe are based on these men. I found a digitized copy of de Francieres’ book at the Royal Library of Belgium. Check it out here.

Ready for blood?

Stay tuned for Part II of this report on the medieval court of Cyprus later this fall. That’s where you’ll learn about the bloody, backstabbing world my protagonist Estelle de Montavon enters in 1457. It’s not for the faint of heart . . .

The history presented in this report comes from myriad academic sources and books. Two key resources for this post are:

An Outline of Latin Culture in Cyprus in the Period of Franco-Venetian Dominance on the Island (1191-1571) by Lukasz Burkiewicz

For Pleasure and Profit: The Recreational and Fiscal Exploitation of Animals in Lusignan and Venetian Cyprus (1192-1570) by Nicholas Coureas




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