The Reluctant Emperor: A Biography of John Cantacuzene, Byzantine Emperor and Monk, c. 1295-1383by Donald M. Nicol (review)
- The Catholic Historical Review
- The Catholic University of America Press
- Volume 84, Number 1, January 1998
- pp. 89-90
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- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS89 My reservations are niggling. Pobst generally specifies the nature of the entries in the register, noting which are "letters patent" (e.g., no. 8), which are simply "letters" (e.g., no. 1 1), and which are memoranda (e.g., no. 39).The nature of a few entries is, however, less clear. No. 98, for example, is described as a "letter ofcommission." Does that mean that no. 97, described simply as a"commission," is to be understood as a memorandum and not a letter? If a memorandum, why not an explicit notice as in no. 39? Consistency in such matters is helpful in a calendar. A note for no. 816 explaining why Pobst concludes the letter of induction was sent to the archdeacon of Sudbury rather than to the archdeacon's official would also be useful. But these are smaU desiderata for an exceUent edition . Michael Burger Mississippi Universityfor Women The Reluctant Emperor: A Biography ofJohn Cantacuzene, Byzantine Emperor and Monk, c. 1295-1383- By Donald M. Nicol. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1996. Pp. xiv. 203. $3995.) Some dozen years ago I met Donald M. Nicol at a conference. Reflecting on our mutual interest in the late Byzantine period, we discussed the perennial trend toward overspecialization at the expense ofworks with broader perspectives and grander themes. He summarized this point of view by advising me, then a graduate student, to write "big books." Throughout a distinguished scholarly career Nicol has been true to this counsel, and for the benefit of a generation of Byzantine historians, and others to come, he has written quite a few"big books." Known to aU Byzantine historians are The Despotate ofEpiros (Oxford, 1957), The Byzantine Family of Kantakouzenos (Cantacuzenus) ca. 1100-1460: A Genealogical and Prosopographical Study (Washington, D.C, 1968), The Last Centuries ofByzantium, 1261-1453 (London, 1972; 2nd ed., Cambridge, 1993), and The Despotate of Epiros, 1267-1479 (Cambridge, 1984), as well as other books and many articles which have estabUshed Nicol as the pre-eminent authority on late Byzantine poUtical history.Thus, the life and age of JohnVI Kantakouzenos are famUiar territory. But as he explains, his purpose here was to write not a social and political history ofthe Byzantine Empire in the fourteenth century, but "a biography of a great and much-maUgned and misunderstood man" (p. 2). John Kantakouzenos, emperor from 1347 to 1354, Uved and led through civU wars, dynastic squabbling, rebeUions, reUgious controversies, invasions by Serbs and Turks, and wars with Albanians and Latins. His thousand-page memoirs which cover the period from 1320 to 1356 are an exemplary contribution to medieval historiography and the most important source for the history of fourteenth-century Byzantium. Nevertheless, they teU us very Uttle about the 90BOOK REVIEWS man himself. He wrote about himself in the third person, depicting himself, on the whole, as a weU-meaning, high-minded participant in much tragic business. Nicol scours the sources to provide whatever can be said about the personality ofJohnVI Kantakouzenos in order to round out his presentation of the history of the period. He offers a sympathetic view of his subject, and this has formed the basis of nearly every modern Byzantinist's opinion of the man. And therein Ues the problem.There are only so many ways to tell the same story. About a third of The Byzantine Family ofKantakouzenos (pp. 35-103) deals with Kantakouzenos and a quarter of The Last Centuries ofByzantium (pp. 157-261) deals with the period covered by his memoirs.Perhaps three-quarters of the present book consist of paraphrases of sections from these two works. Nicol teUs the story well, and it is a story worth teUing, but there is little here that he has not already said before. Scholars and students would do better to read his Last Centuries ofByzantium, a superb treatment of the turbulent late Byzantine age. Mark C. Bartusis Northern State University Aberdeen, South Dakota Liberty, Right, and Nature:Individual Rights in Later Scholastic Thought. By Annabel S. Brett. (NewYork: Cambridge University Press. 1997. Pp. xii, 254.) The word ius, as anyone acquainted with medieval juristic or scholastic texts recognizes immediately, poses a baffling array of problems for those...