Catalans in Boeotia (1311-1380)

1. Historical context

Catalan rule in Boeotia occured in the context of Catalan presence in Eastern Mainland Greece in the 14th century; in turn, this belonged to the wider context of Frankish rule in South-eastern Greece between 1204 and 1460. This geopolitical status quo emerged gradually after the first Fall of Constantinople in 1204 by the Latins of the Fourth Crusade. Indeed, after 1204 the lands of Greece, from Thessalonica to the Peloponnese, the Aegean Islands, Crete and Euboea came under Frankish and Venetian rule, while Boeotia formed part of the Burgundian Duchy of Athens and Thebes (1209-1311).

The year 1311 was a turning point in the history of Boeotia. In March 15 of that year, the allied forces of the Duchy of Athens and other Franks of Southern Greece joined battle against a mighty mercenary company (Companya) comprised of Catalans and Aragonese troops (Almogavars). The outcome was disastrous for the Duchy of Attica and Boeotia: the Catalans crushed their opponents and ventured further south. The population of Boeotia fled in panic; carrying with them few of their possessions some sought refuge in Venetian Euboea, among them many inhabitants of Thebes, while others hailed them and submitted peacefully, as in Lebadea. The proud victors of the Battle of Halmyros took to pillaging and settled in Attica and Boeotia, altering the region’s military, political, social and economical landscape.

2. Political and military developments in Catalan Boeotia

To secure their position politically and diplomatically, the Catalans requested and succeeded in being placed under the suzerainty of the Catalan Kingdom of Sicily, which up to 1378 provided them with the vicar general who was installed in the duchy’s capital, Thebes. Henceforth, the Catalans self-styled themselves as Universitas exercitum Francorumin Romanie finibus (=army of the Franks of Greece). The Catalan state of Boeotia and the entire Duchy would manage to survive financially only by engaging in continuous military campaigns and pillaging incursions outside its borders. Thus, they continued their offensive and by 1319 they had conquered almost all of Phthiotis, Phocis and southern Thessaly. Furthermore, their pirate raids spread throughout the Aegean and the coasts of the Peloponnese. Because in their pirating activities (which mainly involved the enslavement of populations), they made no distinctions between Franks, Venetians or Greeks, they invited the hostility of Venice and the Pope, who repeatedly excommunicated them. This situation lasted for another three decades, until (1348) the northern possession of the duchy, with the exception of Salona and Neopatras, came under the rule of the Serbian kralj Stephen Dušan. In the meantime, however, the Catalans of Boeotia had to face a large counteroffensive within their territory by the heir of the Burgundian title to the Duchy of Athens, Walter ΙΙ [Walter VI of Brienne], in 1331-1332. This campaign, although endorsed by the Pope, did not realize its objectives, but only contributed to the further depopulation of the Boeotian countryside and partially of Thebes; during this campaign the castle of Saint Omer was destroyed.

In general, the Catalans in Boeotia, as well as in the rest of the duchy, were forced to live a life of constant military readiness. Their numbers were few; they lived isolated from the population and were constantly viewed with suspicion by their co-religionists in the Peloponnese and Euboea, while very often brutal feuds undermined their unity. Finally, in the later years of their presence in the area various internal and external difficulties forced them to seek a powerful protector. They requested and succeeded in becoming vassals (1378) of King Peter IV of Aragon. Their king was very far away, however, when ominous shadows appeared: the Ottomans on the north and the Acciaioli and Navarrese Company on the south.

Indeed, in late February 1379 the notorious mercenary band of the Navarrese, financed by Nerio I Acciaioli, crossed the Isthmus and Megaris and suddenly appeared before the weak walls of Thebes. Following a short but violent attack, the city fell to their hands (March 6, 1379), while its Catalan defenders, as well as those who had come to their aid from Athens, were slaughtered or captured. A chronicle recounts: “In the month of March, in the year 1379, the Navarrese, also called the ‘White Company’, entered Thebes, the city of the seven gates, at the ninth hour of the night, on a Friday”. The castle of Lebadea met a similar fate a year later (1380).

3. Administrative organization and financial exploitation of Boeotia by the Catalans

As already mentioned, Thebes was not only the capital of Boeotia, but also of the entire duchy: civitas nostra Thebana quae in ipsis ducatibus quasi caput est et magistra (=our city Thebes, which is our capital in the duchy). The name of the city in the Frankish or Catalan language is rendered as Stives or Estives; this echoes the vernacular Greek name of the settlement, which resulted from the corruption of the Greek phrase ‘Ες Θήβας’. The supreme civil governor and military commander of the duchy, the veguer/vigerius (=vicar) was installed in this city, while smaller urban communities were controlled by proxies and garrison commanders (castellià/castellanus) or a captain (capità/capitaneus). It should be noted that the limits of their powers were anything but clear-cut. This was due to that fact that, depending on the personality of the vicar general, the Usages of Barcelona, i.e. the customary laws of the Company, were only occasionally enforced. These laws prescribed a sort of communal self-government, but it is unclear whether Greek representatives ever participated in the municipal council of Thebes. For Lebadea it is known that certain families, who had offered their allegiance early on, were included among the municipal councillors. More specifically, the small town of Lebadea and its castle represented a holy site for the Catalans. The local church of St George contained a holy relic, the head of the said saint (today kept in Venice) while the original of the Company’s famous seal, depicting St George slaying the dragon, was kept in its chancellery.

The feudal organization of the region, as established during the period of Burgundian rule (1209-1311), was preserved. At least eight agricultural fiefdoms, with names that correspond to the cartographic picture of modern Boeotia, are mentioned in the sources: Daulia (Davleia), Estir (Steiris), Cabrena (Chaeronea), Patriau (Petra), Neopleus (Neochori), Zarovira (Zagaras), Sykamino, Kardanitza (Karditsa/Akraiphnio). As a rule, these fiefdom were leased over, while the new conquerors preferred to reside in countryside towers or in the castles of the cities, Thebes and Lebadea. We know of at least fifty names of Catalan families whose members held various offices and resided at Thebes for the duration of their presence in the region: Baldomers, Ballesters, Cavallers, Ibañezes, Ollers, Villafrancas, Fusters, Llurias, de Pous, Vitas, Rodejas, Joanes a.o.; from Lebadea: Almenaras, Terrades, Estanyols, Bonacolsi, Fadriques, a.o. Other feudal lords held peripheral fiefdoms: Antonio de Flamenc, Puigardines (Karditsa), Bellestars (Cabrena), W. Fadrique (Steiris) a.o.

Yet where is the local population, the indigenous people? In the seventy years of Catalan rule, very few Greek names appear in the documents of the period. These were individuals who probably belonged to the former aristocracy and had rushed to pay homage to the new rulers and join the ranks of the freedmen of the new order: the notarii Mavronikolas and his son Konstantinos, as well as a certain Gasco Durazzo, who is described as a Greek in the documents, all three from Lebadea. One Stephanos Mastrotheodoros and a certain Michalis from Thebes, or few women, like Anna and Amendula who were married to Catalan men. The name of a certain Dimitri, clearly described as an Albanian, is mentioned several times; in command of a military detachment he had successfully defended Steiris during the attack of the Navarrese against the duchy (1379). A number of sepulchral stelae have also revealed the names of few Theban Jews, like a certain Samuel (†1330), and one Leo Kaimes (†1338). This is all the visible presence of the subdued population amounts to on an individual level.

Naturally, on a collective level and according to ethnic references in the documents, it is the subdued populations that formed the backbone of Boeotian society: mainly Greeks, few Armenians and equally few Jews at Thebes. To these we should add the Albanians, who towards the end of the period under consideration here (from 1360 onwards) maintained a strong presence in the Boeotian countryside, either as nomadic stock-breeders or as mercenary horsemen.

With respect to the economical activities of the locals and their overlords, little can be gleaned from the sources. The ruling Catalans engaged themselves or allowed others to engage in trade, while some small-scale handicrafts activities in the area were continued: mainly slave-trade from Thebes to Catalonia (for the Catalans themselves engaged in pillaging raids by land and sea), wax collecting by the Armenians of Thebes, as well as production and trading of silk by Greeks and Jews. Furthermore, agricultural products would have accounted for a large part of the income received by the conquerors. We should also add that the subservient local population was heavily taxed and were also forced to provide a number of other services, like obligatory enrolment into the auxiliary forces. We also know that the subdued population enjoyed no legal status; they could not possess, sell, purchase or bequeath any real property.

4. Cultural and ecclesiastical conditions in the region

Beyond the realm of the economy, the rulers maintained virtually no other relations with their subjects. The insurmountable obstacles of language, religious dogma, dissimilar legal status, and the humiliation and exhaustion of the locals left no room for any contacts. The rulers used a vulgate form of Latin or the Catalan dialect for the documents drawn up by their notarii, while their Greek associates conveyed their orders to the subdued population.

As under the earlier Burgundian rule, the Catholic Church forbade the presence of Orthodox bishops in the region. The three large Latin archdioceses of the duchy were preserved (Athens, Neopatras, Thebes); the archdiocese of Thebes continued to lack any subordinate dioceses. The Boeotian dioceses of Davleia and Coronea remained under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Athens (as was the case during Byzantine rule), while that of Zaratova (Zagaras or Palaiopanagia) and Kastorion (Kakosion?) disappeared from the sources. It is unclear what happened to the great Byzantine monasteries of the region. Contemporary documents often mention churches in the urban centres, of the Theotokos at Thebes, St George at Lebadea, and St George at Karditsa (Akraiphnio) with a Greek inscription by the knight Antonio de Flamenco commemorating his gratitude for his survival in the disaster of 1311. These churches belonged to the Catholic Church and its clergy, who maintained close contacts with the Pope (both of Rome or of Avignon) in order to deal with the various problems caused by the Catalans. The Catalans had expressly forbidden the members of their Company to bequeath any property to ecclesiastical institutions and were rather unperturbed by the various excommunications visited upon them by the Pope.

In terms of the Orthodox Church, it seems that the local population was served by countryside priests, who had nominally declared allegiance to the Pope’s legates. Certain cases, such as the remains of the church of Zoodochou Peges in a cave of eastern Copais (featuring an 1333 inscription: “ΔΕΗΣΙΣ ΤΟΥ ΔΟΥΛΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ ΑΝΔΡΕΟΥ ΙΕΡΕΩΣ ΚΑΙ ΤΗΣ ΣΥΜΒΙΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΤΩΝ ΤΕΚΝΩΝ ΕΝ ΕΤΕΙ 6841”) arguably echo the disadvantageous position into which the Orthodox Church had fallen during the period of Catalan rule.

The Greek language was certainly spoken everywhere in its vernacular form, as we can tell by the very few entries in codices and in graffiti, yet the literary language had long since ceased being cultivated in the region.

5. The consequences of Catalan rule in Boeotia

The general picture one forms for the period of Catalan rule in Boeotia is that of a turbulent age, full of conflicts, and a lingering remembrance of unspeakable cruelty. The mercenaries of the ‘happy company’ busied themselves almost exclusively with military operations and pillaging raids within and outside the borders of the duchy, engaged in piracy in the sea, and large-scale slave-trade; they destroyed settlements and forts, and brutally exploited their subjects. They earned the hatred of their co-religionists, the Venetians and the Franks, and more so of the population, they were excommunicated by the Pope, and clashed violently with each other. Very few monuments in Boeotia can be attributed to the era of their presence, although during their reign Lebadea certainly became the most important city in the duchy, and its castle took on the form in which it survives to date. Their presence cannot be traced on a linguistic level – yet another indirect proof of their radical estrangement from their local subjects. The memory of their cruelty partly survives in folklore material.