Subscribe to Blog via Email
Why didn’t the Greeks convert to Catholicism under the Latin Empire?
InB4 Dimitris Almyrantis
The good news for you, OP, is that not only have I read up a fair bit on conversions of Greeks to Catholicism or Islam, I’ve even published academically on the subject.
The bad news is, I’m familiar with a number of circumstances where Greeks did or didn’t convert, but 13th century Greece is not one of them.
What I’m going to do though is answer the more general question: Why did Greeks convert or not convert, to Catholicism or Islam, between the 13th and the 18th century. I will build a framework which I will apply to the dozen cases I know. And then I’ll flippantly say, “oh, Greeks under the Latin Empire must have been like X.”
There are four scenarios, I believe, for Greeks converting or not. The following wording is for conversion to Catholicism; you can change it to conversion to Islam, by replacing “heretic” with “infidel”.
- The Homeland Scenario. “There shall be no damned heretics on our home turf! It is an insult to God! (Or: to our geopolitics.) Convert them immediately, and don’t be gentle about it!”
- Outcome: Conversion.
- The Colonial Scenario. “There are too goddamn many heretics in this god-forsaken outpost, for us to convert. And besides, keeping a bunch of heretics around is useful. Someone has to do the work around here. We’ll just clip their wings to make sure their leadership don’t get too uppity.”
- Outcome: No Conversion, but Restriction in power of Orthodox Clergy. Potentially, Only Nominal Conversion, to Byzantine Rite Catholicism. (Yes, the doctrine and the ecclesiastical authority are Catholic. But only priests know the difference. The Mass still looks Greek Orthodox.)
- The Imperial Scenario. “We’re running an empire here: we have better things to do than act as missionaries. Having their leadership be uppity is a feature, not a bug. They can run the heretics’ affairs on our behalf.”
- Outcome: No Conversion, a measure of autonomy granted.
- The Grassroots Scenario. “We’ve seen no help from our clergy, and we’ve seen plenty of help from their clergy. You know what? Defending our creed is not worth the effort. We’ll go with them.”
- Outcome: Conversion.
Now to apply the framework.
- Turkey, 12th century. Imperial Scenario. I don’t know much about the Seljuk empire, but I know they didn’t run around converting Greeks to Islam.
- Turkey, 13th century. Mixed Homeland/Colonial Scenario. The emirates that succeeded the Seljuks were not running an empire, but individual small states, so they did not feel like taking the relaxed big picture. There was fervent missionary work undertaken by them, as I’ve documented elsewhere, although the presence of Christianity in Western Anatolia did not collapse until the 15th century. And in the meantime, the capital tax on Christians was in fact their major source of income. So initially more of a colonial scenario, then later more of a homeland scenario.
- Crete, 14th century. Colonial Scenario. Crete is a colony of Venice, and a rebellious one at that. Conversion is too hard work. But the local Orthodox population is denied senior clergy (there were no Orthodox bishops permitted on the island, the nearest bishop was in Modon on the Peloponnese). They are the underclass, working class, and lower middle class that keep things running and generating income for Venice and its feudal landholders.
I’ve written elsewhere about the poet Stephanos Sahlikis (Ooh! He Said ‘Fuck’! He must be a revolutionary! by Nick Nicholas on Opɯdʒɯlɯklɑr In Exile). Sahlikis belonged to one of the three indigenous Cretan clans that had converted to Catholicism, and were allowed to own fiefs as well. Venice accepted the necessity of coopting locals to Catholicism: it ran out of Italians to run their fiefs, and it needed to reward locals who helped them suppress the constant local revolts. But it didn’t want too many turncoats; they weren’t about to enfranchise the entire serf population that made Crete profitable.
The division between Catholic and Orthodox had eased off somewhat by the 16th century, when Crete was less a colony and more a province of Venice; so the scenario would have crept towards Imperial. It didn’t creep far: the local peasantry resented their forced labour (Corvée) to the end, and welcomed the Ottomans as liberators.
- Greece and Northern Turkey, 15th century. Imperial Scenario. The Ottoman Empire pretty much wrote the book on this, with its Millet system. Not only was the senior Orthodox clergy retained in the newly conquered Orthodox territory of Greece and the Pontus, it administered Christians’ affairs on behalf of the Empire. As long as the Empire got what it needed (tax, troops through Devshirme), the infidels were rarely pressured to convert to Islam. Of course (Grassroots Scenario) some Greeks sought conversion as advantageous to them, but it did not become the norm.
- Northeastern Turkey, 17th century. Homeland Scenario?. There were a few exceptions of deliberate Islamisation. The Islamisation of Albania and Bosnia was in order to subdue a particularly rebellious population; that’s not quite a “home turf” scenario, but it is a scenario in which Orthodoxy had been identified as an administrative liability. The Of Valley was also Islamised, in the 17th century: Greek is still spoken there, but the population is renowned as devoutly Muslim. I don’t know why Islamisation was pursued there, but securing the region would make sense, particularly if neighbouring Georgia and Russia was a concern.
- Central Italy, 17th century. Homeland Scenario. A number of colonies of Greeks from Mani were established in Italy in the 17th century. Conversion to Latin Rite Catholicism was a precondition on settlement. Some colonists resisted it, but they were not able to resist it long. The Homeland Scenario was how Europe worked in the 17th century: Cuius regio, eius religio was how the warfare between Protestants and Catholics was resolved. The ruler got to decide which religion was allowed. And anyone who deviated from what the ruler decided, didn’t get to deviate for long.
- Southern Italy, 17th century. Mixed Colonial/Homeland Scenario. This description I’m somewhat less comfortable with, but: the Orthodox population of Southern Italy (ethnic Greek and Albanian) were pressured into adopting Byzantine Rite, and eventually Latin Rite. The same degree of coercion that was applied in Central Italy couldn’t be applied in the south, because of the far greater number of Orthodox; and (speculating) because of the political situation: the Spanish rulers of Naples could not coopt the local Catholic population as effectively to apply peer pressure.
Eventually, a critical mass point was reached, and the Homeland scenario switched in. In fact, it’s the Albanians in Southern Italy, not the Greeks, who have held out and retained Byzantine Rite.
- Corsica, 17th–18th century. Colonial Scenario. The Greek settlers were another bunch of colonists from Mani, but they held off from real assimilation for two to three centuries. They had a number of factors that made that possible. The initial factor was that, while Rome considered Corsica its home turf, and pressed heavily for conversion, Genoa was running Corsica as an outpost, and it needed the Greeks on side to help control the rebellious locals. So Genoa consistently tried to work around the pressure coming from Rome.
The Greeks, for that matter, were too damn many: they had their own monastery of monks preaching anti-Catholic rhetoric, and they were well armed (forming later on the armed elite of Ajaccio—a Greek sponsored Napoleon to go to military school). And assimilation was off the table for a very long time; when Corsicans asked them to join their revolt against Genoa in 1729, the Greeks laughed them off as goats and Vlachs. (Proper meaning: Aromanian-speakers. Secondary meaning: highlander hillbillies. Maniot meaning: lowlander peasants.)
- Crete, 17th century. Grassroots Scenario. A massive proportion of Cretans converted to Islam; by 1800, it was half the island. I’m sure there’s research now about why, and I’m sure there wasn’t research a generation ago, when I was reading history. The initial impetus must have been the peasantry’s relief at being freed from forced labour—something that the Orthodox low-ranking clergy had been powerless to help them with.
- Florida, 18th century. Grassroots Scenario. The New Smyrna colony was meant to be yet another Maniot colony, with Maniots from Corsica joining in. The boats took off for Florida from Minorca (British-ruled at the time), and every Minorcan who could jumped on board. The Maniots mostly died of malaria, and there was no Orthodox clergy on board; the maladministered colony was thus Greco-Corsican and Minorcan. On Corsica, the Greeks loathed Catholics. In Florida, they gained succour from Catholic clergy. When Florida went back to Spanish rule and conducted a census of New Smyrna, only one colonist (from Crete, I believe) said he considered himself Orthodox.
That was a lot of fun, even though I’m embarrassed I don’t know what happened in the Of valley.
So. The Latin Empire of the 13th century.
- Not Homeland Scenario. The Crusaders were a long, long way from France, and didn’t have the critical mass of local Catholics, or the means, to convert the locals by force or forceful encouragement.
- Not Grassroots Scenario. There was some intermarriage, and the Greek version of the Chronicle of the Morea was written by a gasmule, a product of such intermarriage: he clearly identifies with French interests, and attacks Orthodox Greeks consistently. But the Latin Empire and its successor statelets likely couldn’t have even offered the locals the incentives Venice grudgingly did, to encourage conversion. They were not rich, and not well-defended; they were hanging on for dear life in the Levant.
That leaves the Imperial Scenario (we’ll benignly leave the Greeks to their own affairs) and Colonial Scenario (we’re happy to leave the Greeks as an underclass).
I’m sure the Latin Empire would have liked to exploit the Greek peasantry, and curtail their heretic clergy, just like Venice did in Crete. I just don’t think they had the wherewithal or the nous to do it. Too inexperienced in colonialism and imperialism, too far from home, too embattled. I think they ended up in the Imperial Scenario—where you don’t bother converting the locals: not as a gesture of magnanimity born of strength, the way Mehmed II devised it, but as a gesture of pragmatism born of weakness.