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Complex Byzantium: a new analysis of the fatal crisis of Medieval Europe´s most ancient Empire, 1204-1453

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Working Papers (by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller)




In more than 1000 years of history, the Byzantine Empire experienced several severe times of crisis (after the loss of its eastern provinces to the Arabs in the 7th century or after the invasion of the Seljuks in Asia Minor in the 11th century, for instance) which brought it almost to the point of destruction. Yet, Byzantium proved to be one of the most resilient polities of medieval Europe and endured; even after the loss of its capital to the Crusaders of 1204, Byzantine statehood and church were able to regenerate in exile and to reclaim Constantinople after 57 years. But the political and economic environment had changed dramatically, and Byzantium could not reestablish its own imperial sphere in the Eastern Mediterranean; the commercial centres of Italy (Venice, Genoa) had integrated Byzantium´s former territories in the late medieval "Worldsystem"1, in which Byzantium only occupied a position at the periphery; and new expansive Turkish polities had emerged in Western Asia Minor, which reduced Byzantium to a Southeastern European regional power and finally after 1350 extended their power to the politically fragmented Balkans. Internally, competing aristocratic factions, ecclesiastical disputes and a "lack of unity and social cohesion"2 weakened the central state´s ability to adapt to the challenges of this new environment.

The project has three main aims:

  • Despite this complex of factors and developments, contemporary scholarship still considers Late Byzantium a "Pseudo-Empire", more or less "programmed" for destruction after 1204 (or even earlier)3, and interprets the development of these 250 years from the perspective of its endpoint - the Ottoman conquest of 1453
  • The project "Complex Byzantium: a new analysis of the fatal crisis of Medieval Europe´s most ancient Empire, 1204-1453" challenges this view; it aims at a new analysis of Byzantium´s "last centuries" not as an isolated case, but from the perspective of a pre-modern polity facing the same dramatic changes and challenges as others societies did at the same time of the "Late Medieval Crisis", which took hold of the entire old world from China to England in the 14th century
  • At the same time, the project will implement concepts, models and tools provided by the new fields of complexity studies4 and social network analysis in order to include the historical dynamics of crisis and adaptation in all its complexities at the level of macro-processes (in demography, climate and economy), of the structural framework of political, economic, social and religious networks, of individual and collective decision making and reaction to crisis phenomena, and of the geographic space (for examples see the "Working Papers").
  • Thus, it will be possible to identify similarities and peculiarities of Byzantium´s development in comparison with other contemporary polities and to answer the question why some segments of the Byzantine framework were able to adapt and to survive beyond 1453 within the new Ottoman framework while the Byzantine polity in its totality collapsed. This will also break new grounds for the analysis and conceptualization of crisis and historical change in pre-modern European history.

Chronological Choice

The choice of the last two centuries of Byzantine history as research object for the analysis of the reaction and adaptation of social structures in times of crisis seems odd from a classic historiographic point of view, since most scholars used to consider these centuries a period of general socio-political decline, starting from and heading towards catastrophe (the Latin and the Ottoman conquests of Constantinople in 1204 and 1453). But this assessment has changed in the last years; the late Angeliki Laiou, one of the most innovative and distinguished researchers on late Byzantium, wrote in her last synopsis of the Palaiologian Era (1258–1453):

    “In the course of the fourteenth century, Byzantium society underwent a series of major changes, in some ways similar to those in western Europe, in other ways quite different, and complicated by the presence of external threats that progressively led to the dissolution of the state and the conquest of its territory. While economic, social and cultural developments show considerable vitality, the weakness of the state, radically reducing its ability to provide order and security for its subjects, could not but influence the dynamic of other developments. Innovation, in practice more often than in theory, was not lacking; on the contrary, the responses to new conditions often present interesting if contradictory aspects.”5

Recent research, especially also within the Institute for Byzantine Studies of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, has illustrated this dynamic response of several Late Byzantine groups and institutions to crisis in an impressive way.

The project concentrates on two categories of historical evidence: source material which is statistically analysable and material which provides information on the social, political, economic, intellectual and private interactions and links between individuals, families, groups and institutions. This source material will be analysed with the tools and methods from the complexity sciences, mainly statistical methods and complex social network analysis.

The results of this combination of source analysis and contemporary methods so far are very promising 6 and at the same time make obvious the necessity of further testing and improvement of existing tools and the development of new methods.




  1. Cf. Cf. J. L. ABU-LUGHOD, Before European Hegemony. The World System A.D. 1250-1350. New York - Oxford 1989, esp. 102-134.
  2. N. NECIPO?LU, Byzantium between the Ottomans and the Latins. Politics and Society in the Late Empire. Cambridge 2009.
  3. Cf. for instance P. SCHREINER, Schein und Sein. Überlegungen zu den Ursachen des Untergangs des byzantinischen Reiches. Historische Zeitschrift 266 (1998) 625-647.
  4. For a first implementation of these concepts for the study of Late Byzantium cf. A. LAIOU, Byzantium and the Neighboring Powers: Small-state Policies and complexities, in: S. T. BROOKS (ed.), Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557). Perspectives on Late Byzantine Art and Culture. New York - New Haven - London 2006, 42-53.
  5. A. E. LAIOU, The Palaiologoi and the World around them (1261–1400), in: J. SHEPARD (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, c. 500–1492. Cambridge 2008, p. 803.
  6. Cf. J. PREISER-KAPELLER, A network analysis approach to the Synod of Constantinople for the years 1377 to 1390, in: Das Patriarchatsregister von Konstantinopel. Eine zentrale Quelle zur Geschichte und Kirche im späten Byzanz. Akten des Internationalen Symposiums im Gedenken an Marie-Theres Fögen und Angeliki Laiou, Wien, 7.–9. Mai 2009 (forthcoming); J. PREISER-KAPELLER – E. MITSIOU, Hierarchies and fractals: ecclesiastical revenues as indicator for the distribution of relative demographic and economic potential within the cities and regions of the Late Byzantine Empire in the early 14th century (forthcoming); J. PREISER-KAPELLER, Calculating Byzantium? Social Network Analysis and Complexity Sciences as tools for the exploration of medieval social dynamics (forthcoming).

Value of the Byzantine Hyperpyron  

Value of the Byzantine hyperpyron in Venetian Gold Ducats, 1315–1450
Data from: C. MORRISSON, Byzantine Money: Its Production and Circulation, in: A. E. LAIOU (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium. From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century. Washington, D. C. 2002, p. 966.  


Price of a thalassios modios  

Price of a thalassios modios of wheat in Constantinople in Venetian Gold Ducats, 1278–1436.
Data from: C. MORRISSON – J.-Cl. CHEYNET, Prices and Wages in the Byzantine World, in: A. E. LAIOU (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium. From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century. Washington, D. C. 2002, pp. 824–828.  


Price of a thalassios modios

The trading network of the Venetian merchant Giacomo Badoer in Constantinople, 1436–1440 (black = commercial transactions; green = permanent partnerships; red = family connections; blue = other kind of connection)
Data from: G. BERTELÈ,Il libro dei conti di Giacomo Badoer (Constantinopoli 1436–1440). Complemento e indici. Padua 2002.  


Marriage Network  

The marriage network of the leading families of the Byzantine Empire, 1258–1328.
Data from: E. TRAPP et al. (eds.), Prosopographische Lexikon der Palaiologenzeit. CD-ROM-version, Vienna 2001.  


Price of a thalassios modios  

The network of bishoprics in Byzantine Thrace, c. 1324, with circles indicating the values of contributions to the Patriarchate of Constantinople according to a list from September 1324 in the Register of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (yellow = eparchy of Europe; green = eparchy of Haimimontos; red = eparchy of Rhodope; blue = eparchy of Thrace).
Data from: H. HUNGER/O. KRESTEN, et al., Das Register des Patriarchats von Konstantinopel. 1. Teil: Edition und Übersetzung der Urkunden aus den Jahren 1315–1331. Vienna 1981, doc. nr. 88, lns. 39–73. Cf. J. PREISER-KAPELLER/E. MITSIOU, Hierarchies and fractals: ecclesiastical revenues as indicator for the distribution of relative demographic and economic potential within the cities and regions of the Late Byzantine Empire in the early 14th century (forthcoming)

Presentations / Posters