By George E. Georgas, Fencing coach, Pammachon and Historical Fencing Instructor
Translation from Greek language Mr. Aggelos Pilidis.
Many thanks to my teacher, Mr Kostas Dervenis for the photos of his trip to Mystras.
Mistras, the Byzantine castle-state of the Paleologos family near Sparta. It was built by Guillaume II de Villehardouin in 1249. After the battle of Pelagony, that took place in September 1259 between the Empire of Nicaea and the alliance of the Despotate of Epirus, the Principality of Achaea and the Kingdom of Sicily, it changed hands. As the Chronicle of the Morea describes, the Empire of Nicaea, led by the brother of emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, Ioannes Palaiologos, and Alexios Strategopoulos, clashed with the allied armies of Michael II Komnenos, Duke of the Despotate of Epirus, Guillaume II de Villehardouin, leader of Achaea, Ioannes Duce of Thessaly and Manfred Hohenstaufen of Sicily.
The alliance was made against the Empire of Nicaea and posed a direct threat to Thessaloniki. The allies began the invasion. In 1259 the army of the Franks of Peloponnese, that was comprised of 8000 heavy infantry and cavalry and 12000 light infantry passed the Corinthian and joined with the Epirus army, comprised by 8000 heavy cavalry and 18000 light infantry, the Vlachs of Ioannes and 400 German knights sent by Manfred. Their target was Thessaloniki.
The empire answered immediately. Emperor Michael sent his brother Ioannes Palaiologos with Alexios Strategopoulos to invade Macedonia with 27 (allagies, Greek: αλλάγιες), approximately 6000 men. The imperial army, aside from its main body that was comprised by Greeks from Nicaea, Macedonia and Thrace, consisted also of mercenaries that according with the Chronicle of the Morea were 300 German knights, 1500 Hungarian mounted archers, 600 Serbians and Bulgarians, 500 Turks, 2000 Kuman mounted archers, mixed heavy cavalry and few archers.
Before the battle Ioannes Palaiologos managed to bring to the imperial side Ioannes Duke of Thessaly. He sent messengers to the Despot of Epirus to inform him that he had a huge army. During the night, when he was camped on the hills, he had his subjects bring thousands of cows, horses and donkeys to reinforce that image. He placed the German knights versus the Frankish heavy infantry, and the Hungarian mounted archers versus the German knights of the king of Sicily.
The morning before the battle begun, the Despot of Epirus had abandoned the field along with his personal guard, and his army scattered and retreated. The second surprise for the Franks was that the Vlachs of Ioannes Duke of Thessaly had also gone. Despite that, they decided to fight. His strategy worked. The Frankish heavy infantry was crushed by the charge of the heavily armored German knights of the empire, while the Hungarian mounted archers killed the horses of the German and Frankish knights, forcing them to fight on foot. Then, the well-rested Turks and Kumans joined the fight. At the same time the Franks regained hope because Ioannes of Thessaly with his Vlachs reappeared, but instead of fighting against the Empire, they attacked the Franks. As a result, the infantry and the now-horseless knights were decimated. The only ones left alive were the German knights of the king of Sicily, who surrendered only to Greek officers. As for Villehardouin, he was found hiding in some bushes and he surrendered to the Imperials.
After that battle, Mistras was given to the empire and a new era began.
After the defeat of the Franks in the battle of Pelagony in 1259 the castle of Mistras was surrendered to the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. From 1262 it became the base of his Byzantine general, and its main historical period, lasting two hundred years, began. The residents of the nearby area relocated around the castle, so a wall was created to protect the inhabited area. After some time a second wall was build to protect the area outside the last wall, because people had relocated there as well. The town’s renovation began with the building of the Metropolis of Mistras. The temple’s construction started in 1262 and was finished in 1310. The church is dedicated to Saint Demetrios. It is a Basilica with a wooden roof, murals and a sculpted altarpiece. In its courtyard was located the Metropolitan Court, nowadays the Museum of Mistras.
There many beautiful and interesting murals can be seen. One of them depicts a Warrior-Saint holding a sword in a way that is not commonly seen in churches, but instead can be found in the fencing manuals of the 15th century. The Saint is holding his sword in a half-swording guard! It seems these techniques existed and were used a long time before the fencing manuals were written. The fact that the Saint’s left hand is holding the scabbard in the same way described in the fencing manuals is remarkable. It is known that the artists of the time created their works by replicating what they saw. In the mural, the Saint seeks not to kill, but to protect. His weapon is still half in its scabbard but he is ready to protect his flock with God’s blessing. His stance is obvious and someone versed in historical fencing can recognize the defensive or offensive techniques that can be performed from there. We can therefore conclude that the techniques described in the manuals were known, more-or-less, by warriors a long time before they were written down by the masters to preserve their art before it became extinct by the new weapons invented.
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