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alternate history

John XX

by Timons Esaias

The nearly complete suppression of Pope John XX from the pages of history is unparalleled in all the long, sad story of censorship. So thorough and so widespread has this suppression been, that it now seems impossible to guess, with any precision, how long he reigned, or, more surprisingly, even when.

[Encyclopaedists attempt to dismiss the matter by claiming that a clerical error in the Liber Pontificalis assigned two dates to John XIV, and thus confused some of the papal catalogues. Oddly, it did not confuse John XV, John XVI, John XVII, John XVIII or John XIX. We are asked to believe that the Vatican — which keeps such careful record of its papal names that it accepts the numbers claimed by antipopes — somehow lost count. This is absurd, no matter how often this lame excuse has been reprinted. It is an argument for the ignorant, a Sunday School cant. No serious scholar accepts it. -Ed.]

Some historians have conflated the missing John XX with the legend of Pope Joan: the woman who supposedly gave such extraordinary lectures at the University of Paris (all the while disguised as a man) that she was elevated to the papacy. Elevated to the papacy without being first a Cardinal, and by a unanimous vote of the College. Previously those who believed the Pope Joan story attempted to identify her with a certain John Anglicus, putative successor to Leo IV, but he is not listed in the catalogues either, and the name is probably just a piece of the same legend. Attempts have been made to tie her with other popes of known date (John XVII, Clement III) including, rather outrageously, Pius XI (in the 20th century!). Nonetheless, it is tempting indeed to conflate one unlisted pope with the other, especially when the names Joan and John are gender versions of each other.

Increasing the allure of this hypothesis that she was John XX is that the story of Pope Joan is first recorded in the 1240s. This creates a space of two centuries after the death of John XIX (in 1032) into which to insert this elusive reign, which is said to have ended in childbirth, exposure and violent death.

While this period most likely does enclose the suppressed reign of John XX, recent archeology reveals that “Pope Joan” is an updating of a legend from pre-Republican Rome. It seems that a woman infiltrated the office of pontifex maximus, a religious desecration so heinous that its discovery would require the immediate execution of the defiler, just as modern legend preserves.

Scholarship having thus deprived us of this easy solution to the problem, and endless hours of research among all the chronicles of medieval Christendom having uncovered as yet no clear candidate for the missing prelate, it would be beneficial, some think, to examine this question from the other end. From the cause.

What would lead the Church to utterly eradicate the name of one of its leaders from history?

History records many attempts to expunge certain figures from memory. Akhenaton attempted to replace the names of all the gods with that of Aten, and in his turn had his name chiseled out of monuments by his angry polytheistic successors. But neither attempt was sufficiently thorough. We still know the names of Akhenaton and the gods that ruled the earth before his birth.

King Arthur of Britain suffered considerable suppression by the Church, and his name is found in none of the chronicles preserved by monks. In Gildas, for instance, his battles are described and his government discussed, but it is as if the ruler of the Britons had no name. It is from Welsh poems that we know the name of Ambrosius’s successor, and from some Saint’s Lives that suggest the cause of the suppression of his name. In these tales Arthur is the bad guy, trying to extract taxes from the Church. In retribution, the Church moved to make his very name vanish. Again, however, they failed. We know Arthur’s name, and battles, and rough dates.

In the most recent century we have again seen this impulse to censorship in action, but despite the best efforts of the Soviet Encyclopedists, we still know the name of Beria, and that of Trotsky, and all the other original revolutionaries whom later leaders sought to outshine.

In these, and many other such cases — despite the best efforts of those who sought to erase — we know the names. Just as we know the names of many anti-popes through the ages, no matter how heretical or fraudulent or evil their rival rule.

But of John the Twentieth we have nothing, nothing but a blank in the papal lists, a missing designation between John XIX and John XXI. This suggests that his crime, if crime it was, must have been worse than mere political rivalry; worse than attempted taxation; worse than doctrinal originality; worse than heresy; and far, far worse than being a woman.

There are three main schools of thought on this issue, but all agree that whatever the cause of this suppression, John XX’s time on the papal throne must have been short. A reign of years, perhaps even of months, would have left traces even the most conscientious pursuer would not have found. Communications in those days were simply not reliable enough to enforce an order to suppress a name, and Church and royal rule was insufficiently rigorous for such a task. We would be more likely to find copies of the order to suppress the name than to find the name’s complete absence.

The primary theory (called the Berne Conjecture, after the location of its original proponents) is that Pope John XX was discovered to be worse than a mere heretic. Had he been a secret Jew or Muslim, however, this would have provided the Church an excuse for burnings, exiles, or new Crusades; none of which it shrank from using in this period. A practitioner of the Black Arts, or an alchemist, on the other hand, might have been a greater problem. In the mind of the public a woman, or a Jew, or a heretic might become Pope through deception. While deplorable, it casts no clear stain upon the office; and in those days before the Pope became infallible the fallibility of the College of Cardinals might be sensitive but it was not crucial.

But the first thought one has when hearing that the Pope was an alchemist or sorcerer is different. One is inclined to leap to the conclusion that it was special powers that brought him to the office. And this, goes the line of reasoning, threatens the office itself by implying the supremacy of magic over religion. Just as Peter gave short shrift to Simon Magus, so might the protectors of his throne to a magician successor.

Another theory, objected to as somewhat fanciful by sober theological historians, has nonetheless gained currency among Charismatics and Sanctificationists. Regarded as “New Age” by some critics, and as derivative of Dostoevsky by others, it predates both. A Dutch follower of Swedenborg, one Luther Diogenes Kuyptmann, wrote a short commentary on his master’s Arcana Coelestia in which he contended, in a brief footnote written in awkwardly phrased modern Latin, that John XX had been a heavenly angel. This angel, Kuyptmann asserts, lasted less than a day as Pope. Having declared it his purpose to divest the Church of both its property and temporal power, he was immediately dispatched (how one dispatches an angel is not made clear) by an outraged Curia.

Though the source of this story is unclear, and many attribute it to an unrecorded vision of Swedenborg, it has proven surprisingly resilient over the years. At least three separate scholars have visited the Vatican Archives in the last decade in an attempt to find corroboration; and there was a report in the 1950s that the KGB had found proof of the matter in a Russian Orthodox library, but nothing of this has surfaced in the post-Soviet era.

Those who have given serious consideration to this claim argue that the Church could easily have insisted that the angelic impostor was in fact a demon, and dispensed with the need for suppression. A similar argument can be applied to the last contending theory, except that in this case, unlike that of the reputed angel, there might have been awkward physical evidence to deal with. Evidence that might still reside in the bowels of Paris.

The hints upon which this third conjecture were first based are to be found in certain odd passages in both the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas. Amidst the discussions of such questions as How many angels can stand on the head of a pin?, or In the same place?, and Whether they have corporal bodies? are scattered several surprisingly modern inquiries. Aquinas asked whether “Intelligences live among the celestial spheres?” and “Can those in the upper air move from place to place without the passage of time?” and, rather intriguingly “Can the bodies of those who live among the fires of the upper air be burned while alive?”

Theologians over the years have tended to neglect these passages as of minor relevance, and a search of the standard database reveals no doctoral theses on these items, or any published paper in the last two hundred years. My own copy of Aquinas has a rather lame footnote suggesting that some of Marco Polo’s stories had raised questions about flying people and other fabulous types of humans and demons, hence these odd interludes.

Aquinas (1225-1274) lived in the last part of the period in which John XX can be assumed to have ruled, dying just two years before the investiture of John XXI. Just as his questions concerning angelic messengers remind the modern reader of a discussion of photons (no mass, instantaneous travel), so these questions make the modern reader think of extra-planetary aliens.

And if a true non-human from the sky was discovered in the papacy, this might give rise to a reaction of secrecy and suppression. This might especially be so if the problem was ongoing, even after the alien pope had been replaced.

Specifically, the question about a creature from the sky having a body that can’t burn while alive has encouraged a few thinkers to imagine that an auto-de-fé of the offending prelate had in fact been attempted. And failed.

One need look no further than the Vatican’s own art collection to find possible supporting evidence for this. A number of anonymous works, all dating from after 1180, as well as the works of known painters (3 Titians and 2 Botticellis, and a Theotokopoulos among them) right into the Renaissance contain an iconographic character, always in the background, known in art circles as The Chained Figure. His body is hulking, despondent, and his head usually shrouded, helmeted or hidden in shadow. He has typically been referred to as a symbol of sinners not yet redeemed by Christ, but there is no predecessor for such an image before the late 12th century, and it entirely disappears from Catholic art simultaneously with the shameful treaty of Pisa in 1664, in which the Pope surrendered abjectly to the demands of Louis XIV.

This is the precise time that the famous Man in the Iron Mask appears in French documents, imprisoned at Pignerol. This prisoner would die in the Bastille in 1703 and be buried (not traditionally cremated) in great secrecy.

Could Aquinas, the supporters of this Contact Conjecture ask, have been discussing a very specific case, one known to him personally? And could a man from the sky have somehow been made Pope, been discovered, dethroned, expunged from history, unsuccessfully burned at the stake, imprisoned, and have lived perhaps another 500 years?            

But that would be, as Montaigne used to say, altogether too fantastical.

~

Bio:

Timons Esaias is a satirist, poet, essayist and short fictionator. His works have appeared in twenty languages. He won the Asimov’s Readers Award and the Louis Award for poetry and was a finalist for the BSFA. He teaches in the Seton Hill University MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. He reads more than is probably good for him, sometimes in languages that have long ago died. Interests include chess, aikido, maritime history and military history. He spends entirely too much time inspecting coastal fortifications. People who know him are not surprised to learn that he lived in a museum for eight years.

Regarding Bridges

by J. L. Royce

July 6th, 1918

To the Editors –

Regarding The Bridges to the Island of Manhattan, and Corpses Depending therefrom:

I write to object in the most strenuous possible terms to the substance and tone of the editorial which appeared Monday last in this newspaper, entitled ‘The Crisis of Leadership’.

Since the very beginning of our first term, my administration has endeavored to strengthen our city: to root out the rot of Tammany corruption, and prepare America for its role in the War that consumes Europe. In the ‘puzzling’ election of November last (and despite political machinations) the people voted to stay the course. And now, strengthened, we face together an unprecedented challenge, a Crisis of Nature.

Let me first extend my sympathy to the families of all those affected. Our hearts go out to you, and all those suffering the consequences of this bizarre epidemic. Next, I thank our Police and militia forces, who are on the front line of our emergency every day.

This return of our dearly departed represents an event unprecedented in human experience. Science can and will arrive at an explanation—moreover, a solution—to this affliction.  But the medieval proposal cited in your editorial, to suspend these undead still writhing piteously from the superstructure of bridges and other public works of our Fair City as a ‘solution’ to this plague is unsupported by anything but superstition.

Interdiction at the bridges has already been established, as well as Neighborhood Watches. Yet certain groups propose the barbarous practice of gibbeting as a deterrent to the undead phenomenon. These vigilantes have taken it upon themselves to capture and display the undead in this fashion, aided and abetted by those who would see this administration torn down.

And where is our humanity, in proposing that these unfortunates, after capture, be put on public display? We become no better than the horror that we face. The fallacy should be apparent: the undead lack the power of reason, and respect no deterrent save for brute force. But of course, this ghastly display is a warning not to the dead, but the living.

Need I remind any of your readers that it is the brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the Great War who, through no fault of their own, first became the unthinking, puppet-like mob now shambling through Europe? Rising from their rude graves in the French countryside, they spread the contagion, through contact with the living, around the world. And now that this threat has reached our shores, those same Isolationists who sought to prevent America’s intervention in Europe would stigmatize our returning soldiers as possible plague-carriers!

We must not lose faith. Consider the threat posed by influenza – had medical science not fortuitously isolated the responsible virus within months, a catastrophe of global proportions might have developed. These same medical minds are already hard at work on this latest challenge.

I trust the readership will join with me in denouncing as unscientific any harmful ‘solutions’ such as this, and will put their faith, as I have, in American Science to solve this mystery and provide us all relief. When the Allies prevail (as they surely will) and our brave troops return, it must be to adulation, not superstition and fear. My recent re-election tells me that there is no ‘crisis’ in leadership, and I intend to do everything in my power to see our City through this emergency.

(Signed)

John Purroy Mitchel

Mayor, New York City

~

Bio:

J. L. Royce is an author of Science Fiction and macabre writings (and whatever else suits his fancy) residing in the upper American Midwest. Some of his other publications may be found at amazon.com/author/jlroyce.

Byzantine Theology in Alternate History: Not Such a Serious Matter?

by Pascal Lemaire

Byzantium is not the primary reference that comes to mind when thinking about science-fiction, but its influence can be seen in the works of many authors : Asimov’s oft-mentioned use of the life of Belisarius as a source of inspiration for Foundation and Empire is the best known example. But it is in the alternate history subgenre of science fiction that Byzantium seems, logically, most present : since the 1930’s a number of authors have written novels and short stories hovering between historical fiction and science fiction set in different periods of the Byzantine era.

The choice of the Eastern Roman Empire as setting combined with the genre’s expectations of a degree of verisimilitude mean that authors have had to deal with a number of issues including the strongly religious nature of this culture and in particular its innumerable theological debates of which the fight against Arianism, Monophysitism or iconoclasm are the most famous. Looking at four authors from the 30’s to the first decade of the 21st century allows us to examine how the treatment of such issues evolved in this particular genre.

Lyon Sprague de Camp’s genre defining novel Lest Darkness Fall, first published in 1939, is a well-known alternate history which, while not the first of the genre, did a lot to popularize it in science-fiction circles. 

The main character of the story, a modern archaeologist named Martin Padway, finds himself in Rome in 535, a few months before the reconquest of Italy by Byzantine forces. He soon sets out to prevent the collapse of civilization and the loss of culture and science by averting the so-called Dark Ages.

Inspired by three fundamental texts, namely Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Robert Graves’ 1938 Belisarius, De Camp has his character focus his efforts on political and technological developments but has to confront the cultural realities of this age, including of course religion.

Already in chapter two a tavern features a sign “religious arguments not allowed” over its counter. A bit further in the story, in another tavern, an argument develops on the various heresies of the time with a man complaining about Arians, Monophysites and Nestorians not being persecuted, which in his eye is a persecution to his good “Catholicism” : it isn’t long before the tavern is thrown into chaos and violence.

In this scene the various religious arguments are not completely developed, as characters interrupt each other before anyone can complete the exposé of his position and the main character only looks for escape for he is “no religious man and had no desire to be whittled up in the cause of the single, dual or any other nature of Christ” : there is undoubtedly a comic effect in the scene that sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Overall the depiction of religion throughout the novel is mild, but not very sympathetic : the arrival of a priest to attempt healing the main character is not welcome, nor are a Jewish magician’s attempts to cure the illness.

Similarly we later see the main character use a mix of corruption and blackmailing against a bishop after a priest threatens Padway with accusations of sorcery. At other time religion is also used as an excuse not to marry a woman.

Religion is thus if not completely mocked, at least rejected or manipulated : it is shown as a source of strife or the recourse of or against the under-educated and the superstitious. This is of course not surprising given the authors that inspired this work, nor would it be unique.

Next in our study is Robert Silverberg’s time travel novel Up the Line, published in 1969, which takes place largely in medieval Constantinople. An author of Jewish origins with a background in comparative literature, Silverberg does not seem to have had any specific relationship with Byzantium prior to that story, although he had published a number of non-fiction books on archaeology and history, including one on the Crusades in 1965.

In Up the Line, we follow the training and then troubles of an aimless looser called Jud Elliott who becomes quite by chance a time-travelling tour guide. Beside the formal rules of the job, Jud learns, thanks to his jaded elders, how to fully enjoy the periods he travels to, discovering how to chat with emperors, delight in various luxuries and, more importantly, the comfort of many women.

In this story, however, Byzantium is but a background, the reality of the time never impacting the story in any meaningful way. The time-travelling tourists and their guide simply go through the past and do not really interact with it, and even those of them who live in the past interact in such a way that their presence leaves no trace.

The theological debates of the time are almost never mentioned, the iconoclast period being the exception and then not so much for the theological aspect as for the added difficulty it places on the character trying to use a painting to look for a missing tourist at a moment when paintings are seen as icons that need be destroyed.

Likewise there is no exploitation of issues such as the condition of Jews in the past, and the explanations the tour guide provides of the various events his travellers witness rarely covers religious matters.

In fact the tourists are often using religion as a disguise : the suits they wear during the black plague tour are seen as religious garb while they also pass for pilgrims in order to gain better access to the walls of Constantinople during a battle.

This novel is clearly more influenced by the general discourses on sexuality that follows the summer of love than by any attempt at historical authenticity : the main character is a tour guide that shows scenes of the past as one would bring someone to the movies, and indeed this experience of history seems flat and lacking in comparison with Sprague de Camp’s story that follows someone deeply immersed into the past. Even the women of this bygone era, such as Empress Theodora, to whom Jud is “intimately” introduced, are nothing but cardboard figures that disappear once they had served their narrative purpose.

This absence of religion in Silverberg’s novel is also somewhat surprising given that the theme of religion often appeared in his books : do we need to see this absence in a novel set into a deeply religious era visited by characters coming from a seemingly a-religious era as a comment in and of itself ?

While Silverberg’s text is a bit of an apax, isolated in is apparent lack of engagement with religion in a Byzantine context, others texts such as Poul Anderson’s time travel story There Will be Time, published in 1972, are more in line with what one would expect to find.

Set at the time of the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, it features for instance a character saying “From my viewpoint, the Byzantines were as superstitious as a horse”, setting it in a trend which sees the ultra-religious Byzantine culture being used to criticize, more or less openly, established religion.

This is not really surprising given that Anderson was very much influenced by Lest Darkness Fall, going so far as writing in 1956 an “anti-Lest Darkness Fall” in his short story The man who came early.

Our next text brings us to the mid 80’s with seven short stories later assembled under the title Agent of Byzantium, by author Harry Turtledove. The stories take place in a truly uchronic 13th-century world where the prophet of Islam became a Catholic saint instead. In this timeline, religion assumes a more significant role, if only because the point of divergence between our history and the one in this universe is of a largely religious nature. The absence of Islam mean not only that a number of historical and theological developments would not take place, but also that the world’s geopolitics are rather different from our own.

Turtledove, who did a PhD in Byzantine history after reading Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, undertakes a much more in-depth depiction of the world in which his character Basileus Argyros evolves, something we can also see in later novels including the time travel story Household gods or his historical fiction Justinian about Byzantine emperor Justinian II.

Religion is omnipresent in his character’s life as well as in the geopolitical complexity of the world built by the author. The character often thinks of the life of saints, especially his patron St Muamat, and engages in theological debates with other characters, also of other faiths such as a nomadic shaman and Persian spies.

Theological debates also form an integral part of the plot : the recipe for gunpowder is thus linked to the trinity of God and we see the Persians attempt to use theology to create strife in the Empire thanks to the introduction of printing, which is then used against them by Basileus Argyrios to win theological arguments among the general population.

One of the stories deals with iconoclasm and shows how Argyros intervenes in the official reaction against the new heretical doctrine, giving both intellectual input to the theological debate and using new technologies to spread the word of the resolution of the debate and thus turn public opinion against the heretics.

The place of religion in this story is thus very different from the one in Up the Line. Turtledove employs his expert knowledge of the period to deliver a much richer environment and integrate the topic of religion into the heart of the story without using it for jokes or making disparaging comments on it in the way Sprague de Camp did in Lest Darkness Fall.

Last but not least, the 6 stories of Aelric written by Richard Blake (2008-2013), starting with Conspiracies of Rome, take place in the early 7th century, some 40 years after the time of Belisarius and Justinian, and include both science fiction and Lovecraftian elements. The main character is Aelric, a young Angle forced into a religious conversion against his will who then becomes an important part of the Byzantine imperial administration.

Very cynical about religion, the character organizes false miracles to survive until unforeseen events catapult him into the world of high politics of the empire. Atheist if not pagan, interested in Epicurist philosophy and scientific experiments, to Aelric religion is a tool to be used or fought against, or a way to escape the dangers of the laic world : most of the books are described as being his memoirs written from the safety of a monastery in Britain, when the character is an elderly man hunted by his past.

A typical book demonstrating the use of religion by the author is The Blood of Alexandria, first published in 2010. Sent to Coptic Egypt in order to implement a new land use reform, Aelric is soon thwarted in his attempt by the use of theological arguments against his legislation.

Further on priests and bishops are shown to be duplicitous and to use theology mainly to manipulate the crowds for their own interests of the day while monks are described as either petty, stupid or cunning and aggressive, similar to the monks of the movie “Agora”, which was released a year earlier.

But the author also goes further and actually ridicules religion when another major character turns up in Egypt to look for a most surprising relic with which he hopes to restore the morale of the recently crushed Byzantine army, for the bishop of Jerusalem refuses to lend him fragments of the Holy Cross : General Priscus is looking for, quote : “the first pisspot of Christ” which is deemed a most potent relic, for it was in contact with Christ at a time when his dual nature was not yet perfectly balanced as it was at the time of crucifixion but rather more divine because his human nature had not yet grown…

As Aelric says, such an interpretation would make the Monophysite doctrine mostly correct had Christ died a baby and the Nestorian doctrine mostly correct had Christ died aged older than 33.

This mocking of religion is rather representative of the overall provocative tone of the main character throughout the series and in line with the author’s background as a well-known libertarian.

Each of the texts we studied approach the topic from a different angle that corresponds to a subgenre of alternate history : the so-called “stranded in time” trope, the time-travel story, the canonical alternate history and the secret history. However, the strand of alternate history authors choose to employ does not necessarily influence their depiction of Byzantium. Rather, those stories demonstrate the personalities of their authors and their attitudes to religion.

As Race MoChride recently pointed out, “it is notable how infrequently religion appears as a major theme in the personal lives of famous science fiction authors and how many, including those for whom religion is a major theme in their work, are themselves either atheists or practitioners of idiosyncratic or unorganized alternative spiritualities”.

The index for Lyon Sprague de Camp’s autobiography has no entry for “religion”. Friend with known atheists and sceptics such as Asimov and Heinlein, with whom he spent a lot of time before, during and after the Second World War, and a rationalist looking for facts rather than faith, the attitude seen in Lest Darkness Fall is not really surprising, especially when coupled with the large influence of atheist Robert Grave’s Belissarius on de Camp’s novel.

Silverberg, born and raised in a Jewish environment, had a different kind of engagement with religious matters as shown by his bibliography, and often in rather innovative ways such as in the 1971 short story Good news from the Vatican.

But as already mentioned, the apparent absence of religion from Up the Line might in fact be his manner of critiquing it. The characters initially come from a post-religious or a-religious time period, which is in itself a prophecy on the death of God, but the fact they do not make any comment on Byzantine religiosity, as if there was nothing to see, seems also telling.

Our third author Harry Turtledove is, according to an interview he gave in 1998 to Jeremy Bloom, of the Jewish faith although “not particularly active”. Yet his writings do not usually afford much room to religion, and one could say that Agent of Byzantium is probably one of his novels where the religious content plays a significant role. One may also note that his Byzantine history PhD dissertation was about continuity and change in internal secular affairs in the later Roman Empire.

Yet the deep knowledge of the period acquired during his research meant he was able to use religious elements in ways much more interesting than Sprague de Camp or Richard Blake.

This last author, the only British writer in our list, is in fact Sean Gabb, a British libertarian who published a number of articles on topics such as blasphemy laws (which he most strongly opposed) and expressed strong views on religions in various medias while publishing his fiction under a pseudonym.

It is thus no surprise to see the main character of his novels describe, in a markedly ahistorical way, Orthodox thought as “nonsensical” while defending science and epicurean atomic philosophy. Gabb’s position of radical liberalism, economical as much as philosophical, lead him to defend the right of religious people to express their opinion while also practicing his right to issue forth speeches or texts that may ridicule them or their beliefs.

The tradition to use Byzantium in alternate history is thus an interesting case of a atheism-inspired tradition spanning more than sixty years of science-fiction in the shadows of Robert Graves’ Belissarius and the present paper is only the beginning of an inquiry into its true significance, highlighting the need for further research.

Topics such as the relationship between technology and religion in those stories are probably also a good way to further investigate the subject, especially in relation to other scholarship on religion and science fiction. Another potentially fruitful avenue of inquiry might be a review of alternate history published on the web, in order to determine the extent to which the atheist tradition discussed above pervades fan fiction and self-published literature.

~

Fictional works mentioned :
Anderson, Poul, The Man who came early, 1956
Anderson, Poul, There will be time, 1972
Blake, Richard, Conspiracies of Rome, 2008
Blake, Richard, Terrors of Constantinople, 2009
Blake, Richard, The Blood of Alexandria, 2010
Blake, Richard, The Sword of Damascus, 2011
Blake, Richard, The Ghosts of Athens, 2012
Blake, Richard, The Curse of Babylon, 2013
Grave, Robert, Belisarius, 1938
Silverberg, Robert, Up The Line, 1969
Silverberg, Robert, Good News from the Vatican, 1971
Sprague de Camp, Lyon, Lest Darkness Fall, 1939
Turtledove, Harry, Agent of Byzantium, 1994
Turtledove, Harry, Justinian, 1998
Turtledove, Harry, Household Gods, 1999

~

Bio:

With formal training in both Ancient History and ICT, and a job in the later domain, Pascal Lemaire studies how the ancient world meets modern literature, especially in the SF and Fantasy genres, with a secondary interest in how literature plays with History, especially in uchronia and techno-thrillers. https://independent.academia.edu/PascalLemaire

The End of History, the Beginning of Hers

A lost tale reconstructed from the Byzantine chronicle of 1453

by Ádám Gerencsér

A portent of imminent defeat hung heavily in the air. This day of reckoning had been put off for generations by the forefathers of the city’s current inhabitants, in turn by diplomacy, by cunning or deceit, at times by feigned fealty and tributes, but always with an increasing sense of humiliation. The impoverished inheritors of Christendom’s Eastern capital had fought a forlorn struggle to stem the tide of their decline, as their empire aged and wilted in the shade cast by its young and powerful neighbour, the harbinger of a new prophet promising conquest and mastery over ever more chatteled infidels.

Tomorrow, the harvest. What Crusaders had sown two and a half centuries ago, the sword, nay, the scythe of Islam would finally reap. With each passing lifetime, fortresses fell, land was laid waste, fiefdoms splintered, dynasties fought over dwindling mementos of past glory. For each mistrusted ally, two loyal enemies were made and the people of the soil were crippled by soldiering and levies of taxation. The territory crumbled and contracted like a tightening noose, until nothing but a claim to titular figments stretched beyond the ramparts. Owned, perhaps, but not governed. Even Constantinopolis was a ghost of its former self, with more stones than menfolk, more bastions than arms to man them. And for the past two moons a resolute foe on all sides, wearing down what remained, preparing for the morrow’s final assault. The Occident had sent blessings but no ships to their rescue.

But now the city was awake with chants of hope and consolation. The emperor Constantine, eleventh to carry the Name, had summoned the Patriarchs, the generals of the army, the admirals of the fleet, the magistrates of the districts, the priests, monks, merchants and mendicants. And the women, huddling their children, too soft to fight, too scared to sleep, sensing despair on pale adult faces. Processions with all the paraphernalia of devotion. In the church of Holy Wisdom, Romans and Greeks saying mass together at last, clinging to prayer for reassurance. And what prayer! Supplications of a mindfulness only produced on mortality’s verge.

“I had looked into the future and did not like what I saw. I besieged Him for His permission to intervene. And now I take form.”

*****

On the ceiling of the Hagia Sophia, obscured by the scented smoke from a forest of candles, a mosaic on the right apse appeared to move. The slight alteration of form at first remained subtle and was perhaps dismissed as a mirage by the devoted who witnessed it privately. The archangel seemed to slowly spread her wings and firm her grip on the golden staff. She gently drew towards herself the orb in her left palm, which intimated familiar outlines: a walled city perched on the tip of a peninsula, folded into a narrow, lengthy bight and nestled by a great waterway.

The ceremony was interrupted by a breath of collective awe as tiny cubes of cut stone began to rain down from the arch of the apse. The winged messenger literally stepped out of the masonry and crashed to the ground, indenting the tiled floor with her knees. The impact echoed through the vaulted dome like the recoil of Ottoman siege batteries. Then silence.

She only spoke for a moment, words uttered in the Language, her voice intent and clear.

“Many of you will die tomorrow. Repent and He shall accept you into heaven. But if you live, then stand your ground and I will deliver you victory.”

Holy water still pearling on his regal armour, crying the tears of a lifetime’s uncertain faith thus vindicated, the Basileos was first to kneel before her and embrace her feet in the relief of surrender. The prelates and the congregation gazed on, numb with catharsis. Yet the angel enfolded Constantine in her arms, pulled him up and kissed his temple.

“I saw that you would die with honour, so you shall live. In His name you still rule.”

*****

They beheld her soaring on the parapet of the Mesoteichion, at the moment when ladders went up against the whole length of the wall from the Propontis to the Golden Horn and the serried ranks of warriors assailed the breaches lacerated by Turkish bombards. She ascended with wings outstretched, then plunged into the mass of bodies, helmets, pikes and lances.

“Forgive me.”

She struck with elemental force, the impact scattering a cloud of flesh and material. Battalions of men were knocked over and cast afield, or left lying shattered, semi-conscious of blood seeping from torn eardrums. A blur of blade-like feathers tore through confused lines of janissaries, spahis and topchis, leaving concentric circles of devastation in their wake.

Once the damage was sufficient to make the outcome a foregone conclusion, and the angel was confident that the resolve of the defenders was thus steeled, she shot forward across the Horn. The Sultan’s golden-red tent commanded the height of Galata hill, from whence Mehmed could observe the entire field of battle, then the city and behind it, the sea. Proper form required that he be seated, on a portable throne, or a white horse, but now he stood erect, bitterly fixated on a spectacle of the impossible. Allah had never shown himself to his worshippers and yet was saving that whore, Byzantium.

The apparition knew the power of words and left courtiers and guards unharmed as she landed with the softness of benevolent judgment. A tall seraphine shadow against the midday sun, she threw the remnant of a horse-tailed banner at the Sultan’s feet and gently laid a hand on his throat.

“You will leave Rumelia and never cross the Bosporus again.”

With the realisation of his life spared, his campaign lost and his creed made nought, the ruler whispered acquiescence. The angel released her grip and gave him a second glance before taking to the air.

“Convert. Spread the faith. You could still be of use.”

*****

After the dead had been buried, and the probing dusk was lit up by torches – not to scorch, but to illuminate – the Emperor and his Patriarchs ascended to the roof loggia of the monastic library where the messenger landed to rest. Approaching her with the shy, impassioned love of freshly adopted orphans, Constantine dispensed with thanks and addressed what mattered to them most. Was this miracle a fleeting sign? Would she disappear by the morning? Would the city have to fight another day, left to rely once again on desperate human efforts for its survival?

Yet wings folded, legs crossed and brows serene, the visitor seemed comfortable.

“I will stay, if needs be, until a hundred generations grow old.”

Over the city, death-bound yesterday, now preserved and born anew, the angel’s gaze caressed a starlit, virgin horizon of infinite potential.

“Don’t fear. Hell has no power but over the mind. It softens the virtuous and flatters the vicious. Its might relies on the meekness of good men. I will make you strong.”

As the incantations of triumphant oratories rose to the balcony of the monastery, her thoughts drifted from the present. She envisioned the building of armies and fleets, foundries and siege engines, the sending of emissaries to the realms of Christendom, a personal apparition at the Papal Council, the founding of new schools, academies and hospitals, hastening the advance of civilisation for the ennoblement of a race fashioned to her liking. A succession of souls living disciplined lives of faith and valour. A world of glorious victories, then lawful peace and pious order. And glancing further into her immortal future, she saw limitless promise: a pilgrim armada of obedient starships ploughing the depths of space, forever expanding her regency. An empire uniting all under heaven.

Leaning intently over sprawling maps of Europe, the Holy Land and the Silk Road under the insurgent light of her own Morning Star, she could not help but utter in exultation: “My kingdom come. My will be done.”

~