By Jonathan Harris
Byzantion, Vol. 80 (2010)
Introduction: Geography and travel writing cannot be said to have been flourishing genres in Middle and Late Byzantium. On the rare occasions when Byzantine authors discussed lands beyond their own borders, they often relied on classical authors for information and tended to avoid concrete facts, personal experience and contemporary reality. One exception, however, is a short account in Greek of a voyage made through Scandinavia and the Baltic lands written by an individual called Laskaris Kananos. The author describes how he visited Bergen, Stockholm, Riga, Danzig, Lübeck and Copenhagen before moving on to England and Iceland. His account is clearly the result of first hand observation, rather than classical mimesis, and it includes a number of verifiable details such as distances, climate and the diet of the locals.
The Greek text of the travelogue was first published by Spyridon Lambros (1851-1919) in 1881 from a unique sixteenth-century manuscript in what is now the Austrian National Library. Since then it has been twice re-edited and published, translated into numerous languages and subjected to thorough analysis, particularly by scholars from Baltic countries for whom it naturally holds a special interest. Not surprisingly, over the years attempts have been made to establish the identity of the author. Lambros suggested that he might be the same man as John Kananos, an equally obscure figure who wrote a short account of the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1422. There is, however, nothing to connect the two apart from the surname and there is no agreement among scholars as to whether their literary styles tally or not. Consequently, the editors of the Prosopographisches Lexikon der Palaiologenzeit wisely categorised the two Kananoi as separate individuals.
While little progress has been made in establishing who Laskaris Kananos was, a convincing theory has been put forward with regard to when he might have made his journey. As long ago as 1904, Nicolaus Busch who was the town librarian of Riga, pointed out that in his travelogue Kananos mentions that Livonia was ruled ‘by a duke of the grand master’ (ὑπὸ τοῦ δουκὸς μεγάλου μαΐστορος). Normally the area was ruled by a regional master of the Teutonic knights. It so happened during the years 1438-1439, however, that there was no regional master and so his functions were exercised by a governor on behalf of the Grand Master of the Order in Marienburg until a new incumbent could be appointed. Busch therefore suggested that this must have been exactly the time when Kananos was there. the theory is all the more plausible in that the date coincides with the time when large numbers of Byzantine Greeks were in western europe in connection with the council of Ferrara-Florence. Kananos, Busch suggested, may even have been part of the delegation of ecclesiastical dignitaries who travelled from Russia to Italy via the Baltic to attend the council.