It is rare to find a work from the Middle Ages where a man writes about the loss of his wife – even more rare that these words are written by a Byzantine emperor. However, this is the case of Emperor Theodore II Laskaris and the heartfelt lament for his wife Elena.
Theodore was the only son of John III Doukas Vatatzes, the Emperor of Nicaea from 1222 to 1254. He would grow up during a turbulent period in Byzantine history, when Constantinople was controlled by a Latin ruler and southeastern Europe was the scene of much conflict. In 1235, when Theodore was about 13 he was married to Elena (she was about 10), the daughter of the Bulgarian Emperor Ivan Asen II, which helped establish a political alliance between the two states.
The teenagers grew up together, and from all indications were very much in love. They would have six children, but in the year 1252 Elena passed away at the age of 28. Theodore, who was now ruling as co-emperor along with his father, was devastated at his wife’s death, and turned to writing to express his sadness. He created what best can be described as an essay called Moral Pieces Describing the Inconstancy of Life, where he talks about life, philosophy, virtues and vices. Dimiter Angelov, who has recently completed an edition and translation of the Moral Pieces, comments that is “written in an impulsive, sometimes dramatic ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style.”
I was born in the light of day and in a worldly valley. I was brought up in pleasure like an innocent lamb. Living thus in luxury, enjoying myself and benefitting from the greatest good fortune. I gave no heed to misfortune, but taking delight, so to speak, in my own soul, I was running the course of my life replete with all goodness. For what good thing did I no fully have at my disposal? With what objects of desire was I not richly endowed? I filled my heart completely and abundantly with everything. I felt utmost joy in my soul and in my soul mate – for speech cannot call her by any other name than “a like soul” and “a sharer of my life.”
Oh, terrible calamity! What can I say? I am torn apart in my soul. What shall I utter as I pour out my voice in my loss? What shall I cry out as I articulate unintelligible and ill-omened sounds? I am really absolutely shaken, even if someone should say that the constitution of the soul is brave. An abundance of people have received my benefaction, but I wander about powerlessly, suffering this affliction.
An inconsolable misfortune has seized me. A worm presses on my bones, causing their joints to dissolve. A chimera of thoughts burns me up. A hydra of reflections – a many-shaped and many-headed monster – tears my soul with its teeth. A viper of pain is devouring my entrails. Sorrow, a veritable dragon, consumes me. A basilisk of suffering enslaves the imperial character of my free spirit. Instead of stepping on top, I am trampled underfoot. Instead of crushing, I am crushed to pieces. Instead of raising my head because of great virtues and happiness, I am hapless.
Now I have suffered a misfortune that indeed surpasses all misfortune. Woe to me, woe to me! The springtime of my soul has died. I am shipwrecked and have given up of deliverance. Everything falls to corruption. For when my life comes to and, and the bond of my soul and my body has by necessity been loosened. Even if someone should say that bond is thought to continue, this will not be so. For once the soul has been released, the intellect transformed, the eyes of love blinded but in a perceptible way (for this could in no way happen in the realm of the intellect), and all spiritual powers changed, would any other bodily part or limb be left unaffected in the body? Surely none.
Indeed, the body is thought to be dead for some time before being fully consigned to decay. My essence, bodily constitution and frame are considered now to be among the living, but they occupy the land of the dead. My eyes, shed your tears! My chest, be broken up! My heart, accept dissolution! My arms, be torn out as your shoulder joints are broken all along! My legs, suffer dissolution through injuries to the sinews! Ny tongue, slow down or be dead in truth! My ears and senses of smell and touch and all my organs of perception, be turned to stone! And you, my whole body with its inner and outer parts, gain the suffering of death, dwell in Hades together with your soul mate in order to share her pain. For a bond of incomparable love made us happier than all people, but the thieving and cruel hand of Hades cut the bond mercilessly. What should I suffer? I will ask nothing but the end of my life. This cannot happen in any other way but by descending into the abodes of death and accepting the punishment of Hades and the affliction of diminution, because I have been deprived of my life, my soul’s spirit and heart’s substance, and the salvation of my life, both spiritual and corporal.
The full edition and translation of the entire work can be found in ‘The Moral Pieces by Theodore II Laskaris’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol.65-66 (2011-12). You can also read Dimiter Angelov’s article Theodore II Laskaris, Elena Asenina and Bulgaria.