Kritovoulos Imvrios

1. His Life

Michail Kritovoulos was a distinguished historian, scholar and official during the late Byzantine Era. He was also known as Kritovoulos of Imvros (Gökçeada) or Kritovoulos the Islander (Critobulus Imbriota). He was born around 1410 and died around 1470, possibly in Constantinople (Istanbul). Not much is known about his life. He came from a wealthy aristocratic family of Imvros. He was well educated, possibly in Constantinople, according to the account of Gennadios Scholarios, who was the first Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople after its conquest by the Ottomans. The figure of Kritovoulos exists also in the work of the Italian merchant, scholar and antiquarian, Cyriacus of Ancona, who, giving an account of his visit to Imvros Island in 1444­ refers to their meeting.1 From Kritovoulos’ work, we learn that he spent most of his life on Imvros.

After 1453, some of the eminent inhabitants of the island abandoned their island seeking refuge from the increasing pressure and the aspirations of the Italian naval democracies towards the islands of the Aegean. Kritovoulos was put in charge of all those willing to recognize the power of Mehmed II the Conqueror (1451-1481), because they were opposed to the Latin approach from the West. In 1456, the Ottoman sultan appointed Kritovoulos as the governor of Imvros. In the contemporary historiography there is mention that Kritovoulos served also as personal secretary under Mehmed the Conqueror, but there is no solid proof in favor of this argument.2 As a governor under the sultan, he contributed to the submission of Limnos Island to the Ottomans. Ten years later, he fled to Constantinople, as a result of the Venetian conquest of Imbros and the surrounding islands, Thasos and Samothraki. In 1467, he witnessed one of the many plague outbreaks in Constantinople. The scholar describes the symptoms and the emergence of the disease with medical accuracy in his History. He died soon after that.

2. His Work

Kritovoulos wrote the History of Mehmed the Conqueror (Critobuli Imbriotae, Historiae or History), in which he gives a detailed account of the conquest of the Balkans. The Rumanian historian V. Grecu gave the title Life of Mehmed II to Kritoboulos’ History. The scholar also wrote some theological works.3

The History contains five books and covers the events of 1451-1467. For many years, Kritovoulos’ History was considered a eulogy for Mehmed II, written under the Ottoman sultan’s order. Kritovoulos is “Mehmed’s apologist” for F. Babinger.4 However, apologetics in Byzantine literature require from the author a definitive glorifying style, which is absent in Kritovoulos’ History.

The only surviving Kritovoulos’ History manuscript, written by himself, was revealed in 1859 in the Library of Topkapi Palace (Topkapı sarayı). The paper is of Venetian origin and the watermarks on it are proof that the work was possibly completed between 1465 and 1467. The resurfacing of the History is owed to C. Tischendorf, a German scholar. The text was first published in Paris in the Fragmenta Historicum Graecorum V 1, in 1870. Two critical editions of the work were published by V. Grecu and D. Reinsch, in 1963 and in 1983 respectively.5 The History of Mehmed the Conqueror has been translated into English, German, Romanian, Turkish, and Bulgarian among other languages.6

The History of Mehmed the Conqueror starts with a letter by Kritovoulos addressed to Mehmed himself. In this letter, Kritovoulos explains the purpose of the book; he mentions the events that he will summarize in his account and the reasons that motivated him to write. It remains unclear whether this letter proves that the History was written under commission by Mehmed or it is just a result of an intricate and ornate writing style. In this letter that takes the place of an introduction, Kritovoulos asks his fellow-countrymen not to judge him for describing their misery, since he would never wish his people to forget it. The book’s content is divided into five parts; each of the first four covers the events of three years, while the fifth covers four years. The work’s main theme is the reign of sultan Mehmed II. The first part narrates his ascension to the throne, the siege and the conquest of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. The second part covers the sultan’s campaigns in the Balkans, the Ottoman conquest of Serbia and the fate of the islands of Limnos, Thasos and Samothraki. The third book describes the Ottoman campaigns in the Peloponnese and the land of the Illyrians (Albania). The fourth book gives an account of the conquest of Trebizond and Lesvos Island, and of the campaigns against Bosnia and Wallachia. The last part of Kritovoulos’ History recounts the further campaigns against Bosnia and the land of the Illyrians, as well as the battles against the Venetians in the Peloponnese.

Kritovoulos used a variety of sources: Ottoman documents, accounts of eyewitnesses, personal remarks and some older works.

Worthy to mention are the pains that Kritovoulos takes to disengage himself from the events that he narrates, in order to maintain his objectivity. When it comes to events he was involved in himself, he uses the third person to refer to him. There is almost no mention of either Christianity or Islam. Kritovoulos also avoids using terms that Byzantines of the time would fail to understand. The Ottoman ruler is more often called “king” or “satrap” than “sultan” or any other term of Ottoman derivation. According to Kritovoulos, as read in chapter 1.8, the “reply of king Mehmed to the ambassadors (of Konstantinos)”, “our” new ruler (we, Romans) must reign the Land of the Romans with peace and justice.7 The Ottoman rule is not pictured as devastating for the Byzantines but as a rather “logical” historical continuity of the rise, domination and fall of nations.8

It is evident throughout the work that Kritovoulos was well familiar with ancient historiography. Describing himself, he believes that he continues the heritage of Flavius Josephus “who loved truth and knew well the course of history”.9 It is also evident that historians of the Antiquity, especially Thucydides but Herodotus, Xenophon and Arrian as well, had a great impact on Kritovoulos’ History. Continuing the tradition of the Byzantine historiography, Kritovoulos uses the Greek language but with a writing style that resembles the language of the classical antiquity, especially when names of places are concerned. As a result, in his account, Albanians are Illyrians, Serbs are Triballi, Wallachians are Getae, and Hungarians are Paeonians. In his account there are no factual errors. Dates are calculated according to the Byzantine calendar. His narrative is governed by logic and his style is unadorned. The only part where he indulges to sentimentality is in the tragic description of the fate of the Byzantine capital and its people.

1. Bodnar, E. – Mitchell, C., Cyriacus of Ancona’s journeys in the Propontis and the Northern Aegean 1444-1445 (Philadelphia 1976), pp. 35, 36.

2. Ангелов, Д., Възход и залез на една империя (София 1991), p. 427.

3. The Speech on the Passion of Christ among others. For more information on Kritovoulos’ theological works, see Reinsch, D., “Kritobulos of Imbros – Learned Historian, Ottoman raya and Byzantine Patriot”, ZRVI 40 (2003), p. 298.

4. Babinger, F., Мahomet II le Conquérant et son temps 1432-1481 (Paris 1954), p. 132.

5. Critobul din Imbros, Din domnia lui Mahomed al II-lea anii 1451-1467, Grecu, V. (επιμ.), (Scriptores byzantini IV, Bucarest 1963)· Critobuli Imbriotae Historiae, Reinsch, D.R. (επιμ.), (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 22, Series Berolinensis, Berolini 1983).

6. Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror, Riggs, C. (transl.), (Princeton – New Jersey 1954, new edition 1970); Reinsch, D., Mehmet II. erobert Konstantinopel. Das Geschichtswerk des Kritobulos von Imbros, übersetzt, eingeleitet und erklärt (Graz – Wien – Köln 1986); Critobul din Imbros, Din domnia lui Mahomed al II-lea (1451-1467), Grecu, V. (transl.), (Bucureşti 1963); Kritovulos, İstanbul'un Fethi (İstanbul 2005); Критовул, Животът и управлението на Мехмед II Ал-Фатих (Завоевателят), Ирина Радевска (transl.), (София 2004).

7. «εἴ γε βούλοισθε τὴν εἰρήνην ἄγειν, εἰ μή που καὶ αὐτοὶ τῆς διαβάσεως ταύτης εἴργειν ἡμᾶς βούλοισθε», see Critobuli Imbriotae Historiae, Reinsch, D.R. (ed.), (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 22, Series Berolinensis, Berolini 1983), I, 8.5-5. See comments in Ангелов, В., Българите и техните съседи на Балканите във византийската историопис от XV в. (София 2007), p. 48.

8. His remarks on the historical role of the “mightier” nations are developed in more detail in the chapter “Request“ (paraitesis) and before the chapter “Beginning of history“ (archi tis istorias), see Critobuli Imbriotae Historiae, Reinsch, D.R. (ed.), (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 22, Series Berolinensis, Berolini 1983), I, 4, pp. 14-15.

9. «τοῦτο τοίνυν καὶ Ἰώσηπος ὁ Ἑβραῖος εἰδὼς φιλαλήθης ὢν καὶ τοῖς πράγμασι καλῶς ἐφιστῶν ἐπαινεῖ μὲν ἐν τῷ τῆς ἁλώσεως βιβλίῳ τὴν Ῥωμαίων τύχην καὶ ἀρετὴν», see Critobuli Imbriotae Historiae, Reinsch, D.R. (ed.), (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 22, Series Berolinensis, Berolini 1983), I, 4, pp. 14-15.