Materially, the empire seemed almost beyond hope of recovery in the early 14th century, but spiritually and culturally it showed a remarkable vitality. The church, no longer troubled over the question of union with Rome, grew in prestige and authority. The patriarchs of Constantinople commanded the respect of all the Eastern Orthodox churches, even beyond the imperial boundaries. Andronicus II, himself a pious theologian, yielded to the patriarch the ancient right of imperial jurisdiction over the monastic settlement on Mount Athos.
There was a new flowering of the Byzantine mystical tradition in a movement known as Hesychasm, whose chief spokesman was Gregory Palamas, a monk from Athos. The theology of the Hesychasts was thought to be heterodox by some theologians, and a controversy arose in the second quarter of the 14th century that had political undertones and was as disruptive to the church and state as the Iconoclastic dispute had been in an earlier age. It was not resolved until 1351.
The revival of mystical speculation and the monastic life may have been in part a reaction against the contemporary revival of secular literature and learning. Scholarship of all kinds was patronized by Andronicus II.
As in the 11th century, interest was mainly centred on a rediscovery of ancient Greek learning. The scholar Maximus Planudes compiled a famous anthology and translated a number of Latin works into Greek, though knowledge of Latin was rare and most of the Byzantine scholars prided themselves on having in their Hellenic heritage an exclusive possession that set them apart from the Latins.
A notable exception was Demetrius Cydones who, like Michael Psellus, managed affairs of state for a number of emperors for close to 50 years. Cydones translated the works of Thomas Aquinas into Greek; he was the forerunner of a minority of Byzantine intellectuals who joined the Roman Church and looked to the West to save their empire from ruin. More typical of his class was Theodore Metochites, the Grand Logothete, or chancellor, of Andronicus II, whose encyclopaedic learning rivaled that of Psellus.
His pupil Nicephorus Gregoras, in addition to his researches in philosophy, theology, mathematics, and astronomy, wrote a history of his age. The tradition of Byzantine historiography, maintained by George Acropolites, the historian of the Empire of Nicaea, was continued in the 14th century by George Pachymeres, by Gregoras, and finally by the emperor John VI Cantacuzenus, who wrote his memoirs after his abdication in 1354.