Seminar CCXVIII: Byzantine frontier badboys

I was obviously going to quite a lot of things last November, for which reason blogging it is taking me many posts. Perhaps this seminar was catching the wrong end of that; the paper apparently began twenty-five minutes late and the first thing the speaker told us was that she’d already given a version of it somewhere else, and that I noted these things at all suggests I was in a bad mood. It’s probably to the speaker’s credit, therefore, that my notes have a number of the asterisks in the margin that tell me there were things here I’d want to remember, but I think that my particular interests in what she was saying were things that she would have been surprised I didn’t already know, rather than her key argument. So my write-up is difficult to do; please bear in mind that I apparently wasn’t listening like a knowledgeable or fair audience. The unfortunate recipient of my attention was speaking at the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham, she was Caterina Galatariotou and her title was “Byzantine Adolescence”.

Painting of Digenes Akritis fighting the dragon on a twelfth-century dish now in the Agora Museum at Athens

One candidate for Byzantine adolescence, locked in battle with a dragon as all of us have been, really, haven’t we? It’s just a human universal… This is Digenes Akritis, on whom see below, on a twelfth-century dish now in the Agora Museum at Athens. “3335 – Athens – Stoà of Attalus Museum – Byzantine plate – Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Nov 9 2009” by Giovanni Dall’Orto. – Own work. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons.

The very title, of course, presupposed that Byzantine culture had such a category, and the paper therefore began with a long excursus of what Freud said about adolescence and how anthropologists have found it or found it absent in their various explorations, as usual for medievalists the relevant anthropologists all having been dead for the lifetimes of much of the audience.1 This all set ‘adolescence’ up, for the paper’s purposes, as the undefined space between childhood and adulthood in which the subject is no longer a child but has not yet been admitted to adulthood, usually a period of destructive behaviour and struggle, to put it mildly. Of course this still needed applying, and where I tuned in was when Dr Galatariotou started to ground the category in a medieval Greek epic poem called Digenes Akrites.2 I had dimly heard of this before but had not realised that its hero is a young frontiersman. He breaks away from his family and spends most of his years between ages 12 and 25 tearing around with a band of similar-aged warriors on the border between Byzantine and Muslim territory in Cappadocia, in modern Turkey. I was now prompted to wonder how Digenes might compare to the famous literary border lord closer to my home interests, el Cid. This has been done, but largely in literary-structural terms, perhaps because el Cid existed and Digenes did not (although the el Cid of the Cantar de mio Cid is not very much more real than Digenes and it’s that text that has been used in such comparisons), but since almost everything else we can say about Byzantine frontiers is either very top-down or architectural, a perspective of any kind on how people like the Akritai, ‘border-lords’ more or less, actually lived their lives and how they related to the centres between which they stood could be useful to me.3

Athens, National Library, MS 1074, showing the beginning of the poem Digenes Akritas

Manuscript of the poem in the National Library of Athens, apparently (Jeffreys, p. xxii; see notes below) their seventeenth-century MS 1074. “Digenis Akritas Athens“, photo by Pitichinaccioel:Εικόνα:Digenis akritas.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My enquiry was not Dr Galatariotou’s, however, and fair enough. Instead, she went about a Freudian reading of the poem looking for the trauma of post-childhood rebellion and reintegration, and the material seems to be there: there is rape, abduction of a child bride, solo hunting of dangerous beasts, fighting serpents, dramatic changes of clothes to indicate levelling up in society and even the struggle to grow a beard. Every couple that forms in the course of the poem does so having run away from home, although the women then prevail upon their tearaway young men to calm down, settle, make reconciliation and reconnect with wider society. The many quotes that salted this platter of literary psychoanalysis did at least seem to speak to familiar concerns of the sort that Freud identified, with much more correspondence than I might have expected. Of course this is literature, so more probably the working out of what people sometimes wished could happen than things that actually did, and perhaps quite a formulaic and anachronistic working out at that as questions revealed, particularly since Dr Galatariotou seemed adamant that despite the text’s ready use of rape and sexual imagery, no-one in Byzantine society ever would actually have risked the opprobrium of sex before marriage, so that in that single respect she would consider the text fantastic whereas otherwise it can be read as psychological realism.4 Despite this, I came out of the paper more intrigued about the text than before and in retrospect I probably should have heard it with a more open mind. I still would have rather had ten minutes less on Freud, though…

1. It’s not by any means just Dr Galatariotou who does this, of course, I lament for the field. I don’t read any more up to date anthropologists, after all, and have defended the reading of the old ones. Still: we should at least know what developments we reject before trying this kind of analysis. In the frame on this occasion were Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo (London 1966)), Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa: a psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilization (New York City 1928)) and Victor Turner (not cited but probably his “Betwixt and Between: the liminal period in rites de passage” in June Helm (ed.), Proceedings of the 1964 Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society (Seattle 1969), pp. 4-20, repr. before its actual printing in Turner, The Forest of Symbols: aspects of Ndembu ritual (Ithaca 1967) and subsequently in William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (edd.), Reader in Comparative Religion: an anthropological approach 4th edn. (Evanston 1979), pp. 234-243, whence online here and here, and in Louise Carus Mahdi, Steven Foster and Meredith Little (edd.), Betwixt and Between: patterns of masculine and feminine initiation (La Salle 1987, many reprints), pp. 3-19. That last was all surprisingly difficult to search out! Anthropologists don’t seem to take page numbers into the field…)

2. The standard edition and translation seems to be Elizabeth Jeffreys (ed./transl.), Digenis Akritis: the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions (Cambridge 1998), but you may find Denison B. Hull (transl.), Digenis Akritas: Two-Blood Border Lord. The Grottaferra version (Columbus 1986) easier to get hold of and maybe even more fun! There is also J. Mavrogordato (ed./transl.), Digenes Akrites, edited with an introduction, translation, and commentary (Oxford 1956).

3. Every time I search for this stuff there seems to be more, and there may be more in Greek that I can’t find. Most of this is in Spanish, less odd than it seems because one of the oldest manuscripts of Digenes Akrites lives in the Escorial library in Madrid. The starting point, not least because he is always so clear, is probably David Hook, “Digenes Akrites and the Old Spanish epics” in Roderick Beaton & David Hicks (edd.), Digenes Akrites: new approaches to Byzantine heroic poetry, Publications of the Centre for Hellenic Studies, Kings College London, 2 (London 1993), pp. 73-85, but then there is at least: Pedro Bádenas de la Peña, “La épica española y la épica de Diyenís” in Bádenas & Eusebi Ayensa (edd.), Èpica europea de frontera. Ressons èpics en les literatures i el folclore hispánic: El eco de la épica en las literaturas y el folclore hisp´nico. Actas del encuentro científico organizado por el Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona, 26 de junio de 2003 (Barcelona 2004), pp. 41-52; Miguel Castillo Didier, “El Cid y Diyenís: ¿Héroes de novela o de epopeya?” in Byzantion Nea Hellás Vol. 28 (Santiago de Chile 2009), pp. 167-183, DOI: 10.4067/S0718-84712009000100008; Alfonso Boix Jovani & Ioannis Kioridis, “Los ríos en el Cantar de Mio Cid y el Digenis Akritis” in Natalia Fernández Rodríguez & María Fernández Ferreiro (edd.), Literatura medieval y renacentista en España: líneas y pautas (Oviedo 2012), pp. 397-407; and oh lord, just clicking a link tells me of three more publications by Kioridis so I guess it’s a live field… All of those I’ve actually seen are comparing Digenes to the Cantar, however, and for why that’s not telling you the full story see Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (London 1989).

4. There are apparently Hellenistic novels of similar style, you see, though I have no references for them. On the difference between literature and reality in this text see Paul Magdalino, “Digenes Akrites and Byzantine literature: the twelfth-century background to the Grottaferrata version” in Beaton & Hicks, Digenes Akrites, pp. 1-14, cited by Dr Galatariotou; on sex, marriage and consent see Angeliki Laiou, “Sex, Consent, and Coercion in Byzantium” in Laiou (ed.), Consent and Coercion to Sex and Marriage in Ancient and Medieval Societies (Washington DC 1993), pp. 109-222, not so much.

One response to “Seminar CCXVIII: Byzantine frontier badboys

  1. Pingback: Seminar CCXXXI: the disappearing Byzantine teenager | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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