Tag Archives: el Cid

Digenes Akrites was not el Cid

It’s almost not news to say I’m on strike today, partly because there’s been so much of that on the blog in recent months but also because today, really, it might be quicker to say who isn’t. It might reasonably be said that something is wrong with the UK at the moment, and it is coming out in strikes the way a human body would come out in hives. But with the trains being part of that, I couldn’t get to join the picket or the rally so I have done strike blog instead! I hope it will make the point that all promises made to university staff since last time have been ignored and we are many of us still without a third to a quarter of our pensions despite the reason we lost them being admitted false, without pay that keeps pace with inflation, without equality between genders or races when it comes to that pay, without much progress away from temporary, prospect-less contracts for a decent part of the profession, and with unsustainable, impossible workloads with respect to which we are promised only ‘fairness’, but never reduction.1 I know there are other workers’ unions protesting worse situations, but I think my reasons for being out are reasonable even so. And besides, how very, pathologically, British even to consider not making a fuss because there are still some people who have it worse! Where can that end except with everyone squashed down into the bottom of the barrel, unwilling to complain because by then ‘we’re all in the same boat’? Sorry, horribly mixed metaphor, but you see my point. So, no, I’m on strike, and so you get extra blog.

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

Digenes Akrites, 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.

I’ve had this post in stub since November 2019, when, having fairly recently actually read the Byzantine poetic novel Digenes Akrites for the first time (in English, I should say) I found myself at last able to comment on a number of studies I’d seen comparing this ‘two-blooded border-lord’ (more or less what Digenes Akrites means, as a name) to the heroic Castilian frontiersman of the twelfth century, subject of film and more, Rodrigo Díaz, or as he’s better known, el Cid.2 The stub had the title you see above, and read only:

“Because he’s basically Hercules/Samson with nice relationship ethics, not a human man with an army; also the race thing, as well as many more; why do people do this?”

I read this out to my partner and she said, more or less, “why don’t you just post that? It gets straight to the point.” And I considered it briefly, but I thought in the end that that would be a post for a very few people, whereas if I explained it even slightly it might be, you know, enjoyable for a public. So here goes.

So Digenes, the character, seems to be meant to have existed on the Byzantine-Islamic frontier in Anatolia, i. e. roughly the north edge of the present, or rather recent, Turkish-Syrian border, maybe in the late tenth or early eleventh century? It doesn’t much matter when, as he is archetypal more than historical. His name derives from the fact that he is son of an Arabic emir who carries off his mother, daughter of a Byzantine military commander in a raid, and who is then induced to convert to Christianity so as to marry her; these are Digenes’s two bloods, in a back-and-forth of loyalties which belongs, if anywhere, in the messy politics of the early Komnenian era just before the First Crusade.3 As the child grows it becomes clear he’s a physical and military prodigy, who hunts and kills beasts many times his size, defeats entire armies alone and bare-handed, and so on, and the poem is basically about him carrying off his own wife and going and settling part of the border with her, by defeating all comers single-handedly in between building a wasteland palace on the Euphrates, occasionally being called on to solve impossible situations by the Byzantine emperor (Romanos, either I or II one presumes, in some versions of the text, and Basil, presumably II, in others—but we’re not really moving in history here) by means of his extraordinary prowess and finally dying undefeated in his effectively home-made Eden.

Modern statue of el Cid in Seville

A modern statue of el Cid in Seville, image by CarlosVdeHabsburgoown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

As for el Cid, here there is more certainty. For those who don’t know, the historical Rodrigo Díaz grew up in Bivar, near Burgos in Castile, and became a military celebrity in the service of the Castilian king, but fell into disfavour for some reason and moved out to then-Muslim Zaragoza, where he served the Emir as commander for some years with great success, including against Castilian and Aragonese forces both regular and rogue. He then had a brief rapprochement with King Alfonso VI of Castile, but it didn’t work out and then he went rogue himself, moving into the gap between the south of Aragón and the Muslim world and eventually making his big move by besieging and taking the Muslim city of Valencia, where he ruled as king for the few years of his life, including repelling attacks by the Berber fundamentalist Almoravids who had reunified Muslim resistance to the recent Christian conquests. When he died, Valencia was abandoned as no-one else thought they could hold it. His earliest biographer records that, “Never was he defeated by any man,” though it should be said that that is at least in part because even that biographer shows him being quite picky about his battles.4 Still, after you’ve defied the king of Castile with one hand, the Commander of the Faithful with the other and taken the Count of Barcelona prisoner and ransomed him twice, it’s hard for anyone not to admit you knew what you were doing with an army.

Opening page of the manuscript of the Poema del Mio Cid, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 17 7, fo 1r

Opening page of the manuscript of the Poema del Mio Cid, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 17 7, fo 1r, by Per Abbat – originally http://www.laits.utexas.edu/cid/mo/jpg/01r.jpg, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Now, I say ‘earliest biographer’ there because this picture comes straight out of the Historia Roderici, a Latin Life that was written about him, perhaps by a bishop of Salamanca who had been one of el Cid’s churchmen at Valencia, and so an eye-witness source, albeit here via quite a lot of interpretation by Richard Fletcher.5 But it’s not necessarily the standard view of the man, because much more famous is a rather later Spanish epic poem, the Poema or Cantar del Mio Cid, as seen above in its oldest preserved form. This leaves out all Rodrigo’s fighting for Muslims – in fact even has the King of Zaragoza becoming his vassal rather than the other way around – and makes much more of his loyalty in exile to the King of Castile despite that ruler’s misinformed maltreatment of him, which is partly caused in this version by the king’s failure to prevent the murder of Rodrigo’s daughters after their marriage, at royal command, to some noble ne’er-do-wells called the Infantes of Carrión. But the undefeated hero still stamps larger than life through this narrative, including the chief victory against the Almoravids. Now, this version of the story is one of the great literary monuments of the Castilian language, taught on literature syllabi in Spain like Beowulf is in the USA.6 Furthermore, it got taken up big-time by a very influential historian in the 1920s, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, and he based on it a book which was much translated but also very compatible with Franco’s subsequent vision of a Catholic Spain built on its unified Christian resistance to foreign ideologies, and which for both of those reasons was the basis of the eventual Technicolor epic film that you may indeed have seen.7 If you haven’t, by the way, do, it’s fantastic and contains some of the most realistic-looking medieval fight-scenes I think have ever been filmed, and it’s why anyone outside Spain usually knows the story, if they do.

El Cid and his army, including the Emir Muqtadir of Seville, from the 1961 film

El Cid, as played by Charlton Heston in that same film, with Emir Muqtadir of Seville at his left hand; image from Diego Califano, ‘Un guerrero debe encontrar el valor por sí mismo: la película de “El Cid” (1961)’ in Fundación para la Historia de España, 9 October 2020, online here

So, it is perhaps unsurprising that, especially among Spanish-origin Byzantinists, there has arisen this tendency to take the Iberian border independent who was never ever defeated and rack him up against the Anatolian one and say, look, er… And indeed, one of my objections to this work has always been that there seems to be no conclusion anyone can reach from doing this that goes deeper than, “maybe frontier culture bred similarities”.8 But my other objection is that despite their border setting, the stories aren’t actually very similar. I’m conscious that unless you’ve actually read both texts, you can only take my word for this or not. I’m also conscious that, by even doing this negative comparison, I’m in danger of writing yet another of these comparative articles about which I was complaining. But let’s embrace these ironies and move from environment inwards towards the hero:

  1. Digenes’s frontier is basically empty; he can take space in it and almost no-one even notices, he’s hard to find and there’s no other settlement for a basically irrelevant distance. Rodrigo’s frontier is studded with fortresses and every part of it belongs to someone, a fairly close city and then a kingdom which claims the city. Armies cross it all the time and no-one can hide in one place for long. It’s also a lot more mountainous, for what that’s worth.
  2. In Digenes’s world there’s only one Christian polity, ineffective and distant though it might be, while the Islamic one is indefinite, fragmented and unclear of hierarchy. In el Cid’s world, the Islamic world has unattended limbs you can lop off but it’s all one tree, and a tree that can sometimes swing all of its branches at you at once, while the Christian kingdoms are plural and always opposed to each other; in the Historia Roderici he is opposed by Christian and Muslim forces together but only once two Christian polities working together, and then they have Muslim help.9 One might say that these are mirror images, but if you ask it’s more like through the looking-glass.
  3. While we’re talking about single combat, that’s almost the only time el Cid is foolish enough to attempt such a thing. Otherwise, he always fights with an army behind him, and indeed one of the motives the Poema and the Historia share is his attempts to manage his men’s loyalty in difficulties, which the Poema uses to compare their fallibility to el Cid’s own undaunted loyalty to a lord who treats him far worse than he treats his men.10 Digenes, by contrast, almost never has a following, almost always fights single-handedly and is often naked and bare-handed when he does so.

And this is because the two characters are fundamentally not the same archetypes. As it says in that stub, Digenes is basically a demi-god, mixed parentage and supernaturally powerful, to whom the most obvious comparison is Hercules. Rodrigo has a historical basis, but I don’t even mean that; one could certainly argue that the Rodrigo of the Poema is a fictional figure to all intents and purposes, with the fact of his actual existence a mere complication. But even as a fictional figure, his archetype is the ultimate knight, a human being whose prowess, manifest almost always as skill at war rather than skill at arms, was realisable by other human beings. One could compare William Marshal, not least because of the same Belisarius-like motif of continuing loyalty despite a lord’s suspicion and contempt.11 This hero is a type we see elsewhere in his age. Digenes isn’t really meant to be from the age in which he’s set, I don’t think, and certainly not the one in which he was being told. And then there’s the question of blood, which in Spain would be an ugly one perhaps involving words like ‘limpieza‘; whatever el Cid is and whomever he served, there’s no doubt that his origins are safely Castilian and Christian.12 The whole point of Digenes, his very name, is that he combines two ancestries, and he mostly serves neither. And because of this, while Digenes Akrites the poem is also a monument of Greek literature in a way, it’s not the same way – Greek culture doesn’t need this medieval novel as a foundation stone, having the Classics, but even if it did, there are other medieval Greek novels – and Digenes the character is no kind of heroic archetype for the modern Greek nation.13 He’s someone set in a non-time and a non-place where impossible things can happen, and there may be a message in that but it’s not the same one as in the Poema del mio Cid, or indeed any other source about him.

Now, if someone who can handle both languages enough to convince wants to write that up as an article, go right ahead; I ask only to be named as co-author and to do the proof checks before submission if it’s being written in English. (Nothing personal, I just care a lot about punctuation and referencing.) But otherwise: can we stop, now? They aren’t the same thing.

1. This is a common enough trick in academia now that there is actually academic literature about it: see Jack Grove, “Academic workload models: a tool to exploit staff and cut costs?” in Times Higher Education (THE) (6 February 2019), online here, reporting on Rebecca Hewett, Amanda Shantz & Julia Mundy, “Information, Beliefs, and Motivation: The antecedents to human resource attributions” in Journal of Organizational Behavior Special Issue (2019), pp. 1–17, DOI: 10.1002/job.2353.

2. For example, Ioannis Kioridis, “The Wife’s Prayer for her Husband in the Cantar de mio Cid and the Escorial version of Digenis Akritis” in Scandinavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 1 (Stockholm 2015), pp. 65–80, and Marina Díaz Bourgeal and Francisco López-Santos Kornberger, “El Cantar de Mio Cid y el Diyenís Akritas (manuscrito de El Escorial): Un estudio comparativo desde el legado clásico” in Estudios medievales hispánicos Vol. 5 (Madrid 2016), pp. 83–107. Cf. also n. 8 below.

3. John Mavrogordato (ed./transl.), Digenes Akrites, edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford 1956), has a really useful study of the manuscripts as well as the actual thing, but there are several other translations; that’s just the one I have. For the Komnenian situation here, see Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-86.

4. “Historia Roderici”, transl. by Richard Fletcher in Simon Barton & Richard Fletcher (transl.), The World of el Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest, pp. 90-147, c. 74 (p. 146); cf. c. 15 (p. 107). I should say, by the way, that I could probably double these notes if I were also giving references in Spanish; but I’m guessing that if you read Spanish and are reading this, you probably already know where that stuff is…

5. Ibid., pp. 90-98, based on Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (New York City NY 1990).

6. For the Poema, see in English Peter Such & John Hodgkinson (edd./transl.), The Poem of My Cid (Warminster 1987), or otherwise R. Selden Rose and Leonard Bacon (transl.), The Lay of the Cid (Berkeley CA 1919), online here.

7. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, The Cid and his Spain, trans. Harold Sunderland (London 1934, repr. 2016); Helen Nader, “Encountering the Cid” in Jason Glenn (ed.), The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture: Reflections on Medieval Sources (Toronto 2011), pp. 177–188, more or less retells this work’s story in summary, with Fletcher’s critique noted only in references. For an analysis of the politics which led to the making of the film, see John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (London), pp. 63‒148.

8. A conclusion already reached by Ralph-Johannes Lilie, “The Byzantine-Arab Borderland from the Seventh to the Ninth Centuries” in Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis: Frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 12 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 13–22, which I might have thought got all there was to be got out of the theme, but cf. n. 1 above

9. “Historia Roderici”, c. 37 (pp. 122-123 in Fletcher & Barton).

10. Geoffrey West, “King and Vassal in History and Poetry: A Contrast between the ‘Historia Roderici’ and the ‘Poema de Mio Cid'”, in Alan Deyermond (ed.), ‘Mio Cid’ Studies (London: Támesis, 1977), pp. 195–208.

11. For William Marshal, see among numerous (so many) biographies David Crouch, William Marshal, 3rd ed. (London 2016; 1st ed. London 1990).

12. “Historia Roderici”, c. 2 (p. 99 in Fletcher & Barton) tracks his ancestry back 9 generations in the northern part of Castile.

13. Margaret Mullett, “Novelisation in Byzantium: Narrative after the Revival of Fiction” in John Burke (ed.), Byzantine Narrative: papers in honour of Roger Scott, Byzantina Australiensia 16 (Leiden 2006), pp. 1–28; cf. Michael Angold, “The Poem of Digenes Akrites: the frontier and the Byzantine identity” in Convivencia, defensa y comunicación en la frontera: En memoria de Don Juan de Mata Carriazo y Arroquia, Estudios de Frontera 3 (Jaén 2000), pp. 69–79, online here.

A frontier comparison no-one’s made

In the aftermath of the workshop on frontiers recently described, I seem for a while to have flung myself back into relevant reading on the field. Now, if you work on the Christian-Muslim frontier in the Iberian Peninsula – which I do – then sooner or later you will run up against someone writing about the quintessential and indeed semi-legendary Iberian frontiersman, Rodrigo Díaz or el Cid, usually as epitomising the way in which that frontier worked.1 Likewise, if you work on the Christian-Muslim frontier in Byzantine Anatolia – onto which subject I have been known to venture – you will sooner or later run across someone writing about the quintessential but actually legendary folk hero Digenes Akritas as if he also somehow typified that border zone.2 And once you’re watching either field, every few years or so you’ll see someone trying to compare the two.3 I have developed quite strong views by now about why that is a waste of effort, and I will write about them here before long, but this is not that day. Instead, this post was prompted by my reading about something that looked like a much better point of comparison, but about which no-one seems to know (except, obviously, the person from whose work I got it, Sara Nur Yıldız).

Political map of Anatolia c. 1300 CE

Political map of Anatolia  1300 CE, by Gabagoolown work, licensed under CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The text in question is known as the History of the Karamanids, by someone we only know by a pen-name, Şikari.4 The Karamanids ruled the southern part of Cilicia when they ruled, and at the height of their power, which came very close to their end, their control stretched over a considerable area. The map above shows them under pressure from the Mongols in a world where lots of polities were their size; the one below gives the full extent, a full extent that would soon be abrogated by a somewhat shortsighted attempt to bounce the now-substantial power of the Ottomans out of the crucial city of Konya. Nonetheless, for a while they were major players.

Political map of the Eastern Mediterranean around 1450 CE

Political map of the Eastern Mediterranean around 1450 CE, by MapMasterown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

But the world picture that Dr Yıldız draws from the History comes more from the earlier patch, which she describes as follows:

“We are confronted with a frontier devoid of central control, a no-man’s land dominated by fortresses and those who held them, petty warlords operating in a world of fleeting political and military loyalties and fluid, often unstable, vassalage relations. Power is played out between fortress lords of various ethnic backgrounds, whose loyalty is demanded and bought by those ruling from the faraway centres. Although fortress lords in the frontier region theoretically ruled in the name of a greater sovereign, whether it be the Seljuk sultan or the Armenian king, in practice they operated independently. The sultan, in Şikari’s account, although the power at the centre with large forces at his disposal, is a less than powerful ruler on the frontier. At most, he can only hope to coerce the various fortress holders along the periphery into nominal loyalty. The sultan, at the same time, is obliged to keep the various local rulers from attacking one another, primarily in order to avoid the difficult situation of having to choose between defending one vassal over another….5

And this sounds awfully familiar. This is not the land or politics of el Cid, of course, where big armies led by kings or people of that weight are a regular feature and the hero’s achievement is to become one of them. This is instead the land of Digenes, where there is an emperor and there is a sultan and you might meet them but you never aim to equal them, you just want your little patch of border where no-one else dares to challenge you.6 In the tenth century, as we saw long ago, when the Byzantine emperor was back in the ascendant, you might have to deal with him in order to secure that relative autonomy against your fellows.7 But by the time of which Dr Yıldız is writing, that kind of power had receded. It would return with the rise of the Ottomans, of course, and that would end that, but still, this is the kind of source material with which I underpin my James-Scott-like sense that a lot of political communities would rather aim for autonomy than connectivity.8 The area is good turf with which to do that, and Nik Matheou, among others, has done so.9 (I mention Nik not least because he is the person I’ve seen actually applying Scott to this area and period, but Dr Yıldız also gives a good account of the vexed historiography of Armenian autonomy in this area.10) So, why is there so much ink used on comparing Digenes Akritas, which is actually set in Anatolia in a period not too far from this text, to the foreign and rather different Poema del Mio Cid when there’s this much better comparator so close by?

First page of the manuscript of the History of the Karamanids

The first page of the manuscript does admittedly make the prospect of working with it a little offputting… Image from “Karamanname of Şikari /History of the Karamanids (Mid-16th century)” in Janissary Archives for 15th October 2015, linked through

Well, there are lots of good reasons this text is not more widely used. The primary one of these is that it’s in Seljuk Turkish and is preserved only in one mid-16th-century manuscript, in Konya (ironically), which was only edited in 2004.11 As a result, I myself obviously know nothing that’s in it except through Dr Yıldız’s report. Secondly, it’s a history of a single Turkmen dynasty who were removed from power by the time of the manuscript; so even its original readership was probably pretty small, wherefore, I suspect, only the single copy surviving. Thirdly, as Dr Yıldız puts it in a footnote:12

“Şikari’s History of the Karamanids, significant for being the only internal work dealing with Karamanid history, has been dismissed as unreliable by historians of Anatolian Turkish and Ottoman history. The work is characterized by an idiosyncratic mix of history and legend, and contains much tendentious, chronologically absurd, and anachronistic material. The circumstances as well as the date of this work’s composition remain unknown, although internal textual evidence suggests that it was produced some time in the mid-sixteenth century, with much of its contents possibly based upon an earlier source dating from the late fourteenth century.”

This is, of course, the luxury of having other sources; if this were all that survived from the zone and area I expect more would have been made of it, as witness Digenes Akritas. Still, you can see why people haven’t prioritised getting it into the discourse. Even Dr Yıldız only adds it as a kind of epilogue to a chapter which is mainly about Armenian Cilicia. I can also see why, given the opposed historiographies and nationalisms, it might still be a while before we get scholars of Greek literature reaching for Turkish pseudo-history as comparative material or scholars of Turkish political history looking to Greek literature either. Still, I very much wish there were an English version of this text, as I personally would go a-plundering in it…

Since I can’t, however, all I can do from here is speculate and wonder. In particular, I wonder what political control actually was in such an area. Did the Karamanid lords take tax? They presumably didn’t farm or raise livestock themselves, so they must have had some means of appropriating surplus, and they raised armies, but did they raise them through obligations laid upon their population or by paying the troops from tax? Did they hold courts of justice? Did people bring quarrels to them? Outside their towns, did anyone know who they were? Or were they actually surviving on the kind of local solidarity that means that everyone knew who they were locally even if the Sultan or King of the Armenians might struggle to pick them out from their fellows? What kind of power did those greater lords have here? Was it only as much as they could persuade the Karamanids to wield for them or were they alternative power sources that the wily subjects could use to limit the Karamanid grasp in the way that the lords of Taron had used the Byzantine emperor against their family rivals? Were the Karamanids’ towns centres and the countryside periphery, or were they nomad lords of whom the towns were somewhat terrified? Why did they want Konya, for state-building or simply because it was a source of tolls and jurisdictional revenue? Were they aiming to place themselves as indispensable local partners for the bigger players here or did they aim to push themselves up to the point where the bigger players couldn’t displace them? (Are those questions even different?) There is a lot I could do here even with a “semi-historical Turkish work”, “ultimately based on oral traditions.”13 Short of acquiring a suitably-interested Turkish-reading Ph. D. student, I can’t see how I do in fact do it… But the world’s full of interesting things all the same, isn’t it?

1. For the basic story of el Cid, see even now Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (London 1990); for a recent and useful treatment of him as frontiersman see Pascal Buresi, “Frontière politique et appartenance religieuse dans la Péninsule Ibérique : les communes frontalières et le phénomène des « Cid » (XIe-XIIe siècles)” in Henri Bresc, Georges Dagher and Christine Veauvy (edd.), Politique et religion en Méditerranée : Moyen Âge et époque contemporaine (Paris 2008), pp. 137–163.

2. For the actual text, see best John Mavrogordato (ed.), Digenes Akrites, edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford 1956), though there are other translations (and even a graphic novel). For a reasonable example of someone using him as an archetype, see Ralph-Johannes Lilie, “The Byzantine-Arab Borderland from the Seventh to the Ninth Centuries” in Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis: Frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 12 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 13–22.

3. I’m sure I’ve seen it done more than this, but two cases that I have stored are Ioannis Kioridis, “The wife’s prayer for her husband in the Cantar de mio Cid and the Escorial version of Digenis Akritis” in Scandinavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 1 (Stockholm 2015), pp. 65–80, and Marina Díaz Bourgeal and Francisco López-Santos Kornberger, “El Cantar de Mio Cid y el Diyenís Akritas (manuscrito de El Escorial). Un estudio comparativo desde el legado clásico” in Estudios medievales hispánicos Vol. 5 (Madrid 2016), pp. 83–107.

4. Covered in Sara Nur Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier: Armenians, Latins, and Turks in Conflict and Alliance during the Early Thirteenth Century” in Curta, Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis, pp. 91–120 at pp. 114-119, details on the text at p. 115 & n. 107.

5. Ibid., p. 117.

6. This is very much my own reading of the text; cf. Lilie, “Byzantine-Arab Borderland”, pp. 18-19.

7. Recounted in Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik, trans. R. J. H. Jenkins, Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae 1, 2nd edn (Washington D.C. 1967), c. 43 (pp. 188-199).

8. Referring to James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven CT 2009), online here.

9. Admittedly Nik hasn’t actually published his work on the Armenian Zomia yet, but I think it will be in the volume of papers arising from the 50th Sping Symposium of Byzantine Studies on which I reported a while back.

10. Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier”, pp. 93-113 with pp. 93-94 explicitly covering historiographical approaches.

11. Şikârî, Karamannâme: Zamanın kahramanı Karamanîler’in tarihi, ed. Metin Sôzen & Necdet Sakaoğlu (Istanbul: Karaman Belediyesi, 2005), online here.

12. Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier”, p. 115 n. 107.

13. Ibid., p. 115.

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.