Tag Archives: medieval children

Seminar CCXXXI: the disappearing Byzantine teenager

The close of February 2015 seems to have seen me spending a lot of time at seminars, including three evenings in a row of which you heard about the first two posts ago. Here now is the second, when I was in London because Professor Leslie Brubaker of Birmingham was presenting at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, leaving me several flags of loyalty to show by turning up. Her topic was “Teenagers of Byzantium”.

Paris, Musée du Louvre, MS 416, showing Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos and family

One problem with such an enquiry is that most of the families of which we have pictures are either royal or holy, and neither necessarily naturalistic… Here Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos illustrates that last problem: if as is thought this was done in 1415, the boys at his and his consort’s sides were 23, 19 and 12 when depicted, given the which we would rather expect some of them to be taller. The artist obviously didn’t think like that! Paris, Musée du Louvre, MS 416, I’m afraid I don’t know what folio

As we have already seen with an earlier paper, the middle patch between childhood and adulthood is one that the Roman, and therefore in law at least the Byzantine one, didn’t really acknowledge in the way that we do, so has to be tracked down in indirect evidence. That earlier paper had used literature from the twelfth century; Leslie works earlier and, of course, in images.1 There it is easy enough (well; not easy, but possible) to point at depictions of people we know to have been the relevant age and observe how their juniority was marked artistically, but the problem is disambiguating that visual language from ways of signalling other sorts of lesser status. For example, things that often mark out youth in Byzantine imagery are less-than-adult size, beardlessness for men and lack of veils for women (sometimes), all of which also tend to be used when servants or followers are being depicted. These are not really signs of youth, therefore, just of less-than-autonomy. That language was also used on coins to indicate junior and senior emperors, and indeed once we get into the Isaurians that language hardens up, with even fully adult junior emperors being shown beardless compared to their fathers and so on. Whatever that is telling us, it’s not telling us what Byzantines thought teenagers looked like. One is left with much more subjective things like roundness of face, relative heights and so on, by which one can suggest that the artists was trying to differentiate someone, but it’s not easy.2

A gold solidus of Emperor Leo IV with his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople in 776-780, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4583

A gold solidus of Emperor Leo IV with his son Constantine V, bearded and not respectively, with their dead ancestors Leo III and Constantine IV on the reverse, fully fuzzed, the coin struck at Constantinople in 776-780 and being Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4583

Leslie did argue, however, that the run into the eighth and ninth centuries marked a change in even this ambiguous visual language more widely than the coinage. Depiction in general was becoming more generic and less individualised, and this left less and less room for the specialisation of appearances in the way that she had been seeking in the earlier period. As Iconoclasm settled in, whether connectedly or not, figural art stopped including the subtleties by which artists might indicate gradation of youth, and non-adults appeared the same way whether they were aged two or twenty-two. Transition across this line came with the beard for men or marriage for women (although pictures of women—pictures at all but therefore especially of women, always a small part of the sample—are very thinly preserved from this period).3 They seemed even less evident to us, sadly, as about half of Leslie’s images were of such high resolution or file-size that the struggling IHR laptop couldn’t actually display them! But what there was provoked a lively discussion and it was good to be part of it all.

Copy of an ivory plaque showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, this copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

One of the other depictions that came up was this, the Trier Ivory, which Leslie thinks shows Emperor Constantine V (beardless) and his mother Empress Eirini (tiny), but which I now realise Jill Harries had the previous year claimed shows Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria (just Roman). Who’s right? It would be a fun argument to spectate on! This is a copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original is still in Trier.


1. Children at least are quite well studied in this light: see Cecily Hennessy, Images of children in Byzantium (Aldershot 2008) and Arietta Papaconstantinou & Alice-Mary Talbot (edd.), Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium (Washington DC 2009), plus also Eve Davies, “Age, Gender and Status: a three-dimensional life course perspective of the Byzantine family” and indeed Leslie Brubaker, “Looking at the Byzantine Family” in Brubaker (ed.), Approaches to the Byzantine Family, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 14 (Farnham 2013), pp. 153-176 & 177-206 respectively.

2. Indeed, when coins get involved as evidence it can all get worryingly circular, as subjective art-historical criteria like size and shape of face are actually ways in which the coins have been attributed to emperors, so that the art historians then take the numismatist’s words that these are in fact depictions of those emperors although those were largely art-historical judgements in the first place… See for examples Philip Grierson, Phocas to Theodosius III, 602-717, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection II (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1999), pp. 386-387 (are there any coins of Heraclius Constantine? Yes if we distinguish them by size of head! No other way of telling) & pp. 391-394 (the same argument for Heraclonas, but with a distinctive inscription in only one of the several such types which still doesn’t distinguish him) or idem, Leo III to Nicephorus III, 717-1081, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection III (Washington DC 1973, repr. 1999), pp. 291-292 (uncertainty over where Leo IV’s coinage with Constantine as junior emperor stops and Constantine V’s with Leo as deceased ancestor begins).

3. Of course, a lot was changing generally in that period, and few if any people know this so well as Leslie: see L. Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), but on this issue more specifically eidem, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 650-850: the sources. An annotated survey, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 7 (Aldershot 2001), pp. xxiii-xxvii.

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.

Seminars CXXX: a woman in a high castle

Seminars in both London and Oxford have now restarted, and I haven’t even reached the summer term yet with the reports, but what is to be done but carry on? And, by a curious coincidence, just as the term in London opened with a paper by none other than Professor Dame Janet Nelson, or Jinty as it is well-documented she would prefer to be known, a paper moreover to which I could not go drat it, so I now find myself with one of hers in Oxford to blog.1 This was a paper before the Medieval Church and Culture Seminar on the 6th March, entitled “Putting Dhuoda in Context”.

Supposedly a illustration showing Dhuoda, wife of Marquis Bernard of Septimania

There are no contemporary illustrations of Dhuoda and when I’ve searched for later depictions, before as now, this is all that comes up, which appears to be from something like a Unicorn Tapestry; if anyone knows more about it, I would love to… The page it’s from reprints a 1930 biography of Dhuoda in French.

Dhuoda is (as many of you will know) one of the very very few female authors known to us from the early Middle Ages, and extra interesting for me as the wife of one of the first Marquises of Barcelona, the unlucky but tenacious Bernard of Septimania. We know of her largely because she wrote a handbook of advice for their eldest son William, who like his father ended up dead in a rebellion against King Charles the Bald, and of whom I have often said that it could justly be said that he should have listened to his mother.2 As Jinty said, in what was throughout an entertainingly personalised paper, she has spent much of her lifetime reflecting on this person, whom the historian Pierre Riché’s wife apparently knew as “that woman” with whom she had to share her husband, who was similarly afflicted.3 The trouble is therefore finding new things to say about her, but this is less hard than it should be because she has not often been looked at as we might look at a male noble of the period, in terms of ancestry, property, influence and so on. She does certainly have one important distinction that most of our medieval writers do not, that of being a parent (which helps us deal with silly ideas about indifference to children and so on—when your source-base is primarily generated by celibates, well, what might you expect?). But, because what we mainly know of Dhuoda is that she loved her husband and son and encouraged the latter to loyalty whereas he got into trouble despite her advice, it has been kind of assumed that she was powerless. Not so! She wrote her book at William’s coming of age, when he was leaving the fold, over a period of fourteen months, and largely it seems in Uzés, where in Bernard’s absence she was more or less acting as countess between time, or rather, writing the book in what were probably precious few idle hours. During the hours of business, however, she was running a decent chunk of the Spanish March for Bernard and fund-raising for his campaigning. Furthermore, she was on the border in several ways: Uzés would soon be shunted into the Middle Kingdom of the Franks by the Treaty of Verdun that brings me so much of my search traffic here, and she dates the book, “Christo regnante” and regem spectante”, two clauses which sing straight out of a great many of my Catalan charters to me; these are the dating clauses you use when you do not know who the king is, or, significantly, have decided he’s not legitimate.4

The high castles of Uzés (tours de duché, de l'évêque, and two others)

The high castles of Uzés, all rather later than Dhuoda but giving you an idea of how she might have surveyed the town

To see Dhuoda as anything less than a political player in a sensitive position, therefore, is to miss a major trick. This added an extra dimension for Dhuoda for me that I hadn’t previously got, though since it’s due to Jinty that I know enough to think of queens as not getting much time to sit down when the king’s away, perhaps I should have thought it this far through.5 Typically also for Jinty we got a discussion of the other family who were in the area, the wider networks of which Dhuoda was part and through whom she got and sent her news, and which sometimes, indeed, included Bernard; he was not always absent. Jinty also pointed out that they presumably met at court, and that Dhuoda was not writing advice on how to handle yourself there from a position of ignorance.

A Nîmes MS of Dhuoda's Manuelis pro filio meo

The Nîmes manuscript of Dhuoda’s Manual

Looking back at this paper, therefore, apart from the affection that Jinty brought to her subject and which the capacity crowd demonstrated for her, what stands out for me is that if all we had was the career pattern, some kind of itinerary (which in fact we don’t have) and the odd reference in other texts, except for being married to a man this career would look like a respectable one for any courtier of the period: get educated at court, marry someone you met there, wind up with an administrative position for which you’re partly qualified by your ancestry in a difficult position during a time of civil war that ultimately costs you most of your family… I mean, there are male relatives of Bernard’s about whom we cannot say as much or even demonstrate them as important.6 Just because the title of countess was not yet used by powerful women of the Midi as it would be a century later doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at one of them when we read this text, and that is important because it reminds us that powerful people of all stamps could probably also suffer loss and enjoy affection, even if only one of them for this period really cared to write about it.


1. It’s documented, for example, in Paul Fouracre & David Ganz, “Dame Jinty Nelson… An Appreciation” in eidem (edd.), Frankland: the Franks and the world of the early middle ages : essays in honour of Dame Jinty Nelson (Manchester 2008), pp. 1-6 at p. 1. It’s important to get it in early on you see!

2. The most relevant translation, though there are many, is probably Marcelle Thiebaux (ed./transl.), Dhuoda: Handbook for her warrior son, Cambridge Medieval Classics 8 (Cambridge 1998). There did also come up in questions the rather poignant reflection that one of the manuscripts of the Manuel is now in Barcelona, where indeed it has been studied by none other than Cullen Chandler, in “Barcelona BC 569 and a Carolingian programme on the virtues” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 265-291, and one possible explanation for the text having been preserved there is that perhaps William did in fact listen at least to his mother’s injunction to keep the book with him, and so it wound up in a Barcelona library when he was killed there…

3. Lately accumulated in Janet L. Nelson, “Dhuoda” in Patrick Wormald & Nelson (edd.), Lay intellectuals in the Carolingian world (Cambridge 2007), pp. 106-120.

4. Jinty offered the former interpretation, and the latter is not something I’d quite want to attribute to Dhuoda, but it’s certainly how one needs to read the later charters: see (with all the usual cautions) Michel Zimmermann, “La datation des documents catalans du IXe au XII siècle : un itinéraire politique” in Annales du Midi Vol. 93 (Toulouse 1981), pp. 345-375.

5. I suppose that my default reference here is Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume 2: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 387-430, but it probably ought to be Nelson, “Medieval Queenship” in Linda E. Mitchell (ed.), Women in medieval western European culture (New York City 1999), pp. 179-207.

6. Starting with Bernard’s brother, and sometime co-Marquis, Gaucelm, if you want someone to research (please…). This is not the first time that I have expressed amazement that there is so little literature on such a crucial figure of the Carolingian period, given some of the people who’ve had monographs: there is, quite simply, no focussed study of Bernard of Septimania other than Lina Malbos, “La capture de Bernard de Septimanie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 76 (Bruxelles 1970), pp. 5-13, which is, you know, not a lot. More can be added via Martin Aurell, “Pouvoir et parenté des comtes de la Marche Hispanique (801-911)” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La Royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve d’Ascq 1998), pp. 467-480 or Josep María Salrach, El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres a l’Abast 136-137 (Barcelona 1978), vol. I, but this is somewhat of a local historiography.