Archive for September, 2010

How would English be different if the Normans had lost?

Monty asks how English would be different if the Normans had lost at Hastings.

If you want a good idea of how different English was before the Normans, pick up a copy of Beowulf and try to read the original text.  It’s a Germanic language that bears little apparent resemblance to the words you’re reading here.  The temptation then is to say that it was the Norman Conquest which gave English its recognizable form.  But here is where it gets interesting.  Languages are living things and Anglo-Saxon was constantly evolving during the 7 centuries it was in use.  There were Celtic influences, Norse influences, and even a bit of Latin from the clerics who converted the population.  The Normans added a healthy mix of French but exactly how much is a matter of some debate.  Depending on the expert you consult, you’ll hear that the percentage of English derived from Latin or French is 15%, 29%, or 50%.

I asked a linguist how there could be such a huge discrepancy and she gave me an intriguing answer.  In the first place nobody knows exactly how many English words there are.  For example, are ‘run’, ‘running’, and ‘ran’ three different words or should they just count as one?  Secondly, it makes a big difference if you’re counting ‘textbook’ words or words that are commonly spoken.  It turns out that the vast majority of our common words come from Old English while the ‘textbook’ words are more likely to be derived from Latin or French.  So if you’re feeling blue and you describe yourself as ‘sad’, you’re using an Old English word, but if you say ‘I feel Lugubrious’ you’re using Latin.

So what effect did the Norman Conquest have on the English language?  Obviously it has had an impact over the last millennium- it would have been impossible not to.  But I think it had less effect than most of us assume, and as far as our spoken tongue, less still.  Those old Norman blue bloods are still perched at the upper crust of the language, but where most of us live in our day-to-day lives, we are surrounded mostly by Anglo-Saxons.  To paraphrase the great historian David Howarth, ‘in the end the English really did conquer their conquerors’.

No responses yet

What did Byzantine music sound like?

Sep 22 2010 Published by under Byzantine Music,Cappella Romana,Reader Question

Reader Spencer asks what Byzantine music sounded like and if there is any way to hear it today.

Not too much is known about Byzantine secular music although given their fascination with the classical past, it was probably similar to that of ancient Greece and Rome.  (Support for this theory is that the earliest Byzantine hymns still have the metrical schemes of ancient Greek poetry.) Music in the Hellenistic world had an important part in nearly every occasion and that continued in the Byzantine east.  Singers- usually accompanied by stringed instruments and dancers- were found in most processions, celebrations, and even funerals.  Stringed instruments were the most popular, although reed, wind, and percussion were also used.  A 9th century Persian traveler who visited Constantinople reported that he was serenaded by dancers playing several types of harps and lyres.  The water organ in particular attracted his attention- and apparently that of citizens generations before him.   It shows up in several carvings, most prominently the base of Theodosius’ 4th century obelisk in the Hippodrome.

When it comes to sacred music, we’re on firmer ground.  The first religious musicians originated in monastic communities around the time of Justinian, but unfortunately a musical writing system to record notes didn’t come to Constantinople till the 8th or 9th century.  (We don’t know exactly what the early stuff sounded like, but most likely it was a plainsong or simple chant- to read a much more in-depth discussion of this go here:

Now for the good news.  Byzantine music is surprisingly easy to find.  Many of the notable figures of Byzantine history composed hymns or added to the liturgy- from St. John Chrysostom to Justinian and Leo the Wise- and they are still sung or chanted to this day.  The best way to hear them is to attend your local Orthodox church, especially during one of the important liturgical days.  If that’s not your cup of tea, then head on over to iTunes and do a search for ‘Cappella Romana’.  They are a vocal group ‘specializing in Slavic and Byzantine repertories’.

Either way- by church or ipod- Byzantium will come alive as you’ve never experienced it before.

2 responses so far

Did Byzantium persecute the Jews?

Sep 17 2010 Published by under 12 Byzantine Rulers,Jews,Listener Question,Persecution

Listener Stuart asks what Byzantium’s policy was concerning the Jews.

There are two things that make this a difficult question to answer.  The first is that the exact imperial policy tended to change depending on who the emperor was, and the second is that from the vantage point of the twenty-first century medieval attitudes toward Judaism- even the most “enlightened”- can look pretty barbaric.  Generally speaking, however, we can say that Jews were more accepted in the Byzantine Empire than in the West.  There were the occasional hostilities, but no systematic persecutions or mass expulsions like those common in Western Europe at the time.

Theodosius I officially recognized Judaism as a lawful religion, but forbade intermarriage with Christians and barred Jews from the civil service and the military.  Theodosius II extended the ban to all public offices both civilian and military- with the notable exception of the office of decurion (tax collectors).  Jews who circumcised non-Jews were exiled, and conversion to Judaism was technically illegal (although apostate Jews were allowed to leave Christianity for their former faith).  They were also allowed to own Christian slaves- and pass them to their children- but not to purchase new ones.  Justinian (trying to eradicate all religious divisions- including heretics, pagans, and Jews) banned the construction of any new synagogues and ordered all existing ones to be converted to churches.  These draconian measures, however, had little real effect.  There is only one recorded instance of this (sort of) happening – in North Africa a synagogue on the Berber frontier was converted to a barracks for military reasons- and archaeological evidence suggests that these official decrees had little sway over synagogue building in Palestine.

This gap between instructions coming out of Constantinople and follow-through in the territories was probably true through most of imperial history.  The fact that Justinian felt the need to specifically forbid Jews from holding public office- a law which had already been on the books for over two centuries- suggests that the imperial edicts were either unenforced or unenforceable.

This kind of de jure restriction and de facto toleration didn’t inspire much loyalty from Byzantine Jews.  In 556 there were riots in Caesarea serious enough to kill the governor, in 608 the Patriarch of Antioch was seized and dragged through the streets by the local Jewish population, and in 614 the Jews of Jerusalem sided with the invading Persians and participated in the wholesale slaughter of their Christian neighbors.  When a Jewish leader was asked why he had participated he responded with the answer: ‘because these Christians are the enemies of my faith’.  Clearly the ill-will cut both ways.

Despite these occasional outbursts on both sides, the centuries after Justinian were characterized by marked toleration- probably because the empire was fighting for its life.  In the six hundred years between the reigns of Justin II (565) and Alexius IV Angelus (1204) there were only four exceptions.  Heraclius ordered the forced baptism of all Jews in the empire, as did Leo III, Basil I, and John Tzimiskes.  Together they made up about 50 years of official “persecution” although by all accounts there was virtually no attempt to actually enforce it other than a few symbolic acts.

In fact, Jewish ancestry doesn’t seem to have been particularly troublesome for a man on the rise.  One 9th century Byzantine Emperor (Michael II) had Jewish grandparents and grew up in a mixed household that retained many Jewish customs.  Though called the “Amorian” (ie from the city of Amorium) he was the probable ancestor of the Leo the Wise and was therefore the true founder of the Macedonian Dynasty- the most brilliant family that the empire ever produced.

By 1176, the rabbi and traveler Benjamin of Tudela reported that there were about 2,500 Jews living in Constantinople, most involved in manufacturing silk or other mercantile activities.  They were restricted to the Pera quarter of the city, but were generally treated with respect.  Quite a few of them were wealthy and one even served as the current emperor’s personal physician.

The fourth Crusade was a catastrophe for Jews and Orthodox alike, but the Byzantine reconquest of the city in 1261 was a particular boon to the Jewish community.  The emperors Michael VIII and his son Andronicus II were even condemned by the Patriarch of Alexandria for their “excessive toleration of the Jews”- probably because they didn’t enforce ghettoization and allowed Jews to live among Christians.  By the 14th century the empire was in an advanced state of decay and forced to give foreigners- particularly Venetians- special privileges.  Many of the remaining Jews in Constantinople purchased Venetian citizenship and benefited from a more favorable tax structure and greater trading rights.  Ironically enough for an empire that had at one time attempted to convert its Jewish population, by 1453 the Jews in Constantinople probably had a broader set of rights than their Christian neighbors.

Of course that was only by virtue of their Venetian citizenship, but as any of their ancestors could have pointed out, much better to have rights for the wrong reasons than to have no rights at all.

4 responses so far

What happened to the Byzantine Crown Jewels?

Sep 15 2010 Published by under 12 Byzantine Rulers,Crown,Listener Question

Listener Shane asked what happened to the Byzantine crown jewels.

Their story is a sad allegory of the empire itself.  They were pawned to Venice in 1343 by the empress Anna of Savoy, who was in the middle of a civil war and desperately needed the money.  Her son tried to recover the crown (the replacement diadem was a shoddy job of cut glass and gilded leather), but was hopelessly short of funds.  Venice had paid 30,000 ducats- twice what the entire city of Constantinople brought in per year- and there was no way he could raise the amount.  On a trip through Europe to drum up support against the Ottomans in 1369, John made the mistake of visiting Venice where he was humiliatingly detained for two years as a debtor.  In 1376 he managed to work out a deal for an installment plan where the crown would be returned as a show of good faith after the first payment.  Unfortunately, a month later his son overthrew him and Venice refused to send the crown to a usurper.  Successive emperors never quite gave up hope- imperial ambassadors officially brought it up in 1390, 1406, 1418, 1423, 1442, and 1448- but Venice preferred to keep it safely locked up in St. Marks as a bargaining tool.

It remained there until 1797 when the Republic of Venice fell to the French.  Napoleon thoroughly looted the treasury- leaving behind only the current 283 pieces- and the forgotten crown’s ultimate fate was most likely to be melted down to fund the dictator’s numerous wars.

There is, however, a brighter postscript.  Byzantine history is long and there were many crowns.  Emperor Michael VII (1074) gave one to the Hungarian King Géza I which is now kept in the Central Hall of the Hungarian Parliament Building.  Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus (circa 1042- that’s his at the top) wore another of decorated enameled plates, which can be seen in Budapest.  The most prestigious one, however, is undoubtedly the crown of the great Nicephorus Phocas (circa 963), kept today along with his imperial vestments in a monastery on Mt. Athos.

5 responses so far

Did a descendant of Bardas Sclerus bring down Maniakes?

Listener Shane asks if Romanus Sclerus- the man who brought down George Maniakes- was related to the Bardas Sclerus who tried to seize the throne from Basil II.

Romanus was indeed the great-grandson of the general Bardas.  The Sclerus family was an old aristocratic one that claimed dynastic ties to Basil I, and was constantly trying to inch closer to the throne.  The real ambitious one in the family- and arguably the most successful- was Romanus’ sister Maria.  She fell in love with Constantine Monomachus, an up and coming nobleman who was on a very short list to marry the reigning empress Zoë.  When Constantine was outmaneuvered and banished to the island of Lesbos, Maria followed, trusting that fate would offer them a second chance at the throne.  Seven years later the political winds had changed and Zoë summoned Constantine to the capital to become her husband.  At their very first meeting together, Constantine brazenly demanded that the empress should bring Maria to Constantinople- and give her suitable titles as well.  Zoë, now 64 and interested only in the trappings of power, philosophically agreed.  Maria was brought to the capital with great pomp and installed into the imperial palace next to Constantine.  Now, if Zoë wanted to see her husband, she had to go through the awkward process of clearing it with Maria first.

It was at this point- with nary an objection from the compliant empress- that the two lovers realized they could get away with virtually anything.  Why should Maria be content with the designation of ‘official mistress’?  She was after all a member of an old and dignified family.  Constantine drew up a document officially giving her the title ‘Augusta’, Zoë obligingly signed it, and the entire Senate was called in to ratify it.  There were now three empresses (Zoë’s sister was also an empress) and a total of four heads of state.  Oddly enough, Zoë doesn’t appear to have minded the bizarre arrangement.  As long as she had access to the treasury Constantine could do as he liked.

The imperial ménage a trios may have been ok with the court, but it nearly got Constantine lynched.  The population of Constantinople was scandalized and tried to rush the emperor as he was mounting his horse at the imperial gates.  Screaming that they didn’t want Maria for empress- only a pure Macedonian- they overpowered the guards, and would have killed Constantine if not for the sudden appearance of Zoë gesticulating wildly from a balcony.  From then on Constantine only appeared in public with Zoë safely at his side- and Maria following a distance behind.  He probably still intended to somehow make her the senior empress, and given enough time perhaps he could have, but she died suddenly in 1045.  A decade later Constantine expired as well, and in a final posthumous slap at Zoë, chose to have himself interred next to his beloved Maria.  The old rebel Bardas Sclerus would have been pleased.

One response so far

What are the sources for Belisarius?

Listener Steve asked what (excluding Procopius) are the sources- Byzantine or otherwise- for the life and career of Belisarius?

The good news is that there were a lot of historians and chroniclers active during Belisarius’ lifetime, and most of them were aware that they were living through significant times.  Procopius stopped writing in 552 and was continued by Agathias Scholasticus till the year 588.  He was in turn followed by a man named Menander Protector who decided to write history after he had blown his life savings having a good time.  This was evidently a smart career choice as Menander was soon joined by a crowd of writers.  If you fancied Justinian’s reign you could pick up bestsellers from Evagrius, John of Epiphaneia, John Malalas, and Marcellinus Comes.

The bad news, however, is that most of these are only partially translated today- or worse exist only in fragments.  Unless you know someone at Dumbarton Oaks, you’re probably not going to be able to read them anytime soon.  The only commercially available, non-Procopius source is Jordanes.  He was a 6th century Roman bureaucrat who had a book collection and the rare gift (as he put it) of being concise.  A friend who wanted to read a history of the Goths asked to borrow a copy of Cassiodorus’ (now lost) work, but when he saw its size (12 volumes) he asked Jordanes to sum it up for him.  The result is the Getica, which concludes with Belisarius’ brilliant defeat of the Goths in 540.

4 responses so far