16.09.22, Gerstel, Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium

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Annemarie Weyl Carr

The Medieval Review 16.09.22

Gerstel, Sharon E. J. Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. pp. 207. ISBN: 978-0-521-85159-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Annemarie Weyl Carr
Southern Methodist University

Byzantine art history has been immersed over the last decade in the lustrous language of elite ekphrastic literature and its visions of wonderful things. Very few Byzantine things that remain to be seen, however, belong to this realm. They belonged to the village. Sharon Gerstel's Rural Lives and Landscapes is "the first study to address synthetically the archaeology of the late medieval village in Greece and to set the archaeological evidence on an equal footing with that of the painted and written sources" (3). Her subject is village people, as they emerge from the testimonies they left in ink, paint, stone, and bone, to the order of their lives. As she reads the village from soil to soul, the painted church is central. Fluent, fertile, and challenging, her book marks an indelible threshold in the way we will think about and view Byzantium's village churches.

Her introduction lays out the surfaces to be read: on the one hand the land itself, inscribed by habitation, cultivation, and inhumation; on the other the pages and walls marked for memory. Estate registers, property contracts, dedications, medical handbooks, epitaphs expose the laws governing peoples' relation to the land, one another, and the physical body, while the painted churches are packed with information about occupations, seasons, possessions, family relations, commemorations, and in surprising numbers, individual faces and names. Together they register the hierarchies, sacred and secular, that gave village life its distinctive order: its taxis (1). Greek ethnography, finally, invites her to lace the Byzantine village into the long continuity of traditional village life. This continuity, fundamental to her book, is embodied and symbolized by the frescoed church, used by villagers today as it was a half a millennium ago.

Archaeology retrieves the village from the land. The villages it exposes are largely late Byzantine, or in Gerstel's preferred term, late medieval, since 1453 left little mark on them. Occupying high, uneven ground often inhabited in earlier eras, they are irregular in plan and densely built. Two- or three-room dwellings accommodated cooking, storage, and animals as well as humans, both living and, in some cases, dead. Wells, cisterns, threshing floors, often a watch tower, and churches complemented them. Only churches still stand, their walls alive with evidence of people. Texts can outline the role of institutional authority in the village, but Gerstel turns to the full color of the churches' painted walls to fill in the pulse of village life, because "the church preserves the memory of a people who didn't leave written records, but left, instead, paintings encoded with meaning" (69).

Before turning to the people, Gerstel pauses to clarify the modes of communication at work in the paintings. Among the book's most valuable portions, this confronts the question of how meaning was constructed and transmitted by people not conventionally literate. Not just reading and writing, but speaking and hearing, seeing and saying participate in the range of communicative literacies at work in the church's murals. Style has immediacy. Figures are insistently visible, an effect enhanced by the small scale of village churches, as illustrated vividly in comparative photographs with urban structures. Unmodulated colors, strong contours, and ornamental detail, too, foster immediacy. In a daring and effective comparison, she aligns the murals with early American folk paintings, produced for people with a clear and traditional sense of how things ought to look. The villagers, too, she suggests, guarded an indigenous aesthetic that conveyed their own sense of how things should be, and contrasts this intentioned stability with the stylistic volatility of the Palaiologan metropoleis. Again in imagery, telling contrasts emerge between the many inscriptions and textually based themes of the urban mural cycles, and the village churches dominated by the sanctoral cycle of life-sized saints. The instrumentality of memory, finally, is seen in the echoing sounds of saints' names and their homonymous devotees, or in the many saints' names with associated meanings: Kyriake ([Resurrection] Sunday, Paraskeve ([Good] Friday), Anastasia (resurrection), Polychronia (long life), Polykarpos (fruitful). Style, imagery, and memory all facilitate a shift of frame from writing and reference to the immediacy of seeing, hearing, and saying. Rather than as filtered transcriptions of elite formulations, the paintings emerge here as original texts in the visual language of the viewers themselves.

The following three chapters illuminate village women, village men, and those bound by vows to the Church as priests or monks and nuns. Each begins with skeletal information. Physical stature, age at death, testimonies of nutrition, labor, and illness expose a society in which food was adequate, but relentless labor left lasting deformations in the bodies of all. Life spans were longer for men than women, for whom childbirth was the most frequent cause of death. Pregnancies were recurrent; the many infant burials attest to the fragility of newborns, and childcare was demanding, with breastfeeding extending well into childhood. The number of female saints in village churches--radically unlike monastic katholika--attests to women's regular presence within them. The concerns they brought are reflected in the frequency of saints and scenes related to childbirth, childcare, and protection of family, though depictions of sinners in Hell show that women could be transgressive, too, controlling their fertility, casting spells, and indulging in gossip, a vice incubated by the dense clustering of dwellings. Widowhood could mean destitution, but often brought control of property and with it the obligation to foster family memory through maintenance, adornment, or endowment of churches. The embrace of family extended to the grave, where spouses were characteristically buried together.

If women draw attention to the life cycle of birth and death, men energize the intersecting cycles of agricultural and ecclesiastical calendars. By probing their names and competencies, Gerstel clothes male labor in the persons of the saints who stand shoulder to shoulder in the sanctoral cycles, guarding their animals with the same bells, grasping the same tools, and extending their protection over the same crops that have emerged in village excavations. It is hard, bodily work, made all the more corporeal by the explicit physicality of the depictions of male sinners in Hell. A very particular kind of male work--and male power--is represented by the clergy. Farmers, husbands and fathers like other villagers, priests were nonetheless among the community's elite, inevitably at the center of every event and often portrayed in their churches. Far more fugitive are the monks and nuns of rural life. Absent in written texts, medieval or modern, they are among the most elusive and precious of Gerstel's subjects.

From these people of the Church, the book moves in a final chapter to the Church as a minister to illness and need. Medical handbooks circulated, absorbing wisdom from assorted sources; wise women monitored births and cures. But the church was the fundamental bedrock of recourse in need. From the saints, inscriptions, and traces of ritual actions still visible in its paintings, Gerstel elicits a litany of needs and modes of recourse. Both physically in performing rituals, and spiritually in focusing faith, the priest was crucial here. Death itself held no dominion over the lives that the church guarded, for they remained ever within it in burial and memory.

Gerstel's book opens in actual conversation with an aged villager, who wonders who will care about her way of life; it closes with a memorial tribute at her grave. The text in between responds to her question. It is exquisitely structured. Themes echo from section to section, the densely crowded dwellings of one chapter recurring to explain the persistence of gossip in another; the woman examined in skeleton at one point reappears later in her surviving portrait. Beginning with a village in which "thick medieval walls are often incorporated into medieval houses" (1), it closes with the same in metaphor, for "many aspects of village life are still firmly rooted in Byzantine foundations" (170). The continuity invoked here is central to the book. Village people lived a template imposed by the land and its rhythms; their testament survives not in texts, but in their bodies and images, above all the images in their churches. We have distorted them by trying to read them as blurred replications of urban texts, rather than as originals with a deeply rooted tradition of their own. Gerstel urges us to see the people who composed these messages; to read their paintings instrumentally as a reflection of village lives, addressing perennial concerns--as her chapters show--of fertility, labor, health and fragility, continuity, and memory. A material matrix is provided by archaeology; ethnography in turn allows its integration into the village's long continuity. It was the ethnographers of Greek village life who gave academic legitimacy to the themes of gendered life, the intersecting rhythms of devotional and agricultural calendars, and the rituals of death and memory that Gerstel finds in the Byzantine village. Calling attention to Byzantium's absence from the long continuity of Greek village ethnography, she summons us to draw the Byzantine village into it.

Byzantinists have been reticent to embrace Greek ethnography for many reasons. The extensive destruction of Byzantine cities has made the village the resource of recourse for understanding not village culture alone, but Byzantium as a whole; the passionate nostalgia of Greek ethnography has been a deterrent; so, too, has been the fact that Byzantium was not Greece alone, but embraced other territories like Southern Italy, Cyprus, and Anatolia, with their own ethnographic traditions. But Gerstel's book challenges these scruples by asking: have you seen the people clearly enough? Deeply thought and beautifully composed, it is a clarion summons, which should affect us all.

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