Byzantine manoeuvres

I haven’t been reporting on the IHR Earlier Medieval seminars in chronological order this term, so I’m now going back to 2nd February to report on Rosemary Morris’ paper ‘Telling stories in a Byzantine court’. This focused on a detailed exposition of a document from 995 AD which Rosemary has never seen, and will probably never see, (because it’s in the archive of Mount Athos monastery, and women still aren’t allowed there). But she did have access to an edition of the text, and had done a translation of it for the handout, so what you’ll mostly get here is extracts from that, with a few brief comments about Rosemary’s thoughts on it:

Act of Judge Nicholas (December, Indiction 9, a.m. 6504 = 995) (Actes d’Iviron, 1, Des origines au milieu du XI siècle, edd. J. Lefort, N. Oikonomidès, D. Papachryssanthou et al. (Archives de l’Athos, 14, Paris, 1985), no. 9). Translation: Rosemary Morris

Those who lead the monastic life withdrawn from worldly concerns need a little practical assistance, which will avoid the complete collapse of their bodies, so that, by this help, the soul may achieve something worthwhile. For, indeed, a soul which is separated from its living organ can achieve nothing, neither good nor ill. But it sometimes happens that, under the pressure of the needs of the body, even monks may do wrong to their neighbours and behave in an intolerable fashion.

As Rosemary pointed out, here the judge starts with a conventional trope about souls and bodies, and then goes ‘off-piste’ by pointing out that monks may not be so holy after all, which suggests a possible subtext. Was this trying to echo imperial legislation that worried about the oppression of the poor? How risky was it for the judge to express his views in this way?

The monks of the imperial monastery of Kolobou, having importuned their neighbours and joint taxpayers (syntelestai), the inhabitants of the village (chôrion) of Siderokausia, [the latter] requested that a court (dikastêrion) should meet to grant them the help they sought. The matter was a complicated and long-standing one…….[the judge considered it helpful to clarify] the origin of it in order to facilitate the judgement of those who might, in the future, have to resolve it.

Kolobos/Kolobou monastery was founded in the mid-ninth century in Chalkidiki by St John Kolobos, and was later taken over by the monastery of Ivrion on Mount Athos. They inherited a dispute with the inhabitants of Siderokausia that dated back for decades – the main contentions were over liability to pay tax and over land use, though there were also mentions of water rights. Rosemary connected this to possible stress of rising population levels in the tenth and eleventh century, with increasing competition for the small coastal plain, and many rivers dry in the summer.

Judge Nicholas’ judgement then quotes from an earlier judgement (mid C10? – my notes are a bit unclear here), that was produced in the court:

The aforementioned village of Siderokausia….was established…..has in its territory religious foundations which are mentioned in its boundary description (periorismos), conforming to the old periorismos once established by the former spatharokandidatos and epoptês Nicholas during the reign of the kyr (Lord) Leo and Alexander (886-912). This document, which was produced by the most venerable monk Euthymios, priest and son of the kyr John the Miriam and by George, nephew of the same John, provides these details [details of the boundaries follow].

We then get some of the details of the dispute this time, centring on the coastal plain area of Arsenikeia:

This flat and wooded land is cultivated by the Siderokausites and belongs to them, except for one part, the metochion known as Belikradou, which is the neighbour of Anô Arsenikeia (Upper Arsenikeia), as the decisions (psêphoi) of the judges of the capital and the memoranda (hyposemeiôseis) of the judges of the province indicate. Since Katô Arsenikeia (Lower Arsenikeia), as has been mentioned, is entirely wooded and covered in trees, with ditches bringing from the hill tops the water which works the mill and makes the gardens and orchards fertile. .. … . … .., as well as pasture for animals, the monks have seen fit to cause a herd of animals to enter there, thus ruining the sowings made by the inhabitants of Siderokausia who live there.

Here, there are conflicting plans for land use, in a recently cleared area: the monastery are creating something like the equivalence of a Cistercian grange, a pastoral economy, while the villagers of Siderokausia are trying to grow crops.

The text then provides an extremely vivid picture of the court proceedings:

The latter, not putting up with such a great injury, with one accord, came to court and shouted all together as rustics do, one that the grain, scarcely sown in the ground, was straightaway trampled and thus could not grow; another that, scarcely had it begun to grow than the animals browsed upon it; another that it was harvested by the teeth of the animals even before the harvest. The monks thundered out his riposte, ‘We alone should be the owners of all of Arsenikeia, noted down in this periorismos in the name of our monastery’. The crowd replied, ‘It does not make mention of the metochion of Belikradou. By what law could you claim ownership of Arsenikeia simply because you have established a crowd of paroikoi (dependent peasants) there?’ ‘As a consequence of the decision(s) of the judges of the capital and the province, we do not alone possess the ownership of Arsenikeia, but you all, who have held rights over a part of these lands since time immemorial, hold them without hindrance.’

Thus saying they produced the judgement of the protospatharios and ex-megas chartoularios Constantine Karamallos, and, in addition, another one given by Nikêphoros, who was then anthypatos, patrikios and strategôs of Thessaloniki and who was afterwards raised to the rank of magistros and who died in the Italian themes. The crowd, making a great clamour, said, ‘Your monastery has the right to the metochion and to Antô Arsenikeia …., but not to Katô Arsenikeia under the different names by which it is called, where you have built mills, planted gardens and orchards, restricting and harming all the community. It is clear that this is the case, because this judge (Nikêphoros?) himself visited and examined each of these places.’

Deafened by this incomprehensible shouting, the judge devised a suitable solution, which was well thought-out and benefited both parties.

A lot of Rosemary’s paper was spent looking at the construction of this narrative, which while it sounds near verbatim, can’t actually be so, and which was probably written several months after the events. But it does give a very vivid impression of a Byzantine court, very different from a late Roman one, with no lawyers or advocates, but a lot of shouting.

Judge Nicholas (or possibly the notary who drew up the document, and possibly also the court reporter) is here creating a legal narrative in which order is brought out of chaos. The reference to a ‘suitable solution’ suggests that he might be concerned about an appeal to a higher court, though we don’t have any further records of the dispute in the archive. As Rosemary pointed out, this leaves a lot of questions about why the judgement wasn’t redacted further (e.g. to put it into the third person), and the extent to which this document may have been intended to be ‘performed’. Were the earlier documents cited by this judgement read out in court?

There are also other questions the document raises. Rosemary noted that this dispute about a tiny area in northern Greece seems to have been dealt with at both Thessaloniki and Constantinople, and that the villagers were relying on law rather than custom. She wondered why the judge called the villagers ‘rustics’, when they may have had a copy of the entry from the fiscal register, and seem to have had legal documents to use? There is also the (probably unanswerable) question of the extent to which the parties to the case dictate the terms of the final agreement.

The act ends with a long section on how the land and other rights were divided between the two parties, and is then signed:

In order to keep the memory of the judgements intact, the present hypomnêma, drawn up by Nicholas, prôtospatharios, judge of Strymon and of Thessalonika, was given to the Monastery of Kolobou and a certified copy to the village of Siderokausia. Signed by the hand of the person who drew up the judgement and sealed with his customary seal, in the month of December, Induction 9, Year of the World 6504.

+I, Nicholas, prôtospatharios, Judge of Strymon and Thessalonika, have dictated [this] and then signed it with my own hand for confirmation.+

The judgement gives us an unusual glimpse into Byzantine life and thought: I don’t know enough about the background to be able to comment on some of the wider economic/legal significance of the case. But even for those of us who aren’t Byzantinists, Rosemary’s paper did demonstrate once again how much you can learn from texts involving dispute settlement.


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