An interview with Sharon Gerstel, author of Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium

Sharon Gerstel, author of Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium, kindly agreed to answer a few questions. The answers are so interesting and so evocative of village life in Greece that even a second interview wouldn’t do justice to everything there is to say.

Sharon, you have made a very comprehensive study of life in villages in the Late Byzantine period. You distinguish your approach from that of some earlier studies. How would you characterise your own approach?

As a specialist in art history, archaeology, and ritual studies, my interest was to look across traditional disciplinary boundaries at Byzantine villages. Having lived for many years in Greece and having spent twenty years walking the landscape and discussing life stories with the older residents of small villages, it was also important for me to layer their stories onto the histories of their villages. While I’m very aware of the scholarly hazards of crossing between the medieval and modern periods, the fact that the villages and buildings have been in continuous habitation and use from the Late Byzantine to the modern period argued in favor of including personal testimonies within my research. Here, I was inspired by the work of a number of ethnographers, including that of Juliet du Boulay, who was a Runciman Award winner in 2010! Typically, scholars are trained to work in one discipline, using texts, painting, architecture, archaeological remains, or anthropological studies as their basic source material. My study was enriched by looking at the totality of evidence about village culture.

To put your picture together, you have drawn on the evidence of legal documents, church painting, archaeology, architecture and anthropology – an unusual combination of specialist knowledge. Did you have to learn new skills for your work on this book?

The skills I used for my book were accumulated over decades as a student, scholar, and fieldworker. Perhaps the most useful experience was studying modern and medieval Greek at the University of Thessaloniki and taking part in field excavations throughout the country. Speaking the language fluently was critical in interviewing modern-day villagers, who are not often comfortable with discussing their life stories with someone who is not a member of their family – this is particularly the case in the Mani, where the elderly residents are very protective of their stories. The one field that I had to learn for this volume was the understanding of skeletal pathologies, a subject that I used in discussing issues of life span, stature, health, work, and reproduction. I think my friends in the medical field became a bit alarmed by some of the questions I was asking them about the skeletal material.

You express a strong belief in the continuity of village life, in Greece and in other cultures. But here and there you comment on continuity ‘until recently’. Has life in the Greek countryside changed in the 20 years of your study? (Is this ‘the end of history?’)

I first visited the Mani in 1986 and it was the first time that I had an encounter with a group of elderly women from the region, who were sitting together – all dressed in black, of course — in the evening. [Laughs] I arrived in their midst on the back of a moped and they just stared at me for minutes. Once they had recovered from their shock, the first question they asked was whether I was married or not! Typical Mani! At that time, in the deep Mani, there were no supermarkets, no internet, no cell phones, and few televisions. It is indisputable that village life in the Mani and elsewhere has changed dramatically in an age of technological advances and enhanced communication. Obviously, some of these changes have benefitted the villagers. I mention in my book better access to health care, for example. Of course, many of the older villagers recall with longing the village communities of their youth, which were often very isolated and very family and ritual focused. You can still find very traditional villages in the Mani, but these are increasingly depopulated as the older residents pass.

Would you like your book to have influence on conservation of the places and objects that you have drawn on for your book? In what ways?

In the course of my fieldwork I have consistently been an extra pair of eyes for the Archaeological Service, which does not have enough staff members to monitor the conditions of all the buildings I have investigated – particularly those in remote sites. In fact, I have frequently traveled together with colleagues from the archaeological service and have collaborated with a number of them on projects. All of my documentation is shared with the archaeological service. As a result of my fieldwork and my advocacy, there are many buildings that have been repaired. Sometimes, all that is required is that a door be installed to prevent animals from entering the building! Other times, mice, owls or bats that have taken up residency in buildings need to be removed. My book opens with the story of a damaged church where part of the fresco of the Virgin Mary had fallen to the ground. What I don’t say in the book is that a representative of the service came to the church the next day to collect the fragments. There are many churches in danger, of course. I have met with the Mayor of the Mani in Gytheion to discuss various buildings that were in disrepair and, in one case, for a church in Messenian Mani, I galvanized the community of St. Sophia, Los Angeles, to raise funds to pay for the architectural consolidation.

You have given us such an intimate picture of life in the small Byzantine villages at this period. Did you form any special favourites among the places and communities you describe? Where would you most like to have lived?

I have been spending a great deal of time in the Messenian Mani in recent years. There is one large village that I love — Kastania. Kastania was a very important agricultural village in the Middle Ages and is located up in the mountains on a very fertile plateau. Many of its Byzantine churches have been lovingly restored in the last few years by the archaeological service. I’m very interested in the threshing floors and mills at the entrance to the village. The people who live in the village today – mostly elderly residents – have tremendous humor. The other village that I love and return to every summer is Moutanistika, up in the mountains above Alika at the southern tip of the Mani. The village has the remains of a number of tower houses and many of the winding streets are still preserved. It is quite difficult to access since the road is very narrow and quite fragile. But the views from the village over the landscape are spectacular and the few people who live there are lovely and very hospitable.

You pay tribute to your daughter as your ‘constant companion’. There must have been many incidents during your travels together, maybe scary, maybe amusing. Can you tell us of any that stand out in your memory?

In some ways, my fieldwork was facilitated by having a small child, who first went to Greece when she was 9 months old (when I completed fieldwork on Naxos for the book), and has spent every summer of her life in the Mani (she is now 11 ½). One episode that she repeats over and over was her experience at Leontari, a Byzantine kastro in Arcadia. I had left her at the only shady spot on site where she was sitting and reading while colleagues and I were taking photographs. When I went to retrieve her, she had disappeared! Believing that she had been left behind on the mountain, she had hiked down by herself carrying fifty pounds of equipment. I found her on the path leading down from the mountain, where she sat picking flowers and crying. It was traumatic for everyone involved! Of course, there have been many funny incidents, as well, many involving creatures that we find in churches — cows, owls, mice. There are stories that we tell over and over again in our house. One of the most memorable concerns the search for the grave of the woman with whom the book opens, Kanella Georgopoulou. The story involves Communists, the movement of bones, and lightning… I think it would be fun at some point to document these adventures for a book.

 You have been involved in several archaeological digs in Greece. Austerity has hit culture in Greece very hard, with a number of archaeological monuments, museums and sites being closed down or cutting their opening hours to the public. Has your work been affected?

Luckily, my projects have not been affected by the economic downturn in Greece because, in general, I am not writing about objects in museums or at state-controlled archaeological sites. I am very concerned about the effect of the economic conditions on my friends and colleagues who are working valiantly under very difficult circumstances. In general, anyone working in Greece has to be particularly attentive to the tremendous sacrifices that people are making. I think it is very important for scholars who work in Greece not only to take, but to give.

What next for you? You have thrown out some hints of further work needed on this or that topic (analysis of skeletons, for example). Are you thinking of pursuing any of those paths yourself – or might you move on to illuminate some quite different field of history?

I am currently involved in two projects: a large, interdisciplinary project on soundscapes of Byzantium which, in its initial phase, focused on churches in Thessaloniki. This project was featured at Atlantic.com (www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/02/byzantine-angel-wings/470076/), on CBC radio. (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/spark/311-unscrambling-encryption-history-in-3d-and-more-1.3465784/mapping-the-sound-of-byzantine-churches-1.3465806), and elsewhere. It’s been amazing to see how much interest the project has generated. In addition to thinking about the interplay of architecture, painting, ritual, chant and acoustics, we are also attempting to create a sound museum of Byzantium – an immersive museum that could transport any listener, through recordings, to a specific building at a specific time. The second large project, in collaboration with two Greek colleagues, focuses on the unusual decoration of a 13th-century church in Lakonia and considers links to Angevin Italy and well as to France. I’m very excited about this project, which places Lakonia at the center of important Mediterranean networks and takes me back to one of my pet obsessions, the life of Isabella of Villehardouin.

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