An excerpt from Sharon Gerstel’s entry, Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium

In 1998, Mrs. Kanella Georgopoulou guided me over stone fences and through fields of donkey thistles to a dilapidated chapel below a small village in the Mani. Bleeding from scratches and parched by the heat of the high sun, we contemplated the face of the Virgin. Once found in the apse of the church, a section of the painting now lay shattered on the ground below. Gazing at the pieces of her village’s history, Mrs. Georgopoulou asked why no one was interested in the past. “When we are gone,” mused the octogenarian, “there will be no one left to tell the tale.” Mrs. Georgopoulou was one of the numerous elderly villagers in the Mani, Boeotia, and Crete who expressed to me the same concern — village life would soon disappear.

In the Late Byzantine period, the greatest concentration of rural villages occurred within the territorial limits of modern Greece. They and the lives of their inhabitants are the subjects of this book. One cannot look at Byzantine villages, however, without sifting through the settlements that grew over or in close proximity to them. In the rural village, the line between the past and the near present is indistinct. Thick medieval walls are often incorporated into traditional houses, despite the challenge they present to modern electrification. Churches, supporting a service that has hardly changed from the thirteenth century, continue to serve settlements that have subsisted for generations. In small villages of the Greek countryside, grindstones continue to tax the muscles of women who must provide the flour that is baked weekly into bread. Paths long inscribed into the ground — linking house and church, church and cemetery, cemetery and house, house and field — still guide the villagers’ footsteps as they visit one another, tend fields and animals, and join in ritual celebration and commemoration. The questions that inform the study of Late Byzantine villages emerge from an understanding of the unchanging nature of rural settlements and the place of the villager within those settlements. The word order (τάξις), often employed to describe Byzantine society, can be used with greater authority for the village, which is regulated by economic hierarchies, family dynamics, and gender roles. Within the village, each person has his or her place.

 

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