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Speros Vryonis,Jr.

The Byzantine Legacy in Folk Life and Tradition in the Balkans

From The Byzantine Legacy in Eastern Europe, edited by Lowell Clucas, East European Monographs, Boulder,New York, 1988.

The general theme, which our symposiarch has set for us, has two very broad characteristics, which I should wish to underline at the onset. It is, first, of epic proportions. Geographically it stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Archangel, from Belgrade to Vladivostok. The second characteristic is that our ideas about this period and world are vague; diffuse at best, almost non-existent at worst. In contrast to the Islamic and Western medieval traditions, which suffered no truncation of political institutional life and development, the Byzantine tradition was politically decapitated by the victorious armies of the sultan Mehmed II, that military and political genius who replaced the Byzantine imperial tradition with that of the Islamic world. Given the fact that history and historians, until relatively recently, had as their almost exclusive concern the study of political history with its dates, significant battles, institutional and legal forms, it was natural, historiographically, that the very idea of an afterlife in the history of Byzantine civilization should be only vaguely understood. This is of course an oversimplification. Two older scholars from the past generation of nationalist Balkan historians-philologists had charted two paths into the ongoing rhythms and lives of the Byzantine tradition during the period that is the focal center of our conference. Nicholas Iorga, in his imaginatively titled book, Byzance après Byzance, had seized upon the pale political and ideological survival of Byzantine political theory and institutions in the Phanariots and in the milieu of the princes of the Rumanian principalities. Phaedon Koukoules, in his monumental Vyzantinon vios kai politismos, in six volumes of accumulated data, the variety and chronological spread of which remains prodigious, focussed upon the popular life and culture of the Byzantine empire and in so doing traced the origins of these popular cultural institutions and practices in the period of Graeco-Roman antiquity and then into the post Byzantine period, i.e. during the Turkokratia and modern times.(1) It is the task of some of the papers in the present conference to follow the path of Iorga, that is to say, to map out what, if any, are the evidences for the nachleben of the Byzantine political tradition. My task, as assigned to me by the symposiarch, is to follow in the second path and to attempt to say something meaningful about the Byzantine after - life on the level of the popular culture of the Balkan peoples.

I have written, in the past, in rather great detail as to the effect of the Ottoman conquest and rule on the institutions and life of the Balkan and Anatolian peoples and so I shall not go into any great detail as to these effects.(2) It will, however, be necessary to remark on three aspects of this subject, aspects which will serve as the broader background for my specific remarks as regards the Byzantine legacy in the popular traditions of the various Balkan peoples. I wish, first, to underline the generally conservative character of the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans. They were, by comparison with the centuries of long warfare and conquests in Anatolia, relatively quick, with destruction it is true but of a limited and controlled character, with no massive nomadic settlements on the scale that Anatolia saw. Finally they were carried out by one, well-organized political entity, which enjoyed a considerable centralization of political and military authority. Second, these conquests destroyed the political dynasties and aristocratic structures of the Greeks, Bulgars, Serbs, and Albanians, and took control of the economic, demographic, and fiscal resources of this vast area. Thus the kingpins, i.e. the patrons and artistic executors of the formal culture of the various Balkan peoples disappeared and this formal culture atrophied. But the peasant masses remained in place, in their centuries old economic occupations as farmers and shepherds, with their old religious and cultural institutions. These cultural institutions, which survived, and which I characterize as popular culture, had both elements that were common to the various Balkan peoples as well as local and ethnic variety.

Many folklorists who have studied the various folk cultures of Greeks, Bulgars, Roumanians, Serbs, and Albanians, and to a lesser degree of Turks; have assumed a dynamic theory of culture, that is they see popular culture as a phenomenon, which has a vertical and horizontal structure. The horizontal structure consists of well defined layers of popular culture, often chronologically and politically separable the one from the other. The vertical structure consists of the historical processes, which posit one layer atop another and during which processes the new, and the old interact, producing elements of both continuity and change. This approach has been very useful and has led to a significant gain in our understanding of the history, cultures and ethnogenesis of the various peoples that inhabit the present day Balkans. It allows for the maximum number of possibilities in explaining cultural phenomena and historical developments in an area as complex as that of the Balkans. It also represents a shift of historical and scholarly interests from the narrowly prescribed and circumscribed circles of diplomatic, political history and so represents a vast enrichment of our historical understanding of the Balkan peoples, their past and present.

Further, at almost all times, at least since the fourth century B.C. the various peoples inhabiting the Balkan peninsula have been subject not only to the internal dynamic or genius of their own immediate cultures, but also to the interaction of these latter with the unifying cultures and political forces of imperial peoples and structures: first, those of Philip and Alexander the Great, then those of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and finally by the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Also, to this latter category of outside unifying imperial forces one should add the impact of the West. In each era of imperial rule one sees an internal adjustment of the local cultural traditions to the unifying forces of these centralizing political institutions. In the Graeco-Roman, early Byzantine period it was reflected in the massive-Romanization and Hellenization of the local Balkan tongues, as well as by the spread of an urban and rural economic system which imposed uniform institutions on large areas and masses of people. At the same time, however, there is every reason to suspect that local varieties survived these unifying forces, though it is very difficult to trace them for this early period. Under Byzantine influence Christianity spread and added a most important layer, a significant horizontal layer, in the cultural life of the Balkan peoples. The local varieties in the popular cultures had once more to accommodate themselves, this time to Christianity, and Christianity, conversely, had to accommodate itself to the local cultures. The same can be said of Ottoman rule, though its effect was more limited to the negative aspects of political effects. Thus, in the specific remarks that are to follow I wish to make observations about particular cultural phenomena, which can best be understood against the background of this crude and rapidly sketched theoretical structure. For, when we talk about the Byzantine legacy we are talking about a legacy with a complex and long historical past. The Byzantine legacy is not only those elements, which in the popular culture of the Balkan peoples can be pointed to as a purely Byzantine creation, i.e. the monastic and hagiolatric aspect of religious life. It also includes those cultural legacies, which were absorbed into the popular culture of the Byzantine period from pre-Christian times and cultural life, such as incubation, animal sacrifice, and the seasonal calendar. These latter were absorbed by Christianity because they were a vital force in the life of the inhabitants of the peninsula, and were functional. Thus, when speaking of the Byzantine legacy we include not only those things, which were purely and originally Byzantine in creation, such as formal Christianity, but also all the pagan elements, which Christianity absorbed as it evolved into a universal religion and as it penetrated the life of the rural areas. We come back again to the theory of cultural evolution as consisting of chronological layers of culture related to one another and interacting with one another through the process of time and under the impact of political, demographic, and technological movements.

In surveying the Byzantine legacy in the folk life and tradition of the Balkans, I shall attempt to illustrate the nature of this phenomenon by touching, very briefly, for I can do no more than that, on six separate topics: Constantinople-Istanbul; religion; man's relation to human life and to the unknown; the agricultural and pastoral cycles and calendars; the panegyris; and finally, the legend of Alexander the Great. By looking, ever so briefly it is true, at each one of these disparate topics we shall begin to understand the nature and complexity of the popular culture of the Balkan peoples during the long period of Turkish rule, and in part thereafter.


1. Ν. Iorga, Byzance après Byzance (Bucharest, 1935; reprind Bucharest, 1971). Ρ. Koukoules, Byzantion vios kai politismos (Athens, (948-1952), I-IV.

2. S.Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century ( Berkeley, 1971). Also in Studies on Byzantium, Seljuks and Ottomans. Reprinted Studies (Malibu, 1981), see the following studies: "Religious Changes and Patterns in the Balkans, l4th-l6th Centuries;" "The Byzantine Legacy and Ottoman Forms;" "The Greeks under Turkish Rule".

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