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Prologue: the two worlds of Christendom

[From, Byzantine East & Latin West: Two Worlds in Middle Ages and Renaissance, Harper Torch books, New York 1966]

Gracious Living

One result of East-West contact that may not immediately come to mind is the impact of the more refined Byzantine way of life on the lower western standard of living. Byzantine cloths, especially silks and silk brocades, as well as Byzantine utensils and other objects were eagerly sought in the West, and their adoption helped to lead to what we might call a more gracious mode of living. The simpler wooden and occasional stone fortresses and residences of the western nobles were gradually replaced during the crusading period by a type of castle with round towers, a construction which permitted a better defence and deployment of forces and which possibly had been inspired by Byzantine usage. The Normans of Sicily undoubtedly learned something of what they know about masonry construction from the Byzantines.(57) Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France in the twelfth century, who is often credited with introducing more refinement into the lives of the western nobility, especially the women, acquired some of her tastes in the Arabic and Byzantine East while accompanying the French armies of the Second Crusade.(58) Previous to this, in the tenth century when, as we have noted, the Byzantine princess Theophano married the German Emperor Otto ΙΙ, and brought to what she called 'barbarian Germany' a large Greek entourage, she scandalized the German inhabitants by taking baths (then considered unhealthy by the westerners) and by wearing rich silken garments. One outspoken German nun said she had a dream in which Theophano appeared in hell for these transgressions! And only a few years later Theophano's cousin, Maria Argyra, shocked the good Peter Damiani, an ascetic Italian monk, by introducing the use of forks to the city of Venice.(59)

The many products of exquisite Byzantine craftsmanship brought westward over the centuries -icons, ivory and jewel carvings, illuminated manuscripts, gold and silver chalices, bronze doors, intricate glassware and other luxury goods -would seem to point to a considerable amount of Byzantine influence. But it is not always easy to determine how much of Western Europe was actually affected, and to what degree. Another way to show influence of this kind on a more or less permanent basis would be by citing examples of western words -language is after all the most important bearer of ideas- the origin of which has been shown by philologists to be Byzantine. The wide range of terms adduced below will serve to suggest some of the variety of fields in which the East may have influenced the West.

For example, we have from Venice the term gondola (a Venetian boat) which comes from the Byzantine word kontoura, a small boat, and which derived originally from the Greek kontouros, meaning 'short-tailed'. From the area of Ravenna comes the Italian anguria, cucumber, which derives from the Byzantine anguriοn. -In the field of administration, the English word cadaster (register of real estate) is from the Byzantine katastihon. In music the French and English timbre is from the Byzantine tympanon (tambourine), itself from the ancient Greek tympanon, a kettle-drum. The Spanish botica (pharmacy) comes from the Byzantine apotheke meaning storehouse. And, in connection with fabrics, the old French word samit (English samite, referring to a heavy silk fabric) comes from the Byzantine examitos, 'six threaded'. With respect to furniture the French and English word tapis (carpet), Catalonian, tapit, is from the Byzantine tapeti. In medicine, the Spanish quemar, meaning 'to burn', comes from the Byzantine or late Greek kaema, meaning a cauterisation (a derivative of the ancient Greek kaio, to burn).(60) One could go on with many more examples of this kind. But we may observe here only that in the age-old and intricate Mediterranean game of cultural give-and-take, Byzantine material was not always taken over directly by the receiving western culture but was sometimes mediated through a third one, for example the Arabic, just as Byzantium itself on occasion served as a mediator between other cultures.


57. - On the round towers see S. Toy, Α History of Fortification (London,1955) 86 ff. On the Normans see Η. Brown, The English Castle (London, 1936) 23. The Arabs learned fortification from the Greeks and the West also learned from Byzantium via the Arabs. Α. Choisi, L'art de bâtir chez les byzantins (Paris, 1883) is not helpful here. Now cf. Α. Tuulse, Cattles of the Western World (Vienna,1958), who is more cautious.

58. - Α. Kelly, Eleanor of Αquitaine and the Four Kings (Cambridge, Mass., 1950).

59. - Runciman, Byzantine Civilization, 237, and on Damiani see Α. Capecelatro, Storia di San Pier Damiano (Florence, 1862). L. Salzman, English Industries of the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1923) 171, says that as late as the thirteenth century forks, though known in the West, were seldom provided; the diner used his own knife, and spoons were commonly used.

60. - For these terms Ι am grateful to my friends Prof. Henry and Rene Kahane of the University of Illinois. On the Spanish quemar specifically, see J. Corominas, Breve Diccionario Etimologico de la lengua cartellana (Madrid, 1961). For musical instruments see Κ. Sachs, History of Musical Instruments (New York, 1940).

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