Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Shawcross: Morea Chronicle

David and Irene Romano used to host an annual Corinthian masquerade party. Back in 1994 when I was David's intern in the Corinth Computer Project, I attended the party as the Chronicler of the Morea (photo left). My own interest on this fictional author rose out of the Morea Project, a field project that in the 1990s revealed a whole mess of undocumented medieval settlements. Although the Chronicle of the Morea has been a central source in the history of this region, few have entered the literary mindset of the Chronicle as deeply as historian Teresa Shawcross.

Shawcross's The Chronicle of the Morea: Historiography in Crusader Greece (Oxford, 2009) is by far the most important book on the Frankish Morea in the last decade and tops another Shawcross favorite, "Re-inventing the Homeland in the Historiography of Frankish Greece: The Fourth Crusade and the Legend of the Trojan War," Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 27 (2003), pp. 120-152. I remember reading this article in the Gennadios Library while thinking about mythical Centaurs represented on Byzantine and Frankish sculptural reliefs (such as a sarcophagus now at Vlacherna Monastery)

Shawcross's new book is divided into three major parts, preceded by a 30-page introduction that, to my mind, is the sweetest introduction to the general intellectual issues of the period. Part I, Composition, Transmission, and Reception, does all the philological hard work of establishing manuscript traditions and imagining the lost common source. Part II, Narrative Technique: Orality and Literacy, dissects the Chronicle as a text with its own structure, literary constructs. My favorite part of this analysis is the study of speech acts within the text. Shawcross makes a fundamental discovery here, that the Greek version reveals inspiration from oral performance and reception (hence justifying my own dress-up above). In contrast, the French version lacks this "oral residue" and is driven by textual structures. In Part II, Ideology: Conquerors and Conquered, Shawcross takes all her laborious textual and inter-textural readings and employs them towards a cultural reconstruction. Working strictly within the parameters of her textural analysis, Shawcross is able to prove concepts of identity, "Greek" versus "Latin." Rather than relying on contemporary cultural theories of identity and projecting them clumsily onto the 13th-15th centuries, Shawcross manages to recreate contemporary notions of ethno-religious identities. The results are astounding. There are many conclusions having to do with the creation of a vernacular histories, a Moreote sensibility and even a local resistance movement. Shawcross contextualizes the composition of the Chronicle to the development of those identities. Written in the 1320s, the Chronicle stands at a moment of crisis, a moment of transition within an established Moreot aristocracy. In short, the Principality of the Morea had established a flourishing multicultural society based on local power-centers. Despite their ethnic, religious and sociological differences, Latins and Greeks collaborated into an interesting medieval experiment, which came under threat in the 14th century when the survival of the principality depended on outsiders, the Angevin kings of Naples (on the Frankish side) and the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople (on the Greek side). Shawcross observes, for instance, that not all of the Greek in the Peloponnese supported the Byzantine Despotate of Mistra. Historians have tended to exploit the Chronicle of the Morea as a source in understanding the region's history. Shawcross has shown the flows of such strategy. Rather, we should read the Chronicle of the Morea as a document that directly confronts the 1320s identity crisis.

The lessons and conclusions of Shawcross' book are multiple and complex. She has shown that scrupulous philological and literary analysis can still yield valuable lessons from an old text. Although I am not a philologist or a manuscripts specialist, I am awed by Shawcross's technical analysis without which her conclusions would have been the usual cultural speculation that we all perform when studying this interesting period.

Finally, I thank Shawcross for publishing 12 brilliant plates illustrating manuscripts from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Among other things, the reader can inspect a wonderful variety of letter forms. I will definitely scan these pages, enlarge the opening lines and put them on my wall: "Θέλω να σε αφιγιθώ αφήγησιν μεγάλιν, Και αν θέλεις να με ακροάσης ολπίζω να σ'αρέσει." This should be the motto of all historical enterprise: "I want to tell you a great narrative, and if you want to listen to me, I hope that you like it." Another favorite quote comes from the 12th-century Theogony by John Tzetzes and illustrates the multi-cultural atmosphere of the Byzantine capital during the reign of Emperor Manuel Comnenus (1143-80) and hence before the 4th Crusade (p. 18-19). This quote is so good that I must leave it for a later posting of its own.

Shawcross's work now tops my BEST-OF new scholarship on the Frankish Morea. My list is highly subjective and only includes work that accompanied a personal "aha" moment of intellectual insight. It includes Aneta Ilieva's Frankish Morea (1205-1262): Socio-Cultural Interaction between the Franks and the Local Population (Athens, 1991), Peter Locks' The Franks in the Aegean, 1204-1500 (London, 1995), Charles K. Williams' Frankish excavations in Corinth (published in Hesperia 1992-1998), and Demetris Athanasoulis' excavations in Eleia.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States