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Episode 4: Vasilika: A Village in Modern Greece with Prof. Sharon Gerstel and Franka Horvat

For our October podcast, we were joined by Professor Sharon Gerstel (University of California, Los Angeles) and Franka Horvat (PhD Candidate, University of California, Los Angeles), for a discussion of Vasilika: A Village in Modern Greece by Ernestine Friedl, published in 1963 in New York by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: Welcome to the fourth episode of the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Podcast Series. I am Anna Stavrakopoulou, the Program Director in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

After the conclusion of our summer series, we’re delighted to return for the fall with a new lineup of exceptional scholarly duos. 

To start off our fall series, we are joined today by Sharon Gerstel

Sharon Gerstel: Sharon Gerstel. Good morning.

Anna: And Franka Horvat.

Franka Horvat: Hi, I’m Franka Horvat. Nice to be here.

Anna: Sharon E. J. Gerstel is Director of the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture, George P. Kolovos Family Centennial Term Chair in Hellenic Studies, and Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She studied at Bryn Mawr College, Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, and the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. Her research focuses on late Byzantine villages in Greece and on the intersections of Orthodox art and ritual. Gerstel is a widely published author, whose books include Beholding the Sacred Mysteries (1999) and Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography (2015). The latter has received two prestigious awards. Gerstel has also edited numerous other volumes, among which are Approaching the Holy Mountain: Art and Liturgy at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai (with Robert Nelson; 2010) and Viewing Greece: Cultural and Political Agency in the Medieval and Early Modern Mediterranean (2016). Gerstel has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a prestigious J. Simon Guggenheim Fellowship (2011–2012) and a Mellon Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Her current work in the Mani, focusing on the restoration of village churches and the recording of the history of their communities, is the subject of a volume in preparation.

And Franka Horvat is a PhD candidate at the department of Art History at UCLA who focuses on Byzantine art. Her research interests include the Byzantine periphery, with an emphasis on the relationship between rural areas and urban centers, as well as islands and mainland. In her PhD thesis she focuses on the Elaphiti Islands off the coast of Dalmatia, and reconstructs the islands’ living conditions in the 13th century, their relationship with their mainland center of Ragusa, and their role in the social, economic, and artistic networks of the wider Mediterranean. 

They will be discussing Vasilika: A Village in Modern Greece by Ernestine Friedl, which was published in 1963, in New York by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. The book has had a big impact not only on the way rural modern Greece was viewed by anthropologists, but also on the way the past was perceived by scholars of other historical periods of the Greek geographical space. 

They’ll answer questions like: What is the connection between a post–World War II Greek village in Boeotia and 11th-century Byzantine villages in the Mani? How relevant are Friedl’s observations in the 1960s for a 21st-century scholar studying 13th-century villages on the Dalmatian coast? And how have women scholars impacted the course of Byzantine studies in the last forty years?

So, it’s wonderful to have you both. We are going to discuss a very particular book Professor Gerstel has chosen, which is Ernestine Friedl’s anthropological book on Vasilika, a Greek village. I wanted to ask you why you have chosen an anthropological book from the ’60s for your discussion with Franka today?

Sharon: Vasilika was the first study, or one of the first studies, by a non-Greek to analyze the life, especially women’s life and farming life, in a Greek village. It was a holistic study of a Greek village. My own work focuses on village life in Greece in the Byzantine period. For me, looking at an anthropological study of the same subject was critical to recovering the voices of those who couldn’t write their own story. It was also a great way to pull the work of a very important pioneering female scholar who really influenced a generation of both American and Greek anthropologists.

Anna: Sharon, apart from Ernestine Friedl’s book, what other book has influenced your choices in Byzantine studies in how you formed your own universe?

Sharon: The most important book for me and this research on the village was, of course, Angeliki Laiou’s groundbreaking study on peasant society in which she used texts from the Athonite archives to look at social and demographic changes in Byzantine villages, late Byzantine villages in Macedonia. I will say we were very close friends. There were many, many conversations that we had about my book, and especially about my work on Byzantine women as the book developed.

I was fortunate enough to be at Dumbarton Oaks at a time when both Laiou and I would say also Alexander Kazhdan was in residence, who also had written extensively about Byzantine, what he would have said peasant society. Although today, of course, we stay away from using this politically loaded word, “peasant.” It was the time at Dumbarton Oaks where these conversations and interests were very much to the fore.

Anna: Thank you, thank you very much. You are an art historian, a Byzantine art historian. How does a scholar who does art dealing with other media, let’s say, use an anthropological book which is mainly based upon observations and fieldwork and oral testimonies?

Sharon: I think the best way to show how I use the book is actually to read the introduction of my own book. I think that will make clear why this study was so critical to my work. Would you like me to read a little bit?

Anna: Yes, of course, please go ahead.

Sharon: I’d like to read just a paragraph from the introduction, and then I’ll read from the conclusion of the book, also a paragraph. The book is called Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography. As our listeners may know, this book won three very important prizes. Looking at ethnographic studies as well as Byzantine art and architectural remains, I think, was a very interesting premise for a number of readers. The book starts off, the introduction:

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 the scratches of thistles 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.

And then from the conclusion: 

When Kanella Georgopoulou lamented that no one was interested in the past, she was, of course, referring to the past of her community, the village of Piontes. As one of the few remaining residents of this small settlement in the southern Mani, she was well aware of the dramatic changes that the peninsula had undergone during her lifetime. The young had abandoned the countryside for the city; the old, remaining behind, preserved the memories of the past.

Following Mrs. Georgopoulou through openings in the crude stone fences dividing the landholdings of village families and approaching the Byzantine chapel of St. George, it struck me how little the landscape had changed since the tenth century when the church was first constructed, and the thirteenth century when it received a new layer of decoration. For centuries, generations had accessed the building using the same path. 

Having walked for an hour under the hot sun, we reached the church. Mrs. Georgopoulou crossed herself and then sat down on a large stone. She waited under an olive tree for me to finish my study of the building. 

Kanella Georgopoulou—a wife, a mother, a widow, a Maniatissa—died in November 2003. May her memory, and that of her village, be eternal. 

For me, my entrance into the study of the village was this conversation with this elderly Maniatissa, a conversation I had many times, a conversation I continue to have today in my fieldwork. The questions that I was asking about villages mirrored almost precisely the questions that Ernestine Friedl had been asking in the 1970s [sic]. That was a very interesting parallel for me. These questions concerned farming practices and questions of time, especially, and gender relations in the village, the physical layout of the village.

What I was asking of Byzantine villages with their sparse remains was really nothing that Ernestine Friedl hadn’t asked a few decades earlier. The parallels were uncanny for me. This notion that the village represents a continuum was very important to my scholarship. It’s something that hasn’t been popularly received in a field that favors the study of ruptures over continuity, but for me, it was the critical element of understanding village life. I stand by that even today.

Anna: Yes, thank you. I guess your book, the particularity of your book, the big asset of your book, is the fact that you are turning to the village, isn’t it? That was a new thing.

Sharon: The village as a field of study has been favored by Greek scholars but it’s been not a field undertaken by many American scholars, with the exception of course, of Angeliki Laiou, who approached the village through the study of texts. The study of the village through their material remains and the creation of a holistic picture of village life, I think, perhaps I was the first person to undertake that. I’m glad to see that people like Franka are going to take that one step further.

Anna: Thank you very much. I wanted to ask Franka—you [Sharon] got exposed, I guess, to Ernestine Friedl’s book in the late ’80s, ’90s, sometime around these decades. Now, Franka heard about this book in your class, Sharon. I would like her to say a few things because again, Franka’s work is also different, they’re not very close to this material. Can you tell us a bit more, Franka, about the impact of this book on your work?

Franka: Yes, certainly. I was lucky enough to get this work presented to me in class. Not so much presented to me but all of these questions that Sharon had to pick up, I was privy to because of her work. Then, about four years later, now in present moment, as I was rereading the book, I was thinking about a very different impact that the book has on me now, as I’m in a different stage of my own dissertation.

I focus on three Dalmatian islands and I’m lucky enough to have archival evidence, which, basically, they speak a lot about the same issues that Friedl focuses on in her book, and the two complement each other. I am reading documents on land sales. I’m thinking about the community from a perspective of resilience, from the perspective of communication, conflict resolution.

I’m even, and this is a very interesting thing, I’m even seeing the very faces—well, not faces, but voices of the people who inhabited these islands. They really get their own agency as they tell their own stories through the court records, as they say things like, “I was there, and I saw this, and I know this is not true.” In that respect, Friedl’s book I think complements that. It gives me a chance to not so much fill in the blanks, because you can’t ever do that cognitively, but get a broader imagination of what certain things might have been.

Sharon: Franka, one of the most exciting moments that we had a few years ago was when you brought one of the texts you had translated to class and we sat around the table and heard the words about a court case that was happening for one of the villages. I wonder if you might be able to read one of these cases, so that we can hear the voices of your villagers.

Franka: Okay. Yes, I can do that. I’m going to read a part of it because these court cases tend to be really long, and they tend to be repetitive. The very nice thing about them is that they have voices of multiple people. I’m just going to read you one.

This is a court case from 1284 and it says it begins like this:

Radosta, comes of Šipan, questioned under sacrament by dominus comes and the commune of Ragusa, having sworn to tell the truth, said: I know that at least eight men from Šipan went to Mljet on business. And when they got back to Šipan, they made a dinner party at the house of Dobricna from Šipan. They invited me over and sat me at the head of the table.

While we were at that dinner, Bratcus Miculic and Radosta Codanic had an argument over a piece of roasted meat, which both of them wanted to take. And then I saw that the respective Bratcus struck Radosta with a knife which he had cut bread and meat with. And I saw that he struck him three times, but the respective Radosta had at least five wounds. He was wounded in the shoulder and close to the shoulder. Then I apprehended the aforementioned Bratcus and took him to dominus comes.

Now, the document continues with multiple testimonies of other people who, as you can imagine, all tell different stories about how many times this person was struck, things like that. The whole thing ends really quickly by all of them apprehending the perpetrator. What I also found very interesting about this particular document is that we actually tend to see the ways in which these villagers, these islanders, spend time together. There are a lot of information here on, you know, they were on business together and then they came back and then they wanted to make a dinner party, which was obviously a celebration.

This account of them having an argument over a piece of meat, I think that’s fantastic, where you tend to see that meat was obviously something special. The fact that comes, this is a person instituted by the city of Ragusa to keep track of what’s going on the islands, to basically rule over the islands. He is an inhabitor of the islands for the duration of his rule. He is seated at the head of the table; this is something that tends to happen. There are very many instances where we can see the kinds of relationships that are being formed by the community and altogether in this space, which is an island space, and you can sense that once you read many documents.

Anna: Can I ask you something? Where did you find this document? What kind of document is this? Is it in the court archives? Or can you tell us a little bit more about this document?

Franka: Yes. These are documents coming from the Archives of Dubrovnik, and the Archives of Dubrovnik are, according to Braudel, probably the best archives in the Mediterranean for the study of everyday life. You tend to see that as you read these documents. These are, particularly the documents that I focus on our 13th-century documents, they’re in Latin. This was my translation. In medieval Latin, which is very much mixed with Italian. The things that we can see from these documents are very diverse and multiple, starting from very basic land sales to dowry arrangements, to things like this, which are really court cases with criminal charges. These are the most interesting ones, I think personally.

Sharon: This question of land use, dowry arrangements, of course, it’s something that Friedl looks at in the village of Vasilika. It’s something that I’ve talked about in my research with the alienation of property in the case of widows, and thinking about how the land is used, how it’s divided up among families, how there are fences that demarcate boundaries. I wanted to ask, you have this huge body of texts, and then on the islands themselves, you have remains. I wonder how you navigate between the text and the standing remains. What’s the process of your fieldwork? How much time do you spend in the library? How much time do you spend in the field?

Franka: It’s hard to say because this is a research that I’ve been not really doing for many years before I actually started my PhD program, but I was targeting it because I was very interested in it. This is when I started looking at the churches. There are fifteen churches on the three inhabited islands. These islands off the coast of Dubrovnik, they’re very close to Dubrovnik and they’re very small.

The smallest island is 2.4 kilometers square, I guess that would be a mile and a half square. Just to give you an idea that when we talk about three of these small islands, fifteen churches is a lot. They’re all very small churches, chapels almost, and they all belong to the same type of architecture. One aisle space with a dome, which is basically a hallmark of the territory and which reflects multiple different, let’s call them influences—the combination of various streams of networking that I’m also investigating.

These churches, some of them have frescoes preserved in them, almost all of them have sculpture. It’s a very rich area in terms of both material remains and of archival. of textual remains. I was looking at these churches for years before I entered the program and then started to look at the archives. I’m lucky enough to have the body of work that I need most published in Latin. I spent, I would say about two summers in the archive, but the majority of my textual work is outside of the archive. It’s translating and thinking about how to interpret.

Sharon: I’m thinking about all the hours and days and months we spend in the field and I think this might be a foreign concept to a lot of art historians that you’re walking across the land without a hope of ever seeing a building, just to gain an understanding of the land use.

For me, it was a natural outcome of the whole trajectory of my life. I don’t think many people know that when I was younger, for example, I worked as a farmhand and so I had an intimate understanding of agriculture. Bringing that knowledge of one’s childhood, one’s upbringing into one’s studies, I think really enriches the way you look at things and the questions that you ask. I wonder, Franka, what was the origin of your interest in the Elaphiti Islands? Did you have a personal connection to them?

Franka: I did. My father is from Dubrovnik, so I used to spend a lot of summers in Dubrovnik. In the course of—when I was a child, maybe six years old, my aunt bought a house on the island. It became our little getaway for the summers. I really feel like that is my second home. I think that allows me, very much like in the case of the Mani with you, that allows me to establish a more personal relationship with the material that I study. It’s not just, oh, I really like this for scholarly reasons. It’s not just a calculated sensation like this, but it’s also a highly personal thing for me.

Sharon: I think the fact that it’s highly personal means you have maybe a better understanding, but also, you’re able to have more access to the materials. I think when Friedl in writing her book talks about gender roles, for example, she, as a female anthropologist, was able to gain access to information about the household that her contemporaries—John Peristiany, John Campbell, or even Richard Blum—maybe they didn’t have that aspect as a woman who was able to sit in the kitchen, peel potatoes with other women, and listen to their stories and conversations.

I think because of that, she was able to look at the Greek village in a way that was different, that is, through the power of women. There’s this idea that somehow in Greek culture, traditional Greek culture, it’s men who hold the power, but, in fact, in the village it’s quite the opposite. Where the family is the main unit of life and power, and it’s the women who rule in many ways, the family. I think Friedl was very persuasive in arguing for this gender balance or recalculating the gender balance.

I think in my work, talking to people, sitting and peeling potatoes with them, or walking with them from one place to another, talking to shepherds with their flocks has made all the difference in my understanding of the rhythm of village life. With that, the understanding of the place of Byzantine churches within the continuum of the village, because these are not static monuments that end in 1453. These are monuments that have a very rich afterlife for the village.

Franka: I agree. It also made me think about all the ways in which we as female scholars—it’s harder for us in multiple ways. Then, there are certain things that we as women can access that men cannot, and I really felt that in Friedl’s book, as she was really talking about the female characters in the book in a way that allowed me to understand that she got to know them really well.

Sharon: Now, I think it’s in my own research, a funny comparison to me made between my first book, which looked at the decoration of Byzantine sanctuaries in churches, which is an area/section of the church forbidden to women. People always wondered, how did you access the material? How did you do your fieldwork? I remember even at a Dumbarton Oaks symposium once, Danny Ćurčić standing up and saying, “How did you manage to get behind the sanctuary screen,” and I’m still not giving away that information.

Then my work on the Byzantine village where it was just the opposite, that my guides into the village were women. In fact, in the Mani, it’s the women who have the memory. They remember the records of the family, they know the paths to the churches that I wanted to study, some of which some scholars have never visited because they’re so hidden in the countryside. It’s interesting being outside of a space of study, and then inside of a space of study.

Franka: Well, you just basically gave me leeway to ask a question. I would be really delighted to hear because in a way I wanted to—I’ve been meaning to ask this for a long time, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to ask. Now as we were reading this book together, it made me think about, when did you first encounter this book? When you first read it, did you immediately understand that this is something that you need to incorporate in your work? Was that a gradual transition? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Sharon: I had already visited the Mani many times and I had excavated at Panakton, learning about the remains of a Byzantine village that had been covered for centuries. It was only after both of those things, my visits to the Mani and my excavation, that I found the book purely by chance. After I found the book, I started going through every anthropological study that was based on the book, that was inspired by the book. Friedl’s book, I think we should acknowledge, inspired a generation of anthropologists whose work evolved and changed.

I think about people like Juliet du Boulay whose work was fundamental to my own work, her beautiful book Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village. Margaret Kenna or Laurie Hart, my colleague at UCLA, or Nadia Seremetakis, who has done amazing work, or Anna Caraveli on the laments in the Mani. All of these female anthropologists stood on the shoulders of Friedl. Both American anthropologists but also Greek-American and Greek anthropologists stood on her shoulders. I, myself, felt like when I read the book that I, too, could stand on her shoulders to think about the same questions.

My questions are slightly different. For example, she talks a lot about the layout of the village that she calls it, the agora, the center of the plateia—we would call it really the rouga in my villages—but she also talks about the positioning of houses. I would move forward to think her questions inspired me to think about issues of gossip among women as a female discourse of empowerment, but also of subversion.

There were questions that were already in my mind that were crystallized, and, in a way, I felt validated by her book. I felt validated that I was on the right path. I remember even discussing the book with Angeliki Laiou, who knew for a long time I was working on this village project. I had to put it aside for a while because of giving birth to a child and then having a very serious illness.

Throughout that time, I was reading this anthropological literature and thinking about the questions that were being asked. Now, the anthropologists moved far beyond Friedl at this moment, but I think when you look at footnotes in people’s books, she’s always there in the background as this great pillar of the beginnings of the anthropology of the village. Not only that but her legacy as a great teacher and theorist in her own field of specialty, I think really has left breadcrumbs for all of us to follow in studying the village. For me, the critical thing was to say there is this preexisting interest in the village.

Especially, this influenced me in thinking about laments in the Mani, this moirologia and the Mani, which are very important to understanding the mentality of the Mani about death. The people who study the lament, for example, Margaret Alexiou, whose work is fundamental to studying the lament, link the lament, the modern-day lament back to the ancient world. Byzantium was always absent. It was always this hole in the scholarship of connecting the modern and the past. For me, and even thinking about the medieval village, it plugged this one-thousand-year hole of continuity.

It was amazing to see that the evidence I was seeing in the village was absolutely mirrored in what Friedl was writing about some decades before I was writing. I found the same thing in looking at the work of Jill Dubisch, for example, or even the work collected by Peter Loizos, let’s talk about also male anthropologists who were fundamental. Long answer to the question was feeling validated and having that model was really formative for me, at this stage when I was writing the book.

Franka: I think that’s great. I think I’m so glad that this gave you a validation or approval to start focusing on the village in a holistic way. Looking at all the available data and evidence that are possible to get because we tend to forget that sometimes in Byzantium, but so many people lived in the countryside and it’s hard to even know the statistics because we can only assume them, but it’s an overwhelming type of metric.

Sharon: When I think about my work and now your work and the work of others who are working on villages, I wonder, can we shift the paradigm that we’re not focused exclusively on the elite in Constantinople who left texts, and move beyond that to think about the 99% who were invisible and didn’t leave texts? How would it change the field of Byzantine studies if we shifted that paradigm somewhat? I wanted to ask what you might be thinking about that because I felt a little bit out on the edge with my book. I wonder for you—do you still see a challenge in the research that you’re doing in finding a place within the big tent of the field?

Franka: I think that, as they say, a picture says a thousand words. When you say that there are no texts, it’s true and it’s not true. We have texts in churches, they’re not as telling as some other types of texts, but in Greece, in particular, they give us a sense of who commissioned the church. Right now, things have been changing a lot in our perception of that. You know that very well. My work is different in a sense that it doesn’t have all of that data, but I think that there’s a way of using evidence from elsewhere to recreate stories on the ground.

I think this is important because, in a way, we can go back and forth. As much as village painting and village information, village evidence can tell us things about the village, it can also tell us things about medieval life in general. That is important because we are creating a more holistic story. I think that, at least for the late Byzantine period, the material remains are overwhelming for the village. For example, in Greece, if we compare material remains coming from the village and material remains coming from cities, they’re not even comparable.

Sharon: I think that types of evidence are quite different. As you’re speaking, I’m reflecting on how many trips we’ve taken together in villages and thinking about why the village isn’t studied more by particularly American scholars. I think one of the challenges, of course, is that to study the village, you really need to have a very good command of the language of the country in which you’re working. That is difficult to attain sitting here in the United States, you need to really make an extra effort to embed yourself and to have those conversations with people.

Franka: This is why all of Sharon’s students are learning Greek at the moment, which we have to because there is no getting out of it. Luckily, I love languages so it’s not a problem for me. It has been challenging because it’s not a language that you encounter on the streets.

Anna: It’s delightful listening to both of you. It sounds like your encounter, Sharon with Friedl opened a whole horizon of possibilities for Byzantine studies, it seems to me. It created a shift.

Sharon: I think that’s true. I would say in some ways, her work not only impacted my scholarship, which it certainly did in giving me that validation of feeling that what I was doing was correct, was the right path. Embedding herself in the village and becoming part of a village also modeled for me a way to do scholarship, not from an armchair, but from the site itself.

I would say further that based on that, it encouraged me also to be an activist for villages. An activist to think about cultural preservation issues, to think about the lives of the people in the village, and very much to think about the idea that it wasn’t enough to write a book, publish it, and leave. That was not the sum and total of my commitment to the village. My commitment extended far beyond writing a book about a village. It extended into continuing to have relationships with the villagers, to continue to try and help them in any way they needed. Because the villages of my study, of course, went through a very difficult time with the Greek crisis.

For me, writing the book or publishing the book, at that time, was very difficult in some ways, because the people I was writing about were really suffering. Here I was getting an honorarium for the book, and yet the people who were discussed in my book were hardly managing to buy food. I don’t know, or maybe I shouldn’t even say it, but all the honoraria for my book, all the prize money from my book all went back to Greece. It all went back to support Greek scholars who were suffering at the time of crisis. It went back to the village to buy eyeglasses for people who couldn’t purchase eyeglasses, things like that.

Friedl’s commitment to Vasilika—she went back many times to the village, she retained her ties to the village—really modeled what the commitment of a scholar was to those whom she studies. It wasn’t the book ends and your relationship ends. I find that many scholars who finish a subject just move on to the next and it’s never been that way for me.

Anna: Thank you. It has had a lot of repercussions that come to this day, actually, your encounter with Friedl. It’s so interesting that you said, “the people I was writing about.” While your book was about Byzantine churches, but you really feel you were writing about them.

Sharon: I think so. The extension of my book was a project I was involved with and still am involved with, which is the restoration of a village church in the Mani. This is a church of the late 11th century that I had visited in the course of doing fieldwork for my own book. I posted something on Facebook about my experience, my sadness about the condition of the church. I was called a few days later by the head of the archaeological service to say, “Can you help raise money to restore the building?” This is the church of Hagioi Theodoroi in Vamvaka, a very famous church with famous sculpture done by the Maniot sculptor Nikitas in the 11th century.

This became a project that opened the village to me, and especially through the eyes of yet another elderly Greek Maniatissa, a woman named Metaxia Anaplioti, who died very tragically in a house fire. My encounter with her led to the creation of a film called Blessings and Vows about the church that looks at the church through her eyes because the church becomes this eternal monument. And it led to the development of a research project also looking at the church as an archive of village history.

The church that had immured ancient sculpture from different villages, which reminds me of Franka’s work because it allowed me to trace the footsteps of the villagers in the ancient period, in the Byzantine period, even in the Ottoman period. There is a testimony in a graffiti incised into the church wall that says that the Mani was pillaged by the Turks in a certain year, which, of course for the Mani, the unconquered Mani, that was an unusual inscription to find.

Also, the continuity of the church in life today, where the priest, Father Nikos, an exceptional priest, who entered into the building, would say a prayer and actually evoke the name of the priest whose name was inscribed in a Byzantine sculpture on the outside as a concelebrant.

Her book, then through my book, and then this recent study I’ve been doing of the church in Vamvaka, has pushed me to be more activist in terms of helping protect a monument but also caring for a community because in restoring the Byzantine church, of course, there is an argument that the village itself can also come back to life.

Franka: I have a question for you. In Friedl’s book, one of the things that comes out really clearly, although it’s not the main topic at all, is this relationship between city and rural areas. This urban-rural dichotomy, as can be seen in the attitudes of the villagers towards the city. We also see what happens vice versa. We see it multiple times. I thought that that was an interesting point for me because it is certainly relevant to my own research. I particularly call it “island-mainland dichotomy” in my own framework, but it’s essentially rural versus city because we’re talking about rural islands and the city of Dubrovnik, the city of Ragusa.

I was wondering if you could say a few words about how stable you view this relationship, this dichotomy, and if there are traces in your own work that allow you to see it?

Sharon: It’s so funny that you should say that, because what struck me and rereading Friedl in the last few weeks, again, for this interview, was her discussion of the tax collector who comes into the village from outside, and the position and the role of the tax collector. Of course, in Byzantine villages the tax collector is universally hated, and he represents the city and the empire, and you find images of tax collectors lampooned in Byzantine painting.

There was an almost direct connection between Friedl’s villagers and, if you will, my villagers, the Byzantine villagers. I think it’s a very similar phenomenon that you see with your people from Dubrovnik who are showing up on the island. Because when they come to the island it’s never really in a good way, is it?

Franka: No. They come to the island basically to, one of the most interesting things that I encountered is, they come to the island in an official capacity to see who it was of the two parties that had court disputes. Who it was that basically stole someone else’s property, and they had to question everybody on the islands to see whom this property belongs to.

There are various capacities in which city dwellers come to the islands, though some of them are more stable. Not residents, but occasional residents. They have houses there, and they perform tasks that are community tasks. If an islander has problems with the law, they will ask for the same attorney over and over again. This attorney is someone that lives in the city, a city dweller, most likely a city citizen, but they have a house on the island and they always help out. This is what it seems, of course it’s a reciprocal relationship.

Sharon: There’s a paradox also, because at the same time the villagers want to imitate what happens in the city. You see this very much in Byzantine churches where the paintings are imitating the finer arts of the city, or even in represented costumes on Byzantine figures, where it’s imitating what people wore in the cities. I’m sure it’s the same in your islands where you see art declaring this love of the city, or this jealousy, or this longing for urban life as a different kind of life.

Franka: I would say so. Although curiously the firmest evidence that I have of anybody imitating anybody is the villagers imitating one another. Because we have churches, preserved churches in two different islands whose fresco painting is so similar that it is clearly based upon one another. Their ornaments placed in the exact same locations. These are the same saints that we’re talking about. Most likely the same master was in charge of the frescoes. I think it’s a curious thing that speaks to the interrelationships between the villagers that we also find in Friedl’s book. How important it is to build another floor after your neighbor built another floor. That was how important it was to decorate your churches in almost the same way as your neighbor did.

Sharon: I think the thing that also is interesting to think about is the abandonment of the village as people leave to, in the Byzantine period, find positions in the civil service, or to enter the army or the navy, and what it means for them to leave, and do they come back. I think there is a parallel, an interesting parallel to what Friedl was writing about the village, about people who want to marry out of the village and move to proximate larger cities.

We see this of course, in modern Greece with, until recently, the abandonment of the village. When I entered the Mani is when for the first time the peninsula was empty. It was simply populated by older people. There were no young people to be seen, and that of course in the last five years has changed substantially, as perhaps one could say a result of the crisis where people are rediscovering the village as an ecologically pure place to live, as a place of economic possibilities as bio-agriculture increases, as eco-tourism increases.

It would be interesting to see what Friedl would think today, if she were to come back and write another study of the village. Her one level of seeing the village as a pure society, where everyone’s interacting for the good or the bad, may be a completely changed village now, especially with the advent of the internet, and the erasure of the walls between rural and urban. Of course, in our period we don’t have that luxury: they weren’t reading newspapers, they weren’t seeing cable new, they weren’t really aware except with some lag time of what was happening in more populated centers.

Franka: I think it’s a fascinating thing to think about. I'm also wondering whether there is any evidence to suggest such processes for the Byzantine village.

Sharon: I think for the Byzantine village the only way to determine that would be to look at, as Laiou did, tax registers over time, to see who leaves and then who comes back. Of course, in the period that we study there’s this pattern of the desertion of the countryside for a multitude of reasons: war, opportunity, just instability, reasons that fortunately we don’t have to think of perhaps as much today.

I think it’s been an amazing experience to sit down with one of my most advanced students, to think about not only the intersections of our research, but also how she’s moving the field forward. I really appreciate this opportunity to focus for a little bit on the village in Byzantium as its own field of study, and I’m encouraged by how many scholars right now are turning their attention to similar questions, as similar to those raised by Friedl, and maybe I could say also in my book about time, about power, about labor, about space, about the physical layout of the village. All questions that we haven’t really discussed as a field to date, but ones that are a necessary corrective to an almost monolithic attention to Byzantium’s urban landscapes.

Anna: Thanks, and Franka, would you like to say something?

Franka: The only thing that I would add is that I think the Byzantine village and Friedl’s book as well, in combination, give us a chance to step away from this idea of prestige and hierarchy of what are the things that we want to examine in Byzantine art history, in particular, and focus on the things that were so important to these medieval people. That in a way is very gratifying, to me at least.

Anna: This is wonderful. I would like to thank you both wholeheartedly for a wonderful conversation on a book about Greece of the 20th century and its impact on Byzantine studies.

Podcast musical theme is from the Concerto in E-Flat “Dumbarton Oaks” by Igor Stravinsky, recorded by the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, Kenneth Slowik, conducting. As always, thank you for joining us, and we hope you join us again in the next episode.