Theodore Metochites’s “Lament on Human Life,” A Later Byzantine Perspective on the Anxiety of “Instability”

Cameo, Constantine the Great and the Tyche of Constantinople wearing her turreted crown, sardonyx, 4th century. Image: The State Hermitage Museum.

Alas, alas, Life, you monstrous thing replete with every kind of misfor­tune, breeder of misfortune, theater of misfortune, and most of all of insta­bility!

– Theodore Metochites (SG 27.1.1)

In the wake of COVID-19’s spread into a pandemic, the world has fallen into a state of collective anxiety. As a historian, I find that in such challenging times, my inclination is to look to the past. At this moment when we all contend with isolation, grief, scarcity, and the fear of contagion, we may find some solace and insight by exploring the ways in which humanity has previously coped with such feelings of uncertainty. Much of my work this year at the Medieval Institute has focused on the Byzantine statesman and polymath, Theodore Metochites (1270–1332), and his theorization of memory as expressed in his scholarship and in the iconographic program of the Chora Monastery, the renovation of which he oversaw and endowed (c. 1316–1321). No stranger to turmoil in his own life, Metochites also reflects at length on the idea of “instability” (astasia) in his writings. Several chapters of his encyclopedic work, the Semeioseis gnomikai, or “Sententious Notes,” address this recurring theme as the author himself works through the notion of uncontrollable change and fickle Fortune.

Metochites’s observations on fate draw from his own experiences of the ebb and flow of politics. In 1283, Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1259/60–1331, r. 1282–1328) ousted Metochites’s father, George, from Constantinople for his opposing policies, and, at thirteen years old, young Theodore accompanied his father into exile. While in Asia Minor, Metochites dedicated himself to his education and, by 1290, as he writes, “the winds shift[ed] from one direction to the opposite” (SG 28.3.5). The same Andronikos II, having learned of Metochites’s reputation for erudition, called him to serve in the imperial court, where he achieved the high rank of Megas Logothetes, or prime minister. He takes care to acknowledge that his change in fortune was an external one, beyond his control: “the difficulties of my life suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly changed … although I had in no way changed, in the way it usually happens among men” (SG 28.3.4–5).

In a rather pessimistic frame of mind, he continues by pointing out that even in the grace of good fortune, the popular saying rings true: “it is impossible to find anyone living a life free of sorrows” (Hult 13). Metochites tells us that as his position and fortune increased, he felt steadily more burdened by state affairs. He writes that it was “extremely distressing … to be personally in charge of conducting and somehow administering the shipwreck of Roman world power, and many times, when I could see no way out in my thoughts and I completely lost hope, I prayed that this seeming blessing and favor from Fortune would not have fallen to my lot” (SG 28.5.4 and 6.4–5). Good fortune brings with it no guarantee of happiness.

Theodore Metochites presenting his foundation to Christ, Esonarthex, Lunette above eastern door, Chora Monastery, c. 1316–1321, Istanbul, Turkey. Image: Brad Hostetler.

In the same essay, Metochites draws an evocative comparison between the whims of political fortune and sudden changes in health:

No, we can see even the strongest and those with bodies in excel­lent condition in absolutely every respect easily lose their physical strength and confidence, struck down now and then by a chance occurrence, some­thing which others who are perhaps not equally well-endowed with bodily strength have managed to escape. And we see the man who yesterday was standing firm, indeed, who was for a long time undefeated by any kind of bodily misfortune, now lying on his back and suffering some malaise in his body, that had, until now, been extremely vigorous, or having lost all his health and now experiencing numerous difficult changes, living with all kinds of sickness—he who for many years seemed completely impervious to the vicissitudes of the body. (SG 28.2.1–3)

As easily and as quickly as the body succumbs to illness, so too do rapid shifts in fate occur in all other contexts of life, from wealth to family and career. This association amplifies points set forth in the preceding chapter of the Semeiosis. In his “Lament of human life,” Metochites opens with a description of the two sides of human reaction to fortune’s instability. Those currently experiencing good fortune constantly live in expectation and anxiety of worse things to come, while those who are struggling live with the hope of better days. With the flip of a coin (or “turn of the ostrakon” in ancient Greek and Byzantine parlance), the greatest wealth yields to poverty, robust health deteriorates to languid weakness. He goes on to say, however, that instability, though unforeseeable, should be expected. Reacting to the assertion that change is abrupt, he argues the opposite: “I unhesitatingly add that [it has been coming] for a long time, indeed from the beginning” (SG 27.2.5). Metochites follows the concept of “universal flux” put forth by Heraclitus, and elaborates on the maxim still referenced today, “the only thing constant is change” (cf. SG 29.2.1–7). He concludes that it is wisest to acknowledge, either through personal experience or observation of others, that life is inconstant; with this in mind, one must “live not unprepared for the likelihood of good things turning utterly bad and so live better” (SG 27.2.7).

Toward the end of his life, Metochites found reason to affirm his comments on misfortune’s predictably unpredictable appearance. In the margins of Paris gr. 2003, pictured below, we find a retrospective remark written in light of his second exile from the capital in 1328. Following the ascendance of Andronikos III to the throne after a long period of civil war, Metochites was forced to reside in Didymoteicho (today in northeastern Greece) before returning to take monastic vows in his foundation of the Chora two years later. To the earlier words of his “lament,” he declares, “I myself have suffered this as I foretold” (Hult xv).

Theodore Metochites, “A Lament on Human Life,” Paris gr. 2003, f. 49r (56r), 15th century. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Metochites’s essay further deliberates on the saying that, “because of death we are living in a city without walls.” The original Epicurean context of this adage emphasized the indefensibility of the human body and inevitability of death. Building on this metaphorical meaning, Metochites states that we are, “like people living in a city without walls also because of the changes from prosperity to adversity, from perfect health to sickness, and on the whole from good fortune to bad …” (SG 27.2.1–6). Though he was writing in a much different cultural context than ours today, we might bring a critical eye to Metochites’s musings as a way of contemplating COVID-19-era insecurity. The rapid spread of illness threatens to render our “city walls” – the infrastructure of our healthcare and economy – susceptible to collapse. Anxiety arises from the permeability of these defenses. With an understanding that none of us is immune to “the attacks and sieges of Chance,” we can reassess the way we conceptualize and respond to drastically new realities.

While Metochites reflects on Fortune from the viewpoint of a privileged Byzantine elite, the current pandemic has laid bare the shared, but uneven vulnerability to “fate” in our society. In many ways, the virus’s dismantling of our “city walls” has lead to an exposure of inequality, and the situation thus demands that we reconstruct societal concepts of space and community. As we grasp to control contagion through worldwide self-isolation, the “fate” of the individual is inextricably tied to the many. Risk and instability, however, are not experienced equitably. Indeed, the necessity of social distancing has demonstrated just how few “walls” had been erected to fortify the health and well-being of all in the first place. Metochites reflected on his personal experiences to assess the nature of fate and life’s inconstancy. When this crisis is behind us, perhaps we will not forget the diversity of individual experiences in the face of uncertainty. Only then might we rebuild a fortress of collective action better equipped to sustain the many against the next unpredictable, inevitable turn of fate.

Nicole Paxton Sullo
2019–20 Byzantine Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the Medieval Institute
Ph.D., History of Art, Yale University (2020)

All translations based on:

Karin Hult, ed. and trans., Theodore Metochites on the Human Condition and the Decline of Rome: Semeioseis gnomikai 27–60, Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia 70 (Gothenburg: Kriterium, 2016). DOI: 10.21524/kriterium.4.

From Bobbio to South Bend via Milan: The Modern Fate of an Early Medieval Library

Many readers of this blog will know that Notre Dame’s Rare Books and Special Collections Department in Hesburgh Library boasts a large—and growing!—collection of medieval manuscripts. Perhaps less known is a manuscript collection of a different sort, housed in the Medieval Institute on the seventh floor of Hesburgh. I am referring to Notre Dame’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana Collection, which contains over 10,000 microfilms of manuscripts held in one of the world’s great libraries, the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, Italy. In partnership with Notre Dame, the Ambrosiana recently launched an initiative to digitize its manuscripts and make them freely available to all on the web. The first fruits of this effort can already be enjoyed: at the time of writing 382 manuscripts are viewable online. For now, though, the Medieval Institute remains the only place to access many of the Ambrosiana’s treasures outside of Milan. In celebration of the Ambrosiana, its new digital library, and the unique microfilm collection at Notre Dame, this post will briefly trace the history of the library of the northern Italian monastery of Bobbio, whose early medieval manuscripts make up one of the most important components of the Ambrosiana’s holdings.

The monastery of Bobbio was founded c. 613 by the Irish monk Columbanus with the support of the Lombard king Agilulf, who richly endowed it. In the centuries that followed its foundation, the monastery amassed one of early medieval Europe’s largest libraries, both by acquiring manuscripts from elsewhere and by producing them in its own scriptorium. Among Bobbio’s oldest and most well-known codices are its palimpsests—manuscripts in which the original text has been scraped away and then written over—including four in which the lower (i.e., erased) text is in the Gothic language.

The Monastery of Bobbio
The Monastery of Bobbio. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the surviving books themselves, a valuable indicator of the scale and scope of Bobbio’s early medieval library comes down to us in the form of an inventory, made probably in the late ninth or in the tenth century. The original document has been lost, but the great Italian historian Ludovico Muratori obtained and published a fragmentary transcription of it in the eighteenth century. Even in its incomplete state, this inventory lists 666 items in the monastery’s library. (It was also in a Bobbio manuscript that Muratori discovered the so-called “Muratorian fragment,” the earliest known list of the books of the New Testament.)

The monastery suffered a decline in the Later Middle Ages; at one point, in 1346, only four monks and the abbot remained. The fate of its great library reflected this decline. When another inventory of the library was made in the mid-fifteenth century, it found only 243 manuscripts. An annotation in one surviving codex suggests that the monastery may have resorted to pawning some of its books. In 1493, a scholar working for Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, noticed the library’s still ample collection of classical texts. After this discovery, many books left the monastery in the hands of humanist scholars. While some of these manuscripts have since been identified in libraries elsewhere, many others have been lost.

Two large transfers of books out of Bobbio in the early seventeenth century have, fortunately, survived nearly intact. In 1606, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, requested and obtained 77 manuscripts from the monastery, in exchange for which he seems to have offered the monastery printed books. These manuscripts entered the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, founded by Borromeo in 1607 and formally opened in 1609, where they remain today. In 1618, at the request of Pope Paul V the monastery donated a further 29 of its manuscripts to the Vatican Library (one of these codices went missing in the eighteenth century). At some point in the early seventeenth century at least five of Bobbio’s manuscripts also found their way into the court library of the dukes of Savoy in Turin; the total number is unknown since some others may have been destroyed by a fire there in 1667. The great French scholar Jean Mabillon visited Bobbio in 1686 and had two of its manuscripts (including the famous “Bobbio Missal” of Merovingian origin) transferred to Saint-Germain-des-Prés; both are now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

The so-called Bobbio Orosius, seventh century, in insular (Irish) script. Likely written at Bobbio. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, D. 23. sup.
The so-called Bobbio Orosius, seventh century, in insular (Irish) script. Likely written
at Bobbio. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, D. 23. sup.
Note the Bobbio “ex libris” annotation (“Liber sancti columbani de bobio”) at the top of the page, added in the fifteenth century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By 1720, when another inventory of Bobbio’s library was made, only 122 codices remained there. Following the suppression of the monastery by Napoleon, Bobbio’s remaining books were sold at auction in 1803. As it happened, this last cache of books from Columbanus’s monastery was bought by an Irish-born doctor residing in Italy, Odoardo Raymond Buthler. After Buthler’s death the codices entered the Biblioteca nazionale universitaria in Turin. In 1904 a fire destroyed a large portion of this library’s holdings, including some of its Bobbiese manuscripts.

As a result of this tortuous history, many of Bobbio’s manuscripts have disappeared entirely, and those that remain are scattered in libraries across Europe, from Naples to Cambridge and from Vienna to El Escorial. The vast majority, however, can now be found in three repositories: the Biblioteca nazionale universitaria in Turin, the Vatican Library, and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

In a future post, we’ll look in a bit more detail a few of Bobbio’s early medieval manuscripts, and at the process that brought many of them—in microform—to the United States and to Notre Dame.

Michael W. Heil
2020–21 A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Medieval Studies at the Medieval Institute
Ph.D. in History (2013)
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Further Reading:

On Bobbio and its library, with references to further literature, see Alessandro Zironi, Il monastero longobardo di Bobbio: crocevia di uomini, manoscritti e culture (Spoleto, 2004); Leandra Scappaticci, Codici e liturgia a Bobbio: testi, musica e scrittura (secoli X ex.-XII) (Vatican City, 2008). In English see Michael Richter, Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages (Dublin, 2008).

Medieval Trolls: Monsters from Scandinavian Myth and Legend

Scott Gustafson, ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ (2020).

Trolls have a deep and murky literary history. Trolls haunt protagonists in Old Norse-Icelandic sagas. Trolls snatch gruff billygoats crossing bridges in grim fairy tales. In modern novels, trolls capture (and intend to eat) wandering dwarves and hobbits, and trolls sulk about in wizard’s dungeons, leaving a terrible stench wherever they go. Let us not forget, of course, trolls are also fluorescent-haired dolls with gems for bellybuttons.

Trolls dolls created by Thomas Dam in 1959, image of treasure trolls from ‘Troll Dolls’ (2009).

Acknowledging exceptions like the popular dolls (which were recently adapted into DreamWorks Animation movies and a television series), trolls in the modern imagination are generally represented as resembling a giant, but less human and more monstrous. Trolls are often racialized, depicted as pale, grey or green-skinned and regarded as ugly, with dim intelligence and a tendency towards evil.

Gustaf Tenggren’s book cover for his ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ (1923).

This stereotypical representation of trolls features in cult classic films such as Troll directed by John Carl Buechler (1986), Troll 2 directed by Claudio Fragasso and originally called Goblins (1990), and more recently Trollhunter (Trolljegeren) directed by André Øvredal (2010).

Troll from Claudio Fragasso’s ‘Troll 2’  (1990).

These modern representations of trolls are based on medieval literary models, especially swamp-dwelling giant-like monsters, similar to the Old Norse-Icelandic þurs “giant” which also appears in Old English literature [þyrs]. In the Old English poem Beowulf, the Grendelkin have traditionally been identified as trolls by modern critics, and Grendel is himself described as a þyrs “swamp giant” by Beowulf (426). We learn from the Old English Maxims II that a þyrs is a lurking swamp creature: þyrs sceal on fenne gewunian/ ana innan lande “a giant shall dwell in a fen, alone within the land” (42-43).

Grendl (Phil Deguara) in James Dormer’s ‘Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands’ (2016).

This description aligns directly with descriptions of Grendel, who sinnihte heold/ mistige moras “ruled the misty marshes in the perpetual night” (161-62) as angenga “a lone-wanderer” (449). Indeed the monster is characterized as a þyrs when the narrator first names him: Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,/ mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold,/ fen ond fæsten; fifelcynnes eard “The grim ghast was called Grendel, the famous mark-stepper, he who ruled the marshes, the fens and strongholds, the realm of monsterkind” (102-04).

The Stone Trolls: William, Tom and Bert (performed by Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow & William Kircher) in the Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit: And Unexpected Journey’ (2012).

The Grendelkin are named giants elsewhere in Beowulf, marked with Old English terms such as eoten (112, 761, 1558, 1679), a relative cognate with the Old Norse jǫtunn [Icelandic jötunn] “giant” (commonly featured in Old Norse-Icelandic poetry and sagas), and the anglicized gigant “giant” (113, 1562, 1690), derived from the Latin gigans “giant” (notably used in the Latin Vulgate Bible (Genesis 6:4, Numbers 13:30–33, Deuteronomy 3:11, 2 Samuel 21:19). Despite the more than one hundred varying descriptions of Grendel and his mother, these Beowulf-monsters are undoubtedly giant in stature.

John Bauer, “The Princess and the Troll Sons’ (1915).

In the medieval tradition, the troll [Old Norse trǫll, Icelandic tröll, Middle High German trolle]  is a creature from Scandinavian myth and legend which features prominently in eddiac poetry and saga literature. Grettis saga, one of the sagas which most famously contains trolls, including both the þurs (two references) and trǫll (twelve references). There are multiple references to trolls as nocturnal predators (ch. 16 & 33) and a general menace (ch. 57 & 64). After Grettir encounters and outwits a þurs “giant” called Þorir (ch. 61-62), he later turns his attention toward slaying a family of trolls (ch. 64-66). In Grettis saga, the trǫllkona mikil “great troll-woman” (also simply called trǫll) attacks the hall first prompting Grettir to hunt her down in her cave (ch. 65).

John Vernon Lord, ‘Grettir’s Fight with the She-Troll’ from the ‘Grettir’s Saga’ in Icelandic Sagas v.2, The Folio Society (2002).

It is only when Grettir ventures deeper into their troll-den that he encounters a jǫtunn, who is of course her troll companion, but never explicitly named such (ch. 66). The giant-troll family that Grettir slays looms largest in the modern imagination. However, even here the categorical ambiguity between jǫtunn and trǫll highlights something fundamental about trolls in the Old Norse-Icelandic saga tradition. The range of monstrous creatures to which trǫll can apply is vast, and Sandra Alvarez notes that trǫll “could also be used to describe troublesome people, animals and even giants” in her blog “Trolls in the Middle Ages.” In Grettis saga, the term trǫll refers to the cave-dwelling monsters threatening the hall of Sandhaug and the human society within (ch. 64), but Grettir himself is earlier mistaken for a trǫll (ch. 33).

Troll (Michael Q. Schmidt) in the Dungeon in Chris Columbus’s ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001).

Moreover, in addition to trǫll referring to giant, the term can also indicate a witch, sorcerer, conjurer or any magic-user. Two Old Norse-Icelandic words for witchcraft, trǫlldómr and trǫllskap attest to the longstanding association between trǫll and magic. Moreover, in Hrólfs saga kraka the cowardly Hǫttr describes a flying monster, something akin to a dragon, as mesta trǫll “greatest troll” (ch. 23), and this creature terrorizes Hrólfr’s realm until Bǫðvar Bjarki slays the beast. Considering the semantic range for trǫll, the term appears to broadly refer to creatures monstrous, magical or both in the Old Norse-Icelandic literature.

Jared KrichevskyI, ‘I, Frankenstein designs,’ the Aaron Sims Company (2014).

Trolls can be giants. Trolls can be dragons. Trolls can be warlocks. Above all, trolls are monsters. Despite this semantic ambiguity, each iteration of trǫll in Old Norse-Icelandic sagas emphasizes one major commonality—the wonder and monstrosity associated with anything or anyone deemed a troll in the extant literature from medieval Scandinavia.

Giant Troll called Isak Heartstone, created by Thomas Dambo. Photo by Jenise Jensen, Breckenridge Creative Arts (2018).

Return in a few weeks for further discussion of the evolution of trǫll in modern English, specifically in the context of the online monsters commonly known as internet trolls.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)
University of Notre Dame

Texts & Translations

Byock, Jesse. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford University Press (2009).

. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. Penguins Classics (1999).

Grimm, Jakob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimm’s Household Tales, translation by Margaret Hunt (1884).

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. W. W. Norton & Company (2001).

Hostetter, Aaron K. Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project. Rutgers University (2007).

Kiernan, Kevin. The Electronic Beowulf. University of Kentucky (2015).

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Allen & Unwin (1937).

Treharne, Elaine, and Jean Abbot. Beowulf By All. Stanford University (2016).

Þórðarson, Sveinbjörn. Icelandic Saga Database (2007).

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (1997).

Further Reading

Alvarez, Sandra. Trolls in the Middle Ages.” (2015).

Fahey, Richard. “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2018).

Firth, Matt. “Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – the Saga of Grettir the Strong.” The Postgrad Chronicles (2017).

Fjalldal, Magnús. “Beowulf and the Old Norse Two-Troll Analogues.” Neophilologus 97 (2013): 541–553.

Jakobsson, Ármann. The Troll Inside You: Paranormal Activity in the Medieval North. Punctum Books (2017).

Lindow, John. Trolls: An Unnatural History. Reaktion Books (2015).

Shippey, Thomas A. The Shadow-Walkers : Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous. Brepols (2005).