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.

An Axe among the Scepters: Who’s Who in Canterbury’s West Window?

In the West Window of Canterbury Cathedral, ranged below the arms of Richard II and assorted depictions of saints and prophets, is an apparently incomplete series of portraits of English kings whose identities have become confused or forgotten over the centuries. Current attempts to identify these kings rely in part upon the eighteenth-century testimony of English historian William Gostling, who could apparently see in the window more than is visible today:

In the uppermost range of the large compartments are seven large figures of our kings, standing under gothic niches very highly wrought. They are bearded, have open crowns on their heads and swords or sceptres in their right hands. They have suffered, and been patched up again, and each had his name under him in the old black letter: of which there are very little remains. These seven are Canute, under whom remains Can. Edward the Confessor holding a book, under him remains Ed. Then Harold. William I holding his sceptre in his right hand, and resting it transversely on his left shoulder, under him remains …mus Conquestor Rex. Then William II. Henry I. Stephen. The tops of the canopies are all that are left of the fourteen niches of which the two next stages consist: if these were filled in the same manner, the series of kings would finish with Richard III.[1]

Tracery Lights and Upper Range of the West Window in Canterbury Cathedral. I have labeled the position of the kings A-G for ease of reference. All images of the West Window courtesy of Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK.
“Edward” in the West Window

Gostling’s descriptions have proved difficult to match up with the window as we now have it. Any lettering visible in the eighteenth century has disappeared, and at least some portraits are not in the order they once were. According to Gostling’s account, the fourth king (D) should be holding a scepter in his right hand and resting it on his left shoulder: he does not. Nor can the king in position B today be imagined as “holding a book.” So William I (once D) and Edward the Confessor, at least, must have moved between Gostling’s time and now.

B holds a sword in his right hand, which he rests on his left shoulder–this may be Gostling’s William I. If D made a simple swap with B, it would follow, as some scholars have assumed, that today’s D is Edward the Confessor. But the king who now stands in that position holds an emblem not elsewhere associated with Edward: a prominent axe.[2] Instead, Edward might be more usually imagined as here in the famous Wilton Diptych, where he stands alongside Edmund Martyr and John the Baptist in support of Richard II, who commissioned the West Window. Interestingly, scholars have noted similarities between the styling of Edward in the diptych and the king in position A on the West Window, accepted since Gostling’s time as Cnut the Great, the Scandinavian king of Anglo-Saxon England. Despite detailing the similarities between the two, including their forked beards and long sleeves,[3] no one has suggested that this might be Edward himself rather than an Edward-inspired Cnut.

Edward the Confessor in the Wilton Diptych. National Gallery [Public Domain]
“Cnut” in the West Window

But why not? The king of the “Cnut” window (position A) might seem from afar to be holding a book-like object in his left hand (upon closer inspection it is part of his clothing). This may, nevertheless, be the otherwise-unidentified “book” to which Gostling refers in his description of Edward. Besides the marked similarities between the Edward of the Wilton Diptych and the “Cnut” of the Canterbury window is the problem of the inexplicable axe or halberd found in “Edward’s” hand. In fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman art, likely under the influence of contemporary depictions on altar frontals, glass, and panel screens of fellow Scandinavian king St. Olaf of Norway, Cnut was the only king of England imagined as carrying an impressive axe!

Cnut in British Library Royal 14 B VI, membrane 4. Image courtesy of the British Library.

In a recent Alumni Spotlight on the Medieval Institute website, Notre Dame alumna Rachel Koopmans estimates that one in three of the glass narratives of the miracles of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral are misattributed. I wonder if here we have another case of mistaken identity in the Cathedral’s glass, this time of kings! If we are ready to accept that at least some of the portraits of English kings have shifted places since Gostling’s time, why should we be bound to accept that Cnut has not moved from position A since the late eighteenth century? The iconographic evidence surely supports a different conclusion.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] It is unclear how Gostling identifies Harold, William II, Henry I, and Stephen. Are they labeled with the “old black letter”? Or do they simply fill the pattern in the series of fourteen kings from Cnut to Richard III that Gostling envisions? William Gostling, A Walk in and about the City of Canterbury, New ed. with considerable additions (Canterbury: William Blackley, 1825), 343–44.

[2] “The position of his left hand, slanting in front of him, is such that it may have appeared mistakenly to Gostling as ‘holding a book’; his halberd however remains unexplained if he is to be identified as the Confessor.” Bernard Rackham, The ancient glass of Canterbury Cathedral (London: Lund, Humphries, 1949), 129.

[3] Richard II, who ordered the window, had a great devotion to Edward and is supported by English kings Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr in the famous Wilton Diptych.

Owls: Always a Hoot?

Owl, Book of Hours, London, c. 1460; British Library, Harley MS 2887, f. 29r; © The British Library

Today, owls are usually associated with wisdom. Their depictions in modern iconography range from majestic hunters to cute messengers à la Harry Potter. The convention of associating these nocturnal birds with wisdom goes all the way back to ancient Greeks and Romans depicting owls with the goddess of wisdom, Athena/Minerva. However, owl symbolism has not continuously had such positive connotations; in fact, in Medieval England, they were drastically different.

Owls have a strong presence in medieval fables and poems, many of them associating owls with the darkness and uncleanliness. Medieval poets took biblical references to owls as inspiration. For example, Job in his sorrow is referred to as the companion of owls, linking owls with mourning. In Leviticus, owls are mentioned as unclean birds. Building on these negative associations, medieval beast poems include violence towards owls. In Cuono of St. Nabor’s fable “The Peacock and the Owl,” a white peacock, symbolizing light and goodness, is violently murdered by an “envious owl” (Ziolkowski 245), and then a violent curse is wished upon the owl to avenge the death of the beautiful peacock. In the same vein, in the often-repeated story of the owlet in the hawk’s nest, the owl’s true identity is discovered when it fouls the nest—and then it is thrown out of the nest and dismembered by magpies and crows (Mann 178).

Anthropomorphic owl meant to resemble a Jew; bestiary, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, England; British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 47 r; © The British Library

A more disturbing element of owl’s negative symbolism is their association with anti-Semitism. Owls, who are day-blind and live in darkness, were used to represent Jews in medieval England, who were said to have rejected the light of Christ and live in the uncleanliness of religious blasphemy. This accounts for the anthropomorphic appearance of some manuscript drawings of owls: they were sometimes given hooked noses to resemble Jews, and their horns represent the horned hats Jews were forced to wear.

Not all mentions of owls are completely negative, however. The Aberdeen bestiary presents a positive moralization of owls, saying that they represent Christ, who lived in the darkness (or away from view, like the owl) because he wanted to save sinners who also lived in darkness away from the light of God.

One of the most well-know medieval literary owls is in the poem The Owl and the Nightingale. The Owl and the Nightingale offer retellings of some of Marie de France’s fables, illustrating the popularity of animal fables. Significantly, the Nightingale recites the fable of the owl in the hawk’s nest to emphasize the inescapability of nature over nurture: the owl is recognized because it can’t escape its unclean nature despite being raised by a different bird. However, the poem gives the well-known story a twist, turning the usual moral condemnation of the owl on its head. The owl counters that it cannot be at fault for a nature that is common to all infants—even humans.

Owl symbolism continued to have negative associations even after the medieval period. During the Reformation, they came to be associated with Catholics, and later with Puritans (Hirsch 151)—generally with the vilified religious group du jour. Negative symbolism continued into the early modern period: in several of Shakespeare’s plays, the owl is an evil omen. Though the owl has much more positive connotations today, its history is plagued by darkness and negativity.

Owl and other birds decorating the bottom of a page; psalter and hours, France (Arras), c. 1300; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 15, f. 96r; © The British Library

Anne Marie Blieszner
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Hirsch, Brett D. “From Jew to Puritan: The Emblematic Owl in Early English Culture.” “This Earthly Stage”: World and Stage in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. Brett Hirsch and Christopher Wortham, Eds. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2010.

Mann, Jill. From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.