Class Struggle in a Byzantine Farmyard: The Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds

[Presented by Nick Nicholas -- Canberra, April 1997]

The Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds is a vernacular Greek poem, dating from the fourteenth century which George Baloglou and myself have recently translated into English. Together with the Book of Birds ( Poulologos ), believed to have been written somewhat earlier, the Tale belongs to the class of poems known as Animal Epics (Tiereposen) or, as we have termed them, Epic Bestiaries: they share with bestiaries an encyclopaedic tendency to rattle off facts and factoids about the animals (many of them culled from the bestiary par excellence, the Physiologus), but they also tell a story of a conference of beasts, with a few fairy tales and insults mixed in, and even attempt to convey a moral. The beasts of the Tale are land-locked (in contrast to those in the Book of Birds, which features pelicans, swans, and herons, some unfortunate enough to be castigated as "bred in lakes"), but a close look at the Tale can sail us indeed a good deal closer to Byzantium.

In this talk, I consider what light the poem can cast on its troubled times, and more generally on the lives and thoughts of commoners in late Byzantium. While not advocating that the Tale is a Roman a Cle (if there are any allusions to specific contemporary political figures, they are too well concealed to be noticed by modern researchers, and the style of the poem does not bear such an intent out), it seems clear that someone along the chain of transmission intended for the poem to be a comment on its troubled times. Along with Alexius Makrembolites' Dialogue, and to a lesser extent the Belisariad, the Tale is unique as a late Byzantine work protesting against the status quo. Vasiliou has recently proposed that the prologue and conclusion of the Tale are not authentic, although they are present in the entire manuscript tradition of the poem (which dates back to 1461). I evaluate the evidence for this claim. I also consider the evidence for the poem originating from a region under Turkish, rather than Byzantine dominion.

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