Humour or Dissent? Two Late Byzantine Animal Epics

[Presented by George Baloglou and Nick Nicholas -- Harvard, October 2000]



The 90's saw renewed interest in two 14th century Byzantine poems: G. Makris has argued [Origini della Letteratura Neogreca, pp. 391-412 (1993)] that the Book of Birds ( Poulologos ) was a hidden satire against, among others, Alexius Apocaucus (John Cantacuzene's main adversary during the 1341-1347 civil war); and P. Vasiliou has proposed [Ellinika 46, pp. 59-82 (1996)] that the Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds (Paidiofrastos Diegesis ton Zoon ton Tetrapodon) was a purely comical work with no similar messages or ambitions. Vasiliou's viewpoint is strengthened by the absence of the Book's allusions to specific places, let alone individuals, from the Tale. On the other hand, the Tale presents us with a startling defeat and humiliation of the animal nobility, while the Book's central aviary authority maintains power throughout.

Scholars are in general agreement that the Book predates the Tale, and it is also likely that the author of the latter was aware of the former. Still, there is scant evidence for direct influence of the Book on the Tale. Both works are written in near-vernacular Greek and are focused on a conference dominated by colorful debates and monologues. But the Tale's dialogue structure and content is decidedly less rigid, and far more "didactic", than that of the Book; and the Tale is characterized by an elaborate introduction and an eventful ending absent from the Book.

On the contrary, the Tale's influence on the textual transmission of the Book is undeniable. While the Book is found in four out of the five manuscripts containing the Tale, the Tale is missing from two late manuscripts of the Book in which its ending is substantially and incongruously modified: there is now a final battle clearly influenced by that of the Tale, except that in the end King Eagle emerges victorious and is spared King Lion's cruel fate. One has to wonder about the motives of the anonymous scribe who presumably altered one work and omitted the other.

A possible explanation follows as a corollary to Vasiliou's work: he argues that the Tale's ending is inauthentic, and he suggests an initial version with a succinct battle scene favoring King Lion and the ruling class (carnivores); it would then have been possible for one scribe to alter the Book's ending (inspired by that of the Tale) and for another to alter the Tale's ending. But we have grounds to argue both against such a scenario and Vasiliou's claim of the inauthenticity of the Tale's ending. On the other hand, we find arguments supporting Vasiliou's contention that the Tale's ten-line "moralizing" prologue is inauthentic.

Even in case the prologue is inauthentic, we find it difficult to follow Vasiliou's suggestion and accept the Tale as a mere farce. And, while the Tale does not offer evidence as clear as what the Book presented to Makris, we feel that there is some evidence allowing for at least two historical interpretations of the Tale as a protest poem: a "class-oriented" interpretation relating to the civil war of 1351-1354 and a "state-oriented" interpretation relating to the attempted church union of the late 1360's.

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