Accounts of Medieval Constantinople

Reading Accounts of Medieval Constantinople, which contains a lot of really fascinating stuff.  Constantinople has a fundamentally different feel than the Latin West.  This passage sums it up nicely, I think:

And Constantine the Great set up this lofty column and the statue of Apollo as Helios in his name, affixing nails from those of Christ’s crucifixion as rays on its head, shining like Helios on the citizens.  2.45

Medievals (speaking here of the Latins in particular) are often described as not having a sense of the past.  They tend to flatten everything into an eternal present.  One of the consequences of this is that nothing feels old precisely, everything is just sort of there.  You feel as if someone could walk in from the past (and indeed, figures from the past quite often do walk on to the scene in hagiography and the like) as if it were the next village over.  Constantinople is quite different.  There’s a palpable awareness of the Greco-Roman past.  The city endlessly accreating statues.  Thus, we have a different sort of eternity than that which we find in the west, an eternity of persistence compared to an eternal present.*  In Boethian terms, semipiternity vs. eternity.  Perhaps we can find the same thing in descriptions of medieval Rome (I can’t recall having read any to be honest).

Some of the city’s marvels would have been truly amazing to see (or hear in this case):

The so-called Boukinon (trumpet.) — In Olden times, there were trumpets on the top of the walls.  Underneath, the wall was hollow like a cistern, and when a heavy south or north wind blew, strong currents of air came up as the waves of the sea were repulsed from the walls, and a melody of the sirens was heard, and the tower opposite responded.  When the Roman fleet was ready to depart, it assembled there, and the ships sounded together with the sound of the towers, and departed.  3.38

Even amidst this grandeur there’s an air of ruin, especially since we know where it all ends; the greatest city in the world reduced to a huddle of villages in the rubble of imperial splendor and Constantine XI, having torn off his imperial vestments, and charging to death in the breach.  This all might be just because I read The Ruin earlier today for my Tolkien class (or geez, maybe just from all the Tolkien)


* I’ve been thinking a lot of the eternal present and Benedictine monasticism lately.  I’ve even attempted to write comparing the Benedictine sense with the self-destructive eternal present of the aristocracy in the wonderful Transylvanian Trilogy.  Nothing coherent has emerged as of yet.


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