When most of us think of the Byzantine body today, we image the ethereal bodies that grace the walls of painted churches, the emaciated bodies of the Byzantine ascetic, or even the body of the emperor or bishop. At the same time, there has been valued work in the last few years focusing on the bodies of ordinary individuals. Buried bodies have come to dot the landscape and new works on the poor, travel, labor, and domestic space in the Byzantine centuries have come to locate the body outside of the theoretically fertile ground of the church and crown and return it to the dirt and dust of everyday life. Recently, I’ve made an effort to reflect on the role of the Byzantine body in the architecture of domination and everyday forms of resistance. In short, the body continues to find a place in almost all parts of the study of Byzantine society.
This past month, C. Bourbou,B.T. Fuller, S. J. Garvie-Lok, and M. P. Richards, have continued this trend by offering some important observations on the diet of Greek Byzantine populations from the 6th-15th centuries (“Reconstructing the Diets of Greek Byzantine Populations (6th-15th centuries AD) Using Carbon and Nitrogen Stable Isotope Ratios,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, preprint). While I won’t pretend for a moment that I understand the science involved in analyzing carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the body, I do grasp that the ratio between these two isotopes in human remains can reveal significant information regarding local diets. Bourbou et al. have analyzed the remains of Byzantine bodies from all across Greece including the Corinthia (Nemea, Corinth, and Isthmia), Crete, Northern Greece, and the Peloponnesus. Many of the bodies that this team studied came from burials around churches making the parallel between the Byzantine body in art and the Byzantine body in the flesh all the more obvious. The work of this team complements recent efforts to determine the diet of Byzantium through the study of ceramic vessels, and this represents another effort to move from the sublime bodies of Byzantine art and texts to the mundane bodies of everyday life.
Fish farms near Vayia in the Corinthia
The work of Bourbou et al. confirms many of the standard reading of the Byzantine diet. They find ample evidence for the prominence of the Mediterranean triad of grain, olive oil, and grapes in wine. At the same time, their studies suggested the importance of dairy products or perhaps meat in the Byzantine diet. While it is not possible at present to distinguish between animal products like milk and cheese and meat itself, the evidence from stable isotope analysis leaves open he possibility that meat appeared consistently in Medieval cuisine .
The most interesting aspect of their study, however, involves the presence of fish on the Byzantine table. In Medieval Western Europe, scholars have long noted an increase in the consumption of fish in the 11th and 12th centuries. Some have associated this increase with the promotion of fasting and other dietary restriction by the Church in these centuries. In the east, however, the presence of fish in the diet of ancient and Medieval Greeks has been less conclusive. Bourbou et al., however, have suggested in their study that Byzantine (and Late Antique) Greeks may have consumed a good bit of fish. It is particularly interesting to note that bodies from Kenchreai dating to the 1st – 3rd centuries and the fortress at Isthmia from the 4th-8th centuries in the Corinthia showed the ratio of isotopes related to the consumption of fish. These sites must have taken advantage of the long coastline of the Corinthia to harvest fish on a significant scale (just as they do today). Elsewhere in Greece, however, these scholars argue that the consumption of fish during the Byzantine centuries likely relates to religious restrictions on diets that prohibited the consumption of meat on particular feast days and over important stretches of Orthodox religious calendar (as well as improved fishing techniques).
With this study, then, the Byzantine body comes full circle. The body of the emaciated saint and the august body of the bishop represent just another form of the fish-fueled bodies found in Byzantine burials. Just as the routine of the liturgical year would have shaped the movement of individuals through the landscape of the village, countryside, and town, so the diets of the religious calendar left its traces in the very bones of the Byzantine.