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Sharon E.J. Gerstel, Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2015. Pp. xvi + 207. 124 illustrations, 3 maps. Cloth $115.00.

Decades of archaeological survey in the Eastern Mediterranean have ignited an interest in the study of rural landscapes and have resulted in numerous studies of village life by prehistorians, classical archaeologists, and ethnographers. Byzantium, however, is still often missing from such discussions. In her book, Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography, Sharon Gerstel successfully reconstructs aspects of rural life in Late Byzantium and contributes to the diachronic study of village life in Greece.

Gerstel's approach to the Byzantine village is inherently different from previous scholarship that focused on Byzantine villagers' economic activities and legal status. As the author states, "this is a book about people, their surroundings, churches and devotional practices" (2). Her aim is to repopulate the Byzantine village with individuals and communities and give voice to a segment of the Byzantine population that continues to be understudied. She thus focuses on the interaction between people and spaces to narrate people's stories, struggles, anxieties, and daily experiences.

The book stands out for its methodology and breadth of evidence, with case studies from the Peloponnese, Crete, mainland Greece, and the Aegean islands. Gerstel makes her methodological approach explicit in the book cover with the subtitle Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography. She reiterates this approach in every chapter, often starting her discussion with the available archaeological evidence, which ranges from skeletal analysis to architecture, pottery, and so on. She then moves to pictorial and epigraphic evidence from village churches, where she delivers a masterclass on the multiple readings of iconographic programs that offer a window into people's anxieties, aspirations, and self-representations. Ethnographic studies of early Modern Greek village life are employed to provide analogies with Byzantine rural communities and reframe key questions on the village's social mechanisms. The author does not shy away from discussing the strengths and limitations of her approach, and she brilliantly demonstrates how it invites new and multiple, even opposing, narratives that nevertheless shed light on the complexities of Byzantine rural lives.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to key themes in the study of the Byzantine village ranging from the numerous terms used in Byzantine texts to the challenges and solutions faced by excavations and by field surveys, such as determining village location, size, and shape. It then moves to issues of fragmentation and unity as coexisting and overlapping aspects of the Late [End Page 261] Byzantine village. Gerstel's examination of village communities through the lens of different individuals, such as the priest, the widow, the miller, reveals economic and social inequalities within rural communities and argues against the idea of villagers as a uniform socioeconomic group. Her discussion of connectivity highlights spatial and social connections between villages and points to the role of churches as spaces of community and togetherness.

Chapter 2 explores how villagers engaged with the sacred and how different levels of literacy affected their religious experiences. Gerstel offers a thorough investigation of dedicatory inscriptions in village churches, emphasizing their performative, lyrical, and aural elements as different modes of communication. In a compelling discussion on village religious art, she rejects characterizations of "primitive" and "provincial" and points to a purposeful artistic emphasis on immediacy and accessibility (52). Based on her analysis, the village church painter emerges as a skillful artist who—being a member of the village himself—understood and depicted the village's needs, hopes, and troubles. His art aimed at an intentional preservation of an "indigenous aesthetic" that allowed for a collective and individual experience of the sacred (60). In this chapter, Gerstel places the church at the heart of the village and argues that the biography of individuals and communities were embedded and preserved in the village church.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the role and activities of village women and men, respectively. The author maintains a similar structure in both chapters, beginning with an exploration of the human skeletal remains and the pathogenies of rural dwellers, pointing to the harsh realities of rural living: strenuous labor, disease, and high child mortality. She then turns to women's and men's roles in the religious life of the village and their connection to particular saints who spoke to their identities, activities, and anxieties. In both chapters, Gerstel juxtaposes villagers' socially accepted roles with the promiscuous behavior of liminal characters, such as the gossiping woman, the whore, and the miller, who can all be found among the sinners in Last Judgement depictions. Thus, she approaches the church iconographic program as a painted commentary of accepted behavior and village order. To reconstruct the experiences of village women and men, Gerstel also brings into her discussion the role of sounds, such as chanting, lament, gossip, and bells hanging from the necks of sheep. She argues that sounds were integral to how spaces were used and experienced, how communities came together, and how individuals negotiated their identity and social status.

The role of the village priest as a church founder, spiritual leader, and community member is the focus of chapter 5. Here, Gerstel relies on dedicatory [End Page 262] inscriptions, donor portraits, donation acts, and ethnographic evidence to present priests as individuals of elevated status through their ministry and ability to read. She also points to depictions of priests as sinners in churches to suggest that they were not above the village's scrutiny. In addition, Gerstel investigates the role of monks and nuns as both members of the village and their monastic communities. Acknowledging the difficulties in associating isolated churches to monastic complexes, she examines how a nuanced understanding of some churches' iconographic programs and inscriptions could help identify them as monastic katholika.

Gerstel does not offer a romanticized version of village life; in her book, villagers faced real challenges and hardships. In her last chapter, she explores the role of the church as a place of hope, healing, and commemoration that helped people cope with emotional anguish. The chapter introduces doctors, spell-casters, and saints as agents of healing, while also exploring the various healing processes and rituals. Gerstel emphasizes the collective nature of healing, death, and commemoration rites and points to the central role of the church as an archive of family and communal memory.

In the book's introduction, Gerstel writes about the "the unchanging nature of rural settlements and the place of the villager within those settlements" (1) that she revisits in later chapters. Although her discussion of the Late Byzantine village is all but static, and she is very careful in the ways she employs ethnographic studies in Late Byzantine narratives, Gerstel's idea of unchanging rural settlements poses two challenges. First, we miss what is different and particular about the Late Byzantine village that distinguishes it from its Early and Middle Byzantine counterparts and from village life in the Ottoman and early Modern Greek period. For example, the evolution of Byzantine economic and legal institutions in the Late Byzantine period, such as the pronoia and the paroikos, had a considerable impact on rural life. Second, the Late Byzantine period was a time of political fragmentation, and many of the villages discussed in the book were controlled by different political regimes: Venetian, Byzantine, and Frankish. Some additional discussion by Gerstel on the impact of these different regimes on the life of the village would have brought out the regional and local differences that informed the character of specific villages. It would have also provided a commentary on the impact of political realities on rural life and embedded the villagers and their villages within larger political and economic systems beyond their immediate rural landscape. It is fair, however, to acknowledge that the political realities of the Late Byzantine period are not central to Gerstel's research agenda, and the absence of a more detailed discussion on this subject does not detract from the book's contributions on village life and devotional practices. [End Page 263]

This book sets the tone for current and future scholarship on Byzantine rural communities, starting with the fact that Byzantine villagers are given a voice and, more importantly, agency. The enormous and fragmented source materials examined in this volume speak equally to Gerstel's remarkable ability to synthesize and interpret the data in new and meaningful ways. Finally, Gerstel highlights the need for further studies on the material and visual culture of the Byzantine village. The clear methodological framework employed provides a blueprint for future interdisciplinary studies on Byzantine society. It also argues for the value of ethnographic studies in the study of Byzantine society. In addition, Gerstel's work introduces new and exciting avenues of study, such as the role of sensory experiences in the rural landscape and their significance in community building, the role of time and the overlap between ritual and agricultural cycles, and, finally, the economic and social diversity of Late Byzantine villages. Another advantage of the book is that it is exceptionally written with clarity, precision, and vivid discussions. It is also richly illustrated with high quality images of church frescoes in color, many of which have been unpublished or only known from black and white photos. Overall, this is a seminal work on Byzantine villages and rural landscapes, as well as a significant contribution to the diachronic study of Greek rural life.

Fotini Kondyli
University of Virginia
Fotini Kondyli

Fotini Kondyli teaches Byzantine Archaeology and Art at the University of Virginia. She has written a number of articles on the economic and social makeup of the Late Byzantine village, and she is currently finishing her first monograph on Late Byzantine rural communities, focusing on the socioeconomic and spatial organization of nonelite groups living in the Northern Aegean and their strategies against economic and demographic challenges. Her research interests include the archaeology of Byzantine nonelites, rural landscapes, communal identity, and the construction of Byzantine spaces.