Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography by Sharon E.J. Gerstel (review)
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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...