Come! Attend a moment, all you young people. I wish to tell you the fairest tale, a beautiful and unusual story. Whoever wants to taste of its sadness and joy will also wonder at its account of daring and bravery.
- Velthandros and Chrysandza
I have always been particularly drawn to those regions and times where different cultures come into mutual contact, struggle and then form a unique synthesis. For example, the region now occupied by Poland, Belorussia, part of Russia and the Baltic states from the Middle Ages up until the First World War, and the region now occupied by Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwestern India after the conquests of Alexander the Great and before the Islamic invasions. Another is the much smaller scale synthesis of Frankish and Byzantine cultures in the Peleponnesos after the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 during the fourth Crusade until the Ottoman invasion.
In his The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 Steven Moore discusses the medieval Byzantine romance as a resurrection of the antique Greek romances from the second and third century CE, such as the very enjoyable Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius
but does not take account of an important development that took place between the spurt of romances written in Byzantium in the 12th century and the spurt written in the 14th century. Though he mentioned the sacking of Constantinople, he did not note the significance for Byzantine literature of the founding of the Principality of Achaea on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece by Frankish knights. The descendants of the founder of this principality, Geoffroi de Villehardouin, grew up speaking Greek, but the Franks brought more with them than full body armor and immensely strong steeds bred for war. They brought the Frankish culture with them, which expressed itself in their architecture, music and literature. In particular, they brought with them knightly romances of chivalry written in their own tongue and not, say, Latin.
In the Peleponnese city, Mistra,
built by the Franks and, at the end of their short-lived Principality, used by the Byzantines as the capital of their Despotate of the Morea, the Frankish and Byzantine cultures came together to form something new, briefly, before the Ottoman tsunami swept over them. The 12th century Byzantine romances were written in antique Attic Greek (as were the last three of the surviving 2nd century romances), in other words the Greek of 4th and 5th century BCE Athens, but the 14th century texts were written in the Greek spoken in the Frankish domains. In fact, the official business in the Principality, insofar as it required communication with the people, was written in demotic Greek, as opposed to Byzantine usage in which official business was carried out in the antiquarian resurrection of Attic Greek. To further emphasize the break, according to Betts the 14th century romances and chronicles written in the Principality are the only examples of Byzantine literature written in demotic Greek. Even after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks the Greek intelligentsia continued writing their histories and other forms of literature in antiquarian Greek (apparently, extended fictional prose disappeared once again after the brief creative spasms of the 12th and 14th centuries). What was also unmentioned by Moore are the many elements of Old French romances which entered the Byzantine romances for the first time. More on that later; let's turn to the texts.
The Australian Gavin Betts (1932-2013) provides in Three Medieval Greek Romances (1995) English translations of three of these hybrid romances from the 14th century: Velthandros and Chrysandza, Kallimachos and Chrysorroi, and Livistros and Rodamni.(*) They were written in verse, though Betts provides a prose translation, and give every indication of having been composed in the territory occupied by the Franks. Not only is demotic Greek employed, but also loan words from the latinate languages are to be found in the texts. And there are many details, motifs and other elements traceable to Frankish romances that are not to be found in the Byzantine tradition, according to Betts. To mention one: the castle, an important motif in western European romances of the Middle Ages, clearly absent from the ancient Greek novels (castles didn't exist then), and absent from the 12th century Byzantine romances (according to Betts). And there are dragons and witches and echoes of west European fairy tales.
Nonetheless, there is no lack of elements taken from the Greek tradition. For example, there is a beauty contest in which the hero is to choose the most beautiful woman from a sample, with fateful consequences; not only does this echo the Judgement of Paris from ancient Greek mythology, but it was Byzantine tradition during a long period for the wife of the Crown Prince to be chosen from a very select sample in precisely that manner... And there are scheming eunuchs, mechanical birds and a kind of fatalism that seems rather Asian but which Betts traces back to a change in popular Greek attitudes under the Roman Empire.
But the general structure of a romance - falling in love, separation or some other obstacle preventing the consummation, subsequent wild adventures, reunification and consummation - appears to be the same in all cultures. What sets the finest romances apart from the rest are the linguistic skill and the imagination of the author.
Since poetry is being rendered as prose, much of the former is lost here. Betts mentions in his introduction a number of other compromises he made in these translations. The result is poetic and highly rhetorical texts rendered into short and choppy prose sentences. This won't do at all.
However, the authors' imaginations manage to burn through the translation's screening mists. The colorful adventures and imaginative settings with heavy dollops of magic and the supernatural are quite enjoyable. Even the weakest, Velthandros and Chrysandza, has a striking set piece in a vividly imagined Castle of Eros. The most impressive, complex and longest text is the last in the book, Livistros and Rodamni, with two distinct stories presented at multiple narrative levels and begun in media res. And one thing is certain: the Greek authors were quite a bit less prudish about the physical side of love than were their western European counterparts...
(*) Betts tells us there are at least 8 more extant. At least two others have been lost.