15 Jul 2014 – Neos Kosmos Newspaper

Τα διαφόροις των παλαιών περί τε γεωργίας και επιμέλειας φυτών και σπορίμων και ετέρων πολλών χρήσιμων ειρημένα συλλέξας εις εν, τουτί το βιβλίον συντέθεικα.” – Γεωπονικά

Market gardens next to walls of Theodosius_Istanbul

On the extraordinarily rare occasions when my grandparents would be ready to admit that a particular piece of agricultural lore was beyond them, they would seek answers in the Kazamia, an almanac that provided handy tips on a range of subjects. Puzzling over the dense type, they would scratch their heads as they tried to invert the information so as to apply it to the contrary Australian seasons. Inevitably, they would give up, and ask someone else. On a shelf in my study, there exists a well thumbed Yates Garden Guide published in 1981 which was consulted by my parents for much the same reason.

Had my progenitors been transported in time to Byzantium, they may have been surprised to ascertain that books on gardening were common and widely consulted. So prevalent were these, that there were even books masquerading as gardening manuals that in fact, were intended as a form of political satire, as is the case with the Porikologos or ‘Fruit Book’, where many fruits are presented as taking part in legal procedures satirising court ceremonial.

For the diehard green thumbs who had too much pruning to concern themselves with politics, there was always the Geoponika to consult – an agricultural and horticultural encyclopaedia aiming to present in digest an accumulated practical lore of the ancients. We know that this book, or rather compendium, was important to the Byzantines and widespread, for it survives today, in fifty-five different manuscripts. It is the sole survivor in Greek of a long and rich tradition of agricultural literature, stretching back at least to Hesiod and especially flourishing in the Hellenistic era.

The text of Geoponika, in its present form, dates from the mid-tenth century. It opens with an elaborate prologue addressed to Emperor Constantine VII, where he is referred to as a “sweet scion of the purple”. The praise continues with reference to military victories and the restoration of philosophy, rhetoric, and the entire range of science and art. According to the Geoponika, the state consists of three parts: the army, clergy, and agriculture, giving a Byzantine twist to the ancient literary convention of the king as warrior-farmer in his own right, as evidenced in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, where he reports how Cyrus excitedly told Lysander that his remarkable garden at Sardis was a personal labour: “I measured and arranged the whole, and some of the plantings I did myself.”

Alhambra courtyard imitates Byzantine garden design

The works of various older authors can be located within the Geoponika. The most important of these is Anatolius of Beirut, a friend of the ortator Libanios, teacher of St John Chrysostom’s collection: Synagoge of Agricultural Practices. This in turn was incorporated as the primary source of Selections on Agriculture compiled by Cassianus Bassus Scholasticus in the sixth century, which in turn forms a large portion of the Geoponika.

The encyclopaedic absorption of the works of other authors probably accounts for the fact that in the Geoponika, there is much repetition from chapter to chapter, for each of the disjunctive units focuses upon an individual plant, many of which have a very similar or virtually identical culture. However, the discussion ranges widely: appropriate soil type, planting season, grafting techniques, methods of preservation, therapeutic applications, medicinal recipes.

For the modern Greek, the list of plants is fascinating. For example, rocket, a plant for which I did not know the Greek word, is referred to as εύζωμον, while we learn that basil, the ‘king’s plant,’ was known during Byzantium as μισόδουλον or ώκιμον. Jujube by the way, is known as ζίζυφον. Soft fruits are referred to as οπώρα, and hard fruits as ακρόδρυα. The vocabulary for various gardening techniques is also revealing. Distinctions are made between twig grafts (εμπηυλλισμός), boring grafts (εγκεντρισμός) and bud grafts (ενοφθαλισμός), while the techniques for cultivating trees from seed, buds, cuttings and slips (από σπέρματος, παρασπάδος, πασσάλου) are also discussed at length.

There are numerous references to sympathetic plantings and plant combinations to be avoided. Furthermore, the Geoponika pays great attention to τέχνη, or the skill of gardening.

Grafting, for instance, is extensively treated, and procedures are repeated from long centuries of literature, even though some combinations were quite impossible. Tips exist for altering the quality and appearance of fruit, often to change the colour or shape and there is even, under the heading ‘Harm to the Garden’, a recipe for a form of weed killer: “Χηνών αφόδευμα άλμη λύσας ραίνε τα λάχανα.” (Dissolve goose dung in brine and sprinkle the plants with it.)

Some of the advice is downright bizarre. In Book 1, chapter 14, an entry ‘On Hail’, suggests that one can avert hail by stringing keys and hanging them about the property, or set up wooden bulls. In another entry, attributed to the lore of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, a good way to encourage a tree to produce fruit is to approach it with an axe and threaten to cut it down.

Nonetheless, most of the advice still rings true today: “This appears in keeping with Byzantine planning laws regulating the proximity of buildings to farmland and among other things, the right of a property owner to cut or use fruit from overhanging branches of trees on other properties.”
Perhaps the most endearing component of the Geoponika has to do with its dedication not only to the practical aspects of plants, but also the lore and history surrounding them, belying the commonly held belief that Byzantine culture was religiously bigoted and cut off from its ancient past.. Thus, we learn that ivy, (kittos) the plant, “once was a young man, a dancer of Dionysos. Dancing for the god he fell dead upon the ground, and in honour of Dionysos, Earth brought forth a shoot with the same name, thereby preserving the stock of the young man. The plant as it springs from the earth is accustomed to embrace the vine just as the young man once danced embracing the god.”

Geoponika has much to say about garden design and its aesthetic impact. The prologue speaks of the collection as one where the reader will find matters of pleasure as well as usefulness (“not only necessities but even those exceptional things that contribute solely to the delight of sights and smells”). Recognition of sight and smell (alongside usefulness and profit) recur in the somewhat skimpy instructions for garden design found in two specific chapters: 10.1 ‘The Garden’ (παράδεισος) and 12.2 ‘Garden Making’ (κηποποιΐα).

Parkland in the shadows of the Byzantine city walls_Istanbul

During the centuries to follow, the Byzantines lost much of the countryside that had supplied them with fruit and vegetables. Many peasants were forced to abandon their farmlands and take refuge in the walled towns as Turkish tribes advanced quickly through Byzantine territory. This development turned the neglected areas into uncultivated regions of wild nature, while many deserted settlements soon fell into ruins. Despite this, many gardening techniques as described in the Geoponika survived into the Ottoman period and are with us to the present day, as is attested, by this final snippet:

“The plantings ought to be planted neither irregularly nor intermingled, so to say, although the variety of plants introduces attractiveness. But each of the plants ought to be set out by type, so that the weaker ones not be overcome by the stronger or be deprived of nourishment. The entire space between the trees ought to be filled with roses and lilies and violets and crocus, which are most pleasing to sight and smell and usefulness as well as profitable and beneficial to bees. Cuttings are to be taken from thriving and undamaged trees. One ought to know that plants from seed for the most part are inferior to all others. Better in the case of every plant are natural shoots. Of these the stronger are those produced by grafting, not only for beauty of fruit but also for its abundance and swift production of the fruits.”

Dean Kalimniou


Also worth looking at http://www.nordbyz.net/content/byzantine-gardens-images-and-words-uppsala-7-8-april-2011

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One comment

  1. Fascinating read, what also important to remember is if these techniques were used most evils of the world would become irrelevant I.e. GMO, the catastrophic collapse of bee colonies etc

    Please note your link at the end is broken.

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