Michael Angold, Church and Society in Byzantium under the Comneni, 1081–1261
Lay piety at Byzantium: beliefs and customs
Digenes’s wife Eudocia offers a prayer to God that her husband might be spared. Beck notes that it is modelled on the church’s prayers for the commendation of the souls of the dead to God. But Eudocia is using the words not to protect the soul of her husband from everlasting death, but to preserve his life in this world. Beck sees in this a lack of interest in any afterlife and a preoccupation with this world. This may be so, but Eudocia’s prayer is found in both the Escorial and the Grottaferrata versions. Its inclusion in both displays a deep familiarity with Christianity, even if the emphasis is on life rather than death. It seems to point to that familiar interpenetration of Christian and secular values. This is as characteristic of the Escorial version as it is of the Grottaferrata. In other words, both versions testify to the coexistence of a popular stratum of belief about death along with the teachings of the church.
Digenes observed the formalities of a Christian burial for his father and his mother. He interred them in the chapel of St Theodore that he erected in the courtyard of his palace. He regretted that he had not been present at his father’s death. He had therefore not been able to close his eyes and wash his body.7 These were part of the customary rites, but he had no thoughts to spare about the fate of either his father or his mother’s soul. The death of his mother was an opportunity to celebrate her life: how she had helped to bring peace to the borderlands through her marriage and through giving birth to Digenes.8 Digenes and Eudocia were not, as it happened, buried in a church but a funeral was celebrated with hymns and all the goods in the house were given to the poor. This was a custom associated with the deaths of bishops. But there were other rites that had little to do with Christianity. The mourners garlanded Digenes’s tomb and circled round it.9 The speech that Digenes made as he realised that death was inevitable was not about repentance of his sins nor about the state of his soul. It was about the bitterness of separation from ‘all this world’s delights’ and above all from his wife. He then rehearsed the glories of his life.10 The threnody of the mourners at Digenes’s funeral centres on death’s power and spite. How it brings down the bravest of men. Death, Charos, and Hades form a sinister trinity: ‘these three man-killers, the three unpitying, and every age, all beauty withering, wasting all glory. The young they spare not, nor respect the old, nor fear the strong, nor honour the wealthy, beauties they pity not, but turn to dust, and all things work to mud and stinking ash’.’ • Above all, it is Charos who is the personification of death. As with his counterpart, Love, his power appears to be independent, but it has sanction in ‘Adam’s transgression and God’s decree’.12 In this way the power of Charos is reconciled with Christian teaching. The threnody can then close in true Christian spirit with a lament for the vain pleasures of’the deceiving world’.’3 ‘Woe to those that sin and repent not, to those that trust in youth and vaunt their strength!»4 The poet concludes with the conventionally Christian hope that at the Last Judgement Christ will have mercy on Digenes and his wife, together with ‘all who delight and live in orthodoxy’.’