Armenians in Medieval Europe

The image of Armenians in medieval Europe and the descriptions found in the sources of that period can’t be understood without an overall look at the question of the geographical perceptions of the Middle Ages.

Partly, their source was the ancient geographical and historical literature, available however, only in fragments and in Latin.

Another source of geographical perceptions of the Middle Ages was the Holy Scripture and Christianity in general.

At the same time, the peculiarity of medieval geographical consciousness consisted in the absolutely non-contradictory combination of mythical geography with real geography, of real and mythical countries and peoples, ancient and Old Testament ones.

On the geographical map of medieval Europe, next to India, the location of paradise could be marked, or the mythical and powerful Christian kingdom of “John the Presbyter,” lost in the depths of Asia; next to Arabs, Persians, and Indians, one-legged people-skiapods could be denoted, lying on their backs and living in the shade of their huge feet, people with eyes on their stomach, cynocephali – people with a dog’s head and claws, hyperboreans – inhabitants of the distant north, who, due to excellent health, lived so long that they committed suicide out of boredom, the peoples of Gog and Magog – terrible harbingers of the end of the world, locked by Alexander the Great behind a high fortress wall.

But even Europe to the east of the Elbe up to the Crusades was a distant and little-known world for Western Europeans, whose attitude towards it was formed on the basis of stereotypes and fragmented information from travelers and chroniclers.

Such was the case with the Serbs and Hungarians, who, supposedly, ate raw meat, the Poles – cruel and hot-tempered, with the former partly explained by the proximity of more “wild neighbors,” descriptions of the Russian winter contained mentions of people locking themselves in their houses all winter and not even sticking out their noses, and if they did, many noses would freeze off and be thrown away as unnecessary; on the outskirts of Europe, dwarfs were depicted fighting with storks and so on.

Medieval descriptions are absolutely devoid of what could now be called political correctness and are saturated with stereotypical descriptions of other cultures. Another important feature of the medieval interest in new countries was an interest primarily in unusual phenomena.

A significant part of a rare report about a new country could be devoted to the fact that there are no poisonous snakes there, or worms, or on the contrary – strange or dangerous creatures and phenomena inhabit it.

The world, in the mind of the medieval European, was also divided into the world of Christians and the world of infidels, pagans, the world of “our own” and the world of “others” and the religious factor played an extraordinary role in the perception of the world.

Mentions of Armenia were available to medieval Europeans through some ancient works (for example, “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder), secondary Latin sources, and early medieval comments on them.

However, such important works as Xenophon’s “Anabasis,” or Strabo’s “Geography,” works by Claudius Ptolemy, etc., with the most detailed descriptions of Armenia, were not available until the late Middle Ages (their “discovery” aroused interest in the Armenian theme in modern times, for example in the works of Rabelais, Shakespeare, etc.).

Despite this fragmentation, Armenia was one of the well-known countries of the ancient world, and mentions of it were quite common in secondary literature: from them, one could form general ideas about the country, its neighbors, its mountainous terrain, the division into Greater (Upper) Armenia and Lesser Armenia.

For erudite monks, for example, Bede the Venerable, the mention of Armenia was a peculiar means of emphasizing their erudition and familiarity with the ancient tradition, despite the fact that he places Armenia at the same latitude as England. In the characteristic spirit, next to Armenia, they could mention Cappadocia, where mares were supposedly capable of conceiving from the wind.

From the early Middle Ages, the names of Armenian saints and martyrs, bishops of European cities, monks, and preachers were also known in Europe, reports about whom are even known in Icelandic chronicles.

However, the presence of such evidence did not influence the fact that in the early medieval Western European tradition, reflecting more mass, popular perceptions of the 8th-12th centuries, Armenians, along with other “eastern peoples,” were perceived as Muslims and allies of the “pagan Moors.”

In the most famous of the medieval French gestures (from the French. geste or chanson de geste – “deed” or “song of deeds” – a genre of epic tales) – “The Song of Roland”, Armenians are among the numerous allies of the Moors and fight in the army of the King of Babylon – Emir Baligant:

“He led Nubians, Russians into the third regiment. Prussians and Slavs – into the fourth regiment. Sorbs, Serbs – his fifth regiment. Armenians and Moors are taken into the sixth regiment, inhabitants of Jericho into the seventh. The eighth consists of black Negroes. From the Kurds – the ninth regiment entirely. In the tenth – from Balid the evil people.”

In another excerpt, Armenians are mentioned next to the Turks as elite parts of the “infidel” forces:

“The emir is wise and bright-minded. He speaks to two leaders and a son: “Barons, your place is ahead. You will lead my regiments into battle, But I will keep the best three for myself: Brave Armenians, dashing Turks, the Malprose regiment, where everyone is a giant, and I will add the Oxyan regiment to them. We will rout Charles and the Frenchmen.”

In the French poem of the 12th century – “The Death of Aymer of Narbonne,” Armenians are also mentioned as “infidels,” alongside Ethiopians and Turks. Here, one of the emirs of the Moors – Orkanas, is an Armenian. The same is repeated in the poem “Mené” (Mainet):

“Greedful pagans turned to flight, Slovaks, Armenians, Turcopoles, and Nubians.”

G. Karagezyan cites many other examples of how, up to the 12th and even 13th centuries, Armenians were persistently perceived as “pagans,” i.e., Muslims. The change in this attitude is associated with the Crusades when arriving Europeans find new co-religionists and allies in the mountains of Asia Minor and the Levant.

The Armenian-Greek confrontation on the eve of the Crusades reaches a peak, especially after the brutal murder of the last king of Ani in 1080. The crusaders, who were also in conflict with the Greeks, find natural allies in the Eastern Christians.

It is no coincidence that the first state of the crusaders in the Middle East – the County of Edessa, is created precisely with the support of the Armenian nobility and the population of Edessa.

And despite the fact that the first reports about Armenians in the chronicles of this period still retain some caution and mistrust towards the little-known “Asians,” relations between the crusaders and Armenians become closer, and the intensified Armenian principality, from the beginning of the 13th century, the kingdom in Cilicia becomes a powerful ally.

The most striking example of how, as a result of the Crusades, the image of Armenians transformed – from “enemies-pagans” into co-religionists and allies in the East is the famous and extremely popular (by the late Middle Ages it had spread not only in Western Europe but also in the Balkans, in Poland, Belarus, the Moscow principality (The Tale of Bova Korolevich)) medieval gesture “Bev of Antona” (12th century).

If in the original Anglo-Norman version the main character – Bev is sold into slavery in Egypt, the king of which is called hErmin (Old French – Armenian), and the inhabitants – pagans – hErmines (Armenians), worshiping the god Mahuna, then in a later Franco-Italian version Bev is sold in Armenia (Hermenie), the ruler of which is the same Hermin.

The inhabitants of the country are already represented as co-religionists-Christians. In a series of epic tales associated with the Crusades, another popular character appears – Beuvon Tarski or Beuvon Armenian (Beuvon de Trase, Beuvon d’Ermenie), the king of Armenia and ally of the Franks, in whose name they see the distorted name of the Armenian king Levon II.

In the gesture “Hugo Capet” (14th century), Beuvon Armenian appears as a powerful ruler with 30,000 brave warriors. In the poems of the Crusade era, Armenian kings appear as wise rulers and pious Christians, who try to reconcile, for example, the warring kings of England and France and direct their efforts to fight against enemies-Saracens.

One of the markers of belonging to “pagans” in the European epic tradition and in miniatures is the wearing of a beard, which was also extremely common among Armenians. Despite this, with the change in attitude towards Armenians, Armenian kings are already depicted beardless – a distinctive sign of belonging to “their own”.

After the defeat of the crusaders and their expulsion from the “Holy Land”, mentions of the Armenian king fighting the Saracens also take on a tone of elegy and sympathy, as the last fighters against the “infidels”.

The redemption of the last Cilician king Levon V Lusignan by the Castilian king from the Mamluk captivity in 1382, in which some merchants made voluntary donations, and then his funeral in 1393 in Paris, which was attended by almost the entire city population, dressed in mourning white color, demonstrated this feature and attitudes towards co-religionists in the East.

At the same time, of course, the perception of Armenians was largely related to the intensity of contact with them. So the Italian tradition has preserved richer information, including through the transmission of Armenian legends due to the significant Venetian and Genoese presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is no coincidence that in the 14th-15th centuries in Venice, dozens of female names Armenia are known.

Another source through which information about Armenia becomes known to Europeans is the papal embassies to the Mongolian rulers from the mid-13th century (Plano Carpini, Guillaume Rubruk, etc.), as well as trade expeditions to the center of the Mongolian Empire, such as the famous journey of Marco Polo.

They convey what the European reader should have been interested in – messages about Ararat – as the mountain of the Ark, “wonders of the earth”, local products, etc. Marco Polo knows two Armenias, Little (Cilicia) and Big, in the first he mentions the important trade port of Ayas and the drunkenness of the nobles, who were once brave warriors, in Greater Armenia he is interested in local woolen fabrics – “the best in the world”, a wonderful source of oil on the border with Georgia, Lake Sevan (Gelukelan), in which fish appear, supposedly, only on the eve of Easter, and the great mountain of the Ark.

It is characteristic that for the early medieval Armenian tradition, the Ararat mountains and the ark’s haven were associated with the Corduene mountains in the south of Armenia, but not with Masis. However, from the 13th century, European travelers (Rubruk, Polo, Clavijo, Sevrak) unanimously associate the mountain of the Ark with Masis.

The perception of Armenians in different regions of Europe, of course, was not common. Europe, despite developing communications, remained a combination of many local worlds until modern times, parts of which had vague ideas about each other.

The groups of Armenians that Europeans encountered were also diverse. For Rubruk, traveling through Greater Armenia and meeting Armenians subjugated by Muslims provoked sympathy for the Christian people in Asia. A similar attitude is seen in Johann Schiltberger in the 15th century, who was captured by the “Saracens” and everywhere received help from Armenian co-religionists.

But his recent predecessor – the papal envoy to Tamerlane’s court, the Spaniard Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, whose embassy was detained by the “people of Arakel”, the Armenian ruler of Hamshen, portrays Armenians as an “evil people”. For Jacques de Severac, although Armenians are Christians, they are “schismatics”, so he speaks with more sympathy about Catholic Armenians in Maku and Nakhichevan.

In Eastern Europe, primarily city dwellers known as skilled craftsmen and traders settled. That’s why here Armenians were primarily known in this capacity and were specially attracted to their possessions by Polish and Hungarian kings. The image of Armenians in Byzantium, much better informed about Armenia, but at the same time consisting of stable plots due to dogmatic and political conflicts, is a separate and complex topic.

Overall, however, it is possible to speak of some patterns in the representation of the image of Armenians. If for early medieval chronicles and poems – Armenians, regardless of the attitude towards them, appear predominantly as warriors – initially enemies, then allies, news of which is particularly rich for the period of the Cilician kingdom, then by the end of the Middle Ages – they are subjects of Muslim rulers, arousing sympathy of European travelers, sometimes also traders, whose attitude may not be so positive.

Lit.: Karagezyan, G. L. Armenia and Armenians in French literature of the XI—XIV centuries, Yerevan, 1988 Clavijo, Ruy Gonzalez de. Diary of a journey to Samarkand to the court of Timur (1403 – 1406), Moscow, 1990 Marco Polo Book about the diversity of the world // Giovanni del Plano Carpini. History of the Mongols; Guillaume de Rubruk. Travels in Eastern countries, Moscow, 1997. Wright, J., C. Geographical representations in the era of the Crusades, Moscow, 1988.

Material taken: Pan Armenian

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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