In memoriam: Elisabeth Piltz (1938-2018)

Elisabeth Piltz died on January 23, 2018, in Uppsala. She was born on March 7, 1938, in Ödeborg, municipality of Färgelanda, Dalsland, where she will be buried on February 23.

Elisabeth Piltz studied art history and languages at the universities of Uppsala and Stockholm, and Byzantine studies in Paris (with André Grabar) and München (with Hans-Georg Beck). As an historian of Byzantine art, her first interest was Byzantine ceremonial clothing and insignia, both secular and ecclesiastical, a field to which she would make her greatest contribution. In 1976 she defended her thesis on Trois sakkoi byzantins. Analyse iconographique, followed up by Kamelaukion et mitra. Insignes byzantins impériaux et ecclésiastiques (1977). In 1994 she returned to the subject with Le costume officiel des dignitaires byzantins à l’époque Paléologue. Recently she revised a long essay, written already in 1970 (but never printed), and published it with the title Loros and sakkos. Studies in Byzantine imperial garment and ecclesiastical vestment (2013). She contributed to the article on “Insignien” in the Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst, vol. 3 (1978). Articles in the field also include “Middle Byzantine court costume” in the Dumbarton Oaks publication on Byzantine court culture from 829 to 1204 (1996), “Costume comme communication théologique” and “Liturgische Gewänder im byzantinischen Ritus“, the latter two in Byzantinoslavica (2003 and 2009).

Elisabeth Piltz also explored other research areas. One such area was Nordic-Byzantine/Muslim relations and its impact on Nordic material culture. For the byzantinizing church paintings in Gotland and Södermanland, she participated in the international project Corpus de la peinture monumentale byzantine (two instalments, 1989 and 2008). Moreover, she organized an international conference in Uppsala in 1979, published as Les pays du Nord et Byzance (ed. by R. Zeitler, 1981). In 1986 she lead a course on the same subject, which also resulted in a publication (partly in Swedish): Bysans och Norden (ed. by E. Piltz, 1989). Yet another conference took place in 1996 in Uppsala on her initiative, and the papers were published in Byzantium and Islam in Scandinavia (ed. by E. Piltz, 1998). When Elisabeth Piltz began working on this subject in the seventies it was a largely neglected area in West-European scholarship. Today the field is more firmly established with large-scale projects such as e.g. “Dirhams for slaves” (

Her research into the Scylitzes Matritensis was presented in Byzantium in the mirror: the message of Skylitzes Matritensis and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (2005). A selection of her minor works were collected in From Constantine the Great to Kandinsky. Studies in Byzantine and post-Byzantine art and architecture (2007). In Det levande Bysans (1996) she gathered shorter essays in Swedish for a broader audience.

Elisabeth Piltz was one of the founders of the Swedish committee for  Byzantine studies as part of the Association internationale des études byzantines (AIEB).

Johan Heldt

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Förberedelser inför Istanbul 2021

Planeringen för nästa internationella kongress – The 24th International Congress of Byzantine Studies, som kommer att hållas i Istanbul 23-28 augusti 2021 – är redan i full gång. Kongressens tema är ”Byzantium – Bridge Between Worlds” / “Byzance – Pont entre des mondes”.

Nytt för i år är att förslag på round table-sessioner skickas in till AIEB via de nationella kommittéerna. Kontaktuppgifter till samtliga nationella kommittéer återfinns här. Deadline för förslag är 22 juni 2018. Ett ”Call for free communications” kommer att gå ut under 2019.

För mer information om kongressens organisation och anvisning för round tables, se här.

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Byzantine News

From now on, the AIEB will communicate through a newsletter called “Byzantine News”. Its aim is to facilitate information exchange among Byzantine scholars worldwide and function as an information hub, i.e. by receiving and distributing news and information about activities and events that may be of interest to Byzantine scholars throughout the world. In particular, it seeks to collect and distribute calls for papers; announcements of forthcoming congresses, conferences and similar events (presentations of volumes, seminars, public lectures, etc.); and news about exhibitions and museum events. A special section entitled “Opportunities” lists job postings, scholarships, and other funding opportunities for scholars at all levels, junior through senior. The Newsletter is published by the AIEB, and collection and distribution of information is carried out by an editorial team approved by the Bureau of the AIEB and on its behalf. They welcome submissions from National Committees of Byzantine Studies, universities, scholarly and research institutions, museums, libraries, galleries, as well as individual scholars at any stages of their careers and members of the general public interested in scholarly research on Byzantium and its heritage. The editorial team of the Newsletter reserves the right to choose what to publish, particularly when submissions are deemed or may be deemed to contravene the Mission Statement of the Newsletter. The Newsletter does not publish announcements of recent publications.

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Interview: Annalinden Weller

The two-year postdoc in Text and Narrative in Byzantium at Uppsala University is over, and Annalinden Weller is leaving Sweden after two productive years that were concluded with a conference on Reception Histories of the Future in August 2017. As the title of the conference indicates, Annalinden is, in fact, not only a Byzantinist but also a prolific writer of science fiction under the pen name of Arkady Martine. The NBN has managed to catch her for a quick interview on the topic.

After a little more than two years in Uppsala you now have contracts for both a monograph and a novel – how did that happen? Was Sweden that stimulating or was it, in fact, really boring?

It turns out that fiction influences academic work and the other way around! My academic passions – looking at community formation and identity on borderlands in the Byzantine East, a topic I have been exploring in one way or another since my dissertation – easily blended with my life-long love of science fiction, and I found myself writing a space opera about empire, identity, and literature at the same time as I was working on a project about Byzantine empire, identity, and literature. I never felt like the two projects were in conflict: the ideas I encountered and the data I wrestled with in my academic work would show up, transformed or reused, in my fiction.

In terms of getting a monograph and a novel written at the same time in Sweden – well, I was really lucky to have a lot of time devoted to research as part of my postdoctoral position, plus a lot of stimulating conversation about rhetoric, narrative, identity-formation, Byzantium in general … so I had both the space to get this work done and an environment conducive to it. And in addition, I use fiction writing as a break from academic writing – and vice versa! If I’m stuck on one, working on the other for a day or even a week can feel really refreshing.

You’re a historian and a writer of fiction – how do you combine these two personas?

I write fiction under an open pen name – ‘Arkady Martine’ – so that people who are primarily interested in my fiction can find it easily, and people who are primarily interested in my work as a historian can google my legal name and find what they’re looking for, too. But despite this I feel like there’s very little difference between being a good historian and being a good writer – I am telling a story both ways. I am describing a narrative and making my audience pay attention, both ways. I simply use different tools. And because my fiction has always been inspired by my academic research, writing science fiction often feels like an extension of, or a development of, the theories I’ve worked out and the beliefs I have about societies and cultures as a historian.

Can you tell us something about the novel without giving away too much?

I got the idea for the novel from thinking about the Armenian Catholicos Petros I Getadarj, who in 1044 CE was involved with turning over the Armenian kingdom of Ani to the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachos. I kept wondering – what would it be like to be that person? The person who decided to give over sovereignty to a culturally oppressive and invasive empire, in hopes of preserving some kind of autonomy?

So at first my main character in the novel was someone who did just that. In the course of writing, though, I ended up switching protagonists – my protagonist now is the successor of the man who betrayed her country to the empire, and I’m more interested in thinking about what happens afterward…

Also there are spaceships, mind-sharing, and plot-bearing poetry contests.

Interview: IN

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Þrír Vegir í Miklagarð (part three)

Wulf: A Displaced Anglo-Saxon, c. 1090

It had been the better part of a lifetime since the Conquest, and Wulf was resolved to stay and settle in his adoptive city. His loyalty to his former liege lords had been remote and largely inherited; he had never seen Harold Godƿinson in the flesh and never personally sworn him an oath of fealty. The emperor Alexios I was another matter entirely. He was not terribly tall or broad shouldered, but Wulf had always found him firm and well spoken. He was courteous and generous with his foreign soldiers’ pay. Wulf was proud to be one of his personal guards and had thwarted several attempts on his life with zeal. He had fought with the emperor before in the field as well, and had no reason to think him anything but a capable commander. Wulf was generally fatalistic in temperament, but when he looked around him at the wonders of Alexios’s splendid city, he could not help praying that such a great and godly land would never be left open to foreign conquest.

Wulf had never considered himself particularly devout until coming to Constantinople. The world was turbulent enough and it was said permanence rested with the Lord alone, but that hadn’t done him any good in the meantime when he wandered without king or home. He recalled an old sentiment, Wel bið þam þe him are seceð, frofre to Fæder on heofonum, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð (“It is well for him, the one who seeks grace, comfort from the Father in the heavens, there, for us, all security stands”), but wondered if perhaps its author had never seen a city as magnificent as Constantinople. Wulf knew better than to assume any city could maintain unfailing stability, but surely this one more than most embodied permanence in Middangeard.

Wulf’s favorite thing about the city was, in fact, its many basilicas and monasteries, which he could survey from the life-guard’s quarters at the top of the imperial palace. He liked being able to turn any street corner and encounter a saint’s relic or local shrine. The largely unaltered nature of the rite, whether he accompanied the emperor to Hagia Sophia or attended services in any of these smaller chapels, reassured him. Even the smaller buildings tended to be larger and more ornate than anything he remembered from his childhood, in thicker-walled, dimmer structures across Wessex. Alexios’s Orthodox Christianity was of a different sort than Wulf’s Catholicism, but Wulf had so rarely been to regular church services when he was young, or in his travels across Europe, that it bothered him little. He had never spoken Latin, so he acclimated to the Greek liturgy easily enough. For all intents and purposes, Wulf was content to share God and temple with his emperor, and Alexios Komnenos was far more his emperor than Harold Godƿinson or the bastard William with his invading army would ever be.

Many of Wulf’s fellow life-guards were English as well, and he believed they tended to share his views of religion and allegiance. The majority of the guards hailed from the Northlands, and, while some were unrepentant adventurers who intended to return home wealthy, he found they predominantly agreed in attitude. Wulf had grown up with a nagging distrust of Danes, but face to face, they seemed like any other fighting man and their language was familiar from traders and settlers who remained in Wessex from Cnut’s time. Wulf noticed that the English portion of the guard was growing, however, and he found their company heartening. Some Greeks claimed they were all from Thule, but the emperor and many members of his court seemed to be able to tell most of them apart. Wulf himself was not necessarily much better when it came to distinguishing Geonoese from Venetians, or Arabs from Turks, though he believed he was gradually improving. As Wulf intended to stay in the emperor’s guard for the foreseeable future and remain in the city after that, he assumed his abilities to recognize other foreigners would develop with time.

Brigid Ehrmantraut


The walls of Constantinople (Wikimedia commons)


Further Reading

Primary Sources (listed in their English translation ed.):

Accounts of Medieval Constantinople: The Patria. Translated by Albrecht Berger. Harvard: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2013.

Grettis Saga. Translated by William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson. Edited by Sveinbjorn Thordarson. Icelandic Saga Database, 2007.

Hrafnkells saga freysgoða. Translated by John Coles. Edited by Sveinbjorn Thordarson. Icelandic Saga Database, 2008. .

Komena, Anna. The Alexiad. Translated by E.R.A. Sewter. Edited by Peter Frankopan. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.

Laxdæla saga. Translated by Muriel A.C. Press. Edited by Sveinbjorn Thordarson. Icelandic Saga Database, 2007.

Liutprand of Cremona. “Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana,” in The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Translated by F.A. Wright. London 1930.

Psellos, Michael. Chronographia. Translated by E.R.A Sewter. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953.

“The Wanderer.” In The Old English Elegies, edited by Anne L. Klinck. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2001.

Secondary Sources:

Blöndal, Sigfús and Benedikt S. Benedikz. The Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. 1978. Reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Androshchuk, F. O. Vikings In the East: Essays On Contacts Along the Road to Byzantium (800-1100). Uppsala : Uppsala Universitet, 2013.

Marinis, Vasileios. “Defining Liturgical Space,” in The Byzantine World, edited by Paul Stephenson. New York: Routledge, 2010.

“Viking ‘graffiti.’” National Museum of Denmark. 2017.

Thomas, Hugh M. “The Significance and Fate of the Native English Landholders of 1086.” The English Historical Review 118, no. 476 (2003): 303-33.

A quick note on translations:

The Old English quotation comes from the closing lines of “The Wanderer,” and Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book; the translation is my own. Heilagr fróðleikr is my attempt to render “Hagia Sophia” in Old Norse. Old English and Old Norse proper nouns are all attested in the Primary Reading list.

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Þrír Vegir í Miklagarð (part two)

Bolli: An Opportunistic Icelander, c. 1040

Bolli’s ax sat heavily on his shoulders, but he did not notice the weight. The emperor’s life-guard was back from Bulgar-fighting in Prilep and he was thinking about the new red cloak he would buy with the resulting wages and extra plunder. After purple, which no one besides the Grikkjakonungr and his family could touch, Bolli had decided that he liked red best. As he stood in line, arms displayed and shields clanking in turn, the garment began to come into focus.

People would come running when Bolli’s ship docked, whispering amongst themselves with jealous excitement and slighted awe. He would dress exclusively in fine furs and scarlet cloth, with large gold buckles glinting in the sunlight. It would be summer when he returned, and the sun would stay sitting, high in the heavens until the day was almost done, as if waiting for his triumphant return to set all his buckles and rings, weapons inlay and belt fastenings flashing. And then they would unload the ship and the precious metals and stones, the boxes stuck full to bursting with coins, and the silks with their saturated colors would dance, reflected in their wide and startled eyes. Or so went Bolli’s vision. In reality only his nose was in danger of turning red, and gradually it grew redder and redder under a more regular, if violent, sun.

Miklagard was worth the investment. Bolli had left home with plenty of funds, which were required to join any of the higher levels of the Greek military, including the emperor’s life-guards. Happily, fortune was smiling on him and with the latest campaign, he had begun to profit. Bolli heard from his fellow guards that in Norway and Sweden, they could not inherit while away, serving in Greece. On a certain level, he supposed he understood the sense of the regulation, but something about it stung him as patently unfair. Money was replaceable, and Bolli had little doubt he would return to Iceland far richer than his parents; nonetheless, the thought of losing family land or having an ancestral homestead pass to a more distant relative over such a trip was disconcerting.

Bolli gazed out over the neat ranks of soldiers, above the richly robed officials processing past, to the silhouetted towers against the sky, and the sea beyond, bluer than he had ever known blue could be. If he listened above the banging of shields and rapid Greek and Norse, Russian and Italian, Latin and English, and other languages he could not name, he could hear every kind of ship imaginable loading and unloading at the harbor below. The smells of spices and oils and drying grain from their cargos caught the draft and wafted upwards on a mercifully cool breeze. Bolli thought of the city’s stately public baths and chariot races. Both concepts were foreign and he had little enough time away from his duties as guard, but he had taken to them quickly, along with the boundless energy of the population for their institutions. He decided he would probably have gone to Miklagard anyway, even if it meant losing property at home.

Standing a row over from Bolli was a tall man, who towered over all the Greeks in the procession before them (and even over most of his fellow Varangians). This was their commander, Harald Sigurðarson himself. Bolli had great respect for the man, who, it was said, had been unjustly exiled from his native Norway. In Harald’s case, already deprived of his rightful inheritance, Bolli could well understand the decision to go east. He remembered making his own decision; his family had picked up and sailed to Iceland several generations earlier and he had reasoned that if they could do so and prosper well enough, he could certainly make his livelihood in Miklegard, at least for a few years.

Some of the guards occasionally discussed the rune stones they hoped their families would raise in their honor if they did not return home. Bolli had seen many memorials of the sort, especially during his travels throughout Sweden. He was initially optimistic enough to assume he would not be needing one himself, but composing hypothetical inscriptions made for good conversation, especially on long nights on campaign. After the recent fighting with the Normans in Italy where many of his countrymen had fallen, Bolli had begun to view his posthumous reputation in slightly more realistic terms. Death in battle was admirable, especially defending the emperor of so fine a city, but he still assumed he would live to flaunt his scarlet cloak and unload his ship of gold.

Harald did not speak of rune stones, though his companions often did. Some praised him for his stoic demeanor or credited his god-fearing resolve, and Harald did seem more inclined towards the city’s many churches than much of the other Northmen. Bolli, however, took his commander’s silence as proof of exile and royal ambitions. Perhaps Harald did not intend to die in battle at all. Perhaps any day he would take his wealth and leave in the dead of night to raise an army at home. It was whispered that he had already sent several shipments of gold to Prince Yaroslav in Kiev. Bolli had only heard such rumors from dubious sources, but saw nothing wrong with safeguarding one’s fortune in any case. He considered the feasibility of doing the same.

Brigid Ehrmantraut


Varangian guards. Madrid Skylitzes (Wikimedia Commons)

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Þrír Vegir í Miklagarð (part one)

Halfdan: A Swedish Varangian via Kievan Rus, c. 990

Halfdan was not the first Halfdan to come to Miklagard. This he discovered shortly after his arrival from Kiev with Prince Vladimir’s other Rus. On especially important days, the life-guard accompanied the Grikkjakonungr varying distances along the route to whichever church he had determined to visit. On regular days, designated members stood by the Greek King for the entire service. On this particular day, Halfdan was not in such immediate attendance and had ventured into one of the upper galleries of the Great Church, which the Greeks called Hagia Sophia. When he had first seen the inside of the building he had thought it afire, but somehow its air was cooler than in the courtyards outside and he reflected that there could not be that much fuel in the whole world to burn so long and so brightly anyway. The roof blocked out the heavens, yet seemed to trap the sun inside. Within, the captive rays blinded and bounced oddly off the walls so that even after many visits, Halfdan could not describe quite what the building looked like nor trace its floor-plan.

If not for a trick of the light he might have missed his name, but glancing up, near the top of the sloping ceiling he read: HALFDAN scratched in unhurried, if rather crooked, runes. It was hard to tell how long they had been there, since they were not open to the weather as most rune stones he knew from home were. Perhaps this Halfdan had lived and died in the days of his great-grandfather. Perhaps he was still at large, wandering the city’s many side streets and back alleys, which confused Halfdan with their labyrinthine twists and turns. Miklagard was far grander than any settlement he had visited before, but he had no love for its crowded, covered backstreets and throngs of hurried people. Give him a good straightforward battle any day—the city was already too much to look at and focus on without watching for street brawls behind every crumbling tenement.

Standing somewhat idle, though alert to any possible threat to the Grikkjakonungr or his family, Halfdan gazed at the rough runes somewhat above his head. Through the clouds of dust motes, billowing in the midmorning shafts of light, they seemed to take on a life of their own. He speculated that their carver could even have been the Halfdan, the very first Halfdanr gamli, from whom nearly every great hero of the past and king of the present was descended. Halfdan wondered if such a legendary man would have felt dwarfed by the size and excess of Miklagard as well. He doubted the runes actually belonged to the Halfdan of myth, but felt an inexplicable swell of pride every time he entered the Great Church thereafter.

A compatriot from Holmgard, who had traded in Miklagard before, rendered the name of the Great Church as Heilagr fróðleikr: “Holy Knowledge,” though Halfdan was not persuaded this captured either the words themselves, or the weight they conveyed for the city’s residents. Halfdan was rapidly learning words and phrases in Greek, but the abstract terms largely escaped him, along with most of the faith. He had heard of the Greek King’s religion in Kiev, and recognized holy pendants and cross-shaped containers from his travels through Rus. He was now familiar with the immense domed buildings that dotted the landscape, yet were themselves dwarfed individually by the sheer number of structures stretching away to all sides. Or, as familiar as one could be, for he was still convinced some team of Jotnar was responsible for their construction. He suspected the same of some of the statues and columns scattered around the city, as, he was told, did a good many Greeks, who even had guidebooks for the subject, though none he could read. Halfdan was curious, to a point, about the god such buildings belonged to (or possibly three gods, or possibly more if saints were considered). However, it was not his faith, and he was far from certain it would ever be.

On the nights after suitably important holy days and their corresponding feasts, the entire guard ate from the Grikkjakonungr’s table itself. Halfdan could still taste the oily flavors on the back of his tongue. Olive oil was a novel development; it permeated everything consumed in Miklagard and left his fingers greasy. Halfdan had seen the amphorae both oil and wine (which he liked quite a bit better) were stored and transported in throughout the Rus, but by that point they tended to be broken, or at least empty. Fish was decidedly less novel. Halfdan ate plenty at home, of course, and all along the waterways from Sweden to Kiev. He had eaten it in various states of preservation or fermentation, but never completely liquid. He was not entirely sure what to make of the so-called fish sauce. Or leeks, for that matter. However, Halfdan appreciated the festival spirit, whichever god or gods it honored, and learned to enjoy the leeks.

Brigid Ehrmantraut


The Halfdan inscription, Hagia Sophia. Wikimedia Commons

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