Nilus-Nathanael Bertos (?) (ca. 1460?): On a captive freed through the prayers of priests

By: | Post date: 2017-09-13 | Comments: 19 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Literature, Mediaeval Greek

I rejoin Hellenisteukontos with a translation of a sermon possibly by Nilus-Nathanael Bertos.

No, most people have not heard of him, and justifiably so. He isn’t all that good. But the sermon struck me as so… WTF, so divorced from the world I know (a world substantially informed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment), that I thought it worth sharing.

Bertos was a monk born in Ierapetra, a town in South-Eastern Crete, in the early 1400s. Crete at the time was a Venetian colony, and Bertos’ is clearly an Italian surname—though we don’t know whether it’s reduced from Alberto, Umberto, or what. As a young man, Bertos moved to Rhodes, possibly in order to become a monk (no senior Orthodox clergy were allowed to resided in Crete). While there, he wrote some edifying poetry in vernacular Greek: by then a somewhat macaronic vernacular was well established as a vehicle of verse literature. Prose, on the other hand, was not done in the vernacular until the next century (at least outside of Cyprus; Leontios Machairas’ chronicle dates from 1432, and the Assizes of the Kingdom of Cyprus are at least a century earlier).

Bertos wrote some sermons around the 1460s, and they have been cited as some of the first vernacular Greek prose around.

I’ve read Bertos’ sermons, and I have no fricking idea why you would call them vernacular. (Or edifying.) There’s vernacular words in there, I guess, even some downright dialectal words. But no more than 1 per 100 words, and often a lot less. The sermons are clearly in Koine; and to say they are pioneering vernacular Greek prose when Machairas wrote what he did a generation before is just… well, it makes no sense to me. Are we really that desperate for vernacular prose authors?

Bertos’ sermons were published in the 70s, in an obscure Danish mediaevalist publication, which ceased in paper in 2008. (I corresponded with its founder Jørgen Raasted just before he passed away in 1995.) Laudably, Copenhagen Uni has put PDFs of the entire run of the journal online: Cahiers de l’Institut du Moyen-Âge Grec et Latin. As a result, you can access Bertos’ 14 published sermons: Schartau, Bjarne. 1974. Nathanaelis Berti Monachi Sermones Quoattuordecim. Cahiers de l’Institut du Moyen-Âge Grec et Latin 12: 11-85.

That’s not the sermon I’m rendering here today. The sermon I’m rendering appears in a manuscript just before Bertos’ 14, and may well also be by him. (The recent PhD thesis on Bertos—of which I have much to say in my next post, all of it bad—just assumes it’s his without further discussion.) Schartau, Bjarne. 1976. De captivo precibus sacerdotum liberato (BHG 1318z). Cahiers de l’Institut du Moyen-Âge Grec et Latin 17: 70-75. Both editions are from the tail end of the Bad Old Days of Early Modern Greek Studies, when scholars would still list how these texts deviated from the Classical Greek norm, rather than treating them as older forms of Modern Greek.

I’m actually impressed that this sermon got a BHG number. (The Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca is a catalogue of all Greek texts about saints, and this sermon ended up in that catalogue in 1957.) More than I’m impressed by the sermon itself. But like I said, it reflects such an astoundingly different worldview from mine, that it’s given me pause. I just find it hard to believe that any Cretan peasant would have believed the story, or not seen through how self-serving it was, coming from a monk.

Here goes. I’ll chime in with two linguistic comments at the end.

There was once a man in the parts of Romānia who had an only son, and this man was old. And the master of that land, it so happened, wished to form a camp to prepare for war. So, though the old man objected, they took his son into the army. And they went forth and fought, but they were defeated by the enemy. And some the enemy cut down, some they took captive, and some they shut in prison. So they also shut that young man in a prison called Oblivion, namely Forgotten. And whoever was put in that prison would not be taken out until the day he died. That place was also known as Unrecorded, for noone would say anything about those imprisoned there. For it was a royal command: whoever inquired about it or mentioned it, should be put in that prison too.

So his parents heard that he too was killed in the war; they despaired of their hope, and had no more expectation of seeing him, giving him up as murdered. So they commemorated a requiem for him according to the custom of Christians: on the third day, the ninth, the fortieth, three months, six months, and the year. And the year anniversary of his death happened to be on the eve of the Holy Epiphany, namely Twelfth Night. And they commemorated mass for him, and they brought alms into church for the remembrance of their son. And as they sat in church, they saw the young man coming into the temple, and worshipping the sacred icons. And he embraced his parents and neighbours, and kissed them—O, what a miracle! And there was great rejoicing and gladness that the youth had been recovered.

So they asked about him, where he had been this past two years and where he had come from. And he explained to them in tears: “They shut me and other prisoners in the prison known as Oblivion, namely Unrecorded. And in that dark and fearsome prison I was shut up along with many others. And this time last year, on the eve of the Holy Epiphany, I woke up briefly out of sorrow and great hardship. And I saw a most handsome youth waking me up. He took the most heavy and unbearable irons off me, and held my hand. “Get up,” he said, “God has just saved you from bitter death and gloomy imprisonment through the intercession of the priests celebrating mass and praying for you, and through the alms done on your behalf.” And holding my hand, as I said, he took me out of that fearsome prison.”

See, children, what good faith and priestly prayer has done! Yet you disbelieve and treat priests and what they perform with contempt. Who has baptised you, miserable human? Who has given you communion? Who has given you holy bread? Who has blessed you? Who will commemorate you and bury you? Is it not the priest? Yet you treat him with contempt, and disbelieve what he says! Where did you behold God? Where did you become a Christian? Where were you christened with holy myrrh? Was it not at the hands of the priest? Man, if your child dies unbaptised, it is lost. If you do not receive blessing, Woman, you will have to make your own way. If you die without communion, you are in peril. If you are not commemorated by a priest, you should reckon yourself as being a beast, not a human.

So where do you expect all this from? Do you not expect this from the priest? So you should regard the priest as someone who stands in for God.1 For the great Chrysostom says:2 you should regard the priest like the Angel of God, and like God. For the Cherubim and Seraphim repose above his head, bearing the power of Divinity. Though the priest is human, he has an angel’s demeanour and grace.

Did I say, an angel’s? He is even more than an angel. For the priest has bound the angel who was taking away an infant’s soul, and returned it to its body until the priest had baptised it. And only then did he unbind the angel to take its soul. So the priest is mightier even than the angels.3 For an angel does not have the power to bind and loose like the priest does. For whatever he looses is loosened on earth and in heaven;4 and what he binds is bound on earth and in heaven. So neither an emperor has such grace, nor a king, nor a lord. For they only have lordship over the earth; but a priest commands both on earth and in heaven.

You see what kind of man a priest is; you see how much honour and grace God has granted him. Man, wherever you see a priest approaching, you must stand up and bow before him, and give him the honour he deserves. The emperor, whenever he saw a priest or a monk approaching, would get up at once and come up to meet him and greet him. Yet you treat him so often with contempt! Woe to those who insult priests and criticise them, for they shall be condemned to eternal hellfire. And blessed are those who honour priests and pay them respect, for they shall be honoured by God. To Whom be Glory and Dominion unto the unending ages. Amen.

The Orthodox clergy in Crete were in acute competition with the Franciscans for the souls of the populace. I’m pretty sure that’s not how St Francis would have approached the issue.

Also: Cool Story, Bro.

Like I said above, very little vernacular Greek at all in the sermon; one modern relative pronoun, the modern nominative for ‘woman’ and ‘king’, the modern form of ‘is’. And unnoticed by Schartau, the Cretan dialectal form of “reckon”, τάξου (lit. “pledge yourself”).

And two more hidden jewels. The first is at the very start, and blink and you’ll miss it. Bertos (if it is Bertos) refers to the East Roman Empire—whose fall he laments in his eponymous sermons—with its own proper Latin name: Ῥωμανία, Romānia. I’ll have more to say about that next post.

The other jewel is so hidden, it doesn’t make it to the text itself: it’s in the apparatus criticus of “So where do you expect all this from? Do you not expect this from the priest?” Schartau edits it as λοιπόν, ταῦτα ἀπὸ πόθεν τὰ ἀναμένεις; οὐκ ἀναμένεις ταῦτα ὑπό τοῦ ἱερέως;

That first ἀναμένεις was not written in the manuscript as ἀναμένεις. It was written as ἀνημένεις.

And I don’t really expect a classicist to pick up on it (or to accept the inconsistent spelling between the two verbs), but that’s not a spelling mistake at all. It is the Cretan dialectal form of ‘wait’. It is the verb that showed up, two centuries later, in the excerpt from the Erotokritos Romance that every Cretan knows by heart (or should):

Τ’ άκουσες, Αρετούσα μου, τα θλιβερά μαντάτα;
ο Kύρης σου μ’ εξόρισε εις τση ξενιτιάς τη στράτα.
Tέσσερεις μέρες μοναχά μου ‘δωκε ν’ ανιμένω,
κι αποκεί να ξενιτευτώ, πολλά μακρά να πηαίνω.

Have you heard, Aretousa, the sad news?
Your sire now drives me on the road to exile.
He’s granted me a mere four days to wait:
then I’m to go abroad, and travel far.

… Having read his other sermons, I’m pretty sure Bertos would not approve of Erotokritos. Or music. Or much of anything, really, other than contrition and penitence.

And, well, OK, he was of his time. It’s the PhD defending his writings, written by someone putatively of my time, that I have more of an issue with. But that’s next post.


  • […] post on Nathanael Bertos was occasioned by a Google search that led me to find out that there had been a recent , which had […]

  • sarant says:

    I replied yesterday and it was lost apparently.

    I said that it occurred to me that one can translate whole sentences of Neilos without changing at all the word order, hence it seems vernacular to me.

  • […] Nilus-Nathanael Bertos (?) (ca. 1460?): On a captive freed through the prayers of priests […]

  • Well, using a medieval (loan)word seems to me quite compatible with the notion of vernacular. As to the sentence structure, I remarked that whole strings of text can be translated in modern Greek without changing the word order.

    • Nick Nicholas says:

      I have a higher premium on vernacularness: I wait for words which would not have appeared in Byzantine Koine (even if not Byzantine Atticist.) The word order thing—true, you’re on to something, though I wonder how different that is from Byzantine Koine, as well.

  • languagehat says:

    But România is actually the Romanian spelling of Romania (the name of their country), and the macron is misleading because it implies a long vowel. Why not use Rōmania, Romanía, or Rōmanía (to represent one or more distinguishing features of Ῥωμανία? (I have never seen România used in the sense of Romance-speaking Europe, for what that’s worth.)

    • Nick Nicholas says:

      … Or Rhomania, to identify the Greek-specific construct? I say România in a Romance linguistics journal, unsurprisingly. And I’m aware of the problem with Romania and Romania. OK, since I’m not a Romance linguist, Rhomania it is.

  • languagehat says:

    Great stuff, but the sermon doesn’t seem as WTF to me; I guess I’ve read too many edifying tales from the Russian Orthodox tradition. Glad I didn’t have to listen to it on a hot Sunday, though.

    A couple of questions: why were no senior Orthodox clergy allowed to reside in Crete? Just because it was in partibus infidelium? And why the macron in Romānia? (I know you’re going to tell me to wait for the next post…)

    • Nick Nicholas says:

      Clergy: No, this was deliberate policy specific to Crete. The other Venetian possessions in Greece did not have the same policy; the first external bishop responsible for Crete for example was in Modon. I don’t know what the rationale was, but Crete constantly rebelled against Venice for 160 years (a new rebellion every 10 or 15 years), and this may have been how Venice chose to deal with Crete specifically.

      The macron is of course to avoid confusion with Romania the modern country. I have seen the circumflex used for the same reason, when România is mentioned in the sense of Romance-speaking Europe.

  • Isn’t also από πόθεν vernacular enough?

    • Nick Nicholas says:

      It’s vernacular, but not vernacular enough. 🙂 If this was written in the 1460s, we could do a lot better by then!

  • Matt says:

    “[A] prison called Oblivion, namely Forgotten. . . . That place was also known as Unrecorded”—I liked this part, especially the surprise third blow of the hammer. Is it original with Bertos or was it an existing trope? And what are those three names in the original? I’m especially interested in the difference between “Oblivion” and “Forgotten.”

    (Also, welcome back!)

    • Nick Nicholas says:

      Matt Trayvaud, as I live and breathe! Thanks man!

      The names are: Ἐπιλελησμένη, Ἐλησμονημένη, and Ἀμνημόνευτος. They are the past passive perfect participles of the verbs ἐπιλανθάνομαι “let a thing escape one, forget, lose thought of”, and ἐπιλησμονέω “forget” (cf. ἐπιλησμονή “forgetfulness”, and the later verb λησμονέω “forget” The verb λησμονέω is formed from the adjective λήσμων “unmindful”, which is derived from λανθάνομαι; so the verbs are cognate. I was exercising some translator’s license in making the participles look more different than they are.

      Ἐπιλελησμένη occurs in the Septuagint rendering of Psalms 88:12: Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?. That’s the closest to a parallel I know of; and I’m not aware that anyone has unraveled the trope any further. (Didymus the Blind uses Ἐπιλελησμένη and Ἀμνημόνευτος next to each other, but we only know his works through papyri: Bertos would not have known of him.)

    • Nick Nicholas says:

      Btw, your comment is constantly getting unapproved automatically on my view; are you having that problem elsewhere?

  • Very interesting.
    However, I wouldn’t say that there is “very little” vernacular Greek in this sermon. For instance, το λοιπόν or φουσσάτον seem quite vernacular to me.
    Also the feeling of the language, the construction of the sentences is different than Koine/NT Greek, at least for my ears.

    • Nick Nicholas says:

      Φουσσάτο is mediaeval (it is after all Latin), so that didn’t impress me as much. το λοιπόν is definitely modern-sounding, and I’d have thought it was Katharevousa; but structurally, it certainly isn’t Demotic. I’m intrigued in what you’re finding in the sentence structure, could you give me an example?

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  • June 2024
    M T W T F S S
    1. That’s the charitable reading of ἀντὶ τοῦ Θεοῦ ὀφείλεις ἔχειν τὸν ἱερέα. The uncharitable reading is “who replaces God.”

    2. Cf. Chrys. exp. in ps. CXXXVII: Migne PG 55.407; hom. 2 in 2 Tim. cap 1: Migne PG 62.610.

    3. Cf. Chrys. sac. Lib. III: Migne PG 48.643; hom. 5 in Is. 6:1: Migne PG 56.131; stat 3: Migne PG 49.50; Anna 2: Migne PG 54.648.

    4. Cf. Mt 16:19, 18;18.

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