Islántē: Island Of The Fish-Eaters

By: | Post date: 2009-09-07 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek
Tags: , , ,

[EDIT: This post has been updated]

The quiz I set last post gave me an excuse to Google Σαμῶται, and in the process to find that Lascaris Cananus is online—after a fashion. So this post is about him.

Lascaris Cananus wrote a page about his visit to Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland in the 15th century; the date seems to be 1438–1439. I knew about this text for a very long time, because it features in histories of the Greek language. It features in histories of the Greek language because it includes a single throwaway line, indicating that Slavonic was still spoken in the Southern Peloponnese in the 15th century, by the Zygiotai (who lived on the Zygos, the “yoke”, of Mt Taygetus).

Beyond that, Cananus answers the question I posed my friend Tania last week, home from Iceland: “what is the Icelandic native cuisine?” Most people call the place Islantē, Cananus reports; to him, it’s The Island Of The Fish-Eaters.

Lascaris Cananus may or may not be the same as John Cananus, who wrote an account of the Ottoman Siege of Constantinople of 1422. The Swedish Wikipedia article is about Lascaris but mentions John as possibly the same person; the English Wikipedia article was about John, and as of today mentions Lascaris as possibly the same person. Wikipedia links the two articles, and I won’t prevent it. Still, the author of this page is likely a merchant and not a scholar.

(The Catalan Wikipedia article is about John, and doesn’t mention Lascaris. The Greek Wikipedia doesn’t have anything on any Cananus, and I wish I was surprised 🙁 )

The text has shown up in scholarly attention as follows:

Jakob’s monograph is about Arab travellers in Germany, which sounds even more interesting than Byzantines in Iceland; but this is still a blog on Greek linguistics.

I have ordered the Swedish monograph (2 pp of Greek, 44 pp of Swedish); but to my delight, both the Russian and the German article (translated into Russian) have been put online by Russians, which inspires much gratitude. I’m finding a lot of Byzantine material gets put online by my fellow inheritors of Byzantine heritage.

And because both the Russian and the German articles contain translations of Cananus, I’m going to triangulate and put one up into English. I admit it’s unscrupulous to entertain the translation chain Greek > German > Russian > Babelfish English; but if I wanted to be scrupulous, I wouldn’t be blogging.

I’ll note that Jakob thinks 1439 is a bit too late for Slavic to be spoken around Lübeck, and thinks the reference is to a Sorbian factoria (trading colony) in Lübeck, under the Hansa, just as Danzig was a Prussian trading colony. (And Prussian back then did not mean German.) I don’t know where Sorbian was spoken in 1439 (it’s pretty inland now), but Cananus clearly had the impression there was contiguous Slavic speaking territory around Lübeck; and if it wasn’t Lübeck, it was somewhere close enough to allow the confusion. Of course, we have no way of knowing whether Cananus actually set foot in Lübeck.

Jakob also wonders whether Cananus is talking about the Roma, who had recently arrived in both the Peloponnese and Lübeck; but we have evidence of the presence of Slavs in the Peloponnese from other sources. So the conflation with the Roma would be unmotivated. (I’m amused that Babelfish translates Циганы as “Roma” and not “Gypsies”, but fair enough, I suppose.)

So, here’s the Babelfish triangulation:

I have visited many countries in Europe, traveled all of its coast in the Hyperborean Sea. There is a large bay, called in Greek Uenedikos (“Venedic”, the Baltic Sea). Its circumference is 4000 miles and its diameter from the northern tip of the so-called Cape of Norway (Νορβεγία) to the farthest corner of the land of Prussia (Πουρσία) is 2000 Italian miles, where a mile is 1000 yards [сажень, клафтер]. In our reckoning, a mile is 750 yards, so it is 2250 miles. From east and west, it covers […]

First of all, starting from the east, the most northern part of the country around the Gulf is Norway, which has a capital that is called Bergen Vågen (Μπέργεν Βάγεν). [Vågen is a bay in the centre of Bergen.] In this city there are no hammered coins in circulation, either gold, silver, copper, or iron: buyers and seller exchange livestock. Furthermore, in this city day lasts a month, from June 24 until July 25 is continuous daytime, and there is no night at all.

After this country is the country of Sweden (Σουητζία), which has the capital of Stockholm (Στοκολμώ). In this city silver coins are minted. Both countries are governed by the King of Denmark (Δατία).

After Sweden comes the country of Livonia (Λιβονία). This country has a major city called Riga (Ρήγα) and another called Revel (Ρηβούλη, now Tallinn). These (cities) are controlled by bishops in both secular and ecclesiastical matters. The country is controlled by the Prince Grand Master of the white robes and black cross.

After this country in the inner corner of the bay is the country of Prussia. It has a capital called Danzig (Τάντζηκ).

After this is the country of Slavonia (Σθλαβουνία), which has a capital called Lubeck (Λούπηκ). From this country the Zygiotai (Ζυγιῶται) in the Peloponnese have originated, because there is a large number of small towns [in Slavonia], where they speak the dialect of the Zygiotai.

Next to that country is the country of Denmark, which has a city called Copenhagen (Κουπανάβη). It serves as the residence of the King of Denmark.

These are the six countries that lie around the bay.

I have also been to the islands of the Fish-Eaters (Ἰχθυοφάγοι), which are usually called Iceland (Ἰσλάντη), but for the wise Ptolemy, I believe, this was Thule. There I found the day lasted six months from the beginning of spring until the autumn solstice. I went to the islands from England (Ἠγγληνία). It is a voyage of 1000 miles, and I was there for 24 days. And I saw a strong and sturdy people; their food was fish, and their bread was fish, and their drink was water. Then I returned back to England (Ἐγγλιτέρα).

The distance in miles in a straight line from the aforementioned city of Bergen-Vågen to Sluis (Κλούτζη), in the south of Flanders, is 3500 miles, and from the Sluis to the Holy Cape [Promontorium Sacrum, Cape St. Vincent] in Portugal is 2064 [2164?] Miles, which is a total of 5664 miles [yes, I know that doesn’t add up], if you don’t count going into the harbours.

And since I was talking about different transliterations between Byzantine and Modern Greek, here is a comparison:








Short e, long e, what’s the difference? (Well, /norveˈɣia/ vs. /norviˈɣia/ for starters…)




Modern form *may* be analogy from Rōsía for Russia




Modern Greek has gone full /ˈ(m)ber(n)ɡen/ rather than just /ˈmberɣen/




Latin Suecia




Modern form preserves /k.h/, and makes it declinable




Vasiljev speculates this is via Slavic, and may indicate Cananus went to Denmark via Novgorod. But Datia shows up elsewhere, e.g. a 1459 Italian map.




Inphlántē in Chalcocondyles, via Polish Inflanty. Livonia included modern Latvia and Estonia






Now Tallinn; Revel was the name of the city since the Danish conquest of 1219




At the time, German -ig was not yet [iç].



(Cf. Slobenía “Slovenia”)

Uses the characteristically Byzantine epenthesis of /θ/ (with which I derailed a comment thread at the Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ blog)




Again Modern Greek embraces /(m)b/ in transliteration, Byzantine doesn’t.




Danish København. Modern Greek and English from Low German (those Hansa people).




Modern Greek here has affixed the suffix -ia; ditto Greenland Groilandía, Holland Ollandía. However more recent -lands have been left as -landē (now with a delta, natch): Tailándē, Kuinslándē.




The English are Inglínoi in Chalcocondyles, but <ē> and <i> are both /i/. Googling hints that Inglini was in use in Latin as well.




Italian Inghilterra




Klúzioi in Chalcocondyles, French l’Ecluse from Latin exclusa “gateway”


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