Placenames of Kievan Rus’

By: | Post date: 2009-05-11 | Comments: 6 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek
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A culture confident in itself (or arrogant, same thing) will assimilate foreign place names and personal names, bending them to its language. Thus did Kshayarsha become Xerxes, and Shoshenq, Sesonchosis. Thus did Svyatoslav become Sphentísthlavos, and Dagobert Takoúpertos, and Saint-Gilles Isangéles. Thus did Hujr become Ógaros, and Ma’di Karib Badichárimos, and Kormisosh Kormésios. Thus, in late reassertion of confidence, did the clerks call Newton Néfton, and Darwin Dharvínos and Descartes (via Latin) Kartésios (and France Ghallía instead of Frántza, and England Anglía instead of Ingiltéra); while Makriyannis, no less confident on behalf of the people, call Armansberg Armaspéris, de Rigny Dernýs, and Washington Vásikhton.

Greece now is not that place; in fact, rather more often than not, they won’t even transliterate foreign personal names, so that there is now a whole lot of Latin script in any extended stretch of discourse. That projects several things; self-confidence (or arrogance, same thing) is not one of them. The advantage of transliteration though, is at least you’re not left scratching your head, wondering what the hell is being talked about. If you’re not forewarned, you need a lot of staring to work out who is meant by Γοίθιος.

If you’re working on earlier stages of the languages, there are even more traps for the unwary. Theophanes the Confessor, writing in the early 9th century with slightly out of date information, writes of Pippin the Short’s sons: p. 403 de Boor, οὗτος ὁ Πίπινος δύο υἱοὺς ἔσχεν, Κάρουλον καὶ Καρουλόμαγνον, τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ “This Pippin had two sons, Károlos and Karoulómagnos his brother”. Which one’s Charlemagne? Not Karoulómagnos: noone was calling Charles Great when he was running around in diapers. Charlemagne is Károlos, Charles (or, properly speaking, Karl): Karoulomagnos is his brother Carloman. Why on earth Carloman got distorted to Carlomagn, by the last people on earth prepared to call his brother Great, is a mystery to me.

Which leads me to my fun and games decoding Russian placenames last night. I was hoovering up by inspection the proper names of the registry of documents of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, an edition of various legal texts held by the patriarchate. Lots of these documents involve property and jurisdiction issues close to home; but a few documents involve setting up shop for the Orthodox Church in Russia in the 14th century.

Russia in the 14th century was a very different place than what it is now. For one, it wasn’t quite Russia as we know it: it was the Kievan Rus’, run out of Kiev: Muscovy is not even mentioned in the documents, and was only starting to be noticed by its neighbours. There was no distinction made back then between Russia, the Ukraine, and Byelorussia. The important cities of the time are not all important cities in our time; and the map was being turned upside down constantly with the Mongol invasions. So a list of bishoprics in a 14th century document is not going to jump out of the page as familiar to an uninformed 21st century reader. Especially when the names have been through the wringer of Greek phonology.

What complicates things even further is that many of the old bishoprics are in the borderlands of modern Poland and the former Soviet Union, regions with a complicated history. The history of the towns once covered by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania has been written in Lithuanian, and Polish, and German, and Russian, and Ukrainian, and Byelorussian, and Yiddish. It was in one of those cities that a Litvak child in the 1870s dreamed of an international language to reconcile the dissonances around him. And those cities have changed names many a time—including 1945, and 1990. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the words are Grecified Russian to start with, their current names are Byelorussian or Polish that look different again.

I think I’ve worked out the lot, but some of them took some chasing, a lot of blank staring at the Wikipedia map of Kievan Rus’, and some inventive Googling. So Peremísthlin, by inspection, is: Peremyshl (ru uk)—Przemyśl (pl)—Prömsel (de)—Pshemishl (yi). And Mpriániskon is (by a lot more searching, because it wasn’t on the Kievan Rus’ map) Bryansk.

The one I almost didn’t get occurs in the following two passages:

259.54 (July 1361): περὶ μέντοι τοῦ ἱερωτάτου μητροπολίτου κῦρ Ῥωμανοῦ ὡς χειροτονηθέντα καὶ αὐτὸν Λιτβῶν διωρίσατο ὁ κράτιστος καὶ ἅγιός μου αὐτοκράτωρ συγκαταβάσεως λόγῳ καὶ ἅμα διὰ τὴν ἀνενοχλησίαν καὶ εἰρήνην τοῦ ἐκεῖσε τόπου ἔχειν σὺν ταῖς οὔσαις τῇ τῶν Λιτβῶν ἐπαρχίᾳ δυσὶν ἐπισκοπαῖς τὸ Πωλότζικον καὶ τὸ Τούροβον μετὰ καὶ τοῦ Νοβογραδοπουλίου, τοῦ καθίσματος τοῦ μητροπολίτου, καὶ τὰς τῆς Μικρᾶς Ῥωσίας ἐπισκοπάς

Concerning the most holy metrpolitan Lord Romanus, being ordained as bishop of the Lithuanians, my mighty and saintly emperor has appointed him by assent of word, for the peace and unperturbedness of that region, to hold as well as the two bishoprics in the district of the Lithuanians, Polotzikon and Tourovon as well as Novogradopoulion, the seat of the metropolitan, and the bishoprics of Little Russia.

262.9 (July 1361): Οἶδας, ὅπως συνέβησαν τὰ μεταξὺ τῆς σῆς ἱερότητος καὶ τοῦ ἱερωτάτου μητροπολίτου Κυέβου καὶ πάσης Ῥωσίας, κῦρ Ἀλεξίου, ἀγαπητοῦ κατὰ Κύριον ἀδελφοῦ καὶ συλλειτουργοῦ ἡμῶν, καὶ ὅπως διεκρίθη ψήφῳ βασιλικῇ καὶ συνοδικῇ τῆς ἡμῶν μετριότητος ἔχειν τὴν μὲν ἱερότητά σου σὺν ταῖς οὔσαις τῇ τῶν Λιτβῶν ἐπαρχίᾳ δυσὶν ἐπισκοπαῖς τὸ Πολούτζικον καὶ Τούροβον μετὰ καὶ τοῦ Νοβογραδοπούλου καὶ τὰς τῆς Μικρᾶς Ῥωσίας ἐπισκοπάς.

You know what took place between your holiness and the most holy metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia, Lord Alexius, our beloved brother in Christ and fellow celebrant, and that it has been decided by imperial vote and synodal vote by Our Humble Self that your holiness should hold, as well as the two bishoprics in the district of the Lithuanians, Poloutzikon and Tourovon as well as Novogradopoulon, and the bishoprics of Little Russia.

OK, Turovon is Turov—(ru)—Turaw (be)—Turava (lt). Polotzikon/Poloutzikon is Polotsk (ru)—Polatsk (be)— Polockas (lt)— Połock (pl). “Little Russia” corresponds vaguely to modern Ukraine.

But what on earth was Novogradopoul(i)on? Wee birdie of Novograd? Mr Novogradopoulos? No, it’s Novograd and some diminutive, so somehow, “Little Novograd”. Novograd would be Novgorod, “Newtown”. And there’s only one Novgorod, right? The first capital of the Rus’, the second city of Kievan Rus’, a city mentioned time and again in the chroniclers. (“Newtown” because the Old Town was Riurikovo Gorodishche, Rurik’s Citadel southeast of town.)

Well, there’s a slight catch to that theory. There was not just one Novgorod. There were several. And to differentiate the Big Novgorod from the rest, it was called (and recently re-called) Velikyj Novgorod: Newtown the Great. “Wee Novgorod” could be the Patriarch’s idea of a wee joke; but we don’t have a clear notion of patriarchs having that kind of a sense of humour.

Wikipedia, bless its socks, has a list of other Novgorods. They don’t solve the problem. Nizhny Novgorod? That’s “Lower Novgorod”. Novgorod-Volynsky? The region of Volyn is actually named in the registry (as Voloúnion), but that didn’t quite seem right. Novgorod Severskyj? Severia‘s a long way from Lithuania.

In desperation, I googled the combo of Turov and Polotsk; maybe something like Wee Novgorod would turn up. Have a look for yourselves at the googleage for Google straight and Google Books.

It turns out, our bishopric rendered in Greek as Wee Novgorod was also Wee Novgorod in Russian. It’s a town that has a fair few linguistic clothes: Novgorodok (ru)—Navahrudak (be)—Nowogródek (pl)— Naugardukas (lt).

There’s also a vague tie-in to Daniel Craig with Novgorodok: the Bielski partisans were active in the forests near the town, in what was then still Poland—as commemorated in the recent film Defiance.

The registry was edited by giants of Austrian Byzantine studies: Herbert Hunger, Otto Kresten, Ewald Kislinger, Carolina Cupane, Martin Hinterberger. Great and worthy scholars one and all (not least because one of them has included the Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds in her curriculum). But would it have killed them to include an Index of Proper Names, and save me the googling?


  • opoudjis says:

    Well I’ll be. The Project Gutenberg copy of Pope Joan has the far more sensible Ἄλβιος, which corresponds to the Latin Albis (if you don’t mind a non-Attic genitive). The Gutenberg probably reflects a 1920 edition, and I can only hope that Rhoides had repented of his smartaleck conflation of the Elbe with the Kızılırmak.

  • Well, I do feel guilty having sent you to such a journey, moreover I haven’t the faintest idea what Rhoides had in mind when he coined the Alys name. At least I can guarantee that there is a smooth breathing hence no Halys.

    I am not sure I agree with Durrell’s choice of Elbe, though, for Alys. Elbe seems to me quite far off; Visurgis is certainly Weser, but it seems to me more plausible to place Alys between Weser and Rhein. But perhaps I am wrong, Durrell perhaps knows better.

    Another bit of toponymic mess in the same book. Somewhere, Rhoides mentions the extra-thin (αραχνοΰφαντα) garments of Ceos. When Kalokyris translated the book in modern Greek, he rendered this as Cos, which is not the same island, obviously. But there’s a twist: Rhoides had copied Gibbon, and it seems that Gibbon (according to the footnotes in my edition) had misread Cos for Ceos, so two wrongs made one right after all!

  • opoudjis says:

    Smooth breathing? I’m seeing at least one incorrect ὄς in the Wikisource text, so this may well be a mis-scan for Ἅλυoς anyway. That would mean Rhoides may well have fully conflated the Elbe with the Halys. Like I say, very uncool. And how did he get from Weser to Visurgis? Oh, that’s the Latin name. (See, *that*’s why we need a Latin Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Language Committee can bite me. Yeah, you know why I loathe them.) Does Latin explain Halys? Well it explains the initial vowel: Albis. But Albis ain’t Halys. Still uncool.

  • opoudjis says:

    AHAH! Larry Durrell at least seems to think so, according to the Google Books snippet of his translation:

    “that they would shake off the Charlish yoke or let the Elbe and the Weser run with their blood”.

    As for Rhoides choosing to name the Elbe as the Alys, conflating it with a river of Asia Minor (but with a smooth breathing, as I found in the polytonic online version at the Greek Wikisource)? Uncool. Very very uncool. That’s just wilfully confusing people. The European Parliament, at least, knows it as Έλβης, but the Greek mainstream is Έλβας.

  • opoudjis says:

    Oh the only ones that were tough were Novogradopoulon, of course, and Mprianiskon. Brjansk looks obvious in retrospect, but I wasn’t getting rid of the epenthetic vowel, so I would googling for bryanysk.

    Not the Halys river, now Kızılırmak. But a central European river, that sounds like (H)alys. Ooh. And I wish you had kept the breathing, it’d give me a hint. Hokay, ἄλυς in Ancient Greek means agitation or boredom; that doesn’t help me… List of rivers of Europe… The Aulne’s Brittany, the Saale requires proto-Indo-European skills for Roidis to remove the initial S (not imposs, but a stretch), the Elbe is too far off phonologically… the Aller? The Allier? The Ill? The Olt, Latin Alutus?

    You are a mean man, Nikos. Mean enough to make me swear off any affection I had towards assimilation of placenames. 🙂 Mean enough I’m going to the Wikipedia on Pope Joan… No joy there either.

    Can I buy a vowel here? Text of Pope Joan online:

    “οι Σάξωνες ανήγειρον πάλιν την θρασείαν και ακτένιστον κεφαλήν των και βυθίζοντες την χείρα εις το αίμα ουχί ταυρείων, αλλ’ ανθρωπίνων θυμάτων, ώμνυον εις τον Tουίτονα, τον Ιρμινσούλ και Αρμίνιον ή ν’ αποσείσωσι τον καρόλειον ζυγόν ή διά του αίματος αυτών να φυράσωσι του Άλυος και Βισούργιδος τας όχθας.

    The Saxons raised their impudent and uncombed head once more [during the reign of Charlemagne], and sinking their hand in the blood of not bovine but human victims, they swore by Tuito, Irminsul and Arminius to either shake off the Carolignian yoke, or to make a bloody paste of the banks of the Alys and Visurgis.”

    Elsewhere the Alys is paired with the Rhine. I have NO EARTHLY IDEA, but I’m going to guess the Visurgis is somehow the Weser, and the Alys is either the Saale or the Havel. (They’re not important enough, and I sort of suspect this is somehow the Elbe, but even the Low German name Ilv for the river isn’t quite Alys.)

    Ah what the hell. It’s the Elbe?

  • Excellent as usual but, to be honest, a couple seemed easy enough to crack -the last one was tough, certainly. Now, if you are still in the mood, how about trying your hand in guessing what is the river Άλυς, mentioned by Roides in Papesse Joan? Mind you, not the Asian river, a Central European one, where Joan’s father did missionary work.

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