dialogue with infidel women in Matthew of Edessa’s chronicle

The sun going dark, earthquakes, and tumultuous noise throughout the world are well-recognized signs of cosmic shake-up.  Such events reportedly occurred in Armenia 1000 years after the baptism of Jesus of Nazereth.  Armenian leaders consulted an eminent Armenian priest-scholar for detailed interpretation and forecasting.  The priest-scholar’s prophecies were historically accurate.[1]  Matthew of Edessa, an undistinguished Armenian Christian monk writing early in the twelfth-century, chronicled this grand public history.

Luohan-monks doing laundry

Matthew of Edessa also described implicitly the collapse of moral and political fidelity in Armenia.  A “good person versus bad man” conflict typically structures ancient chronicles, just as in modern news reports.[2]  Matthew of Edessa at some times demonizes Byzantines (persons from the Eastern Roman Empire), Persians (including Turks), and Franks (persons from Western Europe).[3]  At other times, he praises those non-Armenians.  He describes Armenian leaders fluidly shifting alliances among Byzantines, Turks, and Franks.  Matthew of Edessa describes as saintly some persons he also describes as performing horrendous acts of violence.  He describes brutal treachery among family, friends, and fellow community members.[4]  In his chronicle, the bad has not overcome the good, but rather the good and the bad are no longer consistently recognized.[5]

Compared to Matthew’s chronicle, the Armenian priest-scholar’s prophecies describe more narrowly the disintegration of Armenian community.  The priest-scholar predicted corrupt leaders:

The leaders and princes will become bribe-lovers and liars and perjurers, and by means of their bribe-taking they pervert justice concerning the rights of the poor. And because of this God is even more provoked to anger against them, for they cultivate their governance and rule for {earthly} recognition and not agreeably to God. And they rule imperiously over their district{s}, neither guiding nor teaching with the fear of God, as the holy apostle Paul commanded. Princes and judges {will be} more whore-loving than God-loving and they come to despise holy matrimony, and they surround themselves with vice through fornication, and embrace the destruction of their own peers. They glorify traitors and thieves, they unjustly plunder the possessions of the working people, {they are} merciless concerning upright judgements. [6]

The priest-scholar described hatred and strife replacing love and respect within the family:

Sons are provoked against fathers, fathers develop hatred toward sons, brothers will arise against each other, through murder and bloodshed they strive to destroy one another. They deny the compassion and love of brotherhood, the blood of their brotherhood will dry up, and through such deeds they become like the infidel. [7]

These descriptions of disorder and immorality are highly conventional, at least for that time.[8]  The invocation of the generic infidel highlights that these prophecies speak in abstract public language.  They speak within grand public history.

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night. [9]

Matthew of Edessa included in his chronicle a significant dialogue between Armenian captives and “infidel women.” He describes Persian invaders who “like bloodthirsty wolves or crazed dogs” slaughtered countless Armenians in a region unfortified and unprepared for war.  He notes, “Persia was filled with innumerable captives; thus this whole nation of beasts became drunk with blood.” Matthew of Edessa describes this calamity as God’s punishment of Armenia for its sins and evil ways.[10] Then he writes:

the infidels brought an immense number of captives to Persia, carrying them off in groups like flocks of birds.  When the infidels {women in Persia} saw them, they were amazed and questioned them, saying: “Why did you become enslaved, {allowing yourselves} to be in such an unprepared state, and why were you unable to have foresight, either by ear or through a sign, so that you might have fled from us?”  The captives answered: “We were unable to realize anything.”  Then the infidel women said: “Lo, this was the sign of your destruction; when in the evening the cock crowed and your cattle and sheep squatted to defecate, this was the sign for the calamity.”  The captives answered: “All that had happened to us many times in our country, but we were never able to realize that it was a sign for us of the calamity.” [11]

This dialogue is bracketed with chronologically vague statements: “After such calamitous events as these had taken place, {the dialogue} After all these calamitous events we have spoken about, ….”  The immediately preceding description of God’s punishment explicitly quotes a Psalm.  Following that quotation, declaring “the cock crowed,” even through the mouth of infidels, evokes Peter’s betrayal of Jesus in the Christian gospels.  The text then links that obvious scriptural reference shockingly to cattle and sheep defecating.  The captives respond reasonably: since such mundane events occur regularly, how could they be a sign?  The infidel women implicitly point to a lack of vision: you were unable to have foresight, either by ear or by eye.  The infidel women’s question aligns them with Jesus, who in the context of his opponents and closest followers grossly misunderstanding signs and signification, exclaimed, “Do you have eyes, and fail to see?  Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”  The Armenian captives’ dialogue with infidel women is an extraordinary insertion in Matthew of Edessa’s chronicle.[12]  That dialogue focuses on capabilities of being, not on a sequence of distinctive events.

The Armenian captives’ dialogue with infidel women implicitly challenges the public language of chronicles and prophecies.  After the cosmic signs that occurred 1000 years after the  baptism of Jesus, the Armenian king and all the Armenian princes and nobles waited three days (an important biblical number).  They then consulted “the holy vardapet Yovhannēs Kozern, who was a divinely-clothed man who led an angelic life, and was truly full of understanding of apostolic and prophetic writings.” As appropriate for the high title of vardapet, he was a “interpreter of the old and new testaments of God, filled with scholarly grace.”  Matthew of Edessa typically refers to Yovhannēs Kozern with epithets of honor, such as “the holy vardapet Yovhannēs.”  Yovhannēs delivered his second prophecy seven years (an important biblical number) after his first.  His prophecies, which are long speeches, focus on the failings of male political and religious leaders.[13]  Infidel women speaking with Armenian captives and pointing to mundane daily occurrences contrasts starkly with the context, form, and subjects of Yovhannēs prophecies.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be. [14]

Concern for writing capabilities meta-structures Matthew of Edessa’s chronicle.  Aligning himself with the Christian apostle Paul’s instruction to women in church, Matthew silenced himself in midst of writing it.[15]  He explains:

having fallen silent in this place, we have ceased our productive investigation, for we left this battle of minds and struggle of wills to others, and we withdrew and gave way to men of wit and wise and artful scholars [16]

Matthew remained silent for a number of years, but no one else took up writing the chronicle. Matthew then returned to the task.  He explains:

Now truly this was a work for vardapets and skilled scholars and not for our weakness nor for our sparse knowledge. But this is God’s habit, that He requires some useful work from the weak and the inconsequential

He then figures his work with that of small bees producing honey, dead worms producing silk, and the frail swallow building a sturdy nest.  The metaphor of the swallow he elaborates in contrasts to Yovhannēs prophetic work:

{the swallow} applies itself with diligence to the labour of carrying mud and straw, and it guarantees very firm stability and could give {the nest} as an inheritance to its sons, and it is impossible for other stronger birds to do this. I speak of the eagle and the like, for the high-soaring birds do other valourous deeds with great ability, but they cannot do that thing which the frail bird does. Now in this manner the intelligent and the learnèd are able to conduct all {sorts of} examinations of the old and new testaments of God, and to clarify them through awesome and brilliant examination, but this I shall say certainly and without doubt, for this was sketched out having been researched by us. It was impossible for anyone else to find this or to make a collection {in writing} about all the various nations and kings, hayrapets {patriarchs} and princes, {and} to gather all the eras chronologically, because the forerunners who were eyewitnesses to all the eras have died and fallen away.

Yovhannēs prophesied that the Last Emperor, the Roman King, will come “like an eagle against the Persian forces.”  While chronicling the realization of Yovhannēs’ prophecies, Matthew figures himself as the swallow.  His chronicle asserts the value of the work of both the eagle and the swallow.[17]

Concern with capabilities of being plays subtle counterpoint throughout Matthew of Edessa’s chronicle.  The sentence-beginning phrase “In the year xxx of the Armenian era” beats out the chronology of Matthew’s chronicle.  Throughout the years are specific accounts of infidelity, betrayal, and destruction of communities. The chronicle doesn’t move from a primordial time of communal security and harmony, nor does it move toward such a time.  Matthew refers to the joy of eternity and the “feast of the kingdom of God.”[18]  In Matthew’s chronicle, those times seem to be apart from time.  Like signs regularly seen, realizing those times requires different capabilities of eyes and ears.  That is what the infidel women say to the captive Armenians.  Renewed capabilities of eyes and ears are necessary to envision Armenia as an ideal of a good community.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] The eminent Armenian priest-scholar was Yovhannēs (Hovhannes / John) Kozern.  The accuracy of his prophecies implies that they were politically ineffective.

[2] Modern, highly competitive news reports tend to favor the “good woman versus bad man” narrative variant.

[3] Matthew of Edessa’s ethnography isn’t precise, and he doesn’t consistently distinguish various Muslim polities and ethnicities.  In the context of praising an individual, Turks were called Persians:

Matthew almost always uses ‘Turk’ as a collective word, and always in the context of a set of warriors attacking Christians. It is unreservedly negative, whereas the words ‘Tachik’ and ‘Persian’ can be used for benevolent Muslims as well. Even the Saljuq sultans Tughrul Bey and Alp Arslan are invariably called ‘Persian’, when Matthew refers to them individually.

Andrews (2009) p. 103.  See also id. pp. 99-100.

[4] Andrews (2009) Ch. 7 describes this ambiguity in Matthew of Edessa’s descriptions of Muslims and Crusaders.  MacEvitt (2007) highlights Matthew’s ambiguous characterizations:

For every episode demonizing the Byzantines and Turks, the reader can find another praising them. Although Matthew specifically identified the Byzantines and Turks as the destroyers of the Armenians, he did not consistently portray either group as evil or opposed to Armenian interests. He praised Basil II, the emperor who arguably did the most to undermine Armenian independence, as “saintly” and as one who lived “a holy and chaste life . . . leaving behind a good memory.” … Matthew found the “good guy/bad guy” narratives, on which historians have largely focused, uninteresting for two reasons: they failed to explain divisions among Armenians, and placed emphasis on people, rather than on the acts of violence themselves

Id. pp. 166, 170.  Id. pp. 170-174 describes the prominence of betrayal in Matthew’s chronicle.

[5] Id. p. 180 observes:

Armenian generals and aristocrats moved easily among Byzantines, Turks, and Franks, with little sense of political betrayal or cultural loss, a fluidity characteristic of the eleventh and twelfth-century Middle East.

More generally, MacEvitt (2007) highlights Matthew of Edessa’s concern about the collapse of moral and political distinctions that define Armenian culture and community.  See esp. id. pp. 159, 179-181.

[6] Matthew of Edessa, Chronicle, Bk. I, Armenian year 485 (1036/37) (second prophecy of Yovhannēs Kozern), trans. Andrews (2009) p. 172.

[7] Id., trans Andrews (2009) pp. 173-4.

[8] Compare, for example, Aristakes of Lastivert, writing in late eleventh-century Armenia:

the reign of justice was transformed into injustice, the love of silver became more honored than the love of God, and Mammon {more esteemed} than Christ. Then all modesty of the orders was perverted and disorder resulted. The princes {of Arcn / Artsn} became thieves’ companions, evil-doers, and servants of silver; its judges took bribes and, for bribes, robbed the just; the case of orphans and widows was not defended. Usury and speculation became law, and {the production} of wheat was multiplied {to such an extent} that the land was ruined and did not bear crops at the proper time to feed mankind. He who cheated his friend boasted about being wise, while he who ravished said, “I am mighty.” The wealthy ravished the homes of neighboring poor people and expropriated their fields

Aristakes of Lastivert, History of the Vardapet Aristakes Lastiverttsi Concerning the Sufferings Brought About by the Foreign Races that Surround Us, Ch. 12, “Regarding the Merciless Destruction of Arcn,” trans. Bedrosian (c. 2000).

[9] Excerpt from Czeslaw Milosz, “A Song on the End of the World,” trans. by Anthony Milosz.

[10] Thomson (2003) contrasts the historiography of Aristakes of Lastivert and Matthew of Edessa.  He describes Aristakes’ history as having the structure, “God is punishing his people for their sins; they must repent, and then they will be saved.”  He describes Matthew’s history as the record of prophetic realization.  Id. pp. 85, 87-88.  That’s an important difference in emphasis between the two histories, but Matthew does suggest that repentance can prevent further historical punishment.  In the above example Matthew quotes the penitential Psalm 44.  In his prologue to Bk. 3, Matthew states:

through {our} transgressions, we moved the Lord God against us in anger, and we received this chastisement from him through his staff. And now it is necessary and proper that those living in this time not forget this, but write and record it for those to come—that this is the fruit of sins which our fathers sowed and collected sevenfold.

Trans. Andrews (2009) p. 176.

[11] Matthew of Edessa, Chronicle, Bk. I, Armenian year 511 (1062/63) trans. Dostourian (1993) p. 99.  The next quote is from id. The previous two short quotes above are from id. pp. 97, 98.

[12] For the sign of the cock crowing in the Gospels, see Matthew 26:34-35, 74-75; Luke 22:34,60-62; John 13:38 and Mark 14:30.  The quote on eyes not seeing and ears not hearing is Mark 8:18.  The context of that quotation, Mark 8:11-21, has connections to the Armenian captives’ dialogue with the infidel women.  Jesus’ opponents are Pharisees “asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him.”  Jesus understood himself to be a sign from heaven.  He responds, “Why does this generation ask for a sign?  Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.”  In response to the infidel women, the Armenian captives complain that no sign was given to them.  After his declaration to the Pharisees, Jesus gets into a boat with some of his close followers (disciples).  The disciples apparently tell Jesus that they forgot to bring sufficient bread (this was shortly after Jesus had performed a miraculous, massive multiplication of loaves of bread).  In a dialogue of mis-perception and non-communication, Jesus warns his disciples, “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”  The disciples interpret that warning: “It is because we have no bread.”  Jesus responds, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand?” The Armenian captives’ dialogue with the infidel women has a similar endpoint.  More generally, the motif of capabilities of eye and ear has important positions in law and prophets of Hebrew scripture: Deuteronomy 29:3-4 and Isaiah 6:9-13.  In interpreting his parable of the sower, Jesus explicitly cites Isaiah’s prophetic reference to capabilities of eye and ear.  See Matthew 13:13-17, Luke 8:10, and Mark 4:12.  Paul of Tarsus speaks this passage from Isaiah in Acts 28:25-27. Paul also re-interprets Isaiah 64:4, in which experienced sense is evoked as a boundary of reality, to point to an alternate reality in 1 Corinthians 2:9.  MacEvitt (2007), p. 178, describes the Armenian captives’ dialogue with the infidel women as an example of Armenians who “fail to recognize the prophecies of their patriarchs and hermits unfolding around them.”  While MacEvitt (2007) is an insightful work, that particular interpretation seems to me to miss fundamentally the significance of the passage.

[13] The two previous quotes in this passage are from Matthew of Edessa, Chronicle, Bk. I, Armenian year 478 (1029/30) (first prophecy of Yovhannēs Kozern), trans. Andrews (2009) p. 169, and Bk. I, Armenian year 485 (1036/37) (second prophecy of Yovhannēs Kozern), trans. Andrews (2009) p. 171.

[14] Excerpt from Czeslaw Milosz, “A Song on the End of the World,” trans. by Anthony Milosz.

[15] Paul’s instruction to women to be silent in church occurs in the context of properly ordering the practice of prophesying.  See 1 Corinthians 14:26-40.

[16] Prologue to Bk. III, trans. Andrews (2009) p. 176.  I’ve eliminated “while” before “we withdrew” because it’s not grammatical and seems irrelevant to the meaning of the passage.  Matthew claims not to be highly learned.  Perhaps the source text actually has here a dangling subordinate clause.  The subsequent two quotes above are from id., trans. pp. 176-178.

[17] Kozern’s figure of the eagle is from his second prophecy (Armenian year 485).  That prophecy directly echoes the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius.  Andrews (2009) pp. 51-3.  The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius does not, however, figure the Last Emperor as an eagle.  Matthew of Edessa reported that King Senek’erim, in a crisis, “examined the chronicles and utterances of the divinely-inspired prophets, the holy vardapets.”  Bk I, Armenian year 467 (1018/19). Matthew’s chronicle is closely keyed to the prophecies of the holy vardapet Yovhannēs Kozern.

[18] Prologue to Bk. III, trans. Andrews (2009) p. 178.  Unlike Matthew of Edessa’s chronicle, Aristakes of Lastivert’s history depicts earlier holy and golden ages.

[image] My photograph, Luohan Laundering, Lin Tinggui, China, Southern Song Dynasty, 1178, detail from hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk.  Freer Gallery, Washington, DC, F1902.224.


Andrews, Tara L. 2009. Prolegomena to a critical edition of the chronicle of Matthew of Edessa, with a discussion of Computer-Aided methods used to edit the text. Ph.D. Thesis. Oxford University.

Bedrosian, Robert, trans. c. 2000.  Aristakes Lastivertc’i’s.  History.

Dostourian, Ara Edmond. 1993.  Armenia and the Crusades: tenth to twelfth centuries: the Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa. Lanham: University Press of America, National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.

MacEvitt, Christopher. 2007. “The Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa: Apocalypse, the First Crusade, and the Armenian Diaspora.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 61:157-181.

Thomson, Robert W.  2003.  “Aristakes of Lastivert and Armenian Reactions to Invasion.”  Pp. 73-88 in Hovannisian, Richard G., ed. 2003. Armenian Karin/Erzerum. Costa Mesa, Calif: Mazda Publishers.

2 thoughts on “dialogue with infidel women in Matthew of Edessa’s chronicle”

  1. I am interested in the picture/painting shown at the very beginning of this article. It seems more Chinese than Armenia?

    1. Yes, it’s Chinese, but it’s related to Matthew of Edessa’s Chronicle thematically. It’s my photograph of Luohan Laundering by Lin Tinggui, China, Southern Song Dynasty, 1178, detail from hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk. Freer Gallery, Washington, DC, F1902.224.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Current month ye@r day *