levantia title


Aspects of daily life

Living History pt. 1

Musical instruments



Cuisine and dining





Domestic architecture


Evfimia’s day

Iôannês’ day

A Day with Iôannis:

a Constantinopolitan cabinetmaker of the eleventh century

This article was originally published in Medieval History Magazine, number 8, April 2004

The first hint of daylight roused Iôannis as usual. He has had a restless night and so must untangle the knots in his esôforion, and quilt before slipping off his sleeping bench. With unusual consideration for a man of his time and place he does not rouse his wife, Maria, but rather sets his sleepy son, Theofilos, to reviving the charcoal brazier and setting a pot of water upon it. While Theofilos attends to this, Iôannis takes the tangles out of his hair and beard, working over both twice, once with the coarse side of his comb and then with the fine, and finally checking the result in his wife’s treasured iron mirror, which he had bought her for their tenth wedding anniversary. Giving the boy two foleis, Iôannis sends him to the market to buy fresh tripe and some of the salty sheep’s cheese of the Vlachs. The boiled tripe and cheese washed down with some watered wine provides a solid start to a day which was bound no leave no time for a midday meal.

Iôannis and Theofilos walked down the hill to the artisans’ quarter that holds the workshop where they are both employed. Iôannis is a guild accredited wood turner and cabinet maker, and for the moment Theofilos is helping out while negotiations are finalised for his preferred indenture as an apprentice brocade weaver. Today should see the critical stage of a major project. The Egoumenos of the nearest monastery had commissioned a new scribe’s lectern of the latest style that could be intricately adjusted for height, distance and angle by joints tightened by screws. There was nothing really new about the methods – Iôannis had made several lecterns whose height was adjusted by screw threads – however this one has three screws used in a way that required their threads to be cut with much greater than normal precision. Iôannis has to admit to himself that he feels some apprehension about tackling this final, crucial stage. So he relaxes and prepares himself with the simple task of turning an elegant set of feet for the base of the new lectern. Theofilos has the task of rubbing the base back to a smooth finish using scour-grass, and then bringing up the finish and colour with linseed oil tinted with saffron.

All this industry was soon disturbed, however, by the unexpected arrival of an Inspector from the office of the Eparkhos. Iôannis did not realise who he was at first. The Inspector was wearing one of the conical Persian hats which had recently become fashionable in the City, rather than the traditional ceremonial hood which had for centuries been the sign of official magisterial rank. Any doubt as to has identity was quickly dispelled by the sight of the two burly members of the Vigla who followed him. The Watchmen were dressed like infantry soldiers in thick, padded gounia and heavier than normal turbans. They carried small round shields, but were only armed with clubs. Supposedly, their job was to protect the Inspector as he travelled about the sometimes dangerous streets of the City, but it was common knowledge that some Inspectors were nothing more than stand-over men who used their escorts to exert ‘persuasion’ on less forthcoming artisans. Fortunately this one was not of that sort. He contented himself with rummaging through the various raw materials, projects and tools in the workshop to confirm that they were in accordance with the document setting out Iôannis’ trade accreditation. With remarkable restraint, he even refused the offer of a cup of wine, at which the Watchmen looked quite disappointed. Once he had left though, Iôannis was quite happy to drink the Inspector’s share in relief!

After the Inspector’s visit, Iôannis fitted the legs to the lectern’s base, and handed it back to Theofilos to continue the finishing. With day wearing on, Iôannis could not put off the inevitable any further, so, working slowly and carefully he cut the threads on the screws, and then drilled and tapped the arms of the new lectern. His care paid off, and soon the lectern stood complete, the satiny smoothness of its base gleaming with the fresh oil, with the column and book-tray still pale and slightly rough awaiting their own polishing. It was a rather ungainly device, in Iôannis’ opinion, with arms sticking out at odd angles. He much preferred the elegant simplicity of the older styles. Still, it was finished and it worked, and he was confident that the Êgoumenos would be happy.

Light was failing now, so Iôannis and Theofilos set off for home. Iôannis feels inclined to celebrate the successful conclusion of the job with some self-indulgence. Maria knows him well enough, and has anticipated this. The low table in the dining alcove is laid with their best crockery, the set inscribed with bird and beasts under the vivid splashes of green and red glaze. To fill them, Maria has prepared a three course meal. First there is a sharp soup of lentils flavoured with a little vinegar and plenty of garon. Then she serves a casserole of mutton and leeks with wine. The final course is Iôannis’ favourite dish, monokuthritzin. Four different types of fish and three cheeses with cabbage, plenty of garlic and some smoked and salted pork.

The meal has been accompanied with some good sweet wine, and afterwards the family feels quite mellow and merry. Iôannis unpacks one of his earlier woodworking projects that was nothing like the heavy furniture that was his normal commercial fare. In fact, it might even have contravened his licence. It was beautiful fiddle, its tone as good as any heard in the City. Taking his cue from this, Theofilos likewise takes out his drum. Amateurs they may be, but Iôannis and son make a pleasant enough sound that Maria is always happy to hear. Soon her feet are tapping and then with a mischievous smile she slips into their sleeping chamber to rummage to the bottom of a chest. She comes outwearing the old kolovion that was her costume during the brief period she worked as a professional dancer before Iôannis made an honest woman of her. Shortly it is clear that for all the passing years Maria has not lost the talent that had made her quite popular during her brief stage career. Swaying and stamping, her hips drawing circles and figures of eight in the air to Iôannis’ smooth bowing and Theofilos’ intricate rhythms they pass a pleasant hour before taking to their beds.

Text by Timothy Dawson.
Illustrations by Jean Trolley


Esôforion – literally “inner wear”, so in English, shirt

Folis – literally “scale” or “leaf”, a copper coin of the lowest denomination.

Egoumenos – head of a monastery. Equivalent to a Western Abbot.

Eparkhos – the governor of a city. Amongst his responsibilities was the regulation of trade and guilds. One set of these rules is set out in the tenth-century Book of the Eparch.

Vigla – the city Watch or police force.

Gounion – a heavy, and often padded, outer coat with openings in the armpit which allowed more freedom of movement than when the sleeves were used. There were both civilian and military versions of this garment.

Garon – a salty liquid fermented from fish, the old Roman liquamen or garum.

Kôlovion – a sleeveless tunic, unused generally since the fourth century, but suviving as the stage costume of (belly) dancers in the Roman Empire.

Further Reading

Andrew Dalby, Flavours of Byzantium, (Totnes, 2003)
Theophilus, De Diversis Artibus tr. Charles Reginald Dodwell (London, 1961)
Digenes Akrites, ed. and tr. John Mavrogordato (Oxford, 1963 (1956)