Post-classical history

Armenian Sources

In the late tenth and eleventh centuries, as the Byzantine Empire annexed the Armenian-inhabited lands on its eastern frontier, many Armenians were encouraged to leave their ancestral homelands to settle in Cappadocia, Cilicia, and Mesopotamia, territories that sometimes themselves had only recently been occupied by the Byzantines. After the invasion of Armenia by the Saljūq Turks, their capture of Ani (1064), and their defeat of the Byzantines at Mantzikert (1071), this emigration accelerated. Armenian governors controlled important Byzantine frontier cities, and some eventually sought to establish independent lordships. By the time of the arrival of the First Crusade (1096-1099), there was a very significant Armenian presence across Cilicia, the Taurus Mountain region, northern Syria, and northern Mesopotamia: a very strategic region for crusaders and their Muslim opponents alike. The county of Edessa was from its origins a Franco-Armenian territory; the twelfth century saw the rise of an Armenian state in Cilicia, and the Frankish principality of Antioch itself came under significant Armenian influence. The impact of the Franks on the Armenians in this region was also great, however, and not merely in political terms: there were significant changes in social institutions and even religious attitudes. There was a long tradition of history writing in Armenia, and this was continued in the new settlements: it is inevitable that Armenian sources will have much to say about the history of the Franks in the Near East.

The majority of the Armenian historical works from the crusading period are not focused exclusively on Armenian matters but make comments on non-Armenian and other affairs. They have indeed long been recognized as of use to scholars of all the surrounding states, Byzantine, Muslim, and Frankish alike. There has, however, been an understandable tendency for scholars from other fields to merely use individual sources to select or confirm “relevant” facts but to ignore the work as a whole, and this can be misleading. Armenian historical texts are representative of a long tradition and often require careful handling and analysis. It is unfortunate, then, that scholars of Armenian historiography have not given full attention to works from this period: more in-depth analysis of these sources is needed. One major problem with these sources is that few have modern scholarly editions, and where works have been translated into western European languages, these translations often suffer from deficiencies. The available translations are often based on poor or incomplete editions or are themselves incomplete, filleted for “relevance”; some lack the necessary commentary and scholarly criticism.

Nevertheless, given these caveats, the potential utility of these sources is undeniable, and it has even been possible for modern scholars to begin an analysis of their interrelationship. One can divide the Armenian historical sources geographically. On the one hand there are those writing in the area of the new settlements: Matthew of Edessa in the city of the same name (mod. Şanlıurfa, Turkey), Gregory the Priest in Kesoun (mod. Kaysun, Turkey), and Constable Smpad in Cilicia (Lesser Armenia); on the other are those based in or around the old Armenian capital at Ani, notably Samuel of Ani, and Vardan. The relationship between these sources can, however, cross these boundaries. Even the sources written in Armenia proper, to the north, can provide information relevant to the settlements in the south.

These more obviously historiographical sources can be supplemented by others from different genres. Among these are certain laments, inscriptions, and manuscript colophons. The colophons in particular can provide a wealth of interesting information, not just about the circumstances of the copying of a manuscript, but also about its ownership over time and about current events, and some of these are of relevance for scholars of the crusades. For example, colophons written near Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) in 1098 and in Alexandria in 1099 give information about the First Crusade; later colophons refer to the fall of Edessa (1144) and of Jerusalem (1187) and to the Third Crusade (1189-1192). Unfortunately, although some collections of these Armenian colophons have been edited, no translations of those relating to the main crusading period have as yet been published in western European languages.

Clearly much work remains to be done on the Armenian sources from the crusading period. However, one can make some general statements about the attitudes demonstrated toward the crusaders, while keeping in mind that there was certainly no monolithic Armenian opinion. It seems that the immediate impressions of the Franks were positive, as the crusaders were seen as a force come to liberate the Armenians from Muslim rule, or its threat. Yet after the Franks showed themselves just as willing to dispossess Armenian lords as Muslim ones, their popularity could decline; a colophon from the county of Edessa from 1130 shows a markedly more skeptical attitude toward the Franks than the colophons of 1098-1099. While some later Armenian sources, primarily from Cilicia, reflect a very pro-Frankish, and even pro-papal, point of view, other sources, especially those from Armenia proper, reveal mistrust of any “westernizing” programs. It is noticeable that several writers attempted to fit the irruption of the Franks into traditional frameworks of Armenian historiography. The crusades were presented, from an early date, as fulfilling ancient Armenian prophecies; the arrival of the Franks, it was declared, would mark a return to the glorious days of the early Christian period, and not only a revival of friendly Armenian relations with the (western) Roman Empire and its papacy, but also a revival of Armenia itself and the Armenian state.

Foremost among the Armenian historical works for the early years of the crusades and the Frankish settlement is that of Matthew of Edessa, whose chronicle covers the period from 951 to 1129; although the early part of his work is often derivative, he was a witness to many of the events he describes in the later part of the work, a period covering the establishment of the Frankish county of Edessa. Given its obvious relevance to crusade studies, Matthew’s work has received more attention from Western scholars than many other Armenian works, but proper analysis of its sources and content is still largely lacking. Nevertheless, this is undeniably a work of great importance and was certainly used by many later Armenian writers, both in the southern regions of settlement and in Armenia proper.

Matthew’s work was continued, with a short gap, by one Gregory the Priest, whose work covers the period from 1136 to 1162. In this continuation, the focus shifts from the region around Edessa further west to the region of Kesoun. For example, included in Gregory’s work is a funeral oration for the Frankish count Baldwin of Marash, who died fighting in the short-lived reconquest of Edessa in 1146, written by the count’s Armenian chaplain, Basil. Baldwin was also lord of Kesoun and had refortified it; Gregory’s work gives us an insight into his Frankish marcher county that is unavailable from Frankish sources. Gregory’s is not a long work, but he seems to have had access to otherwise unknown sources, and it is of considerable interest.

In about 1150-1151 the seat of the catholicos, the head of the Armenian church, moved to Hromgla (mod. Rumkale, Turkey). Two of these catholicoi in the later twelfth century (well-known scholars in other fields) wrote short texts, both laments, of interest to historians of the crusades. Nerses Snorhali (d. 1173) wrote an Elegy on the Fall of Edessa; and his successor, Gregory IV (d. 1193), wrote an Elegy on the Fall of Jerusalem.

Of much greater importance is the chronicle attributed to Constable Smpad (Smbat Sparapet), the brother of King Het‘um I. There is some doubt over the authorship of and precise relationship between the manuscripts of this chronicle, but it is clear that it originates in the kingdom of Cilicia from a source close to the royal court. It not only follows earlier Armenian sources but seems to have had access to Frankish and even Byzantine material; it is a key text for the thirteenth century, and it was also continued by later anonymous writers. Smpad was certainly the author of certain other works of relevance, such as his translation of the Assizes of Antioch, which only survive through their Armenian version.

An Armenian source in terms of the nationality of its author if not its language is the work of Count Het‘um of Gorigos (Korikos), dictated in French as La Flor des estoires de la Terre d’Orient and then translated into Latin by its scribe in 1307. This highly tendentious work describes the lands of the “Orient” and then the history of the Mongols for the benefit of Pope Clement V.

Of the several important historical writers active in the Armenian homeland in this period, foremost is Samuel of Ani, whose chronicle ends in 1180. In the middle of the thirteenth century a group of scholars based around Ani produced several historical works of occasional interest for historians of the crusades; one of these, Vardan Arewelc‘i, not only produced a Historical Compilation but also was involved in the influential translation into Armenian of an extremely significant twelfth-century Syriac source, that of Michael the Syrian. Other Armenian sources, such as Kirakos of Ganjak and Grigor of Akanc‘, provide excellent information on the Mongols, who were, of course, of much greater relevance for the inhabitants of Armenia proper than were the Franks.

Although it certainly requires much further investigation and analysis, the body of Armenian source material is of great actual and potential value for students of the crusades.

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