The Jeffreys discuss popular poetry from Byzantium dating to the 12th and 14th centuries as a small corpus of poetic work, extending to a number of genres, and possibly having an influence on later works after the fall of Byzantium in 1453 (Jeffreys 1986, 504). Of particular interest is the idea that these Greek writings may have preserved an oral style which differed significantly from the literary style of the time. The Jeffreys suggest that scholarly studies of this body of popular poetry may have been neglected in part because popular poetry describes culture and events differently than does scholarly literature, and in part because modern Greeks tend to be biased against the importance of any material from the Byzantine period (Jeffreys 1986, 505).
While the Byzantine popular poetry being considered here has some roots in oral composition, it does not seem to be a mere transcription of oral poetry. However, it was apparently presented so as to be readily accessible to listeners, even those with little education (Jeffreys 1986, 506). The authors readily admit there is not much evidence, since the corpus of literature is small and did not seem t obe commented on extensively in its period. However, they list numerous works in which the poetry and signing are a matter of itinerant performance. This suggests a high level of orality (Jeffreys 1986, 508).
To develop a clearer case for oral roots, the Jeffreys first speak of the characteristic meter of popular Byzantine poetry. Greek folk songs dating back to the 14th century have predominantly used the decapentasyllabos as a meter (Jeffreys 1986, 509). According to research by M. Jeffreys, the meter is first identified in dated works in 913, but seems slightly tentative at the time, evidenced by some partial lines in the work (Jeffreys 1986, 510). Rather than assuming the meter spread from the literate elite to the masses, especially in the relatively centralized byzantine culture, there is a real possibility that the poetic form existed in folk song all along. The Jeffreys supply an example of such a condition by quoting a period poem which says it is written in a simple, even playful way (Jeffreys 1986, 511). It is even contrasted with more thoughtful and pleasing hexameter verse. The idea is that the fifteen syllable meter is uncultured (Jeffreys 1986, 512). It appears, then, that the meter was adopted by the more erudite and courtly elements so as to be readily understood and appreciated by the population at large.
One of the difficulties of the Jeffreys’ hypothesis is that we have several centuries with no evidence of popular poetry. It is therefore impossible to analyze the poetry from that time period. However, it is virtually impossible that popular poetry did not exist during those centuries. It is much more likely that the patterns were oral in nature and were only written down later (Jeffreys 1986, 513).
The content of the poems may provide more insight into their links to oral tradition. The Jeffreys therefore turn their attention to these considerations. The epic-romance Digenis Akritas attracts attention. It has six manuscripts with similar story elements but signfiicant variations (Jeffreys 1986, 514). However, upon analysis, the Jeffreys consider four of the six versions to be purely literary, and the remaining two unclear. It is of interest to them that roughly half of the epic may well have existed in an earlier oral poem (Jeffreys 1986, 516). Another group of poems, known as the ptochoprodromic poems, satirical in nature, though they use the fifteen syllable meter, seem to be reaching toward the vernacular rather than springing from it (Jeffreys 1986, 517). The Jeffreys class several other twelfth century works in the same category.
The 14th century was a time of great upheaval in Byzantium. The Jeffreys observe that the various invasions and cultural challenges led to a new emphasis on historic linguistic and literary devices, and even cultural censorship (Jeffreys 1986, 518). In the Chronicle of the Morea we find a poem using the fifteen syllable meter, composed in Greek, with a very high percentage of formulaic half lines (Jeffreys 1986, 519). Compared to other works from the period, not only are the oral formulas much more common but the organization is loser and factual accuracy is lower. This suggests a root in oral, even spontaneous, composition (Jeffreys 1986, 520). A further marker of orality may be the use of archaisms to enable the author to meet the demands of the meter. This was described by Milman Parry in his work on HOmer, and has never been challenged seriously (Jeffreys 1986, 522). It is altogether possible that the author of the Chronicle was using a nonstandard poetic dialect either to meet metrical demands or to sound adequately poetic. The Jeffreys, although they do not givea detailed explanation in the course of this article, suggest that the development and mutations of the Greek language provided the oral poet with tools which were only later adopted in written composition (Jeffreys 1986, 524). There are many examples of alternative suffixes used for metrical purposes within the Chronicle (Jeffreys 1986, 526). The Jeffreys eventually conclude that, though the Chronicle identifies itself as a written work, it has significant roots in oral tradition, which influenced its structure and word choice (Jeffreys 1986, 527).
The dozen or so other poems from the fourteenth century, mostly romances, are more difficult to analyze. One of the difficulties mentioned by the Jeffreys is that the best examples of Greek oral style are in poems translated from other languages (Jeffreys 1986, 528). The Jeffreys discuss at some length Spadaro’s analysis of this corpous of poetry, generally considering his conclusions to be poorly grounded. One poem of note for discussion is the elisarios, a didactic poe centered on Constantinople (Jeffreys 1986, 531). This poem, with a populist slant, would seem to come not from the elites but from a more common source. It fits well into the analyses which identify oral roots.
The question of the fixity of oral poetry is always important. Was there one version of an oral work, or were there many? The Jeffreys approach this question, though with some caution (Jeffreys 1986, 533). Their experience with editing texts suggests that written and oral transmission proceeds in very different ways. In transmission of oral sources, the concept matters much more than the wording (Jeffreys 1986, 534). The standard of accuracy was a different one in oral transmission than in textual transmission. Yet those people passing on the material would see it as equally accurate. This is not absolutely uniform, as seen in the different manuscripts of Digenis Akritas and some other works. However, as a general rule it does seem to be in operation (Jeffreys 1986, 536).
The Jeffreys conclude that, in the case of Byzantine popular poetry, a common vernacular expressive style was used in composition, which was likely oral in nature. This vernacular style was eventually adopted by the literary elite (Jeffreys 1986, 537). This adoption allows us to get some idea of the vernacular style which existed, particularly in oral artistic communication.