I’ve been reading one of my birthday gifts, Heath W. Lowry’s The Nature of the Early Ottoman State (thanks, Jim!), a brilliant reanalysis of the early Ottomans that proves (to my satisfaction, anyway) that far from being fearsome warriors for Islam who presented conquered people with the famous “convert or die” choice, they were highly pragmatic rulers who allowed those they conquered to keep both their faith and in many cases their arms and former positions, which makes it easy to see why their rule spread so quickly among people crushed by late Byzantine taxes and misgovernment.
But on page 100 I hit one of those linguistic misjudgments that make me grind my teeth and reach for the Languagehat soapbox. Lowry is talking about a study he did of “a series of surviving Tahrir Defters, or Ottoman tax registers, from the Aegean island of Lemnos (Limnos), dating from the years 1490-1520″:
That members of the island’s late-Byzantine aristocracy were likewise performing military duties on Limnos is inferable from the fact that the peasant auxiliaries were serving under the command of their own officers, some of whom even appear in the 1490 tahrir with their former Byzantine military titles, for example, Kondostavlo, or, the “Count of the Stables.” From the Latin comes stabuli, or “count of the stable,” this was adopted by the Byzantines as the military title Konostaulos in the late thirteenth century.
Now, this is confused in more than one way; to take one obvious point, which was the title, Konostaulos or Kondostavlo? Apparently the former; compare The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society, 1204-1453 by Mark C. Bartusis, p. 28:
The increasing importance of Latin mercenaries during the reign of John Vatatzes [1221-1254] was symbolized by the creation of the office of megas konostaulos (“grand constable”), the “chief of the Frankish mercenaries.” The fact that the first megas konostaulos, Michael Palaiologos, became emperor is not without a certain significance.
Note that Bartusis translates konostaulos as “constable,” and this is correct, because the late medieval Byzantines obviously got the word from those Latin mercenaries; compare Old French conestable, which gives both the English word and modern French connétable. The OED says: “The early development of the sense, whereby the comes stabuli, from being the head groom of the stable, became the principal officer of the household of the Frankish kings, and of the great feudatories, and the field-marshal or commander-general of the army, had taken place before the word came into English; the development was parallel to that of marshal.” It’s just silly to suppose that comes stabuli would have been borrowed, with its original sense ‘officer of the stable,’ by Byzantines who hadn’t used Latin for centuries. (I suppose it’s possible that the phrase had been preserved in moth-eaten official registers since the fifth century, when Latin was still used in Constantinople, and readopted in its Frenchified form when the barbarians from the West showed up, but I’m not sure how far one could talk about continuity in such a case. I am not a Byzantinist, however, and will gladly defer to those who know more about such things.)
If you’re curious, the borrowed word turns up in one of my favorite Byzantine historians, the loyal, resentful, and vivid Anna Comnena towards the end of her Alexiad, describing a dilemma confronted by Bohemond at the Battle of Dyrrachium (1081): “He was debating what ought to be done, turning over in his mind numerous possible courses: should the constables appear before him [εί χρή παραστήναι τους κονοσταύλους]?” These, of course, are Frankish constables, not Byzantine officials.
Another curious linguistic sidelight: Speros Vryonis, Jr., in his The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh Through the Fifteenth Century (heretofore my vade mecum for the early Ottoman period), says on p. 234 “Michael Paleologus served as kondistabl in charge of Christian troops of the sultan after he had fled the kingdom of the Lascarids.” What the heck kind of word is kondistabl? The footnote refers us to Acropolites, a Greek historian; why would he be using a form like kondistabl? More mysteries.