Uffe Holmsgaard Eriksen follows the generous saint from Anatolia, across seas and rooftops, into a narrative rabbit hole.

On 2 November 2021, the rebuilt Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox church at Ground Zero in New York was opened. The old church was completely destroyed during the terrorist attacks on World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.


Image: Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church under construction in May 2021. Photo: Jim Henderson, CC BY 4.0; Source: Wikipedia

A new choral piece was commissioned to celebrate the occasion of the opening. The world-famous Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, composed a choral work set to a medieval Greek hymn on St Nicholas of Myra. The hymn was performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on October 31 and November 1, 2021 by the choir Artefact Ensemble under the direction of the conductor Benedict Sheehan. In this way, the late antique bishop who was eventually transformed into modern-day Santa Claus, has indeed come back to town.

I will not dwell on Santa Claus and the morphology of the bishop of Myra. That story has been told several times elsewhere (see, for instance). Instead, I want to focus on the ‘long eleventh century’– the period in which St Nicholas of Myra rises from one among many saints of Asia Minor to become one of the most popular saints, elevated to the level of the Apostles.

Last year, a reading group organized within the frame of the Retracing Connections research programme studied some Byzantine hymns and Lives of saints during the Covid lockdown. We chose to translate a hymn on St Nicholas attributed to Romanos the Melodist (c. 485-560 CE). The hymn had previously only been translated into Italian, so we decided to polish the translation and publish it. The final version was made by Thomas Arentzen and myself, with the collaboration of Christian Høgel.

The translation was published in Patristica Nordica Annuaria 35, 2020 in February this year. Since today, December 6, is the feast day of St Nicholas (in the Gregorian calendar), I found it suitable to present a few observations we made when translating and commenting the hymn on St Nicholas.

The hymn is a kontakion, a lengthy liturgical song, in no less than 25 stanzas in addition to an opening prelude-stanza. Despite the name of Romanos the Melodist appearing in the manuscripts, even the first, 19th-century editor of Byzantine hymns, J. B. Pitra did not think he was the actual author.
Most likely, the hymn was written in the first half of the 10th century. It testifies to the general interest in saints in the period after the Iconoclasm. The 10th century saw the advent of the Synaxarion of Constantinople and the Menologion by Symeon Metaphrastes, both huge undertakings in creating collections of saints’ Lives according to the church calendar.

The kontakion was probably the work of a poet connected to the Stoudios monastery. Several monks, most notably Joseph the Hymnographer (ca. 816-886 CE), wrote many hymns dedicated to the saints. Joseph seems to have been responsible for the promotion and elevation of St Nicholas of Myra. According to Joseph’s Life, St Nicholas visited him when he was imprisoned in Crete. The bishop of Myra set him free from prison. Although this episode in the Life probably is a later hagiographer’s invention, it still testifies to Joseph being closely connected with St Nicholas.

This close connection is visible in the manuscript tradition: Joseph was in charge of creating the New Oktoechos, a liturgical book with hymns and prayers used in the period from Pentecost until Lent. In this book, St Nicholas is celebrated each Thursday along with the Apostles. St Nicholas had now become isapostolos: equal to an apostle. The kontakion we translated also reflects this new status of the saint in stanza 17:

You became the apostles’ truthful companion,
most esteemed one,

and dedicated yourself to their way of life,
father Nicholas, wise hierarch.


With this emphasis on the saint’s apostle-like position, it seems highly likely that the kontakion on St Nicholas emerged in an environment such as the Stoudius Monastery. However, many hymns were written in the same period to celebrate St Nicholas. No less than three more kontakia were written in his honour as well as several kanones, the other type of lengthy liturgical songs of which the monks at the Stoudios monastery produced a great many. Joseph the Hymnographer is said to have written 466 kanones, of which 385 are considered genuine.


We also find short hymns consisting of only one stanza dedicated to St Nicholas. One of these hymns, called a troparion, is sung on December 6 according to the Menaion, a book that Joseph the Hymnographer was also responsible for producing a version of. It contains hymns and prayers for each day of each month. It is this troparion that Arvo Pärt set to music to celebrate the rededication of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in New York. The troparion reads:


A rule of faith and a model of meekness, a teacher of abstinence hath the reality shewn thee unto thy flock; therewithal hast thou acquired: by humility – greatness, by poverty – riches; O Father hierarch Nicholas, intercede before Christ the God that our souls may be saved.

It is striking that this troparion as well as many of the hymns (including the kontakion by pseudo-Romanos) on the saint, do not at all tell the story that would later transform the bishop of Myra into Santa Claus. This is the famous story about how Nicholas secretly threw a bag of money through the window of a poor family’s house. They suffered so much that the father had chosen to send his three daughters into prostitution. This story became the basis of the gift-giving Santa Claus, a story that fits well with gift-giving consumerist Christmas.

Rather it is Nicholas, or Nikolaos (which is ‘People’s Victory’ in Greek), put forward as a humble and pious shepherd of his flock in Myra, always ready and willing to help people in danger, as one who fights against heretics, and one who supersedes many of the heroes from the Old Testament (Joseph, Moses, Elijah etc). Had it not been for the Stoudios monks’ prolific hymn writing, St Nicholas of Myra might never had risen to the fame he acquired in the long eleventh century. And had the hymnographers not emphasized his role as shepherd of his flock, always willing to help and intercede, the saint’s fate might have been like in the West, where he slowly turned into the white-bearded jolly Santa Claus in red clothes.

Image: The Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. Photo: Eric Marinitsch Source: Arvo Pärt Centre (2011)


In the Byzantine storyworld that lives on in the Orthodox cultures of Eastern Europe, St Nicholas of Myra remains an important helper and intercessor for the faithful, someone who watches his flock and delivers them from perils. In the West, he gained fame when sailors from Italy ‘translated’ – rescued or stole – his relics from Myra to Bari in 1087. Since then he has been transformed several times, especially in the last two centuries.

As Santa Claus, he now inhabits several Western storyworlds and is accommodated to suit each culture, where his home is located in as diverse places as the North Pole, Greenland, Norway, Finland and Spain, to name but a few. In the East, he never left Myra, yet can appear anywhere when his flock needs help. This includes also New York on October 31 2021, where he was invoked by the voices of the Artefact Ensemble, singing the melodies of Arvo Pärt.

We present Uffe Holmsgaard Eriksen, one of the Narrative Cosmonauts from our Storytelling & Narratology team. His research focuses on hymnography and narratology. He is also very fond of music from the Eastern Mediterranean and an amateur performer of different kinds of traditional music. In October 2021 he visited the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul to conduct research.

At Galata there is a drizzle, at Tatavla heavy rain”
One day in the Fall of 2021, there was indeed a drizzle at Galata. The opening lines of one of the most well-known Greek songs about the City quoted above came to my mind. I did not go to Tatavla (modern day Kurtuluş), but the clouds loomed over the entire horizon in pale grey, so there was probably heavy rain at Tatavla.
Songs about cities are numerus: from Sinatra’s anthem “New York, New York”, Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Sweet Home Chicago”, Rufus Wainwright’s slightly satirical “Hometown Waltz” about Montreal, to the beloved jazz standard “April in Paris”.
Paintings, books and movies can represent the city in detail. Songs, at least in the modern era, are often less verbose. In the early recording industry in the 1910-1920’s songs were restricted by the technology, which only allowed for a length of about 3 minutes. This format has ever since dictated that a songwriter needs to be concise in order to get the message through. The media is the message.

Galata Drizzle
The rain reflects the Galata Tower (Image UHE)

The Greek song mentioned above is “Eche gia, panta gia” or “Eche gia, Panagia” as it is also known. Set to a well-known and catchy tune from Asia Minor, the lyrics tell the story of a person getting drunk in the City, without mentioning it by name. Throughout the song the Greek neighborhoods in the City are enumerated. Besides Galata and Tatavla, we hear about Pera (modern day Beyoğlu), Genti-Koule (Yedikule), Tharapia (Tarabya) and Nichori (Yeniköy).

I have not been able to track its exact origins, but the first recordings of the song are from the early recording industry in the 1920’s. It was another version, however, that made the song rise to its present fame 50 years later. This version, originally recorded by the folklorist and singer Domna Samiou, in 1973, is the best know version, mentioning the areas of the City, here in a recent recording by the Istanbul-based ensemble, Café Aman Istanbul:

A peculiar issue revolves around the refrain. When Samiou recorded it in
1973, the refrain was “Eche gia, Panagia” (Farewell, Holy Mother”), but
she was later informed that it was actually “Eche gia, panta gia”
(“Farewell, always fare well”). It is claimed by many singers today, that
the latter version of the refrain is the correct one. But the earliest
recordings of the song from the 1920’s reveal a different story.
Although the lyrics are entirely different, the refrain says “Panagia”,
not “panta gia”. Whatever the original refrain might be, the refrain
with “Panagia” actually reflects and continues to echo an ancient
relationship between the City and its protector and defender, the Mother
of God, Virgin Mary.

One of the earliest songs that was crucial in voicing this relationship is the Akathist hymn. It is a hymn of praise that celebrates Virgin Mary. It was probably composed in the 5th century, but an extra stanza was added in the 7th century which established a close relationship between the song and the city.

In 626, Constantinople was finally free from assailants (at least for a while). The Avars, the Slavs, and the Persians had tried to conquer the city, but with the help of the Mother of God, the citizens and the emperor Heraklios were finally freed. To celebrate this victory and give thanks to the Virgin, the city’s patriarch Sergios added the extra stanza which goes:


“To you, Mother of God, Protector and Leader in battle,
I, your City, delivered from terror,
dedicate songs of victory and thanksgiving!”

In these verses the city itself sings to Virgin Mary and by singing confirms the unique relationship between the two. Later, the word “city” was replaced with “people”, probably because the hymn became very popular in the liturgy in and around the Byzantine Empire. The specific historical and local connection had to be loosened so that other faithful could chant the hymn around the world.

However, the Mother of God could not protect the City forever against the Ottoman Turks who conquered the capital of the Byzantine empire in the end of May 1453. One year later, the Flemish composer, Guillaume Dufay, wrote a motet in which a mother – symbolizing both Virgin Mary and the Great Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) – sings with tears to God the Father about the fall of the City and the Church. This is reflected in the title of the piece “Lament of the Holy Mother Church of Constantinople” (in latin Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae).


The events are not mentioned directly, but are alluded to through a paraphrase and expansion of the biblical Book of Lamentations 1.2 which bewails the fall of Jerusalem. The motet was probably written to be performed at a banquet in Lille in France, where Western noble men were eager to initiate a crusade to deliver the City from the Turks. Through the mediation of the Mother of God singing in her own voice to God, the City should once more be freed and protected. It obviously had a different outcome than intended.  

Other songs were later written about the City, now firmly established as the Ottoman capital. These songs reflect the air of the Sultan’s Palace – and his harem. The Greek-Turkish song “O kaixis” (“The Boatman”, in Turkish “Gel, gel, kayıkçı”) was probably written in the 19th century. In the song, a man standing on the shore of the Golden Horn calls for a boatman to pick him up and sail him to the Sultan’s palace. He wants to free a beautiful lady, who is trapped in the Sultan’s harem.

The song mixes Greek and Turkish words and thus reflects the language of the Greeks living in the Ottoman city, called Istanbul by the Turks. Perhaps the beautiful lady could be interpreted as the Mother of God, but this theory would need some explaining of how she ended up in the harem in the first place.

Farther away from the capital, in the Balkans, another song brings tidings from the City, called Stambol in Slavic. This song is written from a Muslim perspective and is a well-known sevdalinka, the music style that is sometimes called the “Bosnian Blues”. In the song, “U Stambolu na Bosforu” (“In Istanbul upon Bosphorus”), we hear about a pasha who is sick and about to die. He promises his faithful servants that they are to receive six wives each from the harem, then he sheds a tear and dies. When his wife hears about his death, she also sheds a tear and dies.

In “U Stambolu na Bosforu”, which was made famous by the sevdah singer Himzo Polovina, the prayer call of the muezzin is recited, or rather just “Allah illallah”. This prayer call was and still is an audible reality in Bosnia as well as in the City. But like “O kaixis” and “Eche gia, Panta gia”, the song invokes a certain image of the City, which was already a distant past by the early recordings of the songs.

This brings me to the Retracing Connections research programme. Songs are, as noted above, often much shorter than literary poems, novels and movies, and do not allow for the same detail as such media or paintings do. In all the songs, the City is mentioned directly or indirectly, but not described in any detail. Rather, we hear what is going on in the City at a certain, but not clearly defined period in time, at very general geographic locations (Galata, at the harem, in the [mind of] Hagia Sophia).

In other words, listeners are invited to imagine the world in which these sung stories take place. The songs invoke storyworlds that draw on the listeners creative imagination. I am quite sure that the way I imagine Sergios’ praise of the Mother of God in 626 or the lamenting church in 1454 has very little to do with historical realities.

I am also quite certain that I have a slight orientalist reading of the songs “O kaixis” and “U Stambolu na Bosforu”, when I imagine the pasha or women in the harem. My knowledge about the harem at the Sultan’s palace is very limited and the image that pops up draws on a visit to the Topkapı palace some years ago as well as some brothel-like scenes from old movies.


I am convinced that most listeners function in the same way. In their minds, the songs do not prompt a historically informed image of the City, but rather an imagined Constantinople/Istanbul, a semi-fictional storyworld that blends all kinds of images, stories and impressions available to each listener. One can even sing the songs without knowing much about the history or geographical locations.

This was the case for a friend of mine, who is a Greek singer living in Denmark. She had sung “Eche gia, panta gia” a thousand times at tavernas and parties in Greece. When I told her that I was staying almost literally between Pera and Galata, she was surprised that Galata was a part of the City. She had never thought about the exact locations of the areas mentioned in the song. For her, the City in the song was almost completely an imagined city.

Indeed, we find an imagined Istanbul in the somewhat cheesy songs C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra from 1928 and the more famous “Istanbul (not Constantinople)” sung by the Four Lads in 1953, marking the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople. These songs do not in any way reveal an intimate relationship with the City, but merely use the name to write a witty song.

However, the last song on my list, which is in no way exhaustive, might reflect an almost private relationship. The short-lived British pop group The Flyers – which was more or less based in Denmark – made a small hit with the song “Don’t be a fool in Istanbul”. The song is 80’s/90’s disco pop with some exotic elements like a synthesized “kanun” (a kind of zither) and a Turkish clarinet.

The singer begins the song by stating: “I can tell you a story, and I swear every word is true!” He then reveals that he met a “dark-veiled lady” who “through her mask was beautiful” but wanted him to be sure “not to break the rules”. As in every good tragic story, the singer of course breaks the rules and ends up in jail. Whether or not it is really true, as the singer claims, is not interesting. The interesting question is: why Istanbul?

An answer may be that “Istanbul” rhymes (almost…) perfectly with “don’t be a fool” which is the refrain of the song. Again, the lyrics do not give us any information or detail about the City, it rather invites the listener to imagine a city where dating rules are strict because the women are religious – did anyone say orientalist exoticism?


Despite the rain, many people visit the Galata Tower, while a shopkeeper sweeps away the showers. (Image UHE)

All these songs come to my mind that day, when there indeed is a drizzle at Galata. My imagined Constantinople/Istanbul merges with the real world Istanbul. I look at different places and spaces and try to reimagine where the stories told in the songs took place. The City is a symbol that embodies a whole civilization, ideologies, religions and empires.

The songs project storyworlds in which the City is an important setting full of emotions connected with for instance Hagia Sophia or the Harem. In some songs, the City even becomes one of the main protagonists: in the Akathist hymn, the City is victorious as in Epic, whereas the City and its Church of Holy Wisdom are tragic characters in Dufay’s lamentation.

In all the songs to the City, the lack of detail and description makes it possible for the listener to imagine the City in many ways, as a world, a storyworld, to inhabit for a short while when the song catches the attention of the ear, especially when not being present in the City. As the lyrics of Eche gia, Panta gia came to my mind, I initially wanted to follow the protagonist in the song, who wants to get drunk at Pera. However, I decided to adhere to the warning from the Flyers not to be a fool in Istanbul, so that I avoided ending up as a tragic character in my own storyworld.


  • Beep!: Farewell, Virgin Mary (merphant.blogspot.com)
  •  Έχε γειά Παναγιά | Δεν χρειάζεται να είσαι ΔΕΞΙΟΣ για να είσαι ΠΑΤΡΙΩΤΗΣ ούτε ΑΡΙΣΤΕΡΟΣ για να είσαι ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΗΣ (ttsiotikas.blogspot.com)
  • Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae - Wikipedia

Thanks to: Damir Imamović, Haris Theodorelis-Rigas, Alexandros Charkiolakis, Thomas Arentzen, Therese Helga Emborg, and Fedja Wierød Borčak.

The question of how that which is left untold determines the characteristics and essence of journalistic storytelling is very important and continually changing for any journalist inspired by real life informants and situations. However, it takes time to reach this comprehensive question, it takes constant self-questioning: what am I supposed to tell and how much am I supposed to tell?

A recent example of this questioning occurred last week during a trip to Istanbul, because if you are an enthusiast of social relations and interactions who writes monthly columns based on them, it is impossible not to recognise the underground life in the pubs of Beyoglu as a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions. By law, the last call for bars is 20:30 and closing time is 21:00, but the reality is very different … First, the bar owners with whom we have friendly relations offer their upper floors and keep serving until midnight with a closed rolling shutter. When police bust their place, they give us a narrow map of other ‘open’ places. We walk the deserted streets after curfew, reaching the appointed address, and someone lets us in. We enter, leaning down beneath the rolled-up shutter, a party with a DJ, tens of dancing and talking people: old/young, tourist/local, straight/queer, drunk/sober… I am now in a real-life storyworld which is a potential home to tens of different angles on tens of different stories. Until the journalistic instinct kicks in: What am I supposed to tell? How much of it can be told by staying loyal to the value of the story? Is it worth endangering this fragile economy and solidarity for a story, or tens of them?

Image: Closed rolling shutters of Istanbul

While struggling with these questions, I remember an anecdote from the legendary comedy show Seinfeld. I now shout over the loud music into my friend’s ear: “Do you remember the episode when Elaine starts to eat only the tops of muffins? The story goes to such weird places; an “only muffin-top store” opens, they toss the stumps and give them to the homeless, but the homeless get too offended and ask where the tops are?! So long as journalists keep their good intention of protecting the communities they are involved with, this community has to remain as a stump for its own sake, and journalists will continue talking only about how the economy is affected. On the other hand, stumps are much more tasty and interesting to approach in this kind of sensitive political environment, but what do you do with them?”

A journey through research based narration

It is indeed an important question for journalists, especially in research based narration, which I have practiced for several years – ever since I made the choice to taste the stumps. If a reporter goes to the scene of an earthquake, the picture speaks for itself… If that reporter talks to football hooligans, they speak of their own anger. On the other hand, a journalist needs more to put what they see or hear into words, and this is especially true if what they see and hear is not acceptable to mainstream media providers and their audience, who are often motivated by nationalist, sexist and conservative values. Therefore, research based narration has been the key method for me to develop storyworlds from the real-life incidents which happen during my personal and professional everyday life. Because to reach to the top of the muffin, the stump has to grow first. Hence, the story that the audience read becomes only the tip of the journalist’s journey. Only the part they are confident enough not to hide, confident enough to publish to serve the purpose of the involved task.
This project based working is surely a bonding concept for the journalist; you reach out to the scene or informant to receive an insight which is already decided in the agenda. On the other hand, the journey to get that confirmation is much more complex and inspiring, which has to be left out based on the task based agenda. This little inevitable fact causes the journey of the journalist to become more worthy and insightful rather than the final piece. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the journey of the journalist has been used as a popular culture phenomenon while developing adventures for children and adults. This is why we have famous journalists in whose lives we feel involved, to get the whole story.

Image: Adventures of Tintin

Remember the adventures of Tintin, Clark Kent (Superman), Peter Parker (Spiderman), and think about how dry their adventures looked when cases were resolved in a newspaper article at the end. The creators of these storyworlds were aware of the attraction of the ‘untold’ and used them as such effective storytelling tools to charm billions of viewers over years. Indeed it is a very well formulated success standard in the framework of show business; the reality, however, is much different if you consider the journalist as the main subject to decide what can and cannot be told. In contrast to these iconic characters, a regular journalist does not have a camera and storyline writer to accompany their journey, to capture its essence. A regular journalist’s camera and filter is no one but themselves. In their world the ‘untold’ means any other person and incident which led to that particular story, furthermore any other event which has happened to reach to the final script.

Building storyworlds by relying on impressions rather than quotations

Therefore, I would like to present three samples from struggling with being both the camera and the filter of my own adventures. A couple of months ago, I was interviewing Turkish feminist cartoonists for a Swedish periodical and I learned that one of my interviewees experienced sexual violence for years at an early age. How did I get this information? Just as an answer to my very first interview question: “How did your drawing journey start?”
Secondly, a few months back, I was interviewing a friend for my column and chasing insights of the decision making processes of refugees when migrating to Europe from Turkey. While I was overwhelmed with my technical questions he started to give an example of his visitors from last weekend. A young couple had visited him in Istanbul to seal the deal with a smuggler. The woman is actually a Turkish citizen but she chooses to go as a refugee by pretending to be a Syrian like her husband, and also receive the rights of one. Also, they are thinking of a three-destination escape…I ended up listening to them for 40 minutes without any of my technical questions being answered.
Finally, a few years back, I was contributing to a “Mother’s Day compilation” for a magazine and we were interviewing “The other mothers, or the mothers of others” about their marginalized children and the challenges that comes with it. My task was to interview the mother of a guerrilla. We talked over the phone for an hour for one paragraph of written content. She cried half of that time, complained that she did not know if her son was alive or not, and prayed for me to listen to her. At the end I had transcribed so little material, I asked her permission to compile sentences randomly so that it could be publishable.
In all three stories I did not involve the details above completely in my final scripts for two reasons: Protecting informants and commitment to the task oriented nature of journalism. However, would the piece still be relevant without these anecdotes? If so, how? I think of two effective ways of still telling the story while operating as a regular story collector: editing and rewriting.

Editing: hiding for good, Rewriting: fictionazing with the crooked truth

Since I was there to collect one specific story, it is impossible to hijack the main task and talk about the other one. Hence, here is the concept of hiding for good which is in direct relation with the editing process. For instance, I chose not to mention the abuse in the cartoonist’s  background too much, but I did try to highlight her work, which is centred around sexual abuse and wounded personalities. I focused on her insights about post trauma and its contribution to artistic creativity. Basically, I tried to get the message out without letting anyone be exposed. I use my own fragility filter unless told otherwise by the informant.
I used a similar operation for the third story as well, keeping the mother’s name anonymous (fake name) but the places and incidents real. It was, however, extremely difficult to tone down the drama from the interview and reflect it as sharp truth. Considering Turkey’s sensitive political climate around the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, I needed to simplify the message of the guerrilla’s mother to remain relevant and impartial, which led me to leave out a lot of very powerful emotional statements and focus on the naked experience of a mother.
In the case of the second story (smuggling story) I even chose to hide it all because the story could be told much more powerfully with a resourceful re-writing. Hence, when editing is not possible anymore, it is time for rewriting. Since there was so much to hide in the essence and the incidents involved in the smuggling story, it was better to stick with the full version so as not to lose the core, but instead tell it by twisting any real indication. Re-writing is a way that I choose when I want to create a story of what has been told to me but I cannot due to the complex interplays of protection (informants’ and mine), power relations, political strategies, etc. However, re-writing is quite vague, since the bind of sticking to reality is lifted. It comes with great responsibility, considering the owners of stories and their reactions when they read the piece.

Power of observation and responsibility of co-creation

Observation becomes a vital tool to capture the essence of the stories, in impressions as well as situations especially when a journalist is willing to tell the “untold” in journalistic story seeking.

Image: Elaine and the Muffin Stumps

Eventually the capability of observation gives the strength to capture the moment, and creates the paradox of telling without telling. While editing by ‘hiding for good’ provides the necessary space and model for journalists to exert their choices, re-writing comes forward as a more challenging yet rich area for creating storyworlds from material collected through research. When the journalist chooses to re-write the material to assign the value that ‘untold’ deserves, it is no longer reporting. Journalists take the liberty to narrate the research based material to make the most insightful point out of it. Hence the responsibility of co-creation begins. Because even though journalists take the liberty of narrating the material anonymously, there is still a level of responsibility to the story owners in order to not exploit it by using it against informants’ initial purpose of sharing.

Considering this strange dance between the told and untold, if a journalist goes through all these steps and chooses to develop storyworlds anyhow, it proves the level of dedication to the cause. It is also good to know that what makes the muffin tops that crunchy and tasty is what it is built on. Any journalist who does not want to miss it and works around research based narration has their own methodology and ethical dilemmas about working through the stump. That alone could be a good reason to take a closer look into research based narrations: to catch the real story behind the true event, to reach the real understanding beyond what was presented.


Alev Karaduman

is a research-based writer and cultural consultant from Istanbul who works mostly within the area of diverse communities and identity issues.
She is currently based in Malmö and writes a column (in Turkish - https://otdergi.com) about humourist human situations related to migration.

In May 2021, a virtual multilingual summer school Medieval Literature Across Languages took place. It was co-organized by the Center for Medieval Literature in Odense and the Retracing Connections program. One of the participants, our PhD researcher Lilli Hölzlhammer (Uppsala) gives a graphic summary of this original and inspiring experience. Julian Yolles (SDU), a co-organizer, describes the unique approach to collective language learning and medieval literature across languages.

Medieval Literature Across Languages: A Multilingual Summer School
17-28 May 2021
Organizers: Julian Yolles and Christian Høgel
Instructors: Aglae Pizzone (Greek), Christian Høgel (Georgian), Julian Yolles (Arabic), Réka Forrai (Latin), and Sandro Nikolaishvili (Georgian), with lectures by Joel Kalvesmaki, Lars Boje Mortensen, and Stratis Papaioannou

Iviron 463, fol. 15r (12th-13th cent.)
Iviron 463, fol. 15r (12th-13th cent.)

This summer school, organized by the Retracing Connections programme and the Centre for Medieval Literature, provided 27 PhD students from around the world with a first immersion into the study of medieval literature across Arabic, Georgian, Greek, and Latin languages. Originally planned to take place in person at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, the summer school was moved to an online format following the global travel restrictions.

The participants met for 3 hours a day and their time was divided between language lessons, tutoring, and lectures. In all three components, the central focus was on the Barlaam and Josaphat narrative—loosely based on the story of the Buddha—, which was adapted across medieval Eurasia into numerous languages. Participants in the summer school, who were required to have a working knowledge of one of the summer school languages, were thus able to leverage their knowledge of one medieval language in learning another.

Summer school in session.
Summer school in session.

In the language lessons, the online format worked to enhance this multilingual approach to literature, as digital parallel-text editions of selected corresponding passages (produced by Julian Yolles) enabled students to begin reading a text almost immediately and to reflect on the changes that occur from version to version. To get those studying languages in non-Latin alphabets (Arabic, Georgian, Greek) up to speed, preliminary online lessons and exercises were provided to participants beforehand.

The multilingual instruction was reinforced by a peer tutoring system. Each participant was responsible for providing a small amount of tutoring in one of the summer school languages they had already studied. To ensure that everyone had a chance to both offer and receive tutoring, participants were divided into tutoring blocks, during which they alternately offered assistance to their peers in breakout sessions on Zoom or had the opportunity to log on and ask questions. During these sessions, participants learned to make new connections across languages and literatures.

Lectures offered participants the opportunity to engage with cutting-edge research on topics relevant to the summer school. Christian Høgel delivered lectures on the development of the Barlaam and Josaphat narrative during the Middle Ages, as well as on the earliest Greek translation of the Qur’an. Lars Boje Mortensen offered insights on the methodological challenges and opportunities of studying literatures belonging to different linguistic and scholarly traditions, with a case study on the Alexander romance in Latin, German, and French. Stratis Papaioannou’s lecture on the Life of Theodore of Edessa showed how Georgian, Greek, and Arabic were intimately connected at the Iviron monastery on Mt Athos in the time of its abbot Euthymios the Georgian (who likely authored the Greek version of the Barlaam and Josaphat narrative). Finally, Joel Kalvesmaki gave participants a crash course in two sessions on producing parallel digital text editions in different languages using XML and his own XML-based Text Alignment Network, which was used to produce the parallel Barlaam and Josaphat selections for the summer school.

Apart from helping PhD students on their way to acquiring new medieval languages, the summer school proved a wonderful opportunity for discussions on what translations and versions mean, what working in multilingual milieus could have been like in the Middle Ages, and what could make a story like that of Barlaam and Josaphat travel so widely. Close studies are required to answer such questions, but with a little help and with the energy provided by the participants, we all got within reach of answering these during the two weeks – even in the context of newly acquired languages.

(Title image: Lilli Hölzlhammer © Medieval Literature Across Languages)
(Text and Images: Julian Yolles)


Discover the countless worlds and faces of Michael Psellos, the intellectual whose words and stories marked our image of the eleventh century more than any others. Stratis Papioannou presents the Greek edition of his book ΜΙΧΑΗΛ ΨΕΛΛΟΣ: Η ρητορική και ο λογοτέχνης στο Βυζάντιο, in the LiFO ΒΙΒΛΙΑ ΚΑΙ ΣΥΓΓΡΑΦΕΙΣ Podcast.