Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: Macrides, Ruth. History as Literature in Byzantium. Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies Publications.

Review by Catherine Holmes:
Historical writing was one of the most significant forms of cultural production in Byzantium. Certainly there were times of fat and times of thin, with some periods (e.g., the late eleventh century) rich in historical narratives, and others (especially the seventh and eighth centuries) rather more impoverished; but despite these ups and downs, it is clear that histories were compiled, annotated, simplified, complicated, reissued and updated across the Byzantine centuries. That there was variety, quantity, and sometimes real quality in Byzantine history writing is not in dispute. More curious, however, is the fact that Byzantine historiography has received so little sustained scholarly analysis. Social and political historians have habitually approached Byzantine histories with the rather limited aim of sifting solid nuggets of "fact" out of a superfluous chaff of literary allusions, digressions and distortions (a point made forcefully by Ruth Macrides in the preface to the collection of essays under consideration here). Those scholars who have been willing to approach historiography as literature have often been preoccupied with taxonomising sub-genres rather than with investigating issues of composition, intertextuality, and the relationship between text and context. As a result, compared with classical antiquity and the medieval west, analysis of Byzantine historiography is at a very embryonic stage: some key texts still lack modern editions; much scholarly energy is expended on producing modern language translations, almost always the first of their kind; devotion to uncovering lost sources remains ubiquitous.


All is not gloom, however. Over the past three decades a number of important analyses have been produced about particular Byzantine histories and historians (e.g., Prokopios, John Malalas, Michael Psellos, and the anonymous author of the "Chronicle of Morea"). As Macrides, the editor of this collection points out, the barriers once assumed to have existed between high-style literary histories written by learned imperial court officials and low-style world chronicles composed by monks have been stormed and demolished. The challenge is now twofold: first, to subject more individual texts and writers to detailed scrutiny; and second, to adduce general points of principle from these individual studies, a process which inevitably requires active comparison and connection. This important volume of essays makes significant contributions to both of these challenges, although the lack of a detailed introduction means that the onus is on the reader to pick up the connecting threads and the most fruitful points of comparison between the different chapters. But if the reader has patience, then there are many fascinating leads to follow.

At a very basic level, there are plenty of new readings of particular texts and authors. Some are already relatively well studied. They include Prokopios (Kaldellis), John Malalas (Odorico), Theophylact Simokatta (Efthymiadis) and Michael Psellos (Jeffreys). But others are as yet very under-researched: Theophanes the Confessor (Calofonos, Scott, Afinogenov), George the Monk (Afinogenov), the "Vita Basili" and Leo the Deacon (Hinterberger), as well as John Skylitzes and Constantine Manasses (Boeck). As befits a volume edited by Ruth Macrides, a scholar of the historical literature and history of the late Byzantine period, the historiography of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is fully represented, with substantial discussions of the "Synopsis Chronike" (Zafeiris) the "Chronicle of the Morea" (Shawcross), the "Alexander Romance" (Trahoulia) and the late-medieval metaphrastic versions of the earlier and more elaborate histories of Anne Komnene and Niketas Choniates (Davis). Indeed, a number of the volume's contributors (Croke, Davis, and Angelou) pick up either directly or in passing on Choniates, the principal Byzantine witness to the events of the second half of the twelfth century and the Fourth Crusade of 1204; a historian who, despite his centrality to our understanding of the territorial and political collapse of Byzantium in this period and his evident influence on later generations of history writers, has only recently begun to attract the scholarly attention his rich and multi-layered text deserves.

Within these individual contributions there are a number of arresting themes. Brian Croke's bold and innovative sketch of the audience of Byzantine historiography from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries may in places be a little conservative (e.g., in its traditional reading of the collapse of learning in Byzantium after the Muslim and Bulgar invasions), but it contains so many thought-provoking suggestions about such an important and hitherto neglected feature of Byzantine historiography that it will be the standard point of departure for the study of this issue for some time to come. Likewise Michael Jeffreys' interpretation of Michael Psellos may be open to criticism, most notably for the methods it uses, the assumptions it makes about dates of composition and contexts, and for its reluctance to spell out the implications of its principal conclusions; but Jeffreys' decision to read the content of the Chronographia in the light of Psellos's extensive epistolary collection opens up the possibility that the historian on whom we all rely for appraisals of the strengths and weaknesses of Byzantium in the eleventh century was far more distant from the epicentre of imperial power than he alleges in his own historical narrative; this reading has enormous implications for our apprehension of Byzantine politics in the eleventh century.

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