A. Kaldellis: The Hagiography of Doubt and Scepticism

A. Kaldellis' chapter from The Companion to Byzantine Hagiography (ed. S. Efthymiadis) is available online.
Scepticism in religious matters is not what comes to mind when we think of Byzantium. In fact, it is routinely asserted that there was no such thing, indeed that it could not have existed because a credulous religious mentality was allegedly pervasive and overpowering. To quote only one scholar, A.H.M. Jones: ‘Sceptics and rationalists, if they existed, have left no mark on history and literature’.1 This belief, however, is the result of a commitment to a particular view of the ‘essence’ of Byzantine culture that rests on modern needs and inventions. Ironically, the genre that testifies powerfully to the ubiquitous presence of scepticism is hagiography, the very corpus that is commonly cited to prove the opposite case. The recurring figure of the man who doubts the saint’s power and expresses scepticism at his alleged miracles, only to be struck down by God and eventually converted, has been taken as proof that Byzantium was a thoroughly saint-fearing society. But it can also be taken to prove the opposite. Thousands of miracles – allegedly witnessed, then celebrated and often retold – failed to overcome innate human incredulity, which had to be confronted anew in each text. The pervasive scepticism attested in the sources reflects the literary strategies through which hagiographers hoped to counter fully anticipated reactions. The expectation of credulity is modern; the Byzantine hagiographer knew that he had a much more critical readership. Literary strategies reveal, through anticipation, cognitive and social patterns of reaction to new exemplars of holiness.
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