The Medieval Review 11.10.02

Ryder, Judith R. The Career and Writings of Demetrius Kydones: A Study of Fourteenth-Century Byzantine Politics, Religion and Society. The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010. Pp. 295. $154. ISBN 978-90-04-18565-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Anthony Kaldellis
The Ohio State University

This is the first monograph in a modern language on Demetrios Kydones and is, for that reason, most welcome. Kydones was a fascinating Byzantine figure of the fourteenth century (1324-1398), a prominent politician and writer who converted to Catholicism and spent many years explaining and justifying that decision. He translated Latin texts into Greek, mainly philosophical and theological, and urged his fellow Byzantines to embrace a western alliance against the Turkish threat. Unfortunately, few of his writings have been translated. The present book has its origins in an Oxford dissertation, and at least one reference to "this thesis" (13) slipped past the revisions. While it is a welcome contribution that will make this important figure more accessible, the book has two main drawbacks (beyond its price) that interested readers should know.

The first is that, despite its generously inclusive title, the focus of its chapters is narrow (see below). Kydones' biography, political career, and the history of his times are not covered (the "career" in the title presumably refers to his writings). This study is for scholars who already know the Byzantine fourteenth century and the facts of Kydones' life. The book, moreover, focuses exclusively on the first period of Kydones' career as a writer, basically the 1350s and 60s. This focus is invoked often in the second half of the book to limit the discussion (e.g., 133, 136, 171, 205), though some may find that the later Kydones was just as interesting. Nor are all his works included: some undated, "more abstract," and inadequately edited writings are omitted (48). Finally, long passages just paraphrase Kydones' writings. This is acknowledged (79) but deemed not "excessive." A note explains that "exact translations" have generally not been given and "the Greek original is given [in the notes] for the benefit of those to whom the exact wording is of importance; it is not necessary to the overall argument of the study" (vii). This, then, cannot be a philological or literary study, and includes no close readings. "Priority is given to identifying the broad lines of Demetrius' approach, rather than to in-depth analysis" (41). In short, this remains a tightly controlled dissertation exercise from which much has been excluded.

The second drawback relates to the questions that are in fact posed, once we have accepted the restrictions on the scope and methods of the project. The chief question of the book is whether Kydones' Catholicism set him outside the mainstream of Byzantine society, and other questions do not seem challenging enough: inconclusive discussions yield speculative results throughout, leaving the reader to wonder whether the right questions have been posed.

Chapter one (some 40 pages) is a "modest" and "basic survey" (3) of Kydones' intellectual background and Greek reading, including classical, Patristic, and later Byzantine material. His Latin reading is presented via his translations, including those made by his brother Prochoros and others. The survey is useful for reference purposes, but the alphabetical order breaks down after a few pages and then appends texts in seemingly random order without much effort to relate them to Kydones' interests or to specific circumstances. "The intention here cannot be to discuss the material in depth" (28). The conclusion is vague: interest in Latin texts may have been wider than the extant translations suggest and it may have served broader intellectual interests than just East-West theological controversies. (Elizabeth Fisher is a glaring omission in the list of scholars at 15- 16 who have worked on these translations.)

Chapter two begins by presenting Kydones' view of the imperial position, which seems to have been conventional but perhaps only because it is not made the object of sustained inquiry in his extant writings, and his relations with the emperors Kantakuzenos and John V. It then surveys his views of the empire's enemies and potential allies. Kydones insisted that the Turks were the greatest threat and that Serbs and Bulgarians were unreliable allies at best; in fact, these were nations deeply hostile to the Byzantines. Ryder then surveys his argument for a Latin alliance and what is basically his sanitization of the history of Latin presence in the east. The survey is uncritical. Ryder does not fact-check Kydones' arguments or remind her readers of the events of 1204 and the subsequent brutal colonization of the Aegean region by westerners, about which Kydones is silent. Put differently, there is no effort to explain why Kydones' readers might have been reluctant to accept his picture of angelic and altruistic western Catholics. When he refers to Turkish sympathizers in Byzantium (62), she does not ask who they were. When she reaches the passage where he blames the Bulgarians for everything (66), she does not remind us that elsewhere he blames the Turks for everything (58). What Ryder does get right is something that Byzantinists more generally ought to heed before they crystallize the beliefs of their subjects, namely that these texts are situational and context- specific, that they rhetorically advance arguments meant to influence a specific situation; other situations call for other arguments (66, 69, 115). Not all these policy suggestions were "beliefs." But not everything was fluid either: a certain consistency in Kydones' positions can still be discerned. It is not clear how far Ryder wants to take her situational reading.

Chapter three presents the principles of Kydones' religious thought, which Ryder characterizes as "mainstream Christianity, east and west" (85). She expounds his epistemology of the infallible, coherent teachings of "Scripture, Councils and Fathers," his attempt to reconcile the Greek tradition with his acceptance of the papacy as the head of the Church, and his defense of Latin "rationalist" thought against Byzantine critics. Kydones defended the use of reason by man as being in accordance with God's will and argued against those who claimed that defeat in rational argument proved the divine inspiration of their position, because this would mean that God had established a system of double truth (93-94). Ryder does not tell us who these people might have been. In her explanation of his use of kanon for the Latin Fathers (97), she claims that "the reference is clearly liturgical." It is more likely to originate in the canons of the Councils.

A distinction between secular and theological arguments must be noted here. Ryder finds that Kydones' "writings are mostly extremely orderly" and it is possible to separate the secular and theological aspects of his position, which is what she does (70). Later she comments on the "contrast between what might be called a 'secular' version of the papacy and a more 'theological' approach" (112). These approaches corresponded to a "sharp distinction between 'secular' and 'theological' material" in terms of their manuscript transmission also (135, 140). This is interesting and directly contradicts the clich in the introduction that "it would be difficult to make a meaningful division between the secular and religious in Byzantine cultural life" (10). This platitude is being questioned by many medievalists and Byzantinists, and this book does its part to undermine it, except for paying lip service to it up front.

Chapter four, called "The Extent of 'Publicity'," attempts to track the dissemination and public status of Kydones' views in the 1350s and 60s, and whether they changed during that restricted timeframe. It is long, repetitive, inconclusive, and largely speculative. It does not establish solid conclusions but offers conjectures about how his works might have circulated that seem banal. Too much time is spent demolishing the weak position, not argued by anyone, that Kydones might have tried to keep his published views secret, and other such counter-factual propositions. More interesting is the possibility that some of his works were delivered publically in contexts of political deliberation (144-146), but even that cannot be proven. It is striking that almost no external evidence is presented about how others viewed Kydones. That would have given a better sense of his public image but would have required more research than this project is based on. Ryder tries to reverse-engineer his public image from what he himself says ('persona' is used a few times, but not treated seriously as a concept of literary theory).

One of the sections concludes that "it is fruitless to try to comment on Demetrius' public attitude toward these Orthodox neighbors: there is little evidence" (157); "solid conclusions" are avoided throughout (e.g., 166). Ryder concludes that he "was probably publicly associated with flexible but skeptical policies," but adds that "this is neither surprising nor particularly controversial" (157). Other conclusions include that his views were known "at least in some circles" (160). But no one doubts that.

Chapter five contains the core of the argument that pro-western and even pro-Catholic attitudes were not as marginal in Byzantium as once thought. It first briefly surveys imperial attempts to find a settlement with the papacy in the early fourteenth century. Ryder admits that the general Orthodox population wanted no part of deals with the papacy, but western aid was perceived to have the potential to sway sentiment (175-176). She concludes that "a more measured policy of rapprochement seems to have been quite possible without alienating the population." But this did not need to be argued. Moreover, the survey is limited to diplomacy and does not consider the popular context of hatred for the Latins. Most of the chapter examines Kydones' role, with an admission that the discussion will, again, "speculative rather than conclusive" (184). He may have been "influenced" by his father's working for Kantakuzenos when the latter was negotiating with the Latins (185-186); "there is no need necessarily to think of Demetrius as a pioneer flying in the face of cultural norms in these early years" (187)--but we can't rule it out either. His translations "may well have been imperially sanctioned"; maybe John V recalled him because he would have been useful in negotiating with the Latins rather than in spite of his pro-western views (187-188). It is possible that his Catholicism was an asset to the court, and flaunted (191). All this is again "speculative" (191), as is much that follows.

Ryder argues that Kydones' pro-western views may not have been as marginal as scholars think, but she does not tell us who those scholars are or why they thought that. It is not clear how one might measure marginality, especially when it comes to unique figures. That his ideas were "somewhat extreme in some respects" but "fell within a spectrum of credible responses" (131) is as close as we come to a conclusion. The argument is mostly based on two pages of general considerations about mixed populations, interaction, and the like (209-210), with no analysis of Latin colonization and the actual grounds for Byzantine hostility. The discussion parachutes the Latins into a multicultural environment just prior to Kydones' birth. Few sources are cited to support this picture of openness, and even they sometimes indicate the opposite, for example when Philip de Bindo Incontri says that "the Greeks are now welcoming to the extent that they will eat and drink with us" (210-211). Ryder does not even try to make the case that there was nothing unusual in a prominent politician in Byzantium converting to Catholicism and advocating that the empire do the same. She is interested only in establishing that there might have been some cooperation, that dialogue was possible, etc., which does not need proof.

Chapter six, however, is more interesting and has a substantive thesis, even if it has little to do with Kydones. In order to support her position that he was not marginal, Ryder argues that in the 1350s and 60s Orthodoxy could not yet be equated with Palamism, which of course he rejected. Her survey of the controversy is again based less on primary sources than general considerations (e.g., 226: "To introduce new doctrinal formulations is no small thing, and is liable to produce strong reactions") and has conclusions that are both bland and over-qualified (e.g., 232: "such considerations tend to suggest that both Kallistos and Philotheos should be regarded as active patriarchs"). Kydones was only one among many dissenting voices, though "a full assessment" is again "beyond the scope of this study" (238). The interesting aspect of the chapter is that it rightly questions several entrenched notions, such as that the patriarchate was becoming more powerful in relation to the throne and other Orthodox states and that there was an international hesychast movement active at that time. She downsizes the scope of the so-called Byzantine Commonwealth, in my view rightly. Only in this part of the book does she engage with prior scholarship, chiefly Meyendorff and Obolensky (253-254) for their unspecific generalizations. The goal is to redraw the norm (261) and thus make Kydones seem less aberrant. But identifying only "a range of ideological and practical responses" (264) does not help the historian to understand the forces that ultimately prevailed after the narrow timeframe of this analysis.

This book sets modest goals, to create certain hypothetical possibilities against which to recontextualize Kydones' positions in the 1350s and 60s. It does not marshal all the evidence to present a detailed case for the historical impact and significance of his philosophy and politics. Its questions are defined too narrowly with reference to the "the limited scope of the present argument" (251, repeated throughout), and they are answered often through conjecture. It rarely engages with existing scholarship. In sum, this book would have benefited from a more extensive revision of the dissertation on which it is based.