The Medieval Review 13.02.02

Garstad, Benjamin. Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius: An Alexandrian World Chronicle. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. xxxix, 464. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-674-05307-6. . .

Reviewed by:

Nirmal Dass
Wilfrid Laurier University
ndass@wlu.ca

The movement of ideas in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is an area that remains little studied, especially when it comes to Europe and the east. Indeed, the very notion of "east and west" is a later ideological imposition upon this era--for "the east" was Europe's magna mater idearum for a very long time, with Egypt and Syria foremost in the production of ideas which would eventually become the European habit of mind. East and west yet belonged to the same tradition, or perhaps traditions--Romanitas and behind that Hellenism which also served as a conduit for oriental ideas. And all the while there was traffic and exchange, intellectual transactions, ideas as universal currency. The notion of isolation within borders in the context of this time-period becomes meaningless in the face of such interchange. Are not borders perhaps a flawed legacy of nineteenth century Romanticism?

In the field of medieval studies, the question of continuity and harmony between the east and the west has largely gone unaddressed. Benjamin Garstad’s new volume may well serve to change all that, although he himself does not venture into such an analysis. He offers to the reader fresh Greek and Latin editions of The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, the Revelationes (which is the Latine version of The Apocalypse), and the Excerpta latina barbari, along with facing page translations which have the distinction of being the very first in English.

The Introduction establishes the milieu from which these works emerged: seventh-century Syria and Byzantium, and eighth-century Merovingian France for both the Greek Apocalypse and the Latin Revelationes; and Alexandria and again Merovingian France for the Excerpta. There is also a discussion of the manuscript tradition, and a summary of the content of each work. A rather brief indication follows of the great sway that the Apocalypse had upon the medieval intellectual and religious traditions, but a little further elaboration of this influence would have been of great benefit to the reader, especially a reader who will be encountering these important texts for the first time in English. There are tantalizing hints when mention is made of the "numerous Middle English versions," the printed editions of the pre-modern era, and the "broadsheets with excerpts from the Apocalypse" that were distributed when the Turks besieged Vienna in 1683 (x). However, these tidbits remain just that; the reader unfamiliar with the cultural value of the Apocalypse to the medieval mind is left bereft of any explanation. Why did the medieval world want so much to read the Apocalypse? We are not told. Largely, this work clarified the notion of world history to an era entirely constituted on the eventuality of eternity--thus, it provided an idea not only of transcendence but of universalism: the individual not as faceless and nameless, but the individual as a vital constituent in the vast flow of history into infinity. The Venerable Bede, somewhat contemporary to the Apocalypse, named this process vera lex historiae. The Introduction needed to examine this process. There is also mention made of the centrality of the Bible to the Apocalypse, but this centrality is not explained--to paraphrase Milton, the Bible justified the ways of God to man, and the Apocalypse follows suit. The discussion concludes with an outline of the chiliastic chronology detailed in this Greek work.

We then are provided with a detailed discussion of the Excerpta. Strangely, the Latin Pseudo-Methodius Revelationes is ignored in the Introduction; perhaps this can partially be justified by the fact that the examination of the Greek Apocalypse does lay the essential ground for it, though Peter the Monk, as the Latin translator, should have been explained since, to an unknowing reader, his sudden appearance as the author of the rather eloquent "Preface" may come as a surprise.

The topics covered next contextualize the Excerpta. There is a description of the use of chronology, the Alexander legends, the manuscript tradition, the Alexandrian provenance of the original Greek from which the Excerpta was translated in the eighth century, and speculation on what this original text might have contained, followed by a summary of both Alexandrian and Byzantine chronicle traditions.

Then an account, mostly speculative, is given as to why an Alexandrian chronicle in Greek ended up at the Merovingian court (we are told that it might have been a gift to Theudebert I from Justinian I to encourage the former to take up the cause of routing the Arian heresy). We are not told why this chronicle would make the ideal gift for such a cause other than statement that it is "an emphatically Nicene document" (xxix). This then leads to more speculative description of why there was a need for this chronicle to be translated into rather peculiar Latin (hence the appellation "barbaric" which was first used by Joseph Scaliger). Garstad suggests that since the Franks were actively involved in converting the heathen Saxons to Christianity at this time, they needed texts such as the Excerpta to help them explain to the Saxons that the old gods were only "disreputable men" who lived "in the bygone ages of history." This is the least convincing of Garstad's arguments.

There is also an attempt at aligning the Excerpta with the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (Garstad does not give the full title of this text; he simply refers it as the Indiculus). To the English reader who may be unfamiliar with the rather esoteric field of Frankish missionary efforts among the Saxons in the eighth century, the sudden mention of the Indiculus may be confusing. And neither is Garstad forthcoming with any sort of helpful explanation. Rather, he delves into a discussion of hippomancy (which both the Excerpta and the Indiculus mention) and takes this as an indication that the Excerpta was a useful addition in the repertoire of Frankish missionaries who sought to confound and then convert the Saxons. This is, of course, all high speculation, for we have no evidence whatsoever that the ideas found in the Indiculus or the Excerpta were ever used to convert anybody. What is clear, however, is that Garstad has simply précised his own article on this subject and inserted it into the Introduction. [1]

The Introduction ends with far more fruitful insights when Garstad explains why he has chosen to place these texts in one volume. He reasons that both were translated into Latin in Merovingian France; both were written in the east, but outside the "metropolitan culture of Constantinople" (xxxv); and that both were "co-opted by that same culture for purposes of its own" (xxxv). The latter statement is difficult to understand since the east at this time was thoroughly part of Byzantine culture, including Syria (which is what Garstad might mean by "the east," one may assume), and what "co-option" in this context is all about we are not at all told. Are not borders, races and nations concepts more familiar to us than to the people of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages? Then Garstad states in passing something intriguing--that these texts "offer evidence of the persistence of a pan-Mediterranean culture in a period when scholars have been inclined to see fragmentation and isolation" (xxxv). One wishes that Garstad and focused his energy in the Introduction upon this statement. It would have resulted in a stronger and far more interesting analysis.

As an aside, the title of Martin of Braga's book, De correctione rusticorum is translated as, "The Amendment of Peasants" on page xxxii, and then on page xxxiii, it is rendered as, "The Amendment of Pagan Ways." Both are correct, but a choice needs to be made.

Strangely as well, given that this volume is essentially a work of translation, there is no mention of the importance of translation (Syriac, Greek, and Latin) in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, as practiced, say, in the School of Nisibis, the School of Edessa, or even the School of Gondishapur. Neither is there any treatment of bilingualism and polylingualism in this era. And Garstad chooses not give his own views on translation, as he practices it. Further, no mention is made of the Greek, Syriac, and Latin eschatological and theological traditions, especially since such traditions (especially the Syriac) played such an important role in the rise of Islam.

The edition and translation portions constitute the bulk of the volume. The first part consists of the Greek text and a facing page translation of the Pseudo-Methodius Apocalypse. The Greek is entirely based upon the earlier edition by Aerts and Kortekaas, [2] with variant readings from Dindorf, Frick, and Mosshammer. [3] The translation is fluid and attractive and the style is not overly elevated as to become incomprehensible. There is often a "biblical quality" to the tone which signals the antiquity of the text being brought over into English. However, this quality is not often maintained.

The Apocalypse offers a summary of humanity's history and its ultimate destiny. This panoramic sweep includes Adam, Abraham, Alexander the Great, Jesus and the time contemporary to the writing of this text (the latter half of the seventh century) with the incursion of the Ishmaelites (generally believed to be Muslims) into Christian territory. Then, the narrative moves to time yet to come, commencing with the great tribulations, the coming of the Antichrist and his reign, the Gog and the Magog, the eventual rise of a messianic Roman emperor who will drive back the hordes of oppressors, and the Second Coming of Christ. This is closely linked to Dhu-al-Qarnayn, in Islamic eschatology. Garstad should have mentioned such connections.

The Greek text possesses a relentless, dark quality that perfectly fits the matter at hand. The translation, by and large, tends to miss this essential register of the source text, and at times even slips into perhaps unintended absurdity. For example, "all kinds of magical intrigues" (27) is given as a translation for the Greek, "tais magikais kakotechniais" (ταίς μαγικαίς κακοτεχνίαις) The term "intrigues" really is meaningless in this context and is better rendered as "the evil arts," with the understood meaning being, "the use of the magical evil arts." Magic, in the Christian context, has always been a devilish practice, and that sense needs to be conveyed into English, for "kakos" is the direct opposite of "kalos" in Greek thought. Later on, we read: "all the lords of the Greeks, that is of the Romans, will fall at the mouth of the sword" (39). Of course, the original Greek term, "stomati machairas" (ςτόματι μαχαίρας) does not mean "the mouth of the sword" (how can a sword have a mouth?), even though "stoma" by itself can mean "mouth." "Stomata machairas" as an idiomatic phrase simply means, "the point of the sword," or even "the edge of the sword." There are other such instances, but it would be tedious to list them. Suffice to say that such lapses in sense should have been cleaned up before the volume went to print. They certainly detract from an otherwise very fine effort.

There is also a bit of awkwardness with phraseology. For example, on page 17, we read (starting on page 15): "These men made war with the Israelites...he [God] had mercy on them and delivered them from them through Gideon." Surely a solution could have been found to overcome the constraint of the original. And again on page 53: "And in that time...when the number of the years of their dominion will be fulfilled, when they controlled the earth, the affliction will be increased for men and there will be famine and plague, [sic] they will perish and men will be thrown...and every day in that time yet one more blow will be laid upon men." The target text should not be so thoroughly enslaved to the source text.

And for some reason, there is a tendency to make comment on the Syriac sources of the Apocalypse, even though that topic is largely beyond the purview of the present volume. For example, note 3 on page 337, states that "Temânôn is the Syriac word for eight." This is simply not true, because "eight" in Syriac has both a feminine (tmane) and a masculine (tmanya) form. "Temanon" is onomastic Hellenization. As well, note 5 on page 337 suggests that the Syriac terms r'w (Reu) and r'b (four) are "sufficiently similar." This again is simply not true--r'w (or more properly ar'o) and r'b (or more properly ar'ba) are quiet distinct in Syriac and cannot be taken to be "scribal duplication." Garsted fails to explain why he thinks they are "sufficiently similar." This needless excursion into Syriac linguistics and orthography serves more to obfuscate than to clarify.

There are also problems with consistency. Noah's son is referred to as both Jonetos (7, et passim) and as "Ionetus" (13). There are two parenthetical references that properly belong in endnotes--for example, "Azerbaijan" is twice parenthesized in the body of the English translation (13 and 19) for the place name Edroega/Idrouegan (and is the one not simply a variant in the Greek, and therefore only one version should be employed in a translation?). There are other similar instances on 19, 27, 47, 61, and 69 (where the phrase, "interpolation" is simply added into the translated text). Such a strategy gravely detracts from the literary quality and beauty of the original, as it signals a crib rather than a translation.

In the second part of the volume, Garstad again provides a dual text, Latin with a facing-page English translation, of the Pseudo-Methodius Revelationes by Peter the Monk, followed by the Excerpta latina barbari. In fact, it might have been helpful to identify here the Revelationes as such. The Latin of both texts seems based upon editions of Frick, Schoene, and Aert and Kortekaas respectively. [4] It is not clear if the sole witness preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France of the Excerpta was actually consulted for the preparation of the present volume.

The Latin Revelationes summarizes the first six millennia of human history from Adam down to the Second Coming (which will take place at the beginning of the seventh millennium). Unlike the Greek Apocalypse, the Revelationes elaborates further on the Ishmaelites, who will destroy the Romans, overrun the Holy Land and rule the entire world. Only the Second Coming will put an end to their reign. The original version of this account was likely first written in Syria then translated into Greek, and this Greek version ended up in Merovingian France, in the eighth century, where Peter the Monk eventually translated it into his peculiar Latin. (Such an explanation is lacking in the Introduction). And the Excerpta started life as a Greek text in Alexandria. It too ended up in Merovingian France and was also translated into Latin by the same Peter. The Excerpta deals with the history of the world, from Adam down to Cleopatra. This is followed by an extensive king-list, which includes Assyrian (some mythic), Roman, Ptolemaic, Jewish and Macedonian rulers (as well as high-priests, in the case of the Jews).

The translation into English of both Latin texts is fluid and robust; indeed far more so than the Greek one, although the same crib-like stylistic concerns abound--parenthetical statements included in the text, awkward turns of phrase, unclear syntax, and issues of consistency. This is especially notable in the case of the contentious geographical term, "Eoa." As Garstad rightly notes (344), this is a transfer into Latin of the Greek term "eoa," which literally means, "the dawn" or the east (cf. the German "das Morgenland"), and which has been made into a name of a mysterious land in Latin by Peter the Monk. In the translation itself, however, "Eoa" is treated variously. For example, the Latin on page 83, the phrase "in terram Eoam" is translated on the facing page as "into the land of Eoa" (84). Just one page over, however, "in Eoam" is translated "into the East" (85). And one page over again, "in terram Eoam" it is rendered once more as "to the land of Eoa" (87). The term is similarly translated as "to Eoa" on page 97.

Despite such infelicities, there is indeed much to commend this volume for it makes available texts entirely absent in English; it provides literary evidence for the fact that the east had a profound effect upon Europe through essential texts and the ideas contained in them; and it allows for a clearer understanding of the role of eschatology in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. It is a welcome addition to the range of early medieval texts in available to the English reader.

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Notes:

1. Benjamin Garstad, "Barbarian Interest in the Excerpta Latina Barbari," in Early Medieval Europe 19.1 (2011): 3-42.

2. Willem J. Aerts, and George A.A. Kortekaas, eds., Die Apokalypse des Pseudo Methodius. Die ältesten griechischen und lateinischen Übersetzungen, Corpus scriptorium Christianorum orientalium, 2 vols. (Louvain: Peeters, 1998).

3. Ludwig August Dindorf, ed., Chronicon Paschale (Bonn: Weber, 1932); Carl Frick, ed., Chronica Minora (Leipzig: Teubner, 1892); Alden A. Mosshammer, ed. Ecloga Chronographica (Leipzig: Teubner, 1984).

4. op. cit., above n. 3; Alfred K.I. Schoene, ed., Eusebi Chronicorum libri duo (Berlin:Weidmann, 1866-1875).