The Medieval Review 09.10.22

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, John Haldon and Robin Cormack, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Oxford Handbooks in Classics and Ancient History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 1056. $158.00 9780199252466. .

Reviewed by:

Cécile Morrisson
CNRS, Paris and Dumbarton Oaks

The editors have chosen a wider conception of Byzantium than usually envisioned by British scholarship. Most chapters, but not all of them, include Late Antiquity, and the political-historical survey starts with the period 250-518 considered as that of "the emergence of a powerful independent state...generally referred to by historians as the Byzantine Empire (although to contemporaries it was never known as such)." This explains why this handbook has already been reviewed in our sister BMCR (6/27/2009). However it is not superfluous to consider it again here from the Medievalist's point of view.

The development of Byzantine studies since World War II, partially outlined in the introduction,[1] has allowed the discipline to catch up part of its lagging behind Classical or Western Medieval Studies and to build up a remarkable series of scholarly tools while progressing along many avenues of the interpretation of the sources.[2] The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (1991) long remained an isolated unrivalled enterprise but the last five years saw a flurry of syntheses and dictionaries of various sizes and scope of which the present Oxford Handbook, together with the Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, c. 500-1492 (2008) (ed. by J. Shepard) are clear milestones.

The editors are leading British figures in their respective fields: language and literature (Elizabeth Jeffreys), history (John Haldon) and art history (Robin Cormack). They have organized this massive book of more than a thousand pages [3] into four parts, "The Discipline," "The Physical World," "Institutions and Relationships," and a much shorter one on "The World around Byzantium." "The Discipline" includes under the subtitle "Instrumenta" both methods and categories of sources. "The Physical World" contains not only as expected "landscape and land use" (geography, communications, population, settlement) but also four excellent chapters of historical surveys (G. Greatrex on the years 250-518, J. Haldon on 518-800, C. Holmes on 800-1204 and A. Laiou on 1204-1453) and encompasses under "Environment" four chapters on "Buildings and their decoration" and ten others on "Production, manufacture and technology." Part III "Institutions and Relationships" covers not only the State and the Church and Society but also the economy (some aspects of which are already considered in part II) and the various aspects of Byzantine culture (art, literature, language, education, literacy). Part IV, "The World around Byzantium," is composed of two articles: "Byzantium and its neighbours" by J. Howard-Johnston and "Byzantium's role in world history" by Cyril Mango. The latter has the deserved honour to say the last word in five illuminating pages on Byzantium's essence and legacy: an "ideological totalitarianism"--certainly with lesser means of enforcement than its twentieth-century counterparts--, the "bulwark of Europe against Asiatic--and nomadic--aggression," the "educator of the Slavs," though with serious limitations, and above all the one who preserved and transmitted "a sizeable body of the ancient Greek classics" and allowed the Greek language to survive, though its ten million current speakers are far outnumbered by those of Latin-derived languages.

The 87 chapter/entries by 70 authors each aim at presenting their respective complex and wide subject in as clear a form as possible in an average 10-12 pages module, a task achieved excellently for instance by A. Lingas for Byzantine music, R. Taft for Liturgy or E. Georganteli for coinage among others. The more prolix ones are not necessarily the best since it needs a long familiarity with a field to be able to draw the forest instead of its many trees. Each entry is followed by a list of "references," i.e. that of the publications cited according to the Harvard style. Indications for "Further reading" providing some orientation are not systematic, thus depriving the beginning reader or the non specialist of a consistent guideline. Here again Lingas' chapter is exemplary, including even a presentation of available recordings of Byzantine music. There is much inevitable overlap between these bibliographies. It could have been reduced by some degree of cross-referencing and the inclusion of the most frequently cited secondary publications in the List of Abbreviations which is here limited to periodicals and series, texts and editions.

The publisher fortunately allowed for minimum black and white illustration enabling the lay reader to get an idea of the material commented, for a series of very useful maps (mostly reproduced from Haldon's Palgrave Atlas of Byzantine History and Mango's Oxford History of Byzantium , and indicating the relief background, which is often missing in previous handbooks, and even here inappropriately for the Caucasus, p. 941), and for enlightening diagrams like those of J. Haldon on Byzantine administration, or drawings like those of Byzantine brick stamps by J. Bardill or the reconstructions of Byzantine costume by M. Parani.

The Handbook provides an almost comprehensive coverage of the entire field, dealing extensively with political, theological and social issues, art and literature as well as with material culture and technology, an increasingly more widely researched topic. Section II.8 is exemplary in this respect with its ten chapters written by leading experts: "Fabrics and clothing" (M. Parani), "Silk production" (D. Jacoby), "Ceramics" (P. Armstong), "Metalwork" (M. Mundell Mango), "Ivory, steatite, enamel, glass" (A. Cutler), "Book production" (J. Lowden), "Military technology" (J. Haldon), "Shipping and seafaring" (J. Pryor), "Agriculture" and "Everyday technologies" (M. Decker). Section I ("The Physical World") is more arbitrary in its selection of subjects and sometimes of authors. Documents are treated via three examples, imperial chrysobulls and Athos, both indispensable, and Venetian Crete, clearly a great resource for the 13th-15th c. But South Italian documents equally important for the 9th-12th c. are omitted.[4] Dendrochronology is clearly presented by P. I. Kuniholm, but no chapter deals with climate studies, nor with metallographic and petrographical analyses, DNA and biomolecular archaeology, magnetic prospection, Carbon-14 dating, paleobotany, archaeozoology etc. They do not even earn a mention in the chapter on "Archaeology," even though they have already yielded significant results in Byzantine studies.[5]

Modern and innovative approaches pervade notably the chapters on "art history" (L. Brubaker), "Iconography" (K. Corrigan), "Art and Text" (H. Maguire) and several chapters on literature and its various genres (P. Agapitos, W. Hörandner, E. Jeffreys, M. Mullett) to cite a few. Literacy is given the attention it deserves by E. Jeffreys who takes a more optimistic view of its level in Byzantium relative to the early medieval West than J. Haldon in another chapter, while admitting that "disparate methods of research and evidence make quantitative comparison very difficult." A. Tihon deals with numeracy and science, reasserting that Byzantine scholars were "essentially polymaths" and that the enlargement of the heritage from antiquity came from contributions outside the empire. However, alchemists' texts like those in the Marcianus gr. 299 prove the masterly know-how attained by Byzantine metal-workers in the eleventh century.

As with all collective works of this size whose authors deliver their contributions at various dates, and which demand a long time lapse for production, a certain lack of updating in references is to be expected; this explains why important works like for example G. Dagron's Décrire et peindre. Essai sur le portrait iconique (Paris, 2007) are missing. It does not account for curious omissions e.g. that of Magdalino's L'orthodoxie des astrologues (Paris, 2004) nor for that of any publication by R. Halleux from the entry on science.

It may be a signum temporis that the increasing domination of the English language ("globalization is 'us'," a leading politician is reported to have said) has led to many typos within citations of French, German or Italian publications in the bibliographies (haphazard capitalisation, missing accents, useless articles, mistakes with foreign names like Brigoglio for Brogiolo etc.). Apart from this minor shortcoming, the book has been carefully edited. It is to be recommended as a well-informed and wide coverage of the present state of Byzantine studies, which students and anyone interested in the lost civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire should have in their library.



1. It curiously omits the French school and its contribution, as if only Dumbarton Oaks, Vienna and the four Byzantine Studies centres in the U.K. had contributed to the post-war development of Byzantine studies, even though works of Lemerle, Dagron, Feissel and other scholars are often cited in the book.

2. For a recent survey see C. Morrisson, "New Wine in New Bottles: Byzantine Studies Come of Age (ca 1981-ca 2007)," in The New Ways of History: Developments in Historiography , Gelina Harlaftis et al. (eds.), London, New York, 2010.

3. One wishes the publisher had reduced its weight (presently some three pounds) and increased its handiness by using a lighter paper of the appropriate strength.

4. For a survey of source editions see J.-M. Martin, "Historiographie récente de l'Italie méridionale pendant le haut Moyen Âge," Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 41 (1998), 331-51.

5. See now M. McCormick, "Molecular Middle Ages: Early Medieval Economic History in the Twenty-First Century," in J.R. Davies, M. McCormick (eds.) The Long Morning of Medieval Europe. New Directions in Early Medieval Europe (Aldershot, 2008) 83-104, Id. et al., "Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe," Speculum 82 (2007), 865-95 which despite its title, includes Byzantium.