Dorothy Abrahamse

title.none: Kaldellis, ed., Mothers and Sons (Dorothy Abrahamse)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.016 08.04.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dorothy Abrahamse, California State University, Long Beach,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Psellos, Michael. Edited and translated by Anthony Kaldellis. Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters: The Byzantine Family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. x, 209. ISBN: $25.00 0-268-03315-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.16

Psellos, Michael. Edited and translated by Anthony Kaldellis. Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters: The Byzantine Family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. x, 209. ISBN: $25.00 0-268-03315-3.

Reviewed by:

Dorothy Abrahamse
California State University, Long Beach

Michael Psellos (1018-ca. 1076) was unarguably the most important intellectual of the eleventh century and one of the most prolific and wide-ranging writers in Byzantine history, but until recently the lack of modern editions and translations has made it difficult for non- specialists to access his work. For years, R. A. Sewter's translation of the Chronographia, Psellos' brilliant and opinionated portrait of the Byzantine rulers of the eleventh century, has been a staple of any course on Byzantium, and has served as an introduction to the vivid style of Psellos, as well as his own career and learning. Psellos was never modest about his accomplishments. But his vast output in fields ranging from theology and philosophy to medicine, science and rhetoric is only now becoming accessible to scholars. Fortunately, Psellos studies are flourishing, as the outcome of a recent roundtable sponsored by Notre Dame demonstrates. [1] A series of Teubner texts, inaugurated by the late L. G. Westerink, is in progress, encompassing theological, philosophical works, orations and, yet to appear, grammatical and rhetorical treatises and letters. Psellos's commentaries on Aristotle are in preparation separately, and a full bibliography of Psellos manuscripts and editions has recently appeared. [2] But relatively little of Psellos's writing is available in English translation for a wider audience. This volume represents the inaugural volume in what Anthony Kaldellis hopes will become a series of topical Psellos translations. The quality of the translation and introductions, creative selection of works included, and the format provided by Notre Dame Press promise well for the future. We can certainly hope that selected translations of Psellos's writings on science, medicine and other fields will follow.

In this volume, Anthony Kaldellis brings together the known works of Psellos about his family, using them to illuminate not only the history of the Psellos family, but more general aspects of women's and family history. The collection also provides an excellent introduction to Byzantine rhetoric. It includes Psellos's Encomium for his Mother, an extended oration that was considered a model in later Byzantium, and is his most important rhetorical work. It is paired here with a moving lament on the death of Psellos's daughter Styliane at a young age, a court memorandum concerning the dissolution of his adopted daughter's engagement, a short memorial to his infant grandson, letters with family information, and a brief description of the women's festival of St. Agathé. This dossier, composed over several decades of the mid-eleventh century, indeed provides unique insight into Psellos's personality and career, his family history, and, through his mother and daughters, the roles of women and children in an affluent extended household, and even family affection in eleventh century Constantinople. As the author indicates, the most plentiful sources for Byzantine women's history describe empresses or saints, and this collection is especially valuable for its focus on a family of affluent court functionaries who were not members of the leading aristocracy. (One quibble: Kaldellis's use of the modern term "upper middle class" is misleading; it would be better to identify their standing more specifically). Kaldellis and his collaborators (David Jenkins and Stratis Papaioannou) provide extended introductions, arguments for dating, and annotations to each of the texts.

Psellos's Encomium for his mother, the longest and best known text in the collection, is a complex rhetorical work that defies simple categorization. [3] Written some years after her death, it is in part a funeral oration modeled on the classic orations of Gregory of Nazianzos. But, as Kaldellis argues, it is also hagiographical, attempting to elevate Theodote's piety to sanctity and martyrdom by comparing her renunciation of physical beauty and extreme ascetic practices to the sufferings of martyrs. It is equally a family history of Psellos's parents and their descent, his sister's piety, and includes laments for the deaths of his father and sister. Like all Psellos writings, it includes much autobiography, ending unusually with an extended justification of his vast secular learning, enumerated in a mind-boggling list of classical and early Christian authors and fields of learning, and a plea to the emperor to release him from court to join a monastery. For Kaldellis and other modern scholars, the encomium is in reality a subtle document of political self-defense, written to justify Psellos' secular learning at a time he and his intellectual circle were forced from their powerful positions in the court of Constantine IX Monomachos (1054). [4] Some hint of the accusations against him may be evident in the claim that he studied and rejected the forbidden subjects of astrology and magic, and that only by reading Aristotle, Plato, Neoplatonist philosophers, and "all the Hellenic books and even the barbarian ones" (Enc. 29), could he refute arguments that contradicted Christian belief. Psellos attributes his learning to his mother and the divine visions that encouraged her to send him for higher education, portraying her as the dominant figure in his upbringing. Theodote's determined asceticism is seen as a foil for Psellos' secular learning, and his philosophical path is not only justified by his sainted mother's visions, but a worthy alternative to it. The Encomium may thus be read as a Byzantine defense of intellectual freedom and Hellenism.

The Encomium's abstract language and deliberately indirect and allusive rhetorical style, with its many references to a wide range of classical, Neoplatonic and early Christian philosophers, were intended to be read, and perhaps heard in performance, by an audience well acquainted with its references, and some of its meanings are still obscure. Kaldellis's excellent translation, based on a recent edition by U. Criscuolo, attempts to preserve these qualities, with helpful references. It is a work that can only be understood with careful reading and understanding of its rhetorical and political context, but is probably unmatched as an exemplar of the rhetorical and intellectual currents of eleventh century Byzantium.

The Funeral Oration for his daughter Styliane, who died before the age of marriage, is a much more direct and emotional piece, composed in one of the most widely used Byzantine rhetorical genres. Psellos's oration commemorates the death from a disease that may be smallpox of his nine-year-old daughter. The oration includes a detailed description of her physical beauty, and Psellos's claim that it had already begun to attract potential bridegrooms. Psellos gives a vivid description of the course of the disease that took her life, and ends with an emotional expression of grief not assuaged by the promise of the afterlife. Psellos's family saga continues in two briefer translations concerning a daughter adopted after Styliane's death and probably betrothed at age nine. A court memorandum (translated by David Jenkins), drafted by Psellos, records the terms of dissolution of her engagement due to the bad behavior of her fianc, offering evidence of child betrothal, dowry terms, and the sale of offices and titles in marriage arrangements. Jenkins offers a plausible reconstruction of the court process and the probable role of Psellos in creating the memorandum in his introduction. Some years later, Psellos presented a vivid picture of himself as a doting grandfather to a baby who must have been the son of this adopted daughter in the short and touching memorandum To his grandson, who was still an infant. A selection of letters with additional family information (translated by Stratis Papaioannou) introduces readers to another genre, the letter as rhetorical document, while a final document, evidently composed by Psellos as a teaching demonstration for students, attributes philosophical meaning to a popular women's festival and includes some description of what was apparently a rite including images, songs and dances for female weavers.

This varied collection serves many purposes, and I would certainly include it in any course on the middle Byzantine period. Kaldellis succeeds admirably in bringing together compelling evidence for family relations and illuminating the life course for women. It also provides an excellent introduction to Byzantine rhetoric, and the strategies for understanding it. But above all, the text provides more insight into Psellos himself, who is always front and center in any of his compositions. To the customary view of Psellos as a brilliant, egotistical, and often self-serving intellectual, these documents also show a human and emotional father and son. The University of Notre Dame University Press is to be congratulated for publishing it in an accessible and affordable format.


[1] Reading Michael Psellos, ed. Charles Barber and David Jenkins, especially the articles by John Duffy, "Dealing with the Psellos Corpus: From Allatius to Westerink and the Bibliotheca Teubneriana", and Anthony Kaldellis, "Thoughts on the Future of Psellos-Studies, with Attention to his Mother's Encomium" (The Medieval Mediterranean, 61; Leiden: Brill, 2006).

[2] Paul Moore, Iter Psellianum : a detailed listing of manuscript sources for all works attributed to Michael Psellos, including a comprehensive bibliography (Toronto : Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2005).

[3] J. Walker, "The things I have not betrayed: Michael Psellos' encomium of his mother as a defence of rhetoric", Rhetorica 22:1 (2004), pp. 49-101. Walker's translation of the Encomium in "Michael Psellos: the Encomium of His Mother", Advances in the history of rhetoric 8 (2005), pp. 239-313, appeared just before the work reviewed here.

[4] Intro. Enc., pp. 31-36; Walker, 2004, for a rhetorical analysis.