Richard Greenfield

title.none: Magdalino, Occult Sciences (Richard Greenfield)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.022 08.04.22

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Greenfield, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Magdalino, Paul and Maria Mavroudi, eds. The Occult Sciences in Byzantium. Geneva: La Pomme d'Or, 2006. Pp. 468. ISBN: ISBN-10: 954-8446-02-02, ISBN-13: 978-954-8446-02-0 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.22

Magdalino, Paul and Maria Mavroudi, eds. The Occult Sciences in Byzantium. Geneva: La Pomme d'Or, 2006. Pp. 468. ISBN: ISBN-10: 954-8446-02-02, ISBN-13: 978-954-8446-02-0 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Richard Greenfield
Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

The Occult Sciences in Byzantium makes available in print a collection of papers originally delivered at a Dumbarton Oaks colloquium in 2003. In the words of its dust jacket, the book "represents the first attempt to examine occult science as a distinct category of Byzantine intellectual culture." Further it seeks to "demonstrate that Byzantium was not marginal to the scientific culture of the Middle Ages, and that the occult sciences were not marginal to the learned culture of the medieval Byzantine world." The volume is thus an important one and deserves the attention not only of Byzantinists but also of scholars of the history of science and broader intellectual culture in both the medieval West and the Islamic East. That this is billed as a "first attempt" to bring much of this material together is, however, a sad commentary on the state of Byzantine scholarship in the area, and, while the importance of the volume in working to this end is not to be undermined or underestimated by criticism, the fact remains that it is not the sort of comprehensive work that the subject (and the broader fields of the history of Byzantine science and magic within which it lies) deserves.

Edited by two scholars, Paul Magdalino and Maria Mavroudi, who have already established through earlier publications solid reputations for their work in the areas of Byzantine astrology and dream interpretation, The Occult Sciences consists of eleven papers, together with an introductory chapter and a copious bibliography. By itself the bibliography occupies over sixty pages and is of considerable value as a resource to readers unfamiliar with the field. The volume is thus substantial in many ways but, as is usually the case with such collections, the papers are somewhat uneven in weight (ranging in length from fifty to twelve pages), substance, and subject matter. There is an obvious preponderance of interest here in astrology, flowing naturally from Magdalino's already established scholarship on the topic. The subject forms the sole or substantial focus of the majority of papers--those by Maria Papathanassiou (on Stephanos of Alexandria), the late David Pingree, to whose memory the volume is dedicated (on Byzantine translations of M?sh?'all?h), William Adler (discussion by Michael Glykas and Manuel I Komnenos on the astrological expertise of the Bibilical patriarchs Seth and Abraham), Anne Tihon (an examination of the complex attitudes of Byzantine intellectuals and "scientists"--particularly astronomers-- towards astrology in the Early Palaiologan Period), Joshua Holo (on Hebrew astrology in Byzantine southern Italy) and Charles Burnett (on Latin translations of Greek texts on astrology and magic). Alchemy and even "straight" astronomy also find a place in the papers by Papathanassiou, Michelle Martens (on the survival of Graeco-Roman traditions of alchemy in Byzantium) and George Saliba (on the Byzantine connection in astronomical contacts between Islam and Renaiassance Europe). The essay by Katerina Ierodiakonou provides an exemplary discussion of the ways in which an ancient concept, sympatheia, that was used in Stoic and neo-Platonic thought to explain the workings of divination and/or magic, was adapted to the orthodox Christian context of middle Byzantium by a leading "orthodox" intellectual and scientist (Michael Psellos).

Of broadest scope, as well as surely greatest interest and value to the non-specialist, are the longer studies by the two editors, Maria Mavroudi and Paul Magdalino. Mavroudi's essay skillfully and knowledgeably establishes the state of the subject and, as its title indicates, considers the portents for its future. Although it is thus primarily about asking questions rather than answering them, the paper makes many telling points. Mavroudi, for example, highlights (and explains) the current paucity of scholarship on Byzantine science, straight or occult, and the woeful lack of appreciation that exists for its importance. At the same time she emphasises its immense but untapped potential for historians of western science, for scholars of the complex patterns of intellectual exchange in the medieval Mediterranean, and even for Byzantinists themselves. Here too is a fascinating and revealing analysis of the complicated relationship that existed between occult science (and its theorists or practitioners) and those who held secular and religious authority in the state. Mavroudi underlines, importantly, the fluid and far from homogeneously "orthodox" make up of the Byzantine clergy, even at its most senior levels, in offering an explanation for the apparently incongruous but well established evidence for their involvement in all manner of occult science. Likewise, the supposed ability of occult science (whether in its purer or more murky forms) to predict or manipulate what was happening in the world meant that, especially in the all too common periods of internal strife and opposition, it was a subversive, potentially dangerous force that needed to be either suppressed or harnessed by those in positions of high political power. Hence evidence for the (superficially peculiar) willingness of some emperors to engage in astrology and other forms of divination.

The "close but tense relationship" between occult science and imperial power is taken up and examined more closely by Magdalino in his paper. This describes in considerable detail the evidence for such science that is found in the work of the principal Byzantine historians who documented the period of the ninth to twelfth centuries, and presents some helpful analyses. The information about what was going on and who was doing it may, to some, be surprisingly abundant and revealing--at times the air of the Byzantine court was evidently "thick with political prophecy" of one sort or another--but the need for caution in taking such accounts too simplistically at face value is also made very clear. Thus Magdalino demonstrates how commonly the attribution of involvement in sorcery or the negative spinning of episodes related to occult science could be used as a tool to tarnish the memory of rulers, patriarchs, and members of their elite circles of advisors who, for one reason or another were seen as "bad." He also shows how piecemeal the picture painted by these historians may be when it is compared to and supplemented by the evidence of, for instance, technical astrological texts. He illustrates the trends and shifts in popularity of one form of occult science to another that took place over the centuries, and discusses in depth the ambiguities that are revealed in the historians own attitudes to these sciences, particularly that of astrology.

As one might imagine, the name and the writings of Michael Psellos figure prominently and frequently in discussions within the volume. The same is true to almost the same extent of Manuel I Komnenos. While elucidation of the thought, scholarship and context of such exceptional men is obviously important, the fact that so much attention is paid to them is clearly symptomatic of an underlying problem faced by this and any other similar volume. Anyone studying the occult sciences in Byzantium faces a relative dearth of source material in general and, in particular, of that regarded as most valuable by modern historical scholarship, material which not only presents "evidence" but also provides self interpretative analysis. Further, as Magdalino himself comments, "the trouble is that...he [Psellos] tends to create his own self-contained system which gives little idea of what was going on around him" (139-140). In some ways this statement could provide a text for one primary criticism of The Occult Sciences although, to be fair, it is a danger of which the editors, at least, are well aware. As the title and the Introduction make clear, the volume focuses deliberately upon only the learned, highly literate, and thus, precisely, exceptional end of the broad spectrum of possibilities embraced by the term "occult" in the Byzantine context. Low level magic, "popular" divination and the like thus find no real place at all here, and the book deals almost exclusively with the work and ideas of high level, intellectually elitist theorists and practitioners. These men themselves seem to have subscribed, for reasons both of snobbery and safety, to the same sort of selectivity in subject material that is embraced by the book's editors and authors, distinguishing between their own theoretical, "philosophical" scholarship and the practical, often "unspeakable," work of regular sorcerers, diviners and healers. The result is that, while what this volume does is of unquestionable importance and interest, it necessarily remains a piece taken artificially and potentially misleadingly out of the whole. It is thus unable to cast light on the functioning entirety of Byzantine understanding of and approaches to either the occult or science and, like so many of its predecessors, it remains a contribution, not a complete study. As Maria Mavroudi, suggests with clear regret in relation to Lynn Thorndike's classic eight volume History of Magic and Experimental Science "an equivalent work was never written for Byzantium..." and "given the proliferation and specialization of knowledge as well as the changed conditions in the [sic] academia and society at large since the first half of the twentieth century, it is unlikely that such a work will be produced in the foreseeable future" (44).

Even at the "higher" end of the spectrum of thought, belief and practice regarding the occult sciences, the organisers of the colloquium and the editors of this volume, in limiting themselves (presumably for practical reasons) to several important, but necessarily particular, aspects of this science, have chosen to avoid discussion of some material that would surely have been informative to their central themes and which cannot be omitted from a more realistic picture of "actual" Byzantine thought and culture at this level. One example is the absence of any meaningful consideration of "high level" sorcery. Practitioners of the elaborate and sophisticated lecanomancies and necromancies (for instance) that are found in late Byzantine magical texts seem clearly to have seen themselves as operating on an equally rarified and legitimate intellectual and spiritual plane as those who do find a place in the book. Another omission is an examination of the quite well developed field of demonology and angelology. A third, occasionally mentioned but which could usefully have been considered in a more systematic way, is religious prophecy. Whether circulated in written texts or received directly from the mouths of holy men of one sort or another, such predictions, both general and particular, such precious insights into the mysterious workings of the divine economy, carried enormous respect and weight among people operating in precisely the same contexts as the astrologers who are studied at length here. It may not be good enough, except for reasons of space, to dismiss them as a "gray area for the study of both the reality and the reputation of the occult sciences" as Magdalino does at the end of his essay (162).

It is unusual for a collection of papers that originated at Dumbarton Oaks not to have been published there. The Occult Sciences instead launches what is intended to be a new series, Les editions de la Pomme d'or, of Geneva. The book is nicely presented, but does not quite manage to live up to the high editorial standards set by Dumbarton Oaks. There are a number of irritating typographical (e.g. "an attack of flees' [sic] p. 78), or grammatical errors, and a rather baffling paucity of cross references. To cite but one example, Mavroudi discuss the translation work of Pascalis Romanus at some length on pp. 84-85 and in an extensive footnote without referring to the paper by Charles Burnett later in the volume which also considers his work. A reference is equally absent there.

A review of this book should not, however, end on a negative note. It is both a fascinating and important collection of papers which, although still no more than a contribution to the study and understanding of the Byzantine occult and broader Byzantine science, will hopefully set the groundwork for more coherent work and provide inspiration to a new generation of scholars.