The Medieval Review 14.02.22

Bernard, Floris, Kristoffel Demoen. Poetry and its Contexts in Eleventh-Century Byzantium. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. xii, 244. $124.95. ISBN: 98-1-4094-4071-0.

Reviewed by:

Przemysław Marciniak
University of Silesia, Katowice

The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.

This is a very misleading book. In the Introduction, its editors, Floris Bernard and Kristoffel Demoen, promise to give the reader "a small taste" of eleventh-century poetry. But in fact they do much more: the contributions included in the volume paint a fascinating panorama of the eleventh-century literary scene. The importance of this period was highlighted decades ago with the publication of Alexander Kazhdan's and Ann Epstein's book on the change in Byzantine culture in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. [1] And even though much has changed since the publication of this volume in terms of research carried out, eleventh-century poetry remains an understudied subject.

The volume consists of thirteen chapters divided into five parts--Introduction, Contexts, Genres,Authors,Books-- accompanied by a consolidated bibliography, as well as two indices of the authors and texts and a general one. Amongst the contributors are both eminent scholars as well as representatives of the younger generation.

Today students of Byzantine literature have moved, I think, from defending the subject of their studies to the serious analyses of Byzantine literary production, which go far beyond a simple description. However, with so much material to deal with, it is understandable that some genres and periods attracted more attention than the others. While twelfth-century literature enjoys relative popularity among researchers, its eleventh-century predecessor was not so lucky. The editors of the volume quite rightly identify the sources of the problem: "This poetry does not fit so neatly into the tradition of ancient poetry…. It is not ridden with quotations from ancient poetry, and it does not accord well with the genre system inherited from antiquity. As a result, scholars considering this poetry as the tail end of ancient tradition were prone to reject it as lifeless formalism without any connection with real life" (3). The contributions included in this book very clearly show that such biased opinions are no longer tenable.

The title of each section signals what kind of approach the authors have taken up in their contributions--from the general one to the studies of single authors and manuscripts. The first sections starts with the fascinating contribution by Paul Magdalino ("Cultural Change? The Context of Byzantine Poetry from Geometres to Prodromos"), who successfully shows how poetry evolved between the eleventh and twelfth centuries reacted to political events and finally how it interacted with life (Magdalino uses the expression "poetic journalism") (25). Floris Bernard ("Gifts of Words: The Discourse of Gift-Giving in Eleventh-Century Byzantine Poetry"), discussing the discourse of gift-giving in poetry, analyzes various roles played by the poems. Call me old-fashioned but since I think that even the most esoteric poetry does not exist in a socio-cultural vacuum, such general introductions are most helpful. Magdalino's and Bernard's contributions clearly show how radically the reading paradigm of Byzantine poetry shifted over the years.

The largest section, Authors, comprised of five chapters, is formed by studies on single authors, or perhaps it is better to say on certain aspects of their literary output. Therefore, there are three exciting studies on Christophoros Mitylenaios: "Διἀ βραχέων ἐπέων (K83.2): Stratégies de composition dans les calendriers métriques de Christophore Mitylenaios" by Lia Raffaella Cresci, "The Accentuation in the Various Verses of Christophoros Mitylenaios" by Marc de Groote, and "On the Inscriptional Versions of the Epigrams of Christophoros Mitylenaios" by Andreas Rhoby. There is one study on Ioannes Mauropous: "A Few Thoughts on the Influence of Classical and Byzantine Poetry on the Profane Poems of Ioannes Mauropous" by Claudio De Stefani. Finally, there is one study on Philippos Monotropos: "The Dioptra of Philippos Monotropos: Didactic Verses or Poetry?" by Eirini Afentoulidou-Leitgeb. The three texts on Mitylenaios nicely complement each other--whereas Cresci shows the literary strategies used by the poet while composing his metrical calendar, Rhoby discusses how the inscriptional versions of Mitylenios's texts can contribute to the history of the text. De Groote's contribution focuses on accentuation in the "Various verses" by Mitylenaios. It is a nice, though highly technical, exercise in an important aspect of text editing (and who would be a better candidate to write such a study than the author of the newly edited volume with Mitylenaios's poetry?). Afentoulidou-Leitgeb's paper made me look forward to the new edition of Monotropos's "Dioptra" even more--her text brought forward the literary aspects of the dialogic part of the text. It would be most interesting to learn more about how the fascinating dialogue between the Body and the Soul fits in the general tradition of using this literary device in Byzantium. De Stefani's article is quite erudite but somewhat hard to follow. I have the feeling that the author, who undeniably knows a lot about the subject he writes about, intended to cover too much ground. We have thus not only a discussion on the use of classical literature in Mauropous but also a short survey of the (possible) interrelationships between Mauropous's and later poetry. Instead I would rather know more of what the earlier/ancient tradition meant for Mauropous and what was its significance for his poetry--de Stefani hints at the difference in the use of ancient sources in Mauropous and Psellos (e.g., p. 173) but he fails to tell the reader more.

The sections Genres and Books do not disappoint the reader either. A very interesting article by Wolfram Hörandner on didactic poetry tackles the important problem of being able to talk about didactic poetry as a separate genre of Byzantine poetry. The examples discussed in the text convince me that, there existed a distinct group of texts, which we could call "didactic." As Hörandner rightly observes "any Byzantine poetry is in a sense didactic" (66), and in a way this applies to Byzantine literature as a whole. Of course, to understand the phenomenon of 'didactic poetry' fully a thorough study would be needed. Klaas Bentein's and Kristoffel Demoen's contribution is a fascinating hunt for a very elusive entity--the Byzantine reader of the epigrams. Certainly, as the authors note, the implied reader is not to be equated with the addressee (though this might be the case as well). I think that Anneliese Paul's essay ("Historical Figures Appearing in Epigrams on Objects") would fit better in the Contexts section since it shows how poetry functioned in its contemporary context. Two final contributions (Marc Lauxtermann's "The Perils of travel: Mark the monk and Bodl. E.D. Clarke 15" and Paolo Odorico's "Poésies à la marge, réflexions personnelles? Quelques observations sur les poésies du Parisinus graecus 1711") are fascinating analyses showing how important it is to study Byzantine poetry in its 'material' context of the manuscript.

I read this excellent book with great pleasure and recommend it highly to anybody interested in eleventh-century Byzantine poetry. The volume is very nicely edited. My only personal regret is that none of the texts in the volume tackles the issue of eleventh-century satire but, as the editors said, this is only "a small taste." While this book is to some extent a summary of what is going on in the research of eleventh century poetry, I very much hope that it will become an impulse for further studies on this fascinating period.


1. A. P. Kazhdan and A. W. Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 1985).

Copyright (c) 2014 Przemysław Marciniak

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