The Medieval Review 15.06.17

Bernard, Floris. Writing and Reading Byzantine Secular Poetry, 1025-1081. Oxford Studies in Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. xxiv, 376. £85.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780198703747 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Barbara Crostini
Stockholm University

Recent work on Byzantine poetry in Holland and England forms the background to the doctoral dissertation by Floris Bernard, now published as a book. It is difficult to assess precisely how much the thesis has undergone revision, but the current book appears more ambitious and comprehensive, as well as benefiting from a number of later experiences in the field, including a volume of essays co-edited with former supervisor Kristoffel Demoen.

Bernard structures his material according to a theoretical approach, as the headings of his eight chapters bear out. [1] His underlying aim is unashamedly apologetic: to rescue Byzantine poetry (at least one generation of it) from damnation by emphasizing aspects where its players interacted with the surrounding world. As Bernard avers in his conclusions (235), his book "oscillate[s] back and forth between [the] two poles" of Selbstzweck and Sitz im Leben, that is, literature as an end-in-itself and as "fulfilling a 'real' need." The alternation is responsible for an uneven distribution between detailed discussions of excerpts and pragmatic explanations exposing the realia behind the compositions. One senses the author is less comfortable with the first aspect--perhaps because of an unspoken assumption that elitist, self-referential poetry is 'bad'--whereas the relation to some practical aim automatically adds value and meaning.

The theoretical framework chosen may not be the best organizing principle for the textual evidence, resulting in confusing repetitions and tensions. The most disturbing clash is that between the principles boldly stated in chapter 2, "Concepts," where Bernard maintains that "there is no such thing as litterarité in Byzantium, at least not in this period, and even less such a thing as 'poeticality'" (56), and announces that, coherently to this analysis, he will call poets by the "neutral term" 'intellectuals' (57). [2] This definition suits the writers considered--Christophoros Mytileneios, John Mauropous and Michael Psellos, no less--but in practice Bernard goes on to use the word 'poet' throughout. Another puzzling declaration is that "Byzantine poetry was generally not written for posterity" (57), soon after contradicted by the expectation of Mauropous "that his words might be read and reread in the future" (60). While the first, generic assumption seems unnecessarily broad, the latter statement, based on Mauropous 's programmatic questioning of the successful permanence of his words for posterity, misses the pathos of a motif that reflects more generally on the ephemeral nature of mortal life.

Bernard considers one of his most original points the observation that, while verse compositions reflect instantaneous, specific moments of the poets' lives, these works were copied in manuscripts in order to create a sense of continuity in the poet's oeuvre. Collections such as Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. gr. 676 preserve such "discontinuity" of contents but display it as a "continuous message" by their chronological arrangement (see esp. 144-148). Since this manuscript, a presentation copy of Mauropous's corpus, is an unicum, it is risky to generalize from it. Although its composition is presumed to be authorial, evidence pertaining to the manuscript's manufacture is scant. These doubts are not raised in Bernard's account, nor is the physical presentation of this copy related to his general observations on manuscript appearance at p. 80. [3] While the attempt to source information from manuscript evidence is clearly laudable, one cannot help but to detect some weaknesses in the author's competence when dealing with this material. [4]

Predictably, Bernard advocates a non-historicist, non-interpretative role for the scholar. Nonetheless, he continues to apply various hermeneutical techniques in order to elicit a pragmatic or functionalist interpretation. A growing field he takes inspiration from is the study of epigrams: the versification of dedicatory words is part of the patron's plan to enhance the status and worth of the final product, be it a book or an object. One problem in this choice of evidence is that the division between secular and religious advocated in the title breaks down, as epigrams were mostly present in books of religious content or on precious liturgical vessels. One wonders therefore whether such a restriction in the corpus is fully justified. Just as in a didactic context Bernard "cannot find any indication that secular and religious education [were] strictly separated" (211), so the religious element infiltrates both the biographies and the production of writings without permitting any clear disentanglement.

Given this intertwined reality, it is disconcerting that the Christian context is never openly mentioned. "Ethical constraints" are occasionally alluded to, as for example the ideal of poverty above riches, and the Christian meaning of the word ἐλεημοσύνη is read as "an implicit request for largesse," but there is no attempt at placing such concepts within a larger system of reference in Byzantine thought. For example, the untouchable status of the Byzantine emperor is remarkably altered when a 'poet' could express such a degree of intimacy as to ask him to exchange place on his throne (297), while the parrhesia with which Psellos claims to speak resonates with the attitude that Christians reserve for God the Father. In his discussion of pothos as a spiritual motivation in dedications, Bernard does not see anything more vital in justifying the dedication of a Psalter than "inner feelings of devotion" and accepts the usual translation of this word as 'desire' which reads awkwardly in English (320-322).

A great deal of the book is devoted to information and speculation not only on the ways Byzantine intellectuals interacted with each other--both competitively and (perhaps less often) collaboratively--and with their patrons, above all the emperor; but also how they taught students in schools and private classes. Specific topics such as the use of schede (exams in riddle-form, perhaps) in classroom contexts and in pan-Constantinopolitan competitions are extensively treated. I have found the topic of gifts in the chapter on patronage particularly interesting, and helpfully set within a broader anthropological discussion of their use in society.

Bernard's rescuing of the "philological fossil" might have been more effective had comparative contexts been taken into account, setting the three star 'poets' presented within a (dare I say it) tradition of versification. On the contrary, the socio-cultural context of writing in verse is presented as entirely and exclusively characteristic of Byzantium at this time. This compartmentalization, symptomatic in the choice of Hellenistic spellings for proper names, may result awkward to the non-Byzantinist reader. It muddies the waters of what, exactly, Bernard is trying to defend or explain for us in his book, rich in materials and sources.



1. The chapter headings are: 1. Introduction; 2. Concepts; 3. Readings; 4. Collections; 5. Ambitions; 6. Education; 7. Competition; 8. Patronage. Neither headings nor sub-headings refer to the individual authors treated--see pp. 19-28.

2. One must be careful not to confuse hoi logoi, defined as "a consciously conceived social space[...]a lifestyle, putting a badge on a person" (43) and as "texts", with oi logioi, i.e. the intellectuals themselves (the vates?).

3. The dedicatory poem at the opening of Vatican MS Vat. gr. 676 is indeed written in red ink and in small uncials. Its rubric is not εἰς τὴν βίβλον (59) but εἰς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ βίβλον, as cited but not cross-referenced at p. 130.

4. The French term cahier should have been translated as quire, a word that makes no appearance in the book. At p. 93, a scroll is βραχὺ, i.e. short, not "small." No manuscript catalogues are cited. "Vat." is only part of the signature in the "Vaticani graeci" collection (admittedly a widespread confusion).

Copyright (c) 2015 Barbara Crostini

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