18.09.37, Papaioannou, Christian Novels from the Menologion

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Edmund P. Cueva

The Medieval Review 18.09.37

Papaioannou, Stratis, ed., trans. Christian Novels from the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017. pp. xxvi, 318. ISBN: 978-067-4975-064 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Edmund Cueva
University of Houston-Downtown

Efstratios Papaioannou has produced an excellent book with his translation and introduction to six of Symeon Metaphrastes' novels that, according to Papaioannou, are "reminiscent of the late antique Greek novels" (xvii). The six are: Life, Conduct, and Passion of Saints Kyprianos and Ioustina; Life and Conduct of Saint Pelagia of Antioch; Life, Conduct, and Passion of the Holy and Glorious Martyrs Galaktion and Episteme; Miracle Concerning Euphemia the Young Maiden; Passion of the Holy and Triumphant Martyr of Christ Barbara; and Life, Conduct, and Passion of the Holy Martyr of Christ Saint Eugenia and Her Parents. Metaphrastes, it should be noted, did not write these novels, but rather amended, reworked, and standardized the texts. In addition to these six translations, Papaioannou's book contains an introduction, list of abbreviations, a note on the Metaphrastic corpus, notes to the six texts, notes on the translations, an index, and a bibliography that includes earlier editions and translations, additional Metaphrastic editions, and secondary sources.

It is an immense pleasure to discover a text like this. Papaioannou's Greek text of the novels is free of typographical errors, the translations are accurate and rendered into easily understood English while keeping to the meaning of the original text. The apparatus criticus and passage glosses are very informative. If the text has a fault, one undoubtedly due to editorial considerations and space limitations rather than to the author, it is that three other Christian novels, among many others by Metaphrastes, are not included; notably Indes and Domna (Bibliotheca hagiographica Graeca[BHG], 823), Xenophon and Maria (BHG,1878), and Boniphatios (BHG, 281-282). I point this out because the inclusion of these three novels (or others from the Metaphrastic corpus) would have strengthened Papaioannou's reasoning behind his labeling the six texts as novels.

Papaioannou defines "novel" as having "two seminal features": "(1) as in modern novels and fictional storytelling in general, the persons and events narrated by these stories are invented and imagined, carrying only refracted relationships to actual historical reality; and (2) parts of their plots (including the highlighted agency of female characters), narrative patterns, and rhetorical form--in the Metaphrastic version--bear resemblances to an earlier, specific type of prose fiction, the late antique 'Greek novel'" (xiv). The "novel" did not exist in Antiquity. It was not a genre appreciated, studied, or written about as people appreciated, studied, or wrote about tragedies, epics, comedies, lyric poetry, historiography, or philosophy.

Indeed, the study of the ancient novel is a recent development that over the last forty years has moved from the fringe of Classical studies to the forefront. The Graeco-Roman texts that belong to the ancient novel "category" share several common elements: lengthy narratives in prose (some also include verse), adventures, romance, and a happy conclusion. The question at hand is whether the six texts in this volume do indeed echo ancient novelistic literature as defined by Marília P. Futre Pinheiro in her essay "The Genre of the Novel: A Theoretical Approach" (in A Companion to the Ancient Novel, edited by Edmund P. Cueva and Shannon N. Byrne, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014, 200-216). Futre Pinheiro boils down the genre to three factors: "a narrative structure, the verisimilitude of the story, and the erotic motif" (209). The last, of course, is problematic in the Christian texts. But Papaioannou, relying on the work of Charis Messis ("Fiction and/or Novelization in Byzantine Hagiography," who, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography, 2 vols., edited by Stephanos Efthymiadis, Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011-2014, 2.315-344), suggests that this element is displaced thoroughly by "homage to personal devotion (sometimes presented as the most intense erotic desire) toward God, who restores perfect order and grants a happy ending, namely glory, to his exemplary devotees" (xviii). One can quibble with the Papaioannou's "happy ending," but his suggestion seems plausible enough.

An examination of the texts reveals that they share some faded echoes of the ancient Greek novel in terms of structure. There is no doubt that the basic components of extended narrative, adventure, romance (displaced in these Christian novels), and a happy ending are present. However, the general tone, content, and context of these six texts seem to categorize them into a hagiographical genre. Papaioannou is on much more solid ground when he accurately and keenly observes that the characters in the six texts are fictional, unlike the people that populate the Byzantine saints' Lives and that the scenarios in these texts "are enacted in the context of the late antique, pre-Christian, or early Christian Roman empire, a world which provides the setting for all our stories and which would have been far removed from Metaphrastes' audiences--notably, all the stories take place in the southeastern parts of the Roman empire…which were either outside or at the borders of Byzantine territory at the time of Metaphrastes" (xiv-xv). The ancient Greek novels tend to set their stories in places and times in which the Roman Empire has not yet exerted its dominance. They hearken back to a world that allowed the Greek city-states, to a great extent, to function autonomously as players in the Mediterranean socio-political arenas. It is in this sense that the identification of these texts as belonging to the same genre as the ancient Greek novel strengthens Papaioannou's statements.

This is a wonderful book that will be warmly welcomed by scholars and students of the ancient Graeco-Roman novels. The scholarship is current and thorough. The translations and observations on the Greek text are impressive. Christian Novels from the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes is a tremendous addition to the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. This book is highly recommended.

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