19.12.06 Rigo et al. (eds.), Byzantine Hagiography

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Stephanos Efthymiadis

The Medieval Review 19.12.06

Rigo, Antonio, in collaboration with Michele Trizio and Eleftherios Despotakis, eds. Byzantine Hagiography: Texts, Themes & Projects. Byzantioς. Studies in Byzantine History and Civilization. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols , 2018. pp. 450. ISBN: 978-250-3577-715 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Stefanos Efthymiadis
Open University of Cyprus

Conferences exclusively dedicated to Byzantine hagiography are rare. To my knowledge, the one held at St. Tikhon's Orthodox University of Moscow in 2012, from which this volume originates, had a single antecedent. This was the conference held in Paris in 2002 that resulted in the publication of a now much-cited collective volume with the title Les Vies des saints à Byzance. Genre littéraire ou biographie historique?, eds. P. A. Agapitos and P. Odorico, Dossiers byzantins 4, Paris 2004. All in all, this meager record is due to the low interest in organizing conferences on Byzantine authors and texts and the overall priority given to the study of saints themselves as the subjects of cult and the "carriers" of social values, a topic for which hagiography counts as a historical source and not so much as literature. However, hagiography is now winning increasing space in the International Congresses of Byzantine Studies that are held in a different city every five years. The plenary papers, round tables, and separate communications of these meetings reflect the growing number of scholars who now are turning their attention to the field. The volume under review offers an additional proof of this.

Carefully edited by Antonio Rigo, Michele Trizio and Eleftherios Despotakis, this volume is made up of twenty-four contributions authored by twenty-seven scholars in four languages. As either historians or philologists, most of these contributors have long been engaged in the study of hagiography, but what is promising for the field is that they are joined by several younger colleagues eager to renew our views and perspectives on Lives and other texts about Byzantine saints. In this respect, it is worth underscoring the high number of Russian colleagues whose presence in the volume is justified not only by the venue of the conference but by the central place that hagiography occupies in Byzantine studies in contemporary Russia.

As an umbrella term, Byzantine hagiography covers a wide range of topics and fields. Its breadth may absolve the volume of a lack of homogeneity and thematic coherence, a feature evidenced even by a cursory glance at the table of contents. Under the subtitle "texts, themes, and projects," the reader finds literary discussions (D'Aiuto, Detoraki, Kashtanov-Korolev-Vinogradov, Ivanov, Déroche, Berger, Talbot, Afinogenov, Lukhovitskiy, Marjanović-Dušanić, Rigo-Scarpa), hagiography as a reflection of socio-historical issues (Métivier, Nikolaou, Koutrakou, Kountoura-Galaki), and its reception in milieus other than those in which it was produced (Binggeli, Frantsouzoff). Two of these papers include the editio princeps of a Passio s. Barbarae that must have been part of the Imperial Menologium (D'Aiuto) and of the Vita of St. Ioannes Nesteutes (the Faster) which must have been an epitome of the now lost Life of that sixth-century patriarch and saint by Photeinos, presbyter of Hagia Sophia (Ivanov). Hymnography is the focus of two other papers (Bucca and Luzzi), of which the first provides practical information on using a database of the ancient codices of hymnographical content, whereas the second offers a discussion of an iambic canon on St. Basil and the circumcision of the Lord, a sophisticated composition. Another paper (by Babuin) examines the diptych of Cuenca as an artefact patronized by the Serbian-Greek rulers of Epirus in the latter half of the fourteenth century.

The volume is introduced with an essay by Bernard Flusin on the tendencies that have marked the study of hagiography in recent decades and a survey by Xavier Lequeux of the history of the compilation, current state, and future of the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (BHG), the primary working tool for any student of Greek hagiography. These papers can be singled out from the ones which follow because they raise (or re-address) questions that invite further discussion. Flusin revisits the history of hagiography as a field of scholarly research by contrasting an older and traditional to a more modern approach. The former is represented by the Bollandists, who treated hagiography critically but still within the framework of the Christian Church and the respect it reserved through cult for its most celebrated members, the saints, caring less to know more of their historical presence and reception in a certain period and place, and more to find out about the provenance and seniority of a cult. The latter approach emerged with the secularization brought into the field in the 1970s and 1980s when Peter Brown and Evelyne Patlagean put the Lives of Byzantine and western saints into the laboratory of historians working with the tools of social anthropologists. As Flusin points out, this perception of hagiography made it subordinate to history, defacing its real identity both as a field and literary genre. This legitimate objection is in tune with another Byzantinist's skepticism towards the developments that marked the study of Byzantine hagiography in the last decades of the twentieth century. In an essay which passed rather unnoticed, Ihor Ševčenko defended the traditional path of "normal science" followed by the Bollandists against those who considered hagiography "a quarry for something else." [1] However, again in agreement with Ševčenko, Flusin himself has to admit that hagiographical texts are rewarding for anyone inquiring into the daily and social life of the Byzantines, a fact that explains why this literature is still chiefly explored by historians or treated from a historian's perspective. More recent is the tendency to bring out the literary aspects of hagiographical writing, even in works that depend on earlier ones and that we tend to call "reworkings" or "rewritings" (réécritures in French). This retrospective hagiography, as Flusin fittingly calls it, rose into prominence in the ninth century and, we should add, never left the picture until the end of Byzantium. This trend went along with the novelty of hagiography being practiced by laymen too and a heightened interest in the hagiographical novel, in works about "fictional" saints that were not much concerned with the promotion of their cult. Flusin deems these texts the most appropriate for analysis as literature in their own right but, surprisingly, expresses some reservations vis-à-vis this development. His own criticism has a double target: on the one hand, the secular approach and endeavor to cut the bonds of hagiography with the history of sainthood and, on the other, the tendency to integrate Lives of saints into the realm of literary history. Clearly, this view tends to minimize the role of hagiographers as authors and lays emphasis on their subject who, in the course of time, may be glorified by other authors and their texts too. All in all, one may retort to Flusin's argument that the mission of a modern hagiographer can only be deemed fulfilled and fully appreciated if "these things are done without neglecting the others."

Xavier Lequeux's presentation is worth taking into consideration on different grounds. After rehearsing the history of the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca and its raison d'être, the author questions the broad and shaky criteria upon which various texts were qualified as "hagiographic" before finding their place in such an inventory. The need to establish a firmer basis to label a text as hagiographic before including it in the new BHG will leave out several works that fail to meet what can be regarded as the basic criterion for selection: the cult of a saint being the works' causa scribendi. Granted, implementing this principle might entail complications, but, generally speaking, the argument in favor of a more coherent perception of Greek hagiography that Lequeux brings forth appears compelling. Apart from reasonably leaving out such texts as Eusebius' vita Constantini or the Testament of Gregory of Nazianzos, one must also consider a category of texts that are not meant to celebrate a saint in order to establish a precise cult, for instance, edifying stories and the Apophthegmata of the Desert Fathers. Included in Appendix VI of the BHG, these texts served the vague purpose of spiritual edification and were not aimed at promoting or celebrating a saint's cult. The same issue is hinted at in Marina Detoraki's paper on the Pratum Spirituale and needs further consideration, given that, if they are disconnected from the domain of hagiography, these texts risk becoming a "homeless" genre.

It is an advantage of this miscellaneous volume that most papers pertain to middle and late Byzantine hagiography which is yet to fully reap the benefits of systematic scholarly attention. Still, it looks like it will be some time before Byzantinists realize that in some periods hagiography was the backbone of literature at large and as such it must be treated and studied.



1. See Observations on the Study of Byzantine Hagiography in the Last Half-Century or Two Looks Back and One Look Forward (Toronto: Canadian Institute of Balkan Studies, 1995).

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