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21.02.02 Chrissis et al (eds.), Byzantium and the West

The Medieval Review

21.02.02 Chrissis et al (eds.), Byzantium and the West


Interactions between Greek and Latin civilizations during the High and Later Middle Ages are described here in twenty-one papers, about three quarters of which had been presented at the conference on "Byzantium and the West," organized by Nikolaos Chrissis at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in September 2014. Its goal was to pool the expertise of "scholars working on both sides of the Byzantine-Western 'divide'" (i). Nevertheless, given that this collection's three editors and vast majority of the contributors are Byzantinists, its greatest appeal will be to students of Byzantine history.

The contributions are loosely arranged in four topical sections, presented in rough chronological order: "Setting the Scene"; "Byzantium and the West during the Early Crusades"; "Cross-Cultural Contacts in the Margins of East and West"; and "The Latins and Late Byzantium." The papers themselves run only ten to fifteen pages (several are even shorter), but the added reference notes and bibliographies are so extensive that they constitute roughly 30% of the entire volume, a structure which may work better for narrowly focused studies than for wide-ranging surveys.

Recurring themes undercut the attempt to neatly group these papers. Many authors touch on questions of identity, specifically how Greeks viewed Latins and vice versa. Others allude to aspects of the crusades that connected East and West, albeit not always happily. The contributors assume that institutional logic underlies Byzantine political and cultural changes, and they offer some illuminating insights. The emphasis on cross-cultural interaction leads towards Constantinople's cultural peripheries. These themes offer a framework for a quick survey.

Identity is often discussed in negative terms. Greeks throughout history could identify barbarians, basically anyone who opposed them. Elizabeth Jeffreys' study on the views of westerners expressed by Manganeios Prodromos (d. c. 1161) concludes that, judging from this poet, "the Byzantine man in the street was xenophobic and blinkered" (128-40, esp. 138). Nicetas Choniates (d. 1217) famously lamented, even before 1204, that Latins and Byzantines "do not have a thought in common" (156). Sandra Origone's article on Genoa and Byzantium claims a "deeply ingrained ideology...a firm certainty of the Byzantine superiority, which prevented a real understanding between Byzantium and other peoples, including the Latins" (38-55, esp. 51). Nevertheless, Origone (39-40) and Angeliki Papageorgiou, in examining how the court of John II Komnenos (1118-1143) perceived westerners (118-27, esp. 123-25), agree that when different Latin groups were separated out--categorized by nations or cities or occupations--they were rarely called barbarians, even when they were associated with barbarian traits such as arrogance, cruelty, and hostility to the beautiful. In situations where cross-cultural cooperation was essential, the stereotypes tended to become multifaceted and more nuanced. Origone suggests that in the later Middle Ages more realistic portrayals of Latins emerged, featuring more distinctions among different groups (50-51). In the Late Empire, Nikolaus Chrissis finds "a pool of widely divergent options available in perceiving and defining 'self' and 'other'," from which selections could be made according to the situation at hand (257-74, esp. 267).

Scholars who know crusade history only from a western perspective may find new insights here. Athina Kolia-Dermitzaki, looking at Byzantium and the crusades in the Komnenian era, finds very limited enthusiasm for the crusades among the Greeks (59-83, esp. 63-68). Theodora Papadopoulou's study on attitudes toward western nations in Byzantine literature links the pro-crusader policy of Emperor Manuel (1143-1180) to his desire to restore the ecumenical empire of Justinian (527-65) (245-56, esp. 247-50). Nikoletta Giantsi postulates a connection between the accession of the leper King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in 1174 and the leprosy legislation of Lateran III in 1179 (184-91). Jean-Claude Cheynet, looking at Greek and Latin relations during the First and the Fourth Crusade, notes that, once Armenian Cilicia became powerful, Antioch lost its strategic importance for Byzantium (84-101, esp. 95). Michael Angold, studying the Greek reaction to the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, sees Jerusalem becoming less central to the Byzantines, a shift abetted by the loss of Cyprus to the usurper Isaac Comnenus which impeded communication with the crusader states (156-68, esp. 161 and 164). Cheynet concludes that, after Frederick II (1212-1250), the Eastern Empire had nothing more to gain from the crusades because the speedier sea route had become cheaper, eliminating the need for Byzantine tactical support (95-96). Ironically it was just at the time when Byzantine dynamics were favoring disengagement that westerners began to believe that they needed Byzantine help, a factor contributing to the successful seduction of the Fourth Crusade by Alexios IV (1203-1204). Nickiphoros Tsougarakis sees the ongoing presence of Greek clergy in the Holy Land as tolerated and even admired by western pilgrims, at least until the mid-fifteenth century when increasing tensions became evident (230-42, esp. 238).

Close interaction with the Latins occurred on frontiers beyond the Holy Land. Catherine Holmes presents Thessalonika as its own "imperial center," placing the 1185 Norman raid on it in the context of centrifugal tendencies and Komnenian factions within the Empire (141-55). Marie Dourou-Eliopoulou uses Latin sources to describe "the image of the Greek" in Frankish "Romania," a mixed society with separate religious beliefs and customs (220-29, esp. 226). Alicia Simpson writes on Byzantium and Hungary in the late twelfth century, moving away from the claim that Greek influence peaked under Emperor Manuel by identifying Greek initiatives in Hungary up until the end of the twelfth century (192-205, esp. 200-201). Eleni Tounta, writing on Admiral Eugenius of Sicily (d. 1202), presents court poetry written in Greek as an expression of a "transcultural Sicily in at least the early twelfth," where Arabic and Greek languages and personnel were cultivated in order to "create a common identity focused on the new rulers [the Hautevilles]," using Greek encomia to corroborate and consolidate the new identity, championing the king as the shepherd of all, even of all the Sicilian magnates (171-83, esp. 178). Michel Balard marshals fragmentary evidence to make a census of the Italian colonies in the Eastern Mediterranean: he concludes that colonization mostly involved young men, and that its limited ability to slow the advance of the Ottoman Turks reveals that these attempts to gain political, economic, and cultural domination faced problems similar to those encountered by European powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (25-37, esp. 35).

The final section on Late Byzantine perspectives is a bit disjointed. In an earlier paper, Ilias Giarenis had covered "Nicea and the West (1204-1261)" (206-219); here Sophia Mergiali-Sahas looks at Westerners in the service of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282) (275-85), but this institutional history is slim. The major item in the section is Nikolaos Chrissis's literary study looking at perceptions of the West from 1204 to the fifteenth century, intended to decode Byzantine perceptions of self and other: basically he summarizes his 2012-2015 post-doctoral project at the University of Athens, a study that used both imperial public oratory and more private (often more nuanced) letters to reveal aspects of common identity still animating the relationships between East and West (257-74, esp. 261-65). There are also some shorter studies, including Trianatafyllitsa Maniati-Kokkini's work touching on the controversial problem of Byzantine "feudalism" (286-305); and Christos Makrypoulias's brief attempt to rebut the charge that the Byzantines of the High Middle Ages employed archaic military technology (306-15). Perhaps this section on the Later Empire is less satisfying because of the initial decision, made when organizing the underlying conference, to avoid art, archeology, and material culture (5), areas still luminous in the Empire's last centuries.

Some pieces in this volume are more likely to be widely cited. One which deserves special mention is Anthony Kaldellis's "Keroularios in 1054" (9-24), which attempts to absolve Patriarch Michael Keroularios (1043-59) from blame for the disastrous failure of the diplomatic mission sent to Constantinople by Pope Leo IX (1049-54). Because the events of 1054 are known through tendentious sources, it is a useful exercise to analyze what they actually do and do not say. Yet to exonerate Keroularios requires discounting evidence of his animus toward the Latins (21), postulating that he was innocently unaware of the literary assaults on the Roman Church made by his subordinates Leo of Ochrid and Niketas Stethatos (10-11,14), and arguing that his synod was simply following the will of the emperor (17). The conclusion that Keroularios "did not behave in a confrontational way at any point while there was a papal legation in the city" (15, 20) is less than impressive given that the absence of face-to-face public confrontation directly resulted from the patriarch's refusal to meet with the papal emissaries or even to accept their credentials.

Also noteworthy is Jonathan Phillips's study of crusader perceptions of Byzantium in the early twelfth century, where he attacks the view that these were completely negative. He explains that many of the major sources for the First Crusade were written after Bohemond of Antioch's high-profile tour of France in 1105-1106, where he married the king's daughter and sought volunteers for a crusade against Byzantium. Less well-known reports written prior to Bohemond's propaganda campaign tend to describe the Greeks more favorably. The two kings of the Second Crusade were able to get along well enough with Emperor Manuel, even though the crusader historian Odo of Deuil defamed him in an attempt to make King Louis VII look better. The most divisive issue between the westerners and Byzantium proved to be any hint of compromise with the Seldjuks (102-17, esp. 102 and 108).

Michael Angold examines the impact of the fall of Jerusalem on Byzantine public opinion. Jerusalem had been a transcendental symbol of Christian unity, decorated by Emperor Manuel with lots of Byzantine projects. When it fell to Saladin, it became less central. Some Byzantines began to look to their own relics and to Constantinople as the new Sion. Liberation of the earthly Jerusalem ceased to be a great motivator. Saladin's treatment of Jerusalem in 1187 was judged more humane than the crusaders' treatment of Constantinople in 1204. Angold claims that Byzantines in theory could appreciate crusades as a possibly legitimate form of Holy War, but in practice tended to dislike the actual crusaders and distrust their motives. After the fall of Jerusalem, there was a general loss of trust between the Greeks and the Latins; after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the crusades seemed to be morally bankrupt (156-68, esp. 156-57, 160, 163-164).

Altogether Byzantium and the West is a carefully crafted book. Students of Byzantine history will find interesting insights. Its editors and its publisher deserve praise for attempting to present Byzantine historical scholarship to a wider public. ​