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23.01.08 Aschenbrenner/Ransohoff (eds.), The Invention of Byzantium in Early Modern Europe

23.01.08 Aschenbrenner/Ransohoff (eds.), The Invention of Byzantium in Early Modern Europe

What do colleagues mean when they declare themselves Byzantinists? As a Medievalist do you conceive of their methods and/or subject as other than your own? And is that subject an empire, or a language? An aesthetic, or a culture? Nathanael Aschenbrenner and Jake Ransohoff’s The Invention of Byzantium in Early Modern Europe (the second in Dumbarton Oaks’ nascent Extravagantes series) makes clear that any answers to these questions are highly contingent, historically situated, and politically charged; the moment you begin wondering why you aren’t simply defining “Byzantine” as “Roman” is the moment you are ready to dive in. And, whatever your preferred stroke, I do recommend plunging in and swimming about through this outstanding edited collection: peruse, read, consult, reference, and teach with this book.

The Invention of Byzantium is an assembly of essays which boasts not only narrative and argument but usefulness, with the potential to summon academics and students to confront the process by which Byzantium became and remains a distinct other in the study of the Middle Ages. The argument is the title, with perhaps one caveat, which will serve as my only real criticism of the volume. “Byzantium”--by which the authors mean everything their audience assumes about the term--acquired its ideological content, historical referents, and presumed chronology slowly, across the Early Modern period, and in Europe. “Europe” bears weight here and delineates the scope of the argument: while the foundation is immigrant Greek and then Italian scholars of the fifteenth century, parts two, three, and four all but abandon the Mediterranean for Western Europe from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries (the one meaningful exception is a portion of Anthony Kaldellis’ chapter). That focus imposes self-acknowledged limits to the achievement: the collection almost entirely leaves aside the legacy of the Roman Empire of the middle ages under, for instance, its Ottoman successors, amongst East European polities, or even in the maritime empire of Venice. The editors and contributors know this, framing the volume as adding a collection of pieces to a still very incomplete puzzle: the essays are a coherent series of associated but distinct conceptual re-inventions that accumulate and converge to give us the idea of a historical Byzantium in common usage today. As such the project is aBegriffsgeschichte, an explanation of how the content of the concept of Byzantium came to be (specifically in regard to Byzantine Studies in West European and North American academia) through centuries of cultural labor on the historical traces and legacies of the Roman Empire and the panoply of Greek literatures.

I recommend two approaches to reading Invention of Byzantium. Excellent organizational work makes it possible for the volume to be read from cover to cover as a narrative of discovery, even a Bildungsroman. A second approach, especially if excerpting chapters for teaching: start with the end, with the essays of either Frederic Clark (Ch 12) or Anthony Kaldellis (Ch 13). Clark will work with what you already know--Gibbon’s model of Byzantium as Roman decline--to explain why, in a British imperial present, Gibbon felt obliged to tell his “whither Rome” story via Constantinople. Kaldellis will give your reading a shot of adrenaline, implicating assumptions about the coherence of Byzantium in the great-powers story from the Crimean War through World War II (ca. 1850-1950). Combining this with the editors’ summary (369-82) of a new periodization for the invention of Byzantium, you, and your students, will be left with plenty to wrestle with, and will be equipped to dive straight into any of the specific case studies without disorientation.

A comprehensive account of each of these outstanding studies is impossible. The following survey aims only to whet appetites.

Part One sketches the origins of “Byzantium” out of the contours of scholarly circles in and between fifteenth-century Italy and Greece, where a now-familiar spectrum of historical and aesthetic concepts swirled about in discourses associated with the Roman Empire of the Greeks long before Europe’s Byzantium became a shorthand.

Fabio Pagani (Ch. 1) outlines the outsize influence of Gemistos Plethon’s idea of Hellenes as a sort of slowly corrupted translatio of especially “language and education” (including “virtue”) from ancient Sparta to Troy to Byzantion to Constantinople where it underwent “a gradual process of decline.” (43) Even the text-editing practices of the great Platonist can be shown to be animated in part by the idea of the corruption of Greek-ness in Constantinople, in effect marginalizing the writings of the entire period as a decline from original ideals. [1] Elena N. Boeck’s article (Ch. 2), the only object study in the collection, focuses on a single turn-of-the-sixteenth-century example: Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar. Boeck’s brilliant conceit is to read a figura into how the column-mounted equestrian statue in the painting is an Italian translatio of Manuel Chrysoloras’ account of the Column of Justinian. New Rome was translated into the Italian re-birth of Old Rome, and then subsumed under a classicizing version of it: a Rome that never existed became historical, and in turn would subsume what became Byzantium.

The eleven chapters of Parts Two and Three offer thematic distinctions within the same general chronology: 1500-1750. Part Two focuses on Exploitation and Enactment. Anthony Grafton (Ch. 3) provides a survey of Western Humanists’ scholarly encounters with East Roman historical texts (from Melanchthon and Richard Bentley to Scaliger and Niccolò Alemmani) to argue that from ca. 1500-1625 not only was study of East Roman histories fully integrated in the corpus of Greek histories, but it was an active driver of scholarly and public controversy (the study of the Roman past, the rise of Islam, and the Ottoman triumph all had immediate political stakes). Grafton cleverly pursues this argument by intertwining his thread of scholars with the surprising string of Roman histories to which these figures devoted their studia: from Malalas and the Paschal Chronicle to Zonaras to George the Synkellos to Prokopios’ Secret History.

Richard Calis’ work (Ch. 4) on Martin Crusius offers one individual’s story to parallel Grafton’s scholarly network. An analysis of Crusius’ Tübingen papers, notes, annotations, transcriptions, and marginalia persuasively shows how a desire for anyone and everyone who could help him to better read Homer became methods of biobibliography and chronology, ultimately crystalizing into a periodization. In mapping out Greek religious and linguistic decline, Crusius honed in on the thirteenth century as the great divide in his framework of Turcograecia. Crusius’ personal interests intersected with the pressing relevance of the Ottomans, a political framework that would last through the lifetime of the great Charles du Cange, the next major figure under consideration. Here, and in other moments of serendipity, a reader will find the European powers’ direct confrontations with the Ottomans inexorably guiding the contours of the many re-inventions of Byzantium through the Early Modern.

Teresa Shawcross uses two chapters to make three notable contributions to the field, narrating Charles Du Cange’s interest in Byzantium anew (Ch. 5; Appendix I), contextualizing why his accomplishments were passé almost before they were fulfilled (Ch. 6), and framing the ambiguities of his legacy in the history of his personal archive (Ch. 6; Appendix II). Shawcross’s story is one of dramatic irony. The reluctant so-called founder of Byzantine Studies was repeatedly thwarted in his ambition to become the leading historian of France, but--as a result of the way in which his great-nephew Jean-Charles du Fresne D’Aubigny assembled and promoted his archive--Du Cange achieved that status posthumously in the context of an emerging drive towards nationalist historiographies. The story of Du Cange leaves a premonition of the deeply political nature of Byzantium, animated as he was by ideas such as the French being heir to the “Empire of the East,” crusade against Islam remaining an active imperative, and the necessity of study of East Rome for both ends; Byzantium was not arcana but realpolitik.

Przemysław Marciniak’s study of Byzantium in the theater (Ch. 7) fulfills Part 2’s theme of Enactment by returning to the point in Grafton’s narrative where public discussion of Procopius’ critical exposé of imperial scandal took over from a more reverential interest in medieval Greek histories. In Marciniak’s telling, Byzantium’s appearance on the stage began with Jesuit “school theater” where East Roman historical figures were used as a “floating signifier” in conveying political lessons. (206-207) After this prologue, Acts I and II of our concise drama find seventeenth century playwrights Gryphius and Killigrew using Byzantium for political, moral lessons specific to their own present, all engaging with the empire as: “not interesting per se...[but] inasmuch as it could provide a mirror....” (221)

Part III revisits the same chronology (1500-1750) under different themes: Categorizing and Contextualizing. The overlapping chronology is important to keep in mind, for John Considine’s chapter on lexicography (Ch. 8) provides the philological context in which to understand Du Cange’s already-considered accomplishments. The narrative intertwines some now-familiar characters (Wolf, Crusius, Meursius) with some new (Nicolas Rigault, Henri Estienne) to show the roundabout ways European lexicography moved from Greek wordlists being valued for reading newly-printed Greek texts (late fifteenth-century), to historical philology applying the concept of corruption (barbar-) to the Greek (and Latin, to be fair) of the Middle Ages (early seventeenth-century). Considine insists, nonetheless, that periodization remained inconsistent between philologists and even within the lists of works each utilized to constitute ancient as opposed to medieval-modern Greek; lexical divisions did not (yet) map onto any familiar political periodization.

William North makes a case to rehabilitate the seventeenth-century scholar Martin Hanke (Ch. 9) as not only a viable founder of academic study of Byzantium but an overseer of its “coming of age.” (250) Perhaps we think so little about a scholar whose work was a regular feature of eighteenth-century European libraries because Hanke’s biobibliographical approach to guiding readers through the long (into the sixteenth century) history of Roman histories was not only superior in concept and method to its predecessor--Gerhard Vosius’ survey--but was itself a pedagogue. Hanke’s work not only gave readers the chronology, identity, and religious context surrounding each chosen author, but told how he had arrived at these conclusions, teaching readers to critically read for themselves and so surpass their teacher.

Shane Bobrycki’s sparkling essay on Bernard de Montfaucon (Ch. 10), founder of Greek codicology and palaeography (even coiner of the latter term), captures a Byzantium subsumed within this famous Maurist’s antiquarian endeavor to compile, categorize, and present all surviving Greek for its own sake. Montfaucon, with his staggering breadth of study, would provide many of the tools for study of Byzantine texts in the modern era, even as the emerging politically-charged concept of Byzantium is yet “both chronologically too broad and geographically too narrow” to define his interests and work, pursued right up to his death in 1741 (299).

Xavier Lequeux’ fitting capstone (Ch. 11) to the volume’s core chapters expands the chronology to provide a narrative of the emergence of Byzantium in the West European project to create a universal Christian hagiography: the Jesuit story of Jean Bolland turning the impetus left by Héribert Rosweyde into the inimitable Acta Sanctorum (AASS) project, and then (after the suppression of the order in 1773), Charles de Smedt taking up the mantle of project leadership (1876) and furthering the Bollandist methodological foundations in the RAB and BHG. Lequeux draws attention to how these projects established methods Byzantinists of all sub-disciplines now take for granted: studying not only originality but also reception and apocrypha; and a rigorous apparatus of the entire corpus of surviving manuscripts.

I have already mentioned how Part IV (Chronologies) brings us across Enlightenment Europe and into Modernity via two energetic narratives. Frederic Clark (Ch. 12) clarifies how and why Byzantium gave the content of the Middle Age definition, a wedge between the Ancient and the Modern. In this telling Edward Gibbon didn’t so much invent as inherit the historical-political framework we find in his Decline. By the end of the eighteenth century, Byzantium connected ancient history to modern by making an otherwise non-sensical periodization of European history--its Middle Age--coherent, and in this very role was ensured a middling status, an exclusion from modernity. Having witnessed the authoring of Byzantium in the minds of West Europeans, Anthony Kaldellis (Ch. 13) follows the capricious fate of its use. In the Modern era Byzantium stopped being Roman, and started being Greek, but then was taken away from even the Greeks when that became inconvenient in the context of European Philhellenism and the Eastern Question. The conclusion is neat as a pin: “Whereas in early modern usage Byzantine was the adjective that corresponded to the ‘empire of the Greeks’ and Greek was the proper noun and ‘essence’ of that civilization, by [the turn of the twentieth century] the relationship was entirely inverted: Byzantium had become the proper noun and the ‘essence’ of the civilization, whereas Greek was only the adjective that characterized its language. We have reached the threshold of modern Byzantine studies, the air that we ourselves breathe.” (365) These two pieces offer medievalists a direct impetus for self-reflection: the invention of Byzantium as other has (arguably) defined your field of study, and as such the political content of that form remains deeply embedded in the discipline and in its instantiations in the academies of Europe and North America.

The editors’ conclusion holds that it can no longer be maintained either that Byzantium as a concept arose in the sixteenth century (publications of titles under the term), nor that it was born in the nineteenth century (its institutionalization). The history of the concept and its disciplines is the history of a centuries-long process including key contributions and developments from advocates and critics alike, roots in scholarly genres across the humanities, and an ongoing contemporary relevance (370-71).

The editors and contributors are to be congratulated; every medievalist will get something unique out of this collection. For myself I would use this volume to propose that Byzantium as a historical concept in the thought world of Western and Northern Europe is much less distant from the self-conception of eighteenth-century empires and modern nation states than their othering of East Rome has led us to believe. Regardless, this is a truly collaborative, highly readable, well organized, beautifully printed, engaging volume that acknowledges its limits while laying out dozens of trails of breadcrumbs for future studies, and providing a model for investigating the many other historical legacies of the Roman Empire of the middle ages. Get a copy into your library and, if you can, buy this very reasonably-priced book: you will learn from it, use it, and (ideally) build upon and argue with it.



1. The reader will find a neat connection between the first and last chapter in an important addition to this story in Anthony Kaldellis’ argument about Leonikios Chalkokondyles, 352-55.