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Playfulness and Wit in Byzantine Letter Writing (Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries)

Floris Bernard, Universiteit Gent, Holland, Fellow

During my fellowship, I explored the elusive phenomenon of humor in Byzantium. I first sought to establish the cultural and moral framework of humor and laughter. Asteiotes— or urbanity, a notion encompassing wit and playfulness—proved to be an important social ideal for the intellectual elite. I then examined the various functions of humor in social networks established and maintained by letters. I made use of the resources and time here during my fellowship to read an extensive number of letters. I limited myself at first to letters that clearly marked humorous or witty passages as such. This allowed me to better understand the elaborate, and sometimes deliberately intractable, conventions and codes that govern communication in letters. The phenomenon of derision, both playful and serious, proved to be an important feature in this, as were allusions and riddles. The commentary of John Tzetzes (twelfth century) on his own letters was a crucial text in understanding the Byzantines’ own perspective on their letters. Realizing that humor is inextricably wound up with the question of audience, I spent most of my second term investigating the reception and circulation of letters among contemporary audiences. The tension between intimacy and public character attracted my attention as a fruitful way forward to analyze the sociological dimension of Byzantine letters. Apart from this subject, I also worked this year on a translation of eleventh-century poetry for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series.


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Byzantine Studies Fellows, 2012/13