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Authorship, Audience, and Performance of Highbrow Literature in Late Byzantium (ca. 1250–ca. 1350)

Niels Henrik Gaul, Bonn University, Junior Fellow 2004–2005

My research project addressed the question of “Authorship, Audience, and Performance of Highbrow Literature in Late Byzantium (ca. 1250–ca. 1350).” In the fashion of a cultural poetic (“new historicist”) analysis, I was particularly interested in reading the abundant rhetorical production of the early Palaiologan period as a means of representing (reenforcing), distributing, and challenging (imperial) power and social influence within the upper strata of Byzantine society.

To this end, I scrutinized a widespread social practice in late Byzantium, the so-called theatron. While the term originally denoted a classical—and, for that matter, modern—“theater,” in Byzantium it came to describe a circle of learned men, very rarely women, who read (performed) their rhetorical compositions to one another. Hitherto, theatra were perceived as “circles of the Muses,” as “classless,” “unofficial,” and “informal.” A close reading of the sources, however, made it obvious that the theatron was quite the opposite: In fact, a hierarchy of theatra began to emerge. At the top ranked the imperial theatron, followed by the still “exclusive” theatra in the houses of the imperial family and the emperor’s ministers, spreading down through society to the houses of schoolmasters (hence, I believe, the renewed composition of meletai, rhetorical set pieces in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries) and “common” litterati.

Rhetoric composed in the Attic Greek dialect—commonly believed to have been “escapist” and “phantastic,” as to have been “removed at least one stage from reality”—thus became visible as a form of “social energy” (Greenblatt), that circulated in the theatra: the more social energy an author managed to invest in a text, the more prestige (“cultural capital”) he would gain and the higher he would climb on the social ladder. It goes without saying that the opposite could be equally true: If he failed, his career would not progress very far—or even come to an end.

This analysis of the late Byzantine theatron is included as a methodological/background chapter in my PhD dissertation, which exemplifies the interaction of the late Byzantine learned élite and wider society by focusing on the late Byzantine scholar Thomas Magistros (ca. 1280–ca. 1347/8). My project profited immensely from the online and excellent library resources at Dumbarton Oaks, especially the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and ready access to even the most remote editions allowed the exhaustive search for the term theatron in Byzantine textual sources from the mid-thirteenth to the late fourteenth century.