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Episode 2: Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare with Prof. Niels Gaul and Dr. Divna Manolova

For our August podcast, we were joined by Professor Niels Gaul (University of Edinburgh) and Dr. Divna Manolova (Centre for Medieval Literature, University of York and University of Southern Denmark) for a discussion of Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, focusing on the Introduction and on Chapter 3, entitled “Power, Sexuality, and Inwardness in Wyatt’s Poetry.”


Anna StavrakopoulouWelcome to the second episode of the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Podcast series. I am Anna Stavrakopoulou, the program director in Byzantine studies at Dumbarton Oaks. We are joined today by Niels Gaul

Niels Gaul: Hello, I'm Niels Gaul from Edinburgh, delighted to be here this afternoon!

Anna: —and Divna Manolova.

Divna Manolova: Hi, I'm Divna Manolova.

Anna: Niels Gaul is the Leventis Professor of Byzantine Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the middle and later Byzantine period, often from a comparative perspective. He has published a wide variety of articles on the imperial court, center and periphery, education and literature in the Palaiologan era, three co-edited volumes, and one book on Thomas Magistros and urban elites in the early Palaiologan period.

Together with Curie Virág, he is currently codirecting a Byzantinist-Sinologist project funded by the European Research Council on Byzantine and Chinese education and learned culture from the 7th to the 14th century. Among his many affiliations, he has been a Dumbarton Oaks Junior and regular Fellow and he serves on the Byzantine Greek Editorial Board of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library.

His interlocutor, Divna Manolova, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Medieval Literature dually based at the University of York and the University of Southern Denmark. She was a Dumbarton Oaks Junior Fellow in 2011–12, and subsequently, defended her doctoral dissertation in 2014 entitled “Discourses of Science and Philosophy in the Letters of Nicephorus Gregoras” at the Department of Medieval Studies of Central European University.

Divna studies competing imperial worldviews and cosmology in medieval early-modern Europe. Her current research at York focuses on theories of space and dimensionality in Byzantium and the Eastern Mediterranean from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

They will be discussing Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-FashioningFrom More to Shakespeare, first published in 1980 by Chicago University Press, focusing on the Introduction and on Chapter 3, entitled “Power, Sexuality, and Inwardness in Wyatt's Poetry.” They’ll answer questions like, "What did courtiers in Elizabethan London and Palaiologan Constantinople have in common? How important was self-fashioning in the career of learned men along the shores of the Thames and the Bosphorus? How do different works, written works, such as poetry or epistolography reveal multiple invented selves of their author?"

So, I am very curious, Niels, about your selection given that Stephen Greenblatt is the most—one of the most pre-eminent Shakespearean scholars. So, please, share your thoughts with us.

Niels: Thank you very much for the question, Anna. I think it's mostly in response to the challenge you've given us to pick a title from without Byzantine studies that has influenced our thinking and obviously, I’ve picked it as one of the foundational texts of what's called the New Historicism, which has influenced my thinking as a junior scholar, but I've also picked it because it does have a connection to Dumbarton Oaks, actually, because lots of this happened during my Junior Fellowship in 2004 and ’05.

Now, for me, at least, New Historicism has always been a very fruitful way of approaching Byzantine texts because it does emphasize the embeddedness of rhetorical and literary production in specific historical and social circumstances.

Obviously, the social world of the Renaissance court, especially of the court of Henry VIII that's featured so prominently in the early chapters of Greenblatt's book, is quite reminiscent of, perhaps even more claustrophobic than, the Byzantine court would have been at the time.

We'll probably go into more detail there [later on]. But the starting premise of the book of actors, of authors defined by the social mobility, competitive environment, the hidden and deeper meanings, or the care with which they had to place every single word they were putting out there, very much resonated with me after my study of late Byzantine rhetoric over the previous years.

Well, I think I did read Greenblatt’s book in the summer before coming to Dumbarton Oaks. I did then revise my chapter on the late Byzantine theatron—the venue in which Byzantine rhetoric was performed—in my first months at Dumbarton Oaks, and actually read Greenblatt quite a bit beyond Renaissance Self-fashioning, including Shakespearean Negotiations.

I remember rewatching a DVD of Shakespeare in Love one weekend and appreciating after my readings the movie much more than when I had seen it first as a master's student in Oxford. Whenever I look at Greenblatt's book, which actually does say 2004 as the acquisition year, I do also think back of my junior year at Dumbarton Oaks.

Divna: Well, if I may actually ask the follow-up question because the first question you started on with Anna is a very personal one. I also like the anecdotes that Niels introduced about the Shakespeare in Love movie in his junior year in Dumbarton Oaks. Following up on that, you told us why you chose the book specifically, but why about this particular chapter? Why the chapter and why it?

Niels: I've actually been going by my notes in the margins and realized looking at the book again that I underlined more passages in the Wyatt chapter than in the previous chapters. I think it’s probably because Greenblatt there touches on those aspects that I felt were most fruitful for approaching the Byzantine theatron: the sort of the competitiveness among the actors in that social field, the care with which words had to be placed, but also that most of the writing—I think what particularly resonated was that what’s been quite often classified up to the 1980s in Byzantine studies, [rather] well into the early 2000s, as occasional rhetoric, as texts devoid of any deeper meaning and just sort of archaizing or classicizing rhetorical exercises, actually are very, very intricately tied into this jostling for social status for position, for careers.

And that becomes very visible, obviously, if you look at the rhetorical performance at the late Byzantine imperial court, in the houses of the imperial ministers, starting in the schools.

So, it’s probably that aspect of the chapter that resonated most strongly with me, but other things that had come into it are the emphasis on the mask, actually, sort of this self-fashioning, to get to the title of the book at long last. I mean, this was—well, now, we actually have wonderful articles not least by Stratis Papaioannou that mention the term mask in the title discussing Byzantine literature—but that was roughly a decade before [chuckles] these articles started appearing. The whole idea that Byzantine authors were using sort of their rhetorical training to create a character of themselves—I think the Byzantine term would be ethos (“character”)—which Byzantine authors quite clearly tell us they could decipher, or detect, in the texts that were being read out. What you wanted to do as a Byzantine rhetor or orator was to present a beautiful version of your character out there in the public sphere.

Divna: Basically, in asking Niels why he chose the Wyatt chapter, I was also explaining that when I was reading his suggested reading, I also thought why he had chosen it. The first thing that came to my mind was the part of the introduction when Greenblatt specifies the different types of mobility and points out that in the case of Wyatt, there is a specific type of displacement associated with his physical travel, him being an ambassador.

So, that was one sort of flag in my mind as I was reading. Another thing mentioned in the introduction, when he discusses all the cases, he mentioned that while others are not so strongly associated with a particular class, Wyatt is a partial exception being part of the gentry. I thought that would be a good comparandum with the Byzantine case and therefore, tying to the kind of things that Niels is working on.

In this sense, I think, at this point of the conversation or later, we may turn to this specific element of mobility and what kind of mobilities come across when you read about Wyatt, but also how it connects to other things we know from our own work and maybe from the late Byzantine examples we both work on. But for now on, maybe we can start with the central issue of the book and this idea of self-fashioning because that's another thing that I noted in my notes as I was reading the introduction. Greenblatt makes a point of explaining that the very term and the very meaning of fashion changes specifically in the 16th century in the English language in order to assume these kinds of added layers we now associate with the term, “self-fashioning.” I just wondered, okay, that's so closely tied to the development of English and to 16th century England.

In the spirit of all kinds of discussions we are all involved in right now, about possibly global middle ages or even just a wider scope when it comes to the middle ages, could we think, Niels, and are you thinking, were you thinking about this when you were writing your book yourself about the equivalent of self-fashioning in Byzantine terms, or if there is a linguistic component to this expression, how could we translate it in other languages, in other cultures of the time or the early examples of Palaiologan Byzantium?

Niels: Well, as you say, the term to fashion one’s self or to fashion seems specific to the 16th century context Greenblatt is dealing with. But the concept of expressing one's subjectivity through rhetoric obviously predates the Renaissance by quite a bit—even though I recall from the Introduction, Greenblatt in not untypical Renaissance scholar fashion seems slightly doubtful as to what degree this would actually apply to the middle ages. But coming from Byzantine [studies] . . . back then, I think, Gurevich’s book that is sort of denying individuality in the middle ages, was probably still standard reading. I hope I’m not too grossly mischaracterizing it because I stopped reading after the first chapter [chuckles] from what I recall, which incidentally features the nuns of the Lincoln College Typikon as an example for the alleged lack of individuality in the Middle Ages, which, of course, if you look at the manuscript as a whole, couldn't be further from the truth.

What obviously the English were to fashion, did not exist in Byzantium.

The idea of expressing one’s self through one’s rhetoric, I think, very much did, and was exactly tied into this almost decade-long process of becoming a performer of rhetorical text, of rhetoricized texts, [this process] of paideusis, of receiving a paideia, becoming a pepaideumenos, as it were, a learned person.

I think one aspect that Byzantine studies have not paid enough attention to then and even now is the results of acquiring learning which, of course, served the purpose of acquiring intricate knowledge of grammar and rhetoric but was—as, sticking to the late Byzantine period, not least the letters of Maximos Planoudes emphasize again and again—very much devoted to forming character: not only character, a virtuous character.

So, very much comparable to what's going on across the Latin Middle Ages as well, that through studying grammar, rhetoric, you ultimately acquire mores (‘character’, ‘customs’) as well. As I said, this character, these customs are very much to be expressed in the rhetoric performed—so, even if I wouldn’t necessarily translate any of these terms as self-fashioning, I think the idea of putting a version of yourself out there in a public competitive context, and ideally on the basis of this version of yourself make a distinguished career at court, in the church or, also an option in the late Byzantine period, sort of very purposely refuse to define yourself against those pursuing a career along these lines and aligning yourself with what Greenblatt would probably call a “different authority.”

All these options were very much available to Byzantine students of the time. Since you have mentioned the social background: of course, it’s all very much tied into specific social backgrounds. As we know, Byzantine society is less clearly stratified than other societies. Most rhetors, most learned individuals in the late Byzantine period, as in earlier Byzantine periods, do obviously come from socially, economically affluent backgrounds that allowed them to invest their money and time into acquiring an education.

Some of them have loose ties to the gentrymen. Philes is an example who obviously was a scion of a family that had become displaced in the wake of the Turkish conquest of Asia Minor. Others like Magistros are tied into the urban elite of Thessaloniki: whether a member of the lower aristocracy, of the higher bourgeoisie or whatever you want to call, it is not always clear.

Divna: What about the role of poetry in this creation of a public performative persona? Because in the chapter you read, that's obviously one of the elements of Wyatt’s poetic self and courtly self and it’s a very specific one as he’s someone familiar with Italian poetry of the time, someone who speaks more than one language, but is able to transpose, translate, translocate poetic forms into the English language. Is there something parallel in terms of the importance of poetic expression and of writing poetry specifically in the figure of the Byzantine pepaideumenos?

Niels: Well, poetry is important throughout the Byzantine period, especially from the 11th century onwards as we've learned in recent years and continues into the Palaiologan period, with some exciting work done at the very moment. It is perhaps not as all-important though as it seems to be in the English Renaissance context given that we have this strong performance culture based on rhetorical prose texts in Byzantium, too, but my feeling is especially for those impromptu performances, poetry does play a significant role. Think of the poem transmitted under Tzetzes’ name where he gets challenged (I’ve forgotten by whom) and then, very proudly, he tells us in the title that the verses recorded are those that he came up with extempore in response to the challenge of producing a poem on the spot.

I think many Byzantine authors were probably equally well versed in verse and prose, even though performance culture at court—I wouldn't even say that: think of many of Manuel Philes’ poems extolling the emperor, praising the emperor—so I suppose there were probably prose and verse performances to equal degree. Self-expression, though, happen perhaps more in prose than in verse in this context.

It's getting complicated. Obviously, you can express yourself in verse if you write these poems to oneself as Metochites did in the imitation of Gregory Nazianzen which, however, were possibly not composed for performance at the imperial court. While those [pieces of] poetry that did get performed at court is perhaps less malleable for expressing yourself as the rhetorical texts that did get read out such as letters, if that makes any sense.

The more formalized the occasion, the more formalized the context, the less room there is probably for the self, but while if you send a letter to the emperor, if you find a way of—like Psellos very often does—inserting yourself into an oration, purportedly praising somebody else, then there is more room for self-fashioning.

Divna: I suppose I don’t have an answer to this question either. I was just thinking—I mean, recently, there have been quite exciting things happening coming out of colleagues who deal with poetry. We have had discussions about what makes poetry poetry in the sense not everything in verse is necessarily poetry. Because it has been on my mind based on the topic today, I was just trying to think whether there is a sort of added value to this—how to say? To this rhetorical self, to this ethos that is being portrayed and created through education. What is the difference when that is guised in the discursive output of a poet as opposed to a prosaic persona? I'm just trying to think whether it makes a difference whether one renegotiates this kind of dynamics of knowledge and power in the form of a poem as opposed to in a prose text.

Niels: Well, I suppose several considerations that come into play. Generally, I have been under the impression that you can express the same things in verse or prose. It's partly a matter of predilection and partly a matter of occasion and of the expectations of the occasion.

I mean, for exploring the self, poetry is certainly the genre per se ever since Gregory Nazianzen, and all these long poems and unreadable hexameters by Theodore Metochites give us an Palaiologan example of that and response—Byzantine response, courtier’s response—to the wheel of fortune that was beginning to turn against him, as it were, and then turned against him at the end of the first civil war.

The other thing, in the 11th-century, probably poetry—I mean poetry is certainly the genre in which you can express yourself. It's not always the genre that allows you to do so at court. On certain occasions, obviously, the protocol requires, the ceremonial requires an elaborate prose composition.  These compositions on the other hand are not those that deal with the character [chuckles] or allow that much space for the character of the author. You rather have to find more subtle ways of inserting yourself into these orations, but letters probably do just the same trick as poems in a sense.

Anna: Can I ask you a question, both of you? That brings this discussion to the effect that this text has had on your own self-fashioning. That is to say, Niels, because you started reading it, you said, as a junior fellow at DO while you were finishing your thesis. Did you become self-conscious when reading that and sort of—did you start thinking about what you, yourself, present, what kind of persona you have created or did it give you any insight on that?

Niels: It obviously does that to me, but actually to continue this autobiographical strand, I went to the Belfast Spring Symposium on performance that spring from Dumbarton Oaks and gave my chapter on the theatron, and performing in the theatron, as a paper at the Spring Symposium.

Afterwards, Averil Cameron asked me whether I saw any difference between performing in a Byzantine theatron and performing at a Byzantine conference. I think that very neatly captured it because the self-fashioning we’re expected to do as junior scholars in order to fit in and make our way through academia is different types of pressures, but certainly similar pressures in their weight as people like Wyatt and our Byzantine rhetors were exposed to.

So, different contexts, different periods. I think it is also something that Greenblatt actually says, rather, that he’s attracted to these figures for their middle-class background. Elsewhere he also talks about modern academia mostly being a middle-class thing, for worse rather than better as we know.

Obviously, Renaissance rhetorical culture and Byzantine rhetorical culture were also mostly tied into the affluent strata of society.

But to conclude my previous thought: actually, for the Palaiologan period, at least, we do have evidence that schoolmasters, teachers, gentlemen scholars did teach able kids of poorer backgrounds for whatever reason, either because they felt the need to be charitable or because of actually realizing that's sort of their cultural competence: the whole idea of classicizing learning was getting on the back foot and they try to increase manpower, as it were.

People like Philotheos Kokkinos basically received an education working in the kitchen of Thomas Magistros. If you read the letters of the anonymous schoolmaster in the 10th century, even there already you have ideas that people from one's hometown should receive an education for free. He doesn’t tell us, unfortunately, whence he originated, so we don't know, but there seems to be an idea that you would want to train kids from your own geographical area for free and he also, I think, has a live-in servant to whom he would offer education.

For all the talk about economic affluence, there seem to have at all times been ways of acquiring education in Byzantium get on the social mobility ladder as it were from poorer backgrounds to, probably, again, an aspect, perhaps again an aspect that has not been deserved, received the attention it deserves actually.

Anna: I want to ask you also how well received your use of Greenblatt was by Byzantinists, by the scholars of the field.

Niels: I was probably not the first one doing it, actually, although other people—it's also very much a Palaiologan thing, although—I think it was very much caught, as graduate students tend to be, in the previous scholarship on the late Byzantine period where the latest thing on the theatron was an article by a Russian colleague, who argued very much that the theatron was a classless institution without hierarchies, without these sort of social pressures while people working on the middle Byzantine period, on the Komnenan period—Margaret Mullet, Paul Magdalino—had already picked up on the patronage function of the theatron, on the social mobility, on the self-display, 12th-century examples like Michael Choniates, with whatever degree of seriousness, writing these treatise against those who go around the rich houses of Constantinople displaying themselves.

As always, or at least at the time, I think, scholarship on the middle Byzantine period was somewhat ahead of scholarship on the late Byzantine period and if I wrote on a broader topic, I would probably have taken these as my starting point rather than what was around on the late Byzantine period, but generally, I think at least these aspects of Greenblatt—others may be more problematic—but these aspects of Greenblatt are a very neat fit for our understanding of Byzantine rhetorical culture.

And generally, I feel that Byzantinists are quite open to theories, certainly from the 1990s onwards. Theories and ideas from different fields, it's probably part of the culture sitting on the crossroads of so many cultures that we've always been looking left, right, north, south, and everywhere.

Divna: Perhaps now I can answer your question, Anna. I have to say I appreciate the personal spin you give to all these questions. I think it's important to remind ourselves that there's a personal component to the work we do and it's not just for its own sake.

I had an interesting experience rereading this piece for the podcast because my first exposure to Greenblatt and New Historicism was basically being Niels’ student in my MA and in my PhD studies. At the time, of course, I was receptive to everything. My mind was open. I wanted to apply everything. I thought everything was very, very cool.

Now that I read it years later, I was—and I shared this with Niels previously—I was stricken by how male this book is, that it is dedicated to six male authors and issues of gender and the portrayal of the male and female persona and their relationship, poetic, power dynamics, and so forth—we can discuss this further—is, of course, portrayed from the male point of view.

I understand why is that. Of course, I understand the nature of the evidence, but I think by now—since the 1980s, now we’re in 2020—I cannot ask myself how would this story feel and read had it been told from the point of view or with the examples of female authors, if they are such to be given.

This is something I think that comes across more and more when it comes to Byzantine studies, too, because we have more and more—I mean, the younger generations are more and more engaged with these questions because of our own social reality. Being aware that you are reading these things, the sources as a female person, who is also a scholar, makes you aware of how your own kind is lacking from the evidence.

Of course, we know that women were there and from the silences, we can logically also deduce their agency, but it's also true that in the medieval evidence and Byzantine evidence, in particular, which lacks a lot of its archival sources it’s very difficult for us to find the women. I remember it was a recent online discussion, I don’t remember the particular context of the lecture, I think it was a seminar series in which your first guest, the first guest of your podcast, Anthony Kaldellis, presented the project for his New History of Byzantium.

In the Q&A afterwards, Judith Herrin, who is famously very much engaged with this question, asked him, “How do you find the women? What will be your methodology for finding the women?” I have to say that, of course, he acknowledged the importance of the question, but it also became evident that we still don't know how to find the women in those sources.

Now, that I was rereading this chapter, I was confronted with this question and there was an uncomfortable feeling at the back of my mind as I was reading it. I don't know if you want to discuss this further.

Anna: Niels, what do you have to say about that, about Divna's comment? Does it take a female scholar to sense how sort of masculine Greenblatt's concept is or—?

Niels: I wouldn't hope so. No. I think it's very clear, as Divna says, it’s very much a problem we face in Byzantine studies, too, since there are so few—as long as we rely on texts, at least—since there are so few texts by female writers surviving. I quite often I think it’s rather lack of opportunity than lack of willingness that unfortunately, excludes a female voice from much of historical work.

Although, as you know, Divna, there is obviously exciting and important work in progress at the moment, looking at minor characters and silenced voices in our rhetorical narratives to see how far you can get in giving them a voice and bringing them into the picture.

Of course, for the stuff we’ve discussed so far, there is, to best of my knowledge, not a single female performer in these theatra at the imperial court, in the houses of the ministers. If it happened, we don’t know. In this context, where the women come in in Byzantium more so than in Renaissance England perhaps is as patrons, patronesses. Especially in the Komnenan period, as you know, you see the sebastokratorissa Eirene and then the various empresses, Eirene Doukaina, her daughter, Anna Komnene, and so on who all presided over their literary-philosophical circles in the 12th century; or Palaiologan examples like Eirene Choumnaina or Theodora Raoulaina presiding over their circle.

I think Byzantine society probably gives a larger role to women than Greenblatt's book on Renaissance England actually allows for, but still not as much of a role as nowadays, we obviously would want to see.

Divna: Niels, following up on that because you're currently working on a database—you can maybe say a little bit what the database is about—but in your work on the database, do some interesting women come up?

Niels: Again, very much in these supportive function as addressees or patronesses rather than as writers, unfortunately. I mean the database that Divna mentions is a Database of Byzantine Literati with the expressed aim of allowing us to map social mobility, places of performance since we're still very much Constantinopolicentric.

What we hope to do by putting rhetorical performances on the map, career stages of literati on the map, who quite often started their careers as junior figures in the provinces, at which time—Michael Psellos explicitly tells us that he was 16 when he got his first job in the provinces, but also mentioned that his new boss was very much an accomplished rhetor, seemingly implying that his rhetorical training may have continued on his first job after he came out of school as it were—so by putting career stages, rhetorical performances attested in the provinces on the map, at least, we are trying to create a geographical counterbalance to Constantinople, to show birthplaces of all these rhetors who then moved to Constantinople to receiving their education, but then circulated back into the provinces.

So, at least with regard to spatial mobility, I think we can make some progress. Bringing women into this picture is still tied to the textual sources we have, unfortunately. Again, with the well-known exceptions, of course, of Anna Komnene and the Palaiologan female authors I've already mentioned, they tend to stay in the supportive roles rather than the active literati roles.

Generally, I think this database, hopefully, will be a tool that allows us to map certain processes that we've always been talking about and know existed. It will remain difficult quantifying anything given the nature of our sources, but at least, to bring it all into a database will give us a firmer basis from which to start when looking at issues of social and spatial mobility.

Divna: Perhaps, from your last point, Niels, about portraying different types of mobility, social, economic, geographical. Perhaps, we can talk about another type of movement, which was central in the chapter you asked us to read. This is the kind of movement exemplified by what we call translation, paraphrase, metaphrasis, and so on.

As we have seen from the text, you asked us to discuss, this was central in why its creation of his courtly, authorial and performative persona by bringing forms as well as texts from outside literatures and then translating them, but also, paraphrasing them into English.

Could you speak a little bit about this phenomena and its relation to courtly culture and also, to these dynamics between power and knowledge when it came to the Byzantine case, or was this an element from Greenblatt's book that actually influenced you in your analysis of Byzantine material?

Niels: What do you mean by the dynamics of power and knowledge?

Divna: Well, I guess, what I mean is that, as you pointed out, in order to create this learned self, one needs to go to a certain process of education, a number—The fact that you have an entry point to such a process, the fact that you have gone through it, and that you have been successful and then can perform and demonstrate it within a theatron or at the court or in a certain learned circle is what actually actualizes this whole process of becoming and being pepaideumenos.

Within this process, I guess, it's my opinion, I know it's the impression I get is that there is a constant interplay between the knowledge you acquire, which is very specifically bound to certain conditions and to the type of power that—or a prominence, if you will, that you acquire, that then allows you to execute the type of mobility you are aiming at.

So, if that's clear, I’m wondering about the fact then that's education, that paideia that you are acquiring and becoming part of and exemplifying, in some cases, is involved in such practices as translation, paraphrase, or even dealing with very specific, catechizing nature of the learned Greek the Byzantines use. So, perhaps we can talk a little bit about this.

Niels:  Translation is obviously the key concept for Greenblatt in the Wyatt chapter. While it does play a role in late Byzantine society, I think the first translation that happens is really this: acquiring an education.

What we haven't really mentioned so far is all these performances, most of these performances happened in an archaizing, classicizing sociolect in which the Byzantine performers imitated a language that was based on a classicism that stretched from Homer into late antiquity up to Procopius, Agathias, Theophylaktos Simokattes and then, possibly involved some later Byzantine models such as Michael Psellos as well.

The first translation that happens is actually within their own language from everyday Greek or whatever you want to call it, vernacular registers of Greek or everyday registers of Greek into the sociolect that was the conditio sine qua non known of performance in the public sphere.

In that sense, I think, translation is a very … [chuckles] if you want to call it translation, is a very important concept. To the present day obviously literary language is distinct from the spoken language and everyday language, but perhaps to a smaller degree than the decade aspiring Byzantine rhetors had to invest into remodeling their own language and their way of thinking and viewing the world and everything that comes through language until they reached the point that they could enter the performative, the competitive sphere of performances in theatra and elsewhere.

I think performances or translations from other languages then come into play at this later stage where this classicizing learning, Byzantine learning is partially expressed through following the authorities, learned authorities of ancient writers but the field of knowledge, of course, extends much further including philosophy, astronomy, science, and so on.

We see this quite clearly in the self-fashioning—to use the term—of people like Michael Psellos that starts with language and rhetoric but extends much further. Already in the 9th century, Ignatios the Deacon, his Life of Patriarch Nikephoros goes through … by describing Nikephoros’s knowledge, he’s probably putting his own knowledge out there.

Learning is always defined as much wider than just rhetorical or grammatical learning and there translations, or one branch of translation is, as you know better than me, through astronomical works coming in from the Persian-Islamic world in the late period.

There is, of course, now starting the huge project on stories that were shared across Eurasia between Byzantium and its neighbors. There are obviously lots of examples of stories traveling through Asia on the way to Byzantium—Barlaam and Josaphat as the most prominent Byzantine example perhaps, but just the tip of the iceberg, the Kalila wa Dimna, and then whatever comes to mind.

Well, I think it’s sort of embellishing learning and knowledge on the fringes rather than playing a central role in this very much sociolect-based theatron culture I’ve been talking about so far but, of course, it does play—I mean, think of Gregoras predicting the solar eclipse in the imperial theatron: that's probably one of the situations where it all comes to together. We know that in Andronikos himself read out philosophical treatises at his court. There’s the one with the dubious claim that air is more humid than water and his courtiers had to humor him in response to that, which makes me think of the passage of which Greenblatt says, “It's a supreme pleasure of power to impose fictions [chuckles] on everybody.” That would probably be an example of that.

Divna: Yes. Perhaps this is also a good point to finish with which we can conclude our conversation. I also liked this passage very much and I thought it ties very well with the first episode of the podcast, which also discussed in a similar way, the way fictions imposed within the earlier Roman empire.

I also noted it in my reading as something that we can refer to today. I mean, in this sense, it’s also kind of interesting the double play of fiction as alternative reality being imposed by whoever of the actors we are following but also, is paralleled by the kind of plasticity of literary fiction that we can maybe think about when it comes to this learned gentlemen.

Niels: The basic setup is again very, very comparable. I mean, lots of Renaissance court ceremonial was probably inspired by what they’d seen in Byzantium which always had a more elaborate ceremonial than the western courts. The very set-up of imposing fictions was always there in the Byzantine court.

The other passage that made me think was about the image of the ruler. Of course, the Holbein portraits of Henry VIII have a sort of unique plasticity to [chuckles] them as it were. On the other end, as we know, the image of the late Byzantine emperor was far more ubiquitous as is commonly realized. There’s probably also something going on about the image of the ruler in Byzantium.

In a sense, I think this whole expressing yourself in this learned archaizing sociolect: you could probably ask oneself to which degree that is imposing a fiction on everybody participating in that, knowing it’s sort of a social—Bourdieu would probably call it a social competence that is acquired over years, but it involves everybody, including the emperor. That’s very much part of the project we’re presently doing at Edinburgh.

The emperor and the courtiers to participate in this fiction of the social relevance of largely artificial language, as it were, and the things expressed in this largely artificial language. There’s, of course, also turning things around, I mean expressing the power of the literati over the emperor and the top aristocracy, that they managed to establish so many days per year where these people have to sit in the audience listening to them perform in this sociolect, which seems to exponentially increase from the 11th century onwards. Not that it's not happening earlier but imperial orations and performances at court seem to be getting significantly longer from the 11th century onward.

Obviously, the emperor profits from the fictions these people put out there in praising imperial achievement. The ritualized orations on the 6th of January where the emperor gets praised for his achievements during the past year, which is probably more often a fictional account of what happened than close to any resemblance of reality however defined.

By getting people to praise him in this way, of course, the emperor gets entangled in their web as well and has to suffer through days on end listening to such performances, sitting in on the examinations of the students who hope to make a career in the bureaucracy. Even while, as 12th-century sources tell us, he leaves the actual examination to a competent courtier he still has to be present and listen to the impromptu performances of the students, as it were. Some emperors might have liked it, obviously, but others, I suppose, very much suffered while sitting there on their throne listening to performances.

Anna: Just listening to you now, I was wondering whether we can think of current such practices of self-fashioning, of praise to the ruler, or—I don't know if you want to comment on that or if any of you would like to say something to conclude our podcast today?

Niels: Well, I mean, yes, obviously, pleasing power by means of fictions and performing fictions [chuckles] is a fairly timeless topic. One doesn’t have to look very far in the present moment to find suitable examples [chuckles] one could list.

Anna: It's up to you completely. Yes, Niels. No. I think you addressed it beautifully. Yes, I think.

Divna: I guess you don't have to go deep into it but you can say at least that reading and discussing these examples as we did today, it makes you reflect on your own participation in similar processes. Perhaps there’s something to be learned by that.

Niels: To the point that sometimes I ask myself whether you can actually justify being a Byzantinist and studying things long past while the world around you is in flames, and whether you should not direct your efforts to performing in these current theaters rather than the theatra of the Byzantine empire as it were. Which is not what you had in mind, I suppose, but my thinking has taken me there occasionally recently. How can I justify sitting at my desk dealing with these things long past while we might have something to contribute to current debates?

Divna: As we keep on seeing the things long past become relevant every now and then and then you need the experts.

Anna: Yes. As educators, you are sort of forming the next generation that will be participating in the debates. They will not all become Byzantinists I hope.

Niels: That’s what keeps us all in the profession. Yes. [laughs] Indeed.

Anna: Exactly. Wonderful. Thank you so much. Thank you for a fascinating chapter and writer and a fascinating discussion, very, very good discussion. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Our podcast musical theme is from the Concerto in E-Flat, Dumbarton Oaks by Igor Stravinsky, recorded by the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, Kenneth Slowik conducting. A special thanks to our colleague, Daniel Boomhower for helping us obtain access to the musical theme. Lastly, as always, thank you for joining us and we hope that you tune in to our next episode.