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Abstracts, 2007 Colloquium

November 09–11, 2007

Byzantine Literature: New Voices and Current Approaches


The Poet as Guide

Emilie van Opstall

The starting point of my presentation will be an ecphrasis in dodecasyllable on the Church of Stoudios by John Geometres (10th century). In order to propose some thoughts on the interpretation of this somewhat puzzling poem, I will describe different aspects of ecphrasis in general and several examples of ecphraseis on buildings from Antiquity to the Middle Byzantine period. The main focus will be on techniques of presentation and on interpretation. I will take into consideration literary, archaeological and cultural aspects, posing questions like: how are things described? Who is the narrator, who is the narratee? What is the relation of the ecphrasis in question to the rest of the work (in the case of an embedded ecphrasis)? What about the relation of the ecphrasis to the reality outside the text: does it refer to a real building? What reaction to the described edifice is expected from the public? By discussing these examples, I will finally return to Geometres' poem and try to shed some light on its content and meaning.

Replotting the Axis: Byzantine Literature and the Three Levels of Style

Emmanuel C. Bourbouhakis

Though frequently adduced in general discussions and scholarship about Byzantine literature, 'style' remains an elusive term of analysis for philologists. When it is not simply joined to suggestive but otherwise imprecise adjectives ("florid", "ornate", "precious" are among the favourites for the 'artificial' prose of the 'best' authors), 'style' is customarily subject to the threefold classification virtually canonized in Byzantine philology by Ihor Ševčenko's classic article, 'Levels of Style in Byzantine Prose', now in its 26th year of abiding authority.

While it is not my aim to displace this long-standing vertical scheme, I should like to propose additional coordinates for the style of Byzantine prose texts which may not be disposed along a hierarchical axis; rather, as distinct elements of linguistic and literary features assembled in varying combinations intended to produce distinct effects. Drawing from my work on 12th century prose texts, I hope to show, in keeping with the spirit of Ihor Ševčenko's work, the need for profiling of the stylistic code of individual works in order to appreciate better the choices made by authors in particular genres, where the 'level' of style would have been a near foregone conclusion but the operative choices within any level often exhibit significant variation, refinement, and even innovation.

Grotesque Bodies in Edifying Tales: The Monstrous and the Uncanny in Byzantine Miracle Stories

Stavroula Constantinou

A religious theme, such as the temptations of Saint Antony, has become one of the most representative topics of the grotesque. Famous artists of the grotesque, Hieronymous Bosch, Matthias Grünewald and Salvador Dali, for instance, devoted to Antony's temptations at least one of their grotesque paintings. The original source of grotesque artistic representations of Antony's temptations is a religious text, Athanasius's Life of the saint where Antony is presented at the beginning of his religious career being violently attacked by monstrous figures, which almost kill him. The association of sanctity with the grotesque detected in a passage of Athanasius's work, and elaborated by later artists and writers, such as Gustave Flaubert, appears to pervade a considerable number of Byzantine hagiographical texts. In the present paper, I will examine the religious and other functions of the grotesque, its monstrosity, and uncanny nature as depicted in a specific category of hagiographical texts, the collection of miracle stories.

Historiography and handbooks in political context, c. 900–1150

Catherine Holmes

In a short article of 2003 on the Synopsis Historiarum of the eleventh-century historian John Scylitzes I made some tentative suggestions about common compositional techniques that can be observed in certain varieties of middle Byzantine historiography and the tenth-century military manuals (see below). Following leads established by Charlotte Roueché, I suggested that these commonalities owed much to the teaching and practice of rhetoric in the Byzantine empire; indeed, on that occasion I went as far as asking whether one could label these particular characteristics the 'rhetoric of synopsis'. In this paper I shall continue these lines of inquiry by considering the wider political and social contexts which may help to explain this particular use of Byzantine rhetoric. By looking closely at the intersection of a variety of synoptic texts, rhetoric and politics in the tenth to twelfth centuries this paper will argue that there was more room for political debate in Byzantium than is usually assumed; and, moreover, that political debate itself may be the key to understanding the composition and reception of different genres of synopsis.

Digenes and the Dragon: Indo-European Comparisons

Christopher Livanos

This paper discusses the decapitation of the dragon at the beginning of book six of the Grottaferrata version of Digenes Akrites as a symbolic genital mutilation performed out of guilt for the rape committed at the end of book five. Calvert Watkins' study of the dragon-slaying motif in Indo-European literature is used as a theoretical framework from which to approach the topic in Byzantine literature. The author argues that the slaying of the dragon represents not only the hero's triumph but also his self-defeat. Parallels with Western Literature, particularly Beowulf, are discussed. The paper points out that no variant of Watkins' formula, "The hero slew the serpent," is ever used with reference either to Digenes or to Beowulf. Though Watkins has discussed the formula in Beowulf, it is noteworthy that his only example is a reference to Sigemund which occurs in an embedded narrative. Thus the dragon-slaying episodes from both epics are best understood as instances of self-defeat. The paper argues that Digenes' symbolic self-mutilation foreshadows his childless death. Digenes and the Irish hero Cuchulainn are then compared as two figures who paradoxically live at the fringes, both morally and physically, of the societies they protect. It is significant that both die childless, leaving no heir to continue their role as defenders. In these respects, and in his erratic temperament, Digenes has more in common with Cuchulainn than with El Cid, with whom he has more commonly been compared.

Byzantine Mirrors: Fiction and Desire in Medieval Greek Writing

Estruatios Papaioannou

It has been recently argued that mirroring, especially self-mirroring, functions in the Greco-roman imagination as a metaphor of two distinct cultural practices. In this premodern conceptual world, mirroring is a sign of either a highly valued possibility for (self-) knowledge or a dangerous pursuit of (self-) deception (Bartsch 2006: The Mirror of the Self). The two practices are furthermore marked in gender-specific terms, knowledge being assigned to masculinity and deception to effeminacy.

This paper explores the history of this imagination of mirroring in Byzantine texts of imperial, theological, and literary rhetoric from the ninth through the twelfth centuries. I will argue that, while Byzantine writers continue the binary and gender-marked stance of their cultural past, they invest mirrors (whether as carriers of truth or of fiction) with an inescapable power to incite desire. They thus gradually begin to problematize the distance between truth and fiction, upset the primacy of the former over the latter, and, occasionally, value the desire for imagined–albeit deceptively reflective–worlds. In view of this, the discursive history of Byzantine mirrors belongs to the framework of a larger cultural development, namely the revival of Greek fictional writing and concepts of fictionality as they resurface in the cultural production of Medieval Byzantium.

Theodore Metochites' Poems "To Himself": Some literary questions

Christos Simelides

Theodore Metochites' (1270–1332) 20 poems (9,100 hexametres) have not been received favorably by scholars. With a very recent exception, the editions of his poems always provide a transcription with a translation, but never a scholarly apparatus, a basic philological introduction, or annotation. Some literary questions still await an answer. Are there any significant words or phrases among Metochites' vocabulary? Are there any indications of a poetic sensitivity in his verse? How serious are his prosodic errors? And, more generally, how should we read Metochites' poems? This paper focuses on his poems 'To Himself' and shows that an attempt to investigate Metochites' language, his borrowings, and his style, is not unrewarding.