I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.
This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’,
motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!
Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.
- Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
- Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
- Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453”
- Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
- Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories“
- Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
- Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
- Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
- Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death’: new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
- Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
- Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
- Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
- Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”
The keynote paper was as much an exercise of definition as anything, trying to distinguish bilingualism, as defined here the state of having two native languages, from diglossia, the situation in which there are two cultures of the same language at once, be it in script (as in modern Japanese, Kanji versus Romanji), Classical versus vernacular (as in modern Arabic), high and low (as in German, just about?). All Dr Georgopolou’s examples were from Greek, but there is a wider phenomenon here and she tried to suggest that it was that part of a culture which would make the links to other cultures, what I would think of as the network vectors in a society. Dr Georgopolou claimed this was a new way of grouping things, objects and phenomena; the questions largely drove at whether it was new and whether other categories would not be more accurate, and to her credit Dr Georgopolou cheerfully ran with others’ ideas as they were offered. I wasn’t sure even this collective forging really finished the work of tool-making, however.
In Session 01, the first three papers all held to the same general theme of language use and choice: Ms Cernáková argued that the use of a fantasy Greek setting for some French Romances allowed them to take Greeks as exotic but not necessarily negative characters for their stories, as opposed to the chronicler’s portrayal typical for the era, as deceptive lazy villains who didn’t deserve their wealth (a position one can understand those recounting the Fourth Crusade taking to justify themselves, of course). I thought that the portrayal of Greeks in the only one of these texts I know, Cligès, is much closer to the chronicle line than Ms Cernáková did, since the Greek hero has to leave his imperial homeland to do basically anything dangerous at all, and his father tries to persuade him to stay on the grounds of how rich they are, but it’s arguable that this is not negative as Chrétien de Troyes wrote it, only as I now read it, and so indeed Ms Cernáková argued, so good for her. Ms Stewart looked at a particular genre of late Byzantine literature in which animals do the talking, and suggested that this was a way of bringing the vernacular, and especially loan-words, into a culture where writing in literary Greek was a politicised and élitist choice very different from writing for the people.
Then Jeff, whom I teach with now so will call by first name, looked at a meeting between the Church of Nicæa and papal emissaries attempting to negotiate terms of reunion between Greek and Roman churches after the Latin conquest of Constantinople, an endeavour which historians have tended to see as so obviously futile as to have necessarily been insincere.1 He demonstrated, I thought, that the two Dominican and two Franciscan friars who were sent knew Greek better than their opponents knew Latin and set out to make their arguments against the Greek position from Greek texts. Since our main account of this is one which they wrote up in order to explain why their mission failed, there are some issues of bias with the record that make comparison with the Greek version of the dispute highly instructive: Jeff thought that the friars knew Greek well enough that their horribly difficult translation of the Greek arguments into Latin might have been deliberately done to make the Greeks look unreasonable. I’ve argued with him about this since, but not from the basis of any actual knowledge, so he still has the floor for now! Lastly Ms Kampianaki argued that the twelfth-century chronicler John Zonaras’s uniquely extensive treatment of the Roman Republic in his synthetic history of the Roman state down to his days was largely intended to show the flaws of the republican ethos and how, despite the ideals on which that was established, the correct and most beneficial order of a Roman state was a divinely-backed monarchy, under which, by happpy coincidence of course, he lived.2 This I found as convincing as anyone who doesn’t know the text could have..
In Session 03, Dr Rubery spoke about a pattern of bilingually-labelled frescoes put into a Roman Church, Santa Maria Antiqua, by a Greek pope, John VII (705-707) on top of another set of bilingually Greek and Latin frescoes put there by an earlier pope, Martin I (649-655) in what is quite a tangly sequence of probably-political choices of commemoration hanging from Martin’s imprisonment at the hands of the Emperor Constans II. The details of this were intriguing, but I was especially struck by one particularly straightforward question asked by Professor Leslie Brubaker: the sequence of fresco, mosaic and lettering that Dr Rubery was detailing plainly goes up six stages and about forty feet up: who can read letters that high up? Dr Rubery suspected that they might be intended only to be legible by God, but you might think that that made a choice of language fairly irrelevant…
Among the other papers, Mr Nikolaishvili gave us a short rundown of about a century of Georgian coinage history and argued that the titles used by the Georgian kings on the coins, like ‘sebastos’, initially at least corresponded to awards of those titles by a slightly desperate Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. I wasn’t sure I bought this but the treatment some of the coins had suffered, including being used as shrine decorations for their eventually-sanctified issuer, was very interesting, and if I’d known then I was going to wind up in charge of a very small collection of Georgian coins (among a rather larger one of other things) I’d have made better notes…
Lastly in that session, Georgia Michael raised some really quite big questions out of the Christian underground, literally, of third- and fourth-century Rome, the catacombs where some of the earliest Christian burials are. The sarcophagi bear artwork that is our clearest clue to the earliest understandings of the Trinity, but they have tended not to be seen in their full context: Georgia was thus able to point out that images of sacrifice and idolatry for which these things have been pointed out are parts of pairs in which one sequence of worshippers commits idolatry but the other rejects it, which, you know, may alter the point somewhat… There was clever stuff here and although I had an apparently mean question about what the impact of depictions derived from Persian art was in a context of the rejection of the Roman state by Christianity (which as Georgia rightly said only matters if people knew those images were Persian), I enjoyed this one.
The penultimate session was my last one, as the day had other things in it and in any case the final sessions were the latest in both senses. Before that, however, I heard a smart paper by Miss Williams arguing that the little-known Iohannis by an African poet called Corippus was in fact something like an official record of the returned Byzantine régime in Africa after they had driven out the Vandals in 533, a panegyric of a state-backed patron; I saw Mr Kelly run without the handouts of which his airline had cruelly robbed him to argue that hagiography, and particularly the Life of St Simeon the Fool, shows that even after the loss of the Middle East to Islam Constantinople was still a city where not just Syriac, but Latin and a plethora of local tongues might be heard, raising questions he hopes to answer about when people would identify themselves as foreigners by not using Greek; and I heard Ms Stammler talk about a South Slavonic version I had not suspected of a text I had then lately discovered, the Life of St Andrew the Fool, which she thought contained bits of that text of Byzantine origin for which we have no Byzantine texts.3 I was most intrigued by Mr Kelly’s paper because it seemed to bespeak some kind of border control in seventh-century Constantinople, and I wondered how far away those borders were, but apparently from a Byzantine perspective this is not weird, though Mr Kelly cheerfully admitted that the state probably didn’t and couldn’t stop people just walking in to the empire, even if it did have officials on its border crossings and ports where it could.
So it was a pretty good spread of expertises and a lot of things to think about. More notably, firstly not only were these generally pretty good papers for relatively-novice presenters, but secondly they managed almost all to make their material accessible to a Westernist with little or no Greek, quite contrary to what used to be the practice of Byzantine studies when I first met it elsewhere. It was more than just Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham that was getting showcased here, and that which was foreign to Birmingham also showed up pretty well. Byzantine studies is maybe quite well set for the future!
1. Until Jeff gets something new out there, I think the current state of play on this interesting episode is John Doran, “Rites and Wrongs: the Latin Mission to Nicaea, 1234” in Robert N. Swanson (ed.), Unity and Diversity in the Church: papers read at the 1994 summer meeting and the 1995 winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, Studies in Church History 32 (Oxford 1996), pp. 131-144.
2. Zonaras is one of the interesting ones. The standard edition of him is L. Dindorfius (ed.), Ioannou tou Zonara Epitome historion. Ioannis Zonarae Epitome historiarum, Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana 310-315 (Leipzig 1868-1875), 6 vols, of which only a tiny part has been published in translation, as Eugene Lane & Thomas Banchich (trans.), The History of Zonaras: from Alexander Severus through the Death of Theodosius the Great (London 2009). Work there for someone!
3. These texts respectively available as Flavius Cresconius Corippus, Iohannis, transl. George William Shea as The Iohannis, Or, De Bellis Libycis, Studies in Classics 7 (Lewiston 1998); Derek Krueger, Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius’s Life and the Late Antique City (Berkeley 1996), online here, pp. 121-170; and Lennart Ryden (ed./transl.), The Life of St. Andrew the Fool: Text, Translation and Notes (Uppsala 1995), though that last is, I admit, the Greek version not the Slavonic one. Best I can do, sorry!