Seminar CCXXXII: technical change in Byzantine history-writing

Now it’s time for the third seminar in three days of February 2015, in the vague hope that I can be out of the month in my backlog before February 2016 rolls around! On Thursday 26th February, therefore, I was back in Birmingham and went to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies as was then my wont, where Dr Staffan Wahlgren was speaking with the title, “From Theophanes to Psellos: transformations of Byzantine historiography”. This was a paper that he had come to because of translating the tenth-century chronicle of a chap known as Symeon the Logothete and wanting to know, basically, how odd it was or wasn’t.1 So he had set it next to the better-known chronicles of Michael Psellos, Michael Attaleiates and John Skylitzes, more or less spanning the eleventh century, and also the rather less well-known one of Peter of Alexandria (c. 900), as well as other bits and pieces as they came up, and had looked for things that were common to or changed over this period in the actual ways that these historians used the Greek language to write history.2

Michael Psellos, here shown with his pupil the emperor Michael VII Doukas

The one of those guys of whom it is easiest to find an illustration—which would please him mightily, I suspect—Michael Psellos, here shown with his pupil the emperor Michael VII Doukas. “Michael Psellos” by Unknown/Άγνωστος – Codex 234, f. 245a, Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery/ Κώδ. 234, φ. 254α, Άγιον Όρος, Μονή Παντοκράτορος. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Dr Wahlgren had separated three sorts of variation, whole-culture shifts in the way that language was used, deliberate distinction of learned writing from other uses of the language at that same cultural level and variation that was actually the individual writer’s choice, and he gave us an example of each. Now, I have basically no more Greek than a coin inscription can hold, so in what follows I can only be guided by my notes, but they tell me that we were told that one of the things that differentiates ancient Greek from modern Greek is that anciently it had a dative case, for indirect objects and things acted upon by various prepositions, and now it doesn’t, just a subject, [Edit: an object] and a possessive case. This was a long change, as you can apparently find the dative missing in second-century papyri but still being used in speech in the eighteenth century, but all of the texts that Dr Wahlgren had looked at retained it, at least for location of things though not so much for direction, at but not towards. So that was a whole-culture thing, the historians somewhere in a larger process of change. Then Dr Wahlgren looked at emphatic particles (and here we are beyond my understanding, I can see what these must be but I’ve no idea what they look like): these apparently come back in in a big way in thirteenth-century historical writing where they had been absent or moribund before, which shows the deliberate archaicisation of the learned languages. And lastly he looked at narrative structure and the general constraints of genre upon form and discovered that although the older Chronographia of Theophanes was a force upon them all in different ways, they all had their own variations upon it, although his home case, Symeon, was still more episodic than the others.

Modern Russian icon of St Symeon Metaphrastes

It’s not that there are no illustrations of Symeon, it’s just that they’re all modern icons, because he also wrote a huge collection of saints’ lives, the Menologion, which the Orthodox Church later decided was sufficient to put him among their number… SimeonMetaphrastes

I report all this mainly because it struck me as a slightly strange combination of traditional and modern techniques. Obviously this kind of work is not per se new, that’s how we have some kind of framework into which to fit these chroniclers’ use of the dative. On the other hand we would probably now expect a work such as this to be done with lexomics and corpus analysis, but Dr Wahlgren didn’t mention a computer once and of course you don’t actually need one if you’re willing just to sit down with the texts and a pad of paper for tallies and similar. There remains the question of how to interpret it all, however, and in discussion it was particularly the issue of constraints of genre that came up. Ruth Macrides, who knows her chroniclers, thought that what we might otherwise call the content of the form could be crucial here, accounting both for the sort of language generally used and the individual variation: Theophanes had written a Chronographia, so structured everything with time, Psellos used that title too but frequently followed an episodic trail in the style of Classical ‘historia’, while Skylitzes wrote a Synopsis, and what seems like individual variation between these texts could be therefore something much more structuredly literary and cultural.3 Dr Wahlgren argued that this kind of analysis would be one way to see if those categories really exist, but when you have writers deliberately trying to look old-fashioned it’s obvious that such forces did apply, even if not to all equally. The argument was, shall we say, not settled on this occasion. But this kind of work is still a set of tools we have available to use.

1. He has already edited this, as S. Wahlgren (ed.), Symeonis magistri et logothetae chronicon (Berlin 2006), though of course despite the Latinised title it is in Greek; a few tiny excerpts are already trans. Paul Stephenson online here.

2. The first three of these are all available in translation, Michael Psellos, Chronographia, transl. E. R. A. Sewter (London 1953) and online here, Michael Attaleiates, The History, transl. Anthony Kaldellis & Dimitris Krallis (Washington DC 2012) and John Skylitzes, A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057, transl. John Wortley (Oxford 2010). For Peter we are not so lucky: there is, apparently, Z. G. Samodurova (ed.), “Хроника Петра Александрийского” in Византийский Временник New Series Vol. 18 (Leningrad 1961), pp. 150–197 for the Greek, and after that you’re kind of stuck. On all of these guys you can see Warren T. Treadgold, The Middle Byzantine Historians (London 2013), though you should be warned that Dr Wahlgren said that one of the reasons he had started the project was that book, which he felt needed correction. Treadgold also corrects Wahlgren, Symeonis chronicon, at Treadgold, Middle Byzantine Historians, p. 110 n. 108 and other places, so it’s all quite reciprocal. You can now see some of what we heard in Wahlgren, “Past and Present in Mid-Byzantine Chronicles: Change in Narrative Technique and the Transmission of Knowledge” in Mari Isaoho (ed.), Past and Present in Medieval Chronicles, Collegium 17 (Helsinki 2015), online here, pp. 34-42.

3. I imagine that the best proof of Ruth’s knowledge is R. Macrides, “The Historian in the History” in Costas N. Constantinides, Nikolaos M. Panagiotakes, Elizabeth Jeffreys & Athanasios D. Angelou (edd.), Philellen: studies in honour of Robert Browning, Biblioteca dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini di Venezia 17 (Venice 1996), pp. 205-224, but as I’ve observed before, good luck getting hold of it. Theophanes is a bit easier, being translated most recently as Cyril Mango & R. Scott (transl.), The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (Oxford 1997), though the Continuations with which our guys here worked are not so easy to get.

2 responses to “Seminar CCXXXII: technical change in Byzantine history-writing

  1. “dative case, for indirect objects and things acted upon by various prepositions, and now it doesn’t, just a subject and a possessive case”

    Wot, no accusative?

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