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From the 124th Annual Meeting column of the April 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

Byzantine Studies: A Discussion of Methodologies

Eugenia Russell, April 2010

In this article my aim is to present some of my perceptions—as a “late Byzantinist”—regarding long-standing attitudes (positive and negative) in the field of Byzantine studies and to discuss new developments and responses to those attitudes.

The boundaries of any discipline tend to be arbitrary, but they can define scholarly practice for hundreds of years. The drawing of such boundaries and their interpretation steer the research and teaching aims, and indeed budgets, of departments, publications, and individuals. Their discussion is, in that case, not a merely theoretical debate but a necessary and integral part of scholarly practice.

Divisions within the Discipline

The divisions to be found in Byzantine studies are, to a certain extent, the result of it being an umbrella name for many fragmented microcosms. Byzantinists who work in the fields of archaeology, art history, codicology, history, history of science, musicology, philology, and theology, often have more to separate than to bring them together. Yet, it is probably reasonable to accept the term Byzantine studies as a legitimate reflection of common scholarly aims that unite those microcosms and guide their complex and sometimes difficult relationships. As the general tendency is for further specialization, one might predict that in the future people working in any given area will have even less in common with one another. And although further fragmentation can breathe new life into the discipline and indicate fresh approaches, a prerequisite for this would be opening up the channels of dialogue between those microcosms and allowing an exchange of results and philosophies to take place.

Apart from the traditional categorizations in schools or departments, the divisions in the discipline can be broadly put into three categories.

First, there is the very apparent but rarely talked about divide between the analysis of documentary and literary evidence in late medieval studies. This “specialization” has become common practice among late medievalists due to the overwhelming volume of available material. However, it being common practice does not stop this divide being a huge hindrance to historians’ understanding of their subject, one that an early medievalist or a modernist would never accept. This divide can also be described as a divide between the early and the late medievalist. Incidentally, in methodological terms, the “early modernist” hovers happily between “medieval” and “modern” and can play it both ways.

Second, one has to face up to the divide between several spheres of linguistic and cultural influence. This is augmented by a resentment, especially amongst some French and German scholars, over the dominance of Anglo-American scholarship and the English language.

Third, further separation is caused by different objectives. These are sometimes due to individual preference and sometimes due to habit or the way one has been taught. Some examples will be offered here. Case studies or pilot studies tend to be found more in the Anglo-American sphere and are not so popular in Continental scholarship. There is tension between “traditional” history and more theoretical approaches (often described by words ending in –ist). Similarly, there is tension between those who use “argument” or persuasive writing and those who prefer “detail” or the presentation of organized data. Additonally, many Greek scholars adopt a “national history” approach when dealing with Byzantium, one that obviously separates them from their international colleagues. Eastern European scholars, because of the Orthodox heritage, have similar approaches (or claims), with the Russians still calling Moscow a “third Rome” (drawing from the title of “new Rome” or “second Rome” that was given to Constantinople in Byzantine times).

The conclusion from this brief account is that there is no accepted common scholarly language for discussing the common cultural heritage of the late medieval eastern Mediterranean world. Is this good or bad? Scholars will have to give their own answers, which will be reflected in the directions their work takes. An added consideration is of interdisciplinarity as a worthwhile value to project within a team when dealing with this field of study. Interdisciplinary approaches have not always been welcome, as departments and divisions within departments often guard at all costs their traditional take on their discipline. Yet time has clearly shown that, when it comes to the study of Byzantium, the research results of diverse, even fragmented, schools of thought may lead to a much-desired polyphony. The only drawback is that an admission of the subjectivity of historical practice is necessary to appreciate this. Maybe at the dawn of a new decade we will be ready?

What Others Say

How did other scholars respond to the challenges the discipline throws at them? Some examples from very recent scholarship where methodological issues have been handled with assertiveness and grace in equal measure are given below. Their collective successes may help start constructing a mosaic of current attitudes and tendencies that give a glimpse of the future.

  1. Jane Baun points out that medieval apocryphal literature is often neglected by historians, but is rich in information and insights that can improve our understanding of medieval beliefs and society.1 Baun’s justification for this may seem unexpected but is well argued and convincing. She interprets the authors of the apocalyptic texts that she analyzes as moral activists, “who sought to raise consciousness and change behavior” within their communities. She uses the social and environmental activist motto “think globally, act locally” to bring the message home.
  2. Gill Page highlights the linguistic divide (diglossia) of the Byzantine Empire, a phenomenon to which she attaches both class and identity connotations.2 Modern scholarship, like the Byzantine sources themselves, tends to fall equally into distinguishable camps. Page avoids that by dedicating equal attention to the learned historiographical tradition of Byzantium (as represented in the monograph by Niketas Choniates, George Akropolites, George Pachymeres, Nikephoros Gregoras, and John Kantakouzenos) and to the Frankish culture of the Peloponnese, with its extensive use of the Greek High Vernacular. Her discussion of Byzantine identity is a balancing act between these two worlds.
  3. The next example is a much earlier study notable for its thoughtful explanation of its methodologies. Later medievalists have much to learn from its clarity of thought. Its author, V. Henry T. Nguyen, is exemplary in the way he demonstrates his methodology from the outset.3 His discussion of Roman identity in Corinth in relation to the Pauline understanding of Christian identity is informed both by classical and Biblical scholarly practices. He makes a distinction between a “word study” and a “social concept study” to clarify that his work on the word “persona/prosopon” should be regarded as the latter—that he is essentially writing social history. Nguyen also defines a heuristic comparison as one that does not seek to establish literary dependencies. In his analytical work on Paul, Epictetus, and Valerius Maximus he uses an “interpretative lens” in order to show a common theme but without forcing his sources into pre-designed patterns of literary criticism.
  4. Eva Nyström presents herself as a New Philologist and New Historian, an advocate of eclecticism who shows up the cracks in the old ideologies by building bridges between separate fields of knowledge and turning traditional arguments onto their heads.4 She points out how scholars normally follow the fortunes of a single text and neglect to see the codex as an organic whole. She also points out the necessity of contradictions within the historical field by quoting Walt Whitman, in her introduction and in her title: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Conclusion

I myself have tried to implement some of the abovementioned ideas in my own work. This was done by bringing together the strengths and different scholarly traditions of authors from different disciplines and countries in a contributed volume about Byzantine religious thought and practice. The resulting work, Spirituality in Late Byzantium, views the complexities of the Byzantine world from the perspectives of theological, philological, literary, historical, and art historical analysis. 5 Its task is made easier by the fact that the subject matter is restricted to religion alone. It is hoped, however, that it will serve as a pilot study for editors and authors wanting to apply its rationale to works of a wider scope.

Eugenia Russell holds a PhD in Byzantine history from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Notes

1. Jane Baun, Tales from Another Byzantium: Celestial Journey and Local Community in the Medieval Greek Apocrypha (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

2. Gill Page, Being Byzantine: Greek Identity Before the Ottomans, 1200–1420 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

3. V. Henry T. Nguyen, Christian Identity in Corinth: A Comparative Study of 2 Corinthians, Epictetus & Valerius Maximus, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, Series 2 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

4. Eva Nyström, Containing Multitudes: Codex Upsaliensis Graecus 8 in Perspective, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Byzantina Upsaliensia 11 (Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2009).

5. Eugenia Russell (ed.), Spirituality in Late Byzantium: Essays Presenting New Research by International Scholars (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).