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7-08-2015, 20:03

Literature

We do not glean very much about society or life in general in towns and settlements outside the capital from surviving literature, that is, from writings in Greek composed for more than ephemeral purposes.No term in use among the Byzantines corresponds precisely with our ‘literature’ and what they wrote has been termed a ‘distorting mirror’, designed to reflect other than reality.21 Works recounting the deeds and reigns of emperors could amount to extended narratives, purporting to be ‘Histories’ while retaining strong rhetorical traits, for example the Life of Basil (see below, pp. 292, 294). Such works tended to emanate from court circles, whereas chronicles, less polished presentations of events, often from a religious angle, were less committed to an establishment viewpoint, and were much read (see below, pp. 82, 103). The Byzantines’ writings vary greatly in intricacy of style and in the kind of Greek they use, and fashions and preoccupations changed over time. Rhetorical and grand historical works were written in classical – ‘Attic’ – Greek, for reading or declaiming primarily among members of the metropolitan elite. Thanks to private secondary schooling, the handful of senior officeholders, churchmen and scholars were at home with an all but dead language far removed from the everyday Greek spoken in the countryside or even in the capital’s streets.22 Authors writing in these circles presupposed familiarity with the antique world23 but could cross-cut to figures or themes from the Scriptures or to sayings from the church fathers. The collections made of these sayings, like the full-length chronicles, some sermons and many saints’ Lives, tended to be written in plainer Greek,24 more akin to the spoken word. This sprawling, still partly unpublished, body of literary materials is not easy to categorise, and perhaps the most authoritative general history of Byzantine literature remains that of Karl Krumbacher.25 Nonetheless, several histories of branches of Byzantine literature are available, as are histories of particular periods,26 and the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries saw studies on the subject burgeoning. Some are wide-ranging survey projects, or introductions,27 while others examine Byzantine rhetoric, poetry and letter-writing,28 besides more technical issues such as palaeography, epigraphy and the nature and uses of Byzantine books (codices) and libraries.29 Byzantine literature and texts written in Byzantine Greek are more approachable by students, now that the classical Greek–English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott is reinforced by such works as the Lexikon zur byzantinischen Gr¨azit¨at.30 It is becoming clear that poems such as the tale of the border-lord Digenis Akritis (in its surviving versions) are the product of complex interplay between litt´erateurs in the capital and the composers of stories and ballads and reciters of songs at popular level.31 Some acquaintance with letters might be expected at village level, and while the priest was likeliest to be capable of functional literacy, laypersons could have reading skills, or access to social superiors possessing them, for example through confraternities. 32 It was perhaps partly via confraternities or comparable groups that texts in everyday Greek recounting visits to the next world and visions of the wicked receiving punishment circulated. It is quite possible that they were countenanced by churchmen, venting grievances about the workings of church and secular administration, yet counteracting dissidents overtly opposed to the imperial order.33 Such a cellular structure of orthodoxy has to be deduced, and is not directly attested in our sources, yet it probably constitutes an important strand in the fabric of Byzantine society. Such hidden strengths of the empire are what Byzantine literature in its broadest sense can intimate.

 

 

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