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7-08-2015, 21:15

Introduction

The early medieval societies ofByzantium andwestern Europe that emerged from the late Roman world shared more than a few institutions, traditions and religious experiences. They sometimes rubbed shoulders in ways we overlook. Rome’s clerical elite was so hellenised that the pope who reigned at Charlemagne’s birth spoke Greek as his mother tongue. Under Charlemagne’s grandsons, members of the Byzantine missionary Methodios’ entourage wrote Greek majuscules in the memorial book of a German monastery to record their stay; Methodios was himself a native of Thessaloniki, formerly a Byzantine imperial official in Macedonia and a monk in Bithynia (see above, p. 300). Conversely, Franks served in the Byzantine emperor’s military household and figured at palace banquets.1 Facts like these raise the broader question of how the two main entities of Christendom interacted over the six or seven generations from c. 700 to c. 900. The historical problem is not without snares. ‘Influence’ can be misleading: interaction between cultures rarely has one society passively undergoing the active influence of another. Once something is available, the borrowing civilisation must take the initiative in appropriating it from the other culture. So when, where and how Byzantium and the west came into direct or indirect contact needs clarifying. Moreover, though these early medieval societies evolved away from their late antique roots, those common roots are everywhere discernible, and it is easy to mistake residual for recent borrowing. Indeed, the shared matrix could give rise to structural parallels, that is, similar developments that arose independently in each culture.2 And, even over seven generations, patterns of interaction changed. Byzantium took as well as gave. Around 700, a kind of community of imagination preserved lingering mental links where real ones had lapsed. In England, Bede still synchronised his universal chronicle with contemporary Byzantine regnal years.3 Frankish celebrants, eager to use the authoritative new texts of the mass that had been imported from the Byzantine duchy of Rome, sometimes seem scarcely to have noticed that they were still praying for the Roman emperor.4 Anglo-Saxon missionaries, heirs of the easterners Theodore and Hadrian, who had come to them from Tarsus and Africa via Rome, encouraged obedience to St Peter and a fascination with Italy that fostered face-to-face meetings with Byzantine provincial civilisation. They also copied the Antiochene biblical exegesis transmitted to them by their Byzantine teachers.5 Paradoxically, by 900 actual contacts had increased and the old imaginary links were gone. In Byzantine eyes western Europeans’ Christianity still created the basis for special relations with the empire. Traditional barbarian stereotypes still prevailed at Constantinople: the Franks were brave but stupid fighters, emotional and undisciplined; recent experience confirmed their avid corruptibility.6 If eighth-century Byzantines imagined Rome as a typical Byzantine town and the popes as obedient functionaries reverently storing imperial communiqu´es near the tomb of Peter or routinely transmitting them to western barbarians, ninth-century strains induced an angry emperor to brand the pope and his Latin language as ‘barbarian’.7 ‘Byzantines’, of course, never existed as such: the empire of Constantinople was known to inhabitants and enemies alike as Roman, a usage into which even a hostile Einhard slips.8 Its subjects might simply identify themselves as ‘Christians’.9 Westerners might lump the empire’s inhabitants together under the simplistic linguistic heading Graeci, particularly when they wished to ignore the uncomfortable political implications of eastern imperial continuity. Beneath the uniformity of its Greek public language and tax payments to the emperor in Constantinople, the empire was multi-ethnic: Armenians, Syrians, Slavs, Italians, Istrians all swore allegiance to the Roman emperor, and as cultivated a man as Einhard casually identifies a eunuch with a Slavic name as a ‘Greek’.10 But the ancient empire had changed since the days of Justinian’s reconquests.

 

 

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