Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Peter Van Deun, Caroline Macé (ed.), Encyclopedic Trends in Byzantium? Proceedings of the International Conference held in Leuven, 6-8 May 2009. Orientalia Lovaniensia analecta, 212. Leuven: Peeters, 2011. Pp. 446. ISBN 9789042925571. € 80.00.

Reviewed by Przemyslaw Marciniak, Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study/University of Silesia (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of contents

Anachronism is perhaps one of the most common traps awaiting modern researchers—very often we are tempted to project modern ideas and terms onto the various phenomena of the past. Can we (or more precisely, can I) use terms such as 'performance' or 'performative' when speaking about Byzantium? Or can we apply modern literary theory to Byzantine texts? This volume, which I had the great pleasure to review, addresses and revisits one of the most interesting problems of Byzantine literary culture – the so-called encyclopedism. As one of the authors, Paul Magdalino, observes: "Several contributions question the very existence of encyclopedism in Byzantium, echoing and including the scholar who has argued for the complete abolition of the term and the adoption of an alternative: the notion of cultura della syllogé, or culture du recueil, which is perhaps rendered in English as 'the florilegic habit'" (p. 143). Magdalino refers to the famous article by Paolo Odorico, "La Cultura della ΣΥΛΛΟΓΗ " in which the very notion of Byzantine encyclopedias end encyclopedism was challenged.1 In a way, this entire collection can be seen as a dialogue with Odorico's paper.

A review of this book was recently published by Anthony Kaldellis in The Medieval Review (12.10.30). I will thus refrain from discussing individual papers (with the exception of the three more general ones) and will try to look at the book from a more general point of view instead.

As the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium reads: "[encyclopedism is] a conventional term introduced by Lemerle to replace the less precise 'Macedonian Renaissance' as a characterization of Byzantine culture of the 9th C. through the beginning of the 11th C. The main feature of this period was the 'organization' of an administrative and cultural structure; for this purpose various manuals were produced."2 In fact, as the editors correctly point out in the introduction, the term itself was coined by Alphonse Daine in 1953.3 However, this term seems to be as imprecise as the "Macedonian Renaissance". It is, perhaps, quite easy (or maybe easier) to see the Suda as an encyclopedia (though not all contributors would label it as such) but is this term equally justified when it comes to anthologies, excerpts, panoplia, florilegia, gnomologia and others? Or perhaps we tend to use it whenever we deal with any work made up of passages from (earlier) texts?

The volume consists of 22 contributions (23 if we add the Introduction which by itself is a useful guide to the Byzantine terminology of various textual collections) organized in a chronological order of five sections (the Concept of Encyclopedism, Late Antiquity, 9th-10th Centuries, 11th-12th Centuries, 13th-14th Centuries).

Though the somewhat traditional chronological division is justifiable, the volume might have benefited from a different organization of the papers. There are clearly two types of papers in the book: first, those which deal with the issue of Byzantine encyclopedism from what I would call a macro-perspective (Paul Schreiner, Paolo Odorico and Paul Magdalino's contributions). All three papers are very good and give a more general view of the main theme of the book. Schreiner surveys the definitions of encyclopedias and the use of this term by Byzantinists, and also discusses "der enzyklopädische Gelehrte" (Photios, Michael Psellos, Theodoros Metochites, Nikephoros Gregoras, pp. 19-21). Odorico offers remarks on various collections of texts in order to show how and for what purposes the material was gathered and often rearranged. Paul Magdalino gives a new interpretation of the ninth century compilations: "the encyclopedism of the tenth century was an extension of the concern for orthodoxy that dominated much of Byzantine intellectual and cultural life in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries. It was an effort to continue the Triumph of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm, to appropriate this triumph for the emperor, and to apply it to all areas of public life" (p. 147). I find Odorico's paper especially fascinating since it will, I think, stimulate further discussion on the nature of Byzantine centos. Although he mentions cento only in passing in his text (p. 101), the process of "déstructuration/restructuration" that Odorico identifies and describes, using the Chronicle of George the Monk as an example, can be well applied to the process of composing a centonic work (Odorico himself writes that even if the object - - the chronicle -- is different from gnomologia, homilies and centos, the intellectual patterns they follow is pretty much the same).

The second, much larger, group of papers in the volume treats "Byzantine encyclopedism" from a micro-perspective, that is, in most cases, from the point of view of a single author or text. They analyse particular genres such as letters (Michael Grünbart), dogmatic florilegia and epigrammatic collections (Alexander Alexakis and Francesca Maltomini, respectively), or single authors (e.g., Elizabeth Jeffrey's article on the monk Iakovos and Alessandra Bucossi's on the Sacred Arsenal by Andronikos Komateros). The overall quality of the articles is high but this comes as no surprise since they are written by specialists in their respective fields. My main reservation about this collection is that some of the texts would sit better in a different volume. A contribution from Tomás Fernández, which includes the edition of a Pseudo-Chrysostomic fragment on weeping, is an interesting paper indeed. However, it would be much better suited for a volume on, say, tears and laughter in Byzantium. I have the impression that some of the authors tried to squeeze the concept of encyclopedia where it does not belong or perhaps does not have to belong, e.g., Tinnefeld's contribution on the intellectual polemic of Gregoras where the only excuse seems to be the encyclopedic learning of Gregoras (p. 345). But still these papers are interesting by themselves and do not need to be, if you'll allow me the poetic license, 'encyclopedized.'

I am of course aware that this is something no editor can completely escape but in this particular case the inclusion of such papers unfortunately contributes to a further blurring of the problem that the volume tackles.

Did this volume answer the question as to whether there were encyclopedic trends in Byzantium? No, but I was not looking for a decisive answer since, as the editors themselves point out, "When we organized this international congress in Leuven, entitled 'Encyclopedic Trends in Byzantium,' we were conscious that we would raise more questions than answers" (p. xiii). I may say, however, that I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to anybody who is interested in encyclopedic trends in Byzantium.


1.   Odorico, P. "La cultura della ΣΥΛΛΟΓΗ: 1) Il cosidedetto enciclopedismo bizantino. 2) Le tavole del sapere di Giovanni Damasceno." Byzantinische Zeitschrift 83, no. 1 (1990): 1-21.
2.   The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. Alexander Kazhdan (New York – Oxford: Oxford University Press 1991), pp. 696-697.
3.   L'encyclopédisme de Constantin Porphyrogénète, in: Lettres d'Humanité 12 (1953), pp. 64-81.

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