Monday, August 24, 2015


Floris Bernard, Writing and Reading Byzantine Secular Poetry, 1025-1081. Oxford studies in Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xvi, 376. ISBN 9780198703747. $150.00.

Reviewed by Christian Høgel and Jonas J. H. Christensen, University of Southern Denmark (;

Version at BMCR home site


Rich in close readings and approaching its subject from a variety of angles, this book is in a sense a literary history of Byzantine secular poetry in the eleventh century, or more precisely 1025-1081. The works of three well-known poets—Mauropous, Psellos, and Christopher Mytilenaios (here spelt Mitylenaios)—get most of the attention, but a large selection of other poems, epigrams, and verses receive their share. Bernard starts by addressing the difficulties facing modern readers of Byzantine verse, among which is the very important fact that no one identified himself as a poet per se. Rather, verse writing was seen as a display of rhetoric and as one of the ways an intellectual could express himself. Given this difficulty, Bernard produces some core strategies for his readings. Basically his approach is utilitarian, that is, he makes use of the context and values involved in the writing of a poem. Thus, with Bourdieu, he sensibly "considers poems as socially meaningful acts by which persons aspired to, or defended, certain cultural positions, in turn tied to social and/or material advantages" (p. 9). The attention to the possible use of a poem, for example to display proof of abilities before the emperor, causes Bernard to depart, also very sensibly—this time with Jauss—from the strict distinction between 'purposeful' and 'purposeless' verse.

Chapter 1 takes us first to the horse races at the Hippodrome (through poem 90 of Christopher Mytilenaios) before introducing the reader to the questions of genre and time frame. By way of the little word 'yesterday' in Christopher's poem, we get a start on the whole issue of what a poem is, its place in real life, and what could be poems in eleventh-century Byzantium. The works of our three main poets are placed within the broad spectrum of the many other, often anonymous poems that survive and can be read, though often only in old and inaccessible editions (if edited at all).

If poetry is an elusive term, since neither metre nor literariness will suffice as defining criteria, chapter 2 describes the terms that Byzantine authors used for poems. A first caveat points to the fact that what we have of eleventh-century Byzantine poems may not have been what contemporary readers thought of as central. And if judging only by way of their evaluations, it turns out difficult to say in fact what was poetry at all, since terms designating the genre and its contributors are multiple and shaky. Poems come under general denominations such as hoi logoi (which can mean almost any discursive practice) and are assessed according to the norms of rhetoric. Poiesis and related terms tend to designate Homer or other classical writers, and the literary tracking of authorship and the biographical information contained in Byzantine collections and elsewhere is desperately sloppy. Bernard therefore opts for describing his authors as 'intellectuals' rather than 'poets'. A fair choice, though of course the theme of the book remains the producers of secular poetic texts and their products, based on Bernard's definition of poetry as any text in verse form.

Chapter 3 is the longest in the book. It is a plunge into the world of poetry reading in eleventh-century Byzantium, based on how it reached its audience and how it presented itself to readers and listeners. Under five headings (with their subheadings) we are taken through accounts of the tangible remains, two accounts of readings (to be reconstructed from other poetic texts), the circulation of poetry, the performance of it, and a last section on the real (or pure paper) world of poetry of the age. By far most of the fascinating observations made in these sections are based on close readings of poems and inspections of manuscript layout, scripts, decoration, ascription, and paratexts. This is a work of reconstruction, and as such will only yield a partial picture. Still, we get fine glimpses of Mauropous' poetics (and more on this in the following chapter), and of the very special place that Psellos' didactic poems take in the manuscript transmission of Byzantine poetry. We see manuscripts organized in lines to hold one verse each, while others mark metric structure with majuscule initial letters and punctuated caesuras. Epigrammatic (i.e., inscriptional) modes of poetry, and inscriptional presentations of poetry, are detected in manuscripts and on physical objects; and yet the physical reality to which an epigram alludes may still elude us. Were scrolls and single leaves the common conveyor of poetry in initial phases of circulation? It seems so, even if Bernard again carefully weighs his words against the many pitfalls of joyful fictionalizing. Poetry was read aloud and even, it seems, sung, though the uncertainty concerning the last point mainly goes back to the book's stated aim to analyze only secular poetry, thus excluding liturgical poems. The liturgical canones and stichera of Christopher Mytilenaios were clearly meant to be sung, whereas evidence of singing is harder to find for his less liturgical calendar iambs and hexameters. Psellos' poem 22—a virulent attack on a monk, Iakobos—has the word 'I sing' in its acrostics, but, though perhaps secular in intent, its generic form bears liturgical markers. Bernard's segregation of secular and liturgical becomes strained at times.

In chapter 4 Bernard asks to what extent collections could be more than simple compilations of poems. The question hinges on a very close reading of Mauropous' organisation of his own poems into a collection. Basing himself on interpretations by Lauxtermann and others, Bernard further demonstrates Mauropous' play with personal and poetic time. Since Mauropous, as demonstrated by Bernard, strives to leave the original setting (and therefore also wording) of the poem intact, 'discontinuity' becomes 'a continuous message' (as a subheading informs us). Much more complex is the probably less original ordering of poems by Christopher Mytilenaios, as found in Grottaferrata Z a XXIX from the thirteenth century. Bernard is here cautious, detecting small cycles within a mainly chronological order, sprinkled with poikilia, an important aesthetic term in Bernard's readings.

Chapter 5 unfolds the theme of poetry as a means of social advancement, and together with the following three chapters gives a convincing social setting for the verse-writing intellectuals. Bernard cleverly uses Symeon the New Theologian's Hymn 21 to define what made an elite intellectual. In the hymn, Symeon states who will not receive redemption, starting his list with the usual rally of philosophers and people who read pagan works, but interestingly also including those who lead a theatrical life, speak in a sophisticated manner, and those who receive great titles. Bernard observes how this connection between learning, refinement, show, and social advancement fits exactly the intellectuals in question, a point that in turn forms the content of chapters 5 to 8. Thus this chapter examines the ambitions motivating people to write. Reading and writing were highly sought- after skills in the Byzantine bureaucratic society, and made it possible to make a living from taking part in logoi, that is, by demonstrating one's intellectual skills and education. This career path was an obvious choice for homines novi of unremarkable, but reasonably affluent, background, who carved for themselves a highly competitive meritocratic power base within a court usually dominated by the military families, but in this period ruled by a succession of emperors less well connected to the aristocracy and more open to the influence of the bureaucracy. The increasing influence of the intellectuals led to an even more competitive culture in order to determine who were urbanite elites and who were provincial parvenus. The former were those who mastered the letters, the latter the boorish people who failed to live up to the high standards of Mauropous, Psellos, and Mytilenaios. By defining who was out, our authors also defined their own group, and inside the different factions close networks of friendships were cultivated. These networks stood in direct relationship to the influence of the intellectuals and were maintained primarily through artful letter writing, again demonstrating how intellectual capital could be exchanged for influence.

The school system, or lack of same, is the subject of chapter 6. It appears that education relied on individual masters, usually connected to monastic centres, who were teaching basically the same curriculum. Bernard shows how didactic verse was an important part of the education, and, with Lauxtermann, posits the quality of verse as synoptic, i.e. giving a clear frame for the text, as an important reason for the many didactic works. Further, the masters trained their pupils in writing verse as a preparation for the showpieces that could make and sustain future careers.

In chapter 7 the competitive element, the logikos agon, is analyzed. Life as a master of teaching was, judging by the remaining verse, a constant struggle with competitors, all vying for favors and positions. Several poems describe the contests in military terms, with the master taking the place of a general commanding his students. The satiric verses targeting named individuals with very direct slander are also treated in this chapter. Their seriousness is often hard to gauge, but Bernard gives examples of texts that must have been aimed to damage seriously the reputation and career of their subjects. For example, Psellos' poem 21 includes verses written by the monk Sabbaïtes against Psellos, taunting him for his fickleness in leaving the monastery so soon and, in Bernard's reading, suggesting that he had an adulterous relationship with the empress.

Chapter 8 expands upon the rewards that were to be gained and thus wraps up the previous chapters. The intellectuals used their poetic skills to praise the members of the imperial family in attempts to curry favour for their persons and group. The period after 1025 is contrasted with the description by Psellos of the years under Basil II, during which poetic production appears to have been unconnected with imperial patronage. Poetry could be given by the intellectual or commissioned by the patron in the form of dedicatory epigrams, including epigrams interacting with their physical environment, e.g. a book or a building. Interestingly some of these epigrams undertake the conceit that the patron was speaking in his voice.

The book ends with a concise and well conceived conclusion that both summarizes the many points of the work and shows the way for future scholarship in this rich field of study.

Writing and Reading Byzantine Secular Poetry, 1025-1081 is an important synthesis of previous scholarship on the, until lately, somewhat ignored category of Byzantine verse. It is, however, also an important contribution in itself, promoting several ideas about the writers of verse and their audience. The choice to read Christopher Mytilenaios, John Mauropous, and Michael Psellos together uncovers a wide section of Byzantine learned society, and underscores the importance of these men as an intellectual group promoting their own vision of a meritocratic society during a phase in Byzantine political history uniquely apt to give ear to such claims. The study offers rich descriptions of the collections found in different manuscripts and in-depth analyses of select passages, providing both an overview and a detailed study. Existing scholarship, especially newer, is well presented and integrated into the analyses, while the many original readings are thorough and unearth new details.1 Overall, the book is structured with chapters that can be read either together or on their own, making it a very useful reference tool for further work.


1.   In a single instance, however, we fail to follow the interpretation: on page 178 Bernard explores Christopher's aversion towards boorish people and rightly identifies one such in his first poem. The general meaning of the passage— that people were injured in an otherwise unattested stampede—seems to us to be a lectio difficilior, as it appears that the boor only managed to destroy the melody—not the legs—of the congregation by his obscure, prosaic shout. It is in any event a difficult passage.

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