During the long eleventh century (c. 950–c. 1100 CE), a host of core narratives that form the substructure of what we know today as Christian Orthodox culture were established in the ‘Byzantine’ world. Some were old stories that were systematically codified or rewritten, others were newly created or imported from other traditions. They concerned saints and commoners, heroes and devils, intellectuals and lunatics, in recognizably social settings or in various landscapes of fantasy. These storyworlds cut across secular and religious lines, involved verbal and pictorial arts, encompassed a variety of communities, from aristocratic settings to the common church-goer and school pupil. Most significantly, these storyworlds occasioned intense translation activity, from and into the languages of Byzantine or Byzantinizing Christians: Greek, Arabic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic.
The aim of the present project is to revive, preserve, and make available this influential, but largely neglected cultural production.
Byzantine Realities, Byzantine Stories
During the long eleventh century, Byzantine empire became the hegemonic demographic, political, economic, and, more importantly, cultural polity in its geostrategic environment—an area stretching from central Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. This impressive feat followed centuries of crisis that was precipitated primarily by the spectacular rise of the Arab/Islamicate world.
The remarkable military re-conquests, subsequent expansion of the economic base, and the rise of elite social groups on which the eleventh-century Byzantine renaissance was based were very fragile. In sharp contrast, the cultural feats of this period were much more enduring, as they continued to flourish, to affect, to impact.
In this period, Byzantium became the matrix for the reception, production, and systematization of cultural practices, beliefs, and subjectivities that were to form the substructure of what we recognize today as Christian Orthodox culture.
Storytelling was at the heart of this revolutionizing Byzantine cultural production. Saints and emperors had for centuries been the main protagonists in stories representing central values for a Christian empire, but even these – with their stock features – received new formats and plots, e.g. by replicating tales of Buddha. A wide experimentation entered the field of hagiography, historiography, and various auto-biographic genres, reinventing but also challenging cherished rhetorical norms. Saints would appear in classicizing language, whereas emperors could become narrators and protagonists of saintly action. Chinese-box like embedded tales, mainly received from languages further east, opened new avenues for complex narrations, while intellectuals would find new ways of disguising or performing their literary persona.
Hagiographical novels would portray e.g. the lone saint, kidnapped by pirates, leading her secluded life on a desert island, or the deranged visitor to the aristocratic home, babbling on about his imperial ambitions.
Old stories were collected, anthologized, re-written, and re-performed in multiple new ways; and new stories were produced that broke earlier imaginative boundaries by engaging more creatively either with the Greco-Roman past or with neighboring emerging literary traditions especially in or through the Islamicate east.
Viewed as a whole, such crossing of boundaries (of all types) defines these new Byzantine storyworlds. For the Byzantine narrative traditions that came about cut across secular and religious lines, involved verbal and pictorial arts, and encompassed a variety of communities, both insiders and outsiders to Byzantine society. An extensive oral, performative side blossomed in the capital and elsewhere, but also ended up in manuscripts and in images and material artifacts of various kinds, still to be seen by us. Diverse tales were voiced in churches and monasteries, performed at court and in aristocratic settings, but also circulated among the common church-goer and school pupil.
Ultimately, these were storyworlds that occasioned intense translation activity, from as well as into the languages of Byzantine or Byzantinizing Christians: mainly Greek, Arabic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic. After all, the process would only truly succeed because of a constant exchange with neighboring societies.
Byzantium and especially its storytelling culture thrived because of its dialogical nature, its merging and welding of disparate and often dissonant traditions.
Our understanding of this influential and multidimensional storyworlds has been plagued by a number of constraints. The various academic fields involved in studying different aspects of the eleventh-century Byzantine narrative universe have been working separately, problematically divided into secular and religious sections, and into each of their linguistic academic field. Byzantine culture has often been viewed as an almost exclusively Constantinopolitan product, with the capital appearing as a self-contained realm. A common understanding of the Byzantine storyworld has accordingly been decisively misguided and fragmented, leaving large areas of interaction virtually unstudied and major works unpublished, and preventing a clear and comprehensive picture from emerging.
It is precisely this fragmentation, neglect, and misunderstanding that we hope to remedy with this multidisciplinary programme. By bringing together a diverse group of researchers and producing studies, presentations, and editions in printed and virtual media we hope to revive, preserve, and present to modern audiences this largely forgotten, but influential cultural production as an entangled unity.
We will combine different methodologies and perspectives (storytelling and modern narratology, the study of translation and rewriting, and the study of medieval book, writing, and performance cultures) as well as focus simultaneously on the four main relevant traditions (in Greek, Arabic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic).
- How were linguistic, geographical, and intellectual differences negotiated and bridged into producing a common Byzantine narrative expression?
- What stories were translated, what left out, and why?
- What determined which stories were “authorized” by their inclusion into liturgical programmes and official readings?
- What are the narratological features that characterize these new Byzantine storyworlds, developed with wider circulation/ exportation in mind?
- What cultural capital was employed in each language to support the new Byzantine orthodoxy that emerged in each linguistic community?
- How did linguistic features deemed crucial to this storyworld affect the languages involved?
- What characters and emotions stand out? What anthropological and behavioral models were put forward?
- What were the norms propagated, but also deviations enabled by these models?
- What long-standing changes in book technology, writing practices, and reading habits, were triggered in this period?
- What networks and institutions took part in the development and exchange of these Byzantine storyworlds?