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.
During the long eleventh century, the 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 and have an impact on the textual production.
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.
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).