Three teams

Storytelling & Narratology

Translation & Rewriting

Book, Writing & Performance Culture

Storytelling & Narratology

In Byzantine Studies, narratological methods have gained some ground over the past decade, often in combination with linguistic and rhetorical analysis. This development is paralleled in postclassical narratology, which has come to integrate in a more distinct manner language and rhetoric, especially in the branch known as rhetorical narrative theory. The narrative is studied primarily as a rhetorical act rather than as an object. These theoretical developments are highly useful for the study of medieval texts, since the latter were produced in a culture whose educational system and social performances were shaped and dominated by the rhetorical tradition. The narratives produced in the Greek language were shaped by two traditions, merging the narrative techniques of Greco-Roman and Christian storytelling and thus displaying a large variety of genres.
While Greek remained the dominant language throughout the Byzantine millennium, it was not the only linguistic expression within the large expanse of the empire.


In this project we focus on Byzantine Greek-speaking and Byzantinizing Arabic/Georgian/Slavic-speaking communities within and without Byzantine borders. We look at the transmission and adaptation of narratives between places, peoples, and languages.

This is an area where narrative theory has not yet been fully developed or even applied, especially not for the medieval context. Recent years have seen an increasing interest in the issue of a diachronization of narratology. In the words of Eva von Contzen, the need is not for “a theory of narrative that is (re)constructed from medieval discussions about how to compose and structure texts, but rather a narrative theory that seeks to explain the forms and functions of medieval practices of narration”. An important part of such practices is the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic features that mark numerous narratives in Byzantium. The development of a narrative theory and method that takes into account those specific features is a crucial part of the present programme.

Our point of departure will be a focus on storyworlds, i.e. “mental models of who did what to and with whom, when, where, why and in what fashion in the world in which recipients relocate […] as they work to comprehend a narrative” (Herman).

Rather than focusing merely on the traditional components of narrative (narrator, character and time), this team will accordingly put more emphasis on spatial, ideological and theological aspects of storytelling.

The team members will together work towards a theoretical and methodological underpinning for the programme as a whole.

The concept of storyworld offers a possible bridge for considering such complicated interactions, framed in polyphonic and heterogeneous manners. However, a clear definition and understanding of what a Byzantine storyworld might entail in a cross-linguistic and cross-cultural context such as the one investigated in the programme is necessary and will be developed by this team.

Translation & Rewriting

Instead of simply focusing on Greek or, more specifically, on Constantinopolitan high-register Greek literature, our programme defines Byzantine literature as a multi-lingual field and explores the interaction, translation, and rewriting practices that flourished during this period between various linguistic realms, four of which stand out: Greek, Arabic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic. This multi-lingual literary world encompassed various locations, but had Constantinople as a recurring centre, and exchanges were not only seen between the mentioned languages, but also within various registers of these languages, as well as between central and provincial locations and versions of the languages. The latter is the case of South-Italian/Sicilian involvement in Constantinopolitan text production and vice versa.
Even the Greek, as a core language and literary tradition, was by no means static. During this period, one can observe at least two, somewhat competing, trends. There is a conscious process of revival, renewed study, and engagement with the classical past and classicizing diction, evident in collections such as the Excerpts of Constantine VII, encyclopedias such as the Suda, or the rewriting (metaphrasis) of saints’ lives in the period. Simultaneously, vernacular Greek gradually emerges as a written language, especially in the field of storytelling and in translations from other languages, in still uncharted fashion.

Arabic culture in many ways influenced Byzantine life and thought, and as a discursive interchange, translation centers in Syria (e.g. the communities of the Black Mountain near Antioch), Palestine (especially the Lavra of Mar Saba near Jerusalem), and Sinai became the dominant players in the Arab Christian communities. After the Muslim conquest of the Middle East in the seventh century, many indigenous Christian populations gradually adopted Arabic as their principal spoken, written, and—in varying degrees—liturgical language. They translated thousands of Christian texts from their ancestral languages (Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Persian) into Arabic.

The long eleventh century saw an unprecedented rise of translation activity—with a special emphasis in storytelling.

Early Georgian literature owed much to translations from Syriac, and at some point also from Arabic, but in our period it is overwhelmingly defined by translations of Greek texts. It was during our period that, first with Mount Athos as centre, then on the Black Mountain near Antioch, that translations grew to unprecedented numbers—again, with an emphasis on storytelling, and not in a unidirectional manner.
Georgians arrived to these places and to Constantinople in many ways as a new intellectual elite extending their network to Mount Athos and Syro-Palestinian monastic communities, and continuously working in bilingual fashion.

The strongest case for a Greek-Georgian writer of importance for the Byzantine storyworld is Euthymios the Athonite (or the Iberian, i.e. the Georgian; ca. 955-1028), who not only produced an impressive bulk of Greek-Georgian translations (mostly of Biblical, patristic and hagiographical works), but also translated the immensely popular Life of Barlaam and Ioasaph as well as parts of the Life of Theodore of Edessa, a centerpiece in our programme, from Georgian into Greek.

The Slavic world was—in comparison to the others—a late arrival to the Christian world, and remained mostly a target-language rather than a source-language as far as translations were concerned. During our period, a substantial corpus of Greek storytelling entered the Slavic tradition with a peculiar emphasis non-canonical Bible books.

But the linguistic background to our programme is not only delineated by clear exchanges between two languages. Most multi-lingual settings actually involved more than two languages, and many more than those mentioned somewhere tie into the process. Georgian, Slavic, and South- Italian monks took up dialogue in monasteries on mount Athos, just as Georgian-, Greek-, Syriac- and Arabic-speaking Christian communities would meet in Edessa, Damascus, or Jerusalem, and their surroundings. All languages were more or less continuously used also in writing in Constantinople.
The study of many stories involve engagement with texts in many languages.


The project team focusing on translation and rewriting will accordingly bridge material from various languages by producing databases on selection of texts, text versions and illuminations.

It will also work on the “Byzantinization” of translations, making an attempt to delineate the linguistic features – such as idioms, sentence structures, Metaphrastic rhetoric, etc. – of a common “Byzantine language” of prose narrative. In the team, language experts in Arabic, Georgian, and Slavonic will work together with experts in computerized linguistics.

Book, Writing, and Performance Cultures

From the viewpoint of materials and production techniques it would be difficult to distinguish the Byzantine book, writing, and performance culture from those of other Mediterranean societies. The “intercultural transmission in the medieval Mediterranean”, which encompasses all aspects of material culture, is particularly pertinent in the case of books, writing practices, and reading habits. The similarities that link Greek, Arabic, Georgian, Slavonic (Glagolitic and Cyrillic) manuscripts, produced and circulating within the politically distinct societies, are such that they suggest a kind of “universal grammar of the codex”.

These analogies, not excluding local peculiarities, derive both from a common substrate, the late Roman and early Byzantine book culture, and also from the fact that the relevant craft practices, patrimony of knowledge, and storyworlds were shared around the Mediterranean and beyond.

The boundaries of Byzantine book and performance culture themselves are difficult to fix. Our picture risks being distorted if we focus—as has usually been the case—on Greek, excluding other languages. After all, as already noted above, large Greek-speaking communities often operated outside the political boundaries of the Byzantine imperial oikoumene, even if they continued to consider themselves a part of it. Take for instance the manuscript production and readerly communities of Melkite populations in Syro-Palestine after the Arabic conquest, monasteries of Saint Catherine on Mt Sinai, Mar Saba in Palestine, the Black Mountain near Antioch, and Italo-Greeks in Sicily and Southern Italy.

As far as Byzantine storytelling is concerned, the creation of the liturgical book called menologion was by far the most important innovation of the long eleventh century, and it is the history of the menologion that will be our first target.

The menologion was a liturgical book containing the full versions of saints’ lives (saintly biographies, martyrdom accounts, stories of translation of relics), read on the feast days of the saints in monastic environment, performed in Constantinopolitan churches, included in pictorial programmes. A completely new version of the stories contained in menologia was produced through their rewriting by Symeon Logothetes or Metaphrastes towards the end of the tenth century. This opened up further for a rise in the menologion’s consumption as well as its exportation through translation into other linguistic traditions. The tradition pre/post-Metaphrastic divide is useful, but oversimplified. The computerized distributional systems which we plan to undertake will make a more nuanced tracing of the development of the menologion possible.

To a large extent, the make-up of the menologion was driven primarily by Constantinopolitan, main-stream concerns and ideologies. As it disseminated geographically, the menologion took up multiple, disparate shapes and forms. Apart from the ones observable in different languages, a distinct yet internal (as far as Greek is concerned) variation is traceable in manuscripts created and circulating in Southern Italy, where Greek-speaking communities flourished during the period in question.

The Southern-Italian traditions of storytelling will be the second target of this research team.

They will allow us to move beyond hagiographical traditions and examine, in comparison, such texts as the Physiologos, the Byzantine Life of Aesop, Byzantine versions of Aesopian Fables, and Greek translations of the Arabic Kalila and Dimnah.