Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.10.09

Michael Grünbart, Formen der Anrede im byzantinischen Brief vom 6. bis zum 12. Jahrhundert. Wiener byzantinistische Studien, Vol. XXV.   Vienna:  Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2005.  Pp. 403.  ISBN 3-7001-3345-6.  €62.00.  

Reviewed by Franziska E. Shlosser, Concordia University (
Word count: 1948 words

Most people may have occasionally experienced an uneasy feeling when they had to write a letter to somebody whose proper form of address they didn't know. This, however, is not what Grünbart's book is all about. Byzantine letter writers, it seems, were more concerned with striking the right tone, and most of all, establishing the desired relationship between the letter writer and the addressee. Thus, the patriarch would address the ruler of the Bulgarians with "son", indicating the fictitious filial bond that existed between them (53; 125-126).

The author explains in his introduction that he utilized 3762 letters of 100 writers netting 5419 forms of address (34). The results of this investigation are contained in a Catalogue (205-381) which represents a substantial part of the book. According to his own statement, Grünbart's aim in writing this book is to classify and list the forms of addresses used by Byzantine letter writers to analyze them as to formal criteria, and to establish the sources of individual forms. In addition he probes these forms of address for recognizable tendencies. Peculiarities of social groups and characteristics of individual letter writers are filtered out and interpreted.

The sources of these letters by Byzantine writers are mostly to be found in collections. They are usually written in one of the Atticizing dialects, and, although the writers would give them a carefully crafted rhetorical form, they are as a rule real letters. We are told that individual letter writers were conscious that their letters would survive in time and possibly end up in a collection. Autographed letters are known only from the final centuries of the Byzantine Empire, thus the letters on which this book is based are invariably contained in manuscripts of collections.

The work has as its first chapter an extensive bibliography consisting of a list of abbreviations, often cited literature and an alphabetically arranged list of Byzantine letter writers. It has furthermore an inserted page of logograms, also alphabetically arranged. The second chapter explains the present state of research of the subject, the limits of the discourse, and the problems facing this topic. Along with rhetorical texts, so the author, letters are obviously the representative source for the study of forms of addresses. He sees letters as having once connected various social groups, and states that they represent numerically the largest group of forms of addresses extant. Grünbart cautions, however, that the letters we have represent only a fraction of the whole corpus. The author explains that we can observe certain tendencies, recognize rules, but cannot establish absolute certainty. He sees a further complication in that the individual letter writers belonged to different social strata and were part of distinct networks. This makes comparing these writers more difficult. Furthermore, an individual may have inhabited various social spaces during his or her life. Grünbart cites the case of Michael Psellos, who at one time or other had been a bureaucrat, a monk and a teacher. Another prolific letter writer, Theodoros Studites, on the other hand, wrote most of his letters while he was an abbot. What makes analysis even more complicated is that addressees are rarely identified, and their social position is often obscure. According to Grünbart, in such cases one can attempt only a quantitative study.

Chapter three looks at statistical and formal aspects of letters. How often does a specific address appear, and what is the relationship of direct or indirect forms of address? The author's investigation reveals that the ratio between the two is 65 percent to 35. Forms of addresses in Byzantine letters are found to vary in length from a single word to very complex constructions. Those with several parts consist mostly of a formal part and a personal or neutral component. κεφαλή (head), for example, is often combined with the title of the addressee or with φίλος (friend), the latter hinting at a friendly relationship between writer and addressee. Yet contrary to expectation, friends used κεφαλή more often than φίλος. One of the most striking characteristics of the direct form of address is the use of the exclamation (o). The application of this particle is controversial, so it seems, and unclear. The author concludes that the use of the particle by the letter writers doesn't tell us anything about their recipients' status, however, since it was widely applied. The chapter discusses among other things the use of the nominative case for the vocative, and the concern of Byzantine letter writers for rhythmical phrasing of the clausulae. Grünbart lists 149 letters of 24 letter writers which refer to the addressees by their name. These letters belong to the eleventh or twelfth century, and this agrees with the observation that family names appear more frequently from this time on. The chapter ends with a discussion of the rhetorical structure of forms of address. Given that the Byzantine tradition was anchored in classical rhetoric, this trait is easily explained.

In chapter four, Grünbart examines the wealth of forms of address. He attempts to categorize these forms, and establish their origins. For the purpose of his analysis he utilizes three main areas into which the Byzantine letter writer could dip to find his vocabulary: knowledge of classical literature, readings from Holy Scripture and the writer's own Byzantine milieu. The latter is especially influential when it comes to the use of titles or occupational signifiers. Knowledge of classical literature was the hallmark of a Byzantine's education, and thus it is not surprising that examples from mythology or history were woven into Byzantine letters. It was so to speak bon ton. Grünbart does not consider this as empty showing off but as an established tradition that was alive not only with pagan writers but with the church fathers as well. Classical references were occasionally used to pay a compliment to the addressee. A gifted speaker may be referred to as σειρήν (siren) since he was thought to enchant his listeners with his speech. The muses too would play their part when the recipient of a letter was called φιλόμουσε (friend of the muses). The friendly address φιλότης was used regardless of the addressee's status, which Grünbart considers as an indication that friendship had no social borders. The author concludes this chapter saying that the result of his study shows that ancient forms of address survived but they were a small percentage (3 percent). Most of these forms originated in the usage of Plato, but there were also forms of address derived from drama and epic poetry. Grünbart postulates that this is a natural feature of imitation, yet, he suggests, there is also another explanation. Plato was the writer of dialogues, and, since letters were understood to be written conversations per definitionem, he was the ideal model. He concludes that this use of classical forms was compatible with the practice of Christian letter writers, and cites as an example Theodoros Studites, the abbot of the Studite monastery, who uses classical forms of address more often then even Michael Psellos (41 to 14 times). It is impossible, however, to establish a rule as to the usage of these antique forms. These forms were customary between friends, notes Grünbart.

The chapter continues by investigating Christian forms of address, title, occupation and position, of friendship and affection, and of relationships. It also has a discussion of pejorative forms of address. The Byzantine letter writers, so it seems, did not shy away from speaking their mind. The chapter finishes with examples of self-description and exclamations of humility in letters. There we find words like δοῦλος (servant), the abstract form εὐτέλεια (simplicity) and μετριότης (modesty). The last form was used by the Patriarch to the very end of the Empire. Grünbart concludes that as in Late Antiquity self humiliating terms were routinely used by clerics.

Forms of address reflecting position are the subject of chapter five. As expected, this chapter begins with how the Emperor was addressed. In the time span under investigation, Grünbart found 91 letters addressed to 18 emperors and 16 empresses respectively.

The title αὔγουστος was superseded in the seventh century by the use of βασιλεύς, and the earlier imperator with αὐτοκράτωρ. The use of the latter is first found in letters of Photios but is firmly established by the tenth century. Basileus, so Grünbart, is often accompanied by epithets that are known from imperial propaganda. These epithets reveal a preference for words that are combined with θεο- like θεόστεπτος (crowned by God). The emperor is also addressed in some letters with κύριος or δεσπότης.

Addresses used for foreign rulers are extant in a few letters dating to the ninth and tenth centuries. There is, however, a list of such addresses in the works of Konstantinos Porphyrogennetos. Thus the letters can be compared with a contemporary source. Most commonly used are ἀδελφός (brother), τέκνον (child) and υἱός (son). As mentioned above, the fictitious relationship between foreign rulers and the Byzantines gave rise to these forms of address. The rest of this chapter gives examples of forms of addresses in letters to the clergy, and secular addressees. In case of the latter we find that αὐθέντης, δεσπότης and κύριος (lord) are commonly used.

The chapter ends with forms of addresses used for women and among friends. Letters written to women represent roughly five percent of the corpus, and we have no letters written by women before the fourteenth century. Of those earlier letters, forty-four are addressed to nuns and abbesses, thirty-five to the wives of high placed bureaucrats and only twenty-three to female members of the imperial family. Grünbart warns us not to reach hasty conclusions based on so small a sample. As can be expected women are addressed as ἀδελφή (sister), θυγάτηρ (daughter) and μήτηρ (mother). The address γυνή (mistress or lady) is used sparingly in forms of address.

The sixth chapter is a study of the peculiarities of individual Byzantine letter writers. Grünbart found that these peculiarities are mostly of a lexical nature, and he summarizes them in a table at the end of the chapter. He concludes that the forms of address of the writers he investigated are too brief, and don't allow recognition of stylistic preferences. Among the writers, so Grünbart, only Michael Choniates and Theophylaktos of Ochrid favor specific stylistic forms.

Chapter seven comprises the very useful and exhaustive catalogue, arranged alphabetically. It also contains a list of proper names, and an index of occupations, official positions and titles. Grünbart ends his study with a brief conclusion expressing his hope that it will clarify one specific aspect of Byzantine letters, and, one could add, enlighten us about their writers as well. As he says, the importance of forms of address will be with us as long as people communicate with one another. And, so Grünbart, individuals still enjoy it today when addressed in accordance with their expectations. The book concludes with an index which has two components: Persons and things, and Greek concepts.

Michael Grünbart has admirably achieved what he set out to do. The subject matter could have resulted in a jargon-ridden, difficult to follow text but instead it is a pleasure to read. It is informative, especially its excellent catalogue, well written and splendidly produced. The individual subheadings and the chapters are provided with tables and summaries that are helpful; the notes are copious and are placed at the bottom of the page were they are easily accessible. The work is also well edited and free of typographical errors. Years ago, Herbert Hunger deplored the attitude with which modern scholars regarded Byzantine letters.1 It is to be hoped that today's scholars will pay attention, and no longer scoff at Byzantine letters as unimportant or even worse, irrelevant.


1.   Herbert Hunger, Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner Munich: C.H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1978, Vol. 1, p.214.

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