Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.45

Stephanos Efthymiadis (ed.), Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography. Volume I: Periods and Places. Ashgate research companions.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2011.  Pp. xix, 440.  ISBN 9780754650331.  $149.95.  

Reviewed by Denis Sullivan, University of Maryland College Park (


In his Introduction Efthymiadis defines the central topic of the volume as "the literature on holy men and women who lived in the Roman East after the age of the martyrs and [which] was written in literary languages other than Latin." The book approaches the topic in four specifically Byzantine chronological periods, fourth-seventh, eighth-tenth, eleventh-twelfth centuries, and late Byzantium (1204-1453). There follow chapters on the "Byzantine Periphery" covering Palestinian, Italo-Greek, Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Coptic, Arabic, and Slavic hagiography, and translations into Greek of Latin hagiographical works. The stated aim of the volume is to provide "a guide which will incite further in-depth study of texts, authors, periods and languages." A second volume, subtitled Genres and Contexts is in preparation.

The editor notes that the genre of hagiography has been stigmatized for its enormous bulk, repetitious stereotypes, religious agendas, and legendary qualities, but asserts that it is time to examine such texts from the perspective of "literary complexity and flexibility." He traces the scholarly study of Byzantine Hagiography from the seventeenth- century Bollandists, whose work continues vibrantly today, to a "blossoming" beginning in the 1960s, particularly through the work of Lennart Rydén, Peter Brown and later that of Alexander Kazhdan. He comments, however, that the treatment of the texts as "literary expressions of writers addressing or envisaging an audience" has yet to catch up to their use as sources of historical information.

In Chapter 1, "The Life of St Antony between Biography and Hagiography," Tomas Hägg argues for approaching this seminal text, despite its Christian focus and sacrifice of historical accuracy to "higher truth," as an innovative continuation of the genre of secular Greek biography. Deftly handling traditional questions of authorship (he accepts Athanasios of Alexandria) and sources, he focuses on the text's organizational strategy, which he posits employs changes of locality to map the saintly hero's "mental progress." He also suggests that Athanasios's main purpose is to be found throughout the main text and identifies it as "how the Church should deal with the emerging monastic movement and how the ascetics themselves ... should ideally behave."

The next four chapters consider lives or more complex dossiers or collections of lives with comments on the careers of their subjects, the authors, the purposes (e.g., to promote a cult, to promote spirituality, to eulogize supporters of a cause like iconoclasm), and issues of sources, style and manuscript tradition, with related bibliography for each.

Chapter 2, "Greek Hagiography in Late Antiquity (Fourth-Seventh Centuries)," by Efthymiadis and V. Déroche, examines the growth of the popular veneration of Christian saints in the period following the end of the Great Persecution and the support provided to it by hagiography, considering specific texts chronologically and by region. Two examples give the flavor of the approach. The anonymous Life of Symeon Stylites the Younger describes the experiences of its subject, beginning at age seven, who lived for more than 64 years (528-592) as a pillar saint west of Antioch. The potential sources of the author's information, simply as an eyewitness or also with monastic documents, are evaluated, the latter being favored, and the terminology of the author's highly negative stance toward the saint's opponents noted. Leontios of Neapolis's life of John the Almsgiver (written 641-642) is analyzed as intended to propagate a local cult, but also "to promote a kind of religious spirituality," while Leontios's portrayal of John as a model of charity resulted in the frequent imitation of the text.

In Chapter 3 Efthymiadis suggests changes in the nature of hagiography ca. 650-1000: a less ‘universal' character (due to the diminished empire), a more sophisticated level of style, and a more polemical character. He also suggests that the extent of interest in hagiography must be judged not simply by the lives of contemporary saints, but also by the encomia of early Christian martyrs, lives of "traditional" saints (e.g., John the Baptist), and recent but not contemporary saints. An excellent example of the polemical tone is found in the dossier of St. Ioannikios (d. 846), an ascetic on Mt. Olympos in Bithynia, known for his prophetic gifts. A first vita, by the monk Peter writing ca. 846, portrays Ioannikios in a strongly "anti-Stoudite (i.e. anti-cenobitic) tone." One may add that Theodore the Stoudite personally criticized Ioannikios for avoiding persecution by the iconoclasts. A second vita by the monk Sabas writing ten years later, draws on the first, but deletes the anti-Stoudite material and overstates the saint's anti-iconoclastic stance.

The tenth century is characterized as the "Intensification of the Centrifugal Tendency" both generally and specifically in hagiography, exemplified in the Synaxarion of the Great Church of Constantinople, a collection of abridged vitae organized according to the liturgical calendar, and similarly the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes, "editor-in-chief" of the compilation, with its reworking of 148 earlier texts. Scholarly opinion has in the past suggested that such abridgements resulted in the loss of "genuine" texts. Efthymiadis observes that recent approaches are less critical, conceding, however, that Symeon's reworkings have "a tendency to offer a more humane rendering of saintly feats."

Another feature of tenth-century hagiography is portrayed as "Constantinopolitan Hagiographical Fiction." The volume editor describes a group of unusually lengthy vitae which defy the centripetal trend and feature apparently "invented" heroes set in historical contexts, particularly the lives of Andrew the Fool for Christ, Basil the Younger, Niphon, and Gregentios. The first two apparently were written to criticize the lax behavior of church and monastic leaders, contain significant apocalyptic elements, and show "obvious resemblances to one another." One may add that the Life of Gregentios has similar affinities.

In Chapter 4, "The Hagiography of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries," Symeon Paschalidis examines the traditional view that these centuries were largely unproductive in hagiography, due specifically to a decline in the number of vitae of contemporary saints. He reasonably concludes that this is true "only by comparison with the periods immediately before and after," and finds the primary cause in a view widespread in the period that "it was no longer possible to become a saint." Among the major collective works the Menologion of Basil II (Vaticanus gr. 1613) is fundamental, a synaxarion for September to February with 430 detailed illuminations. Among the individual lives of contemporary saints Paschalidis provides detailed descriptions of those of Symeon the New Theologian, Athanasios the Athonite, Nikon Metanoeite, and Lazaros of Galesion. Particularly interesting is Michel Psellos's encomium of Symeon Metaphrastes, whose sainthood derived from reworking earlier vitae, as noted above. Psellos describes Symeon's method as literary elaboration for an improved rhetorical work. The chapter continues with discussion of the influence on hagiography of the flowering of rhetoric in the twelfth century, particularly the enrichment of vocabulary drawn from classical works.

In Chapter 5, "Hagiography in Late Byzantium (1204-1453)," Alice-Mary Talbot finds an efflorescence in hagiography with as many as 60 named practitioners of the genre for the period, although modern scholarship is relatively sparse due to the rarity of edited texts, their great lengths, difficulties of linguistic register, and a prevailing view of the Palaiologan period (1261-1453) as one of decline. As many as 30 new saints are eulogized in this final period, arising from persecution under Latin or Muslim domination, the rise of the Hesychast movement, and the need in difficult times for strong leaders providing physical and spiritual aid to their starving and frightened flocks. As many as 125 earlier saints are eulogized in vitae or encomia, for personal (namesake saints), practical (dedications of restored churches following the Latin occupation), and literary (updating of older texts to a more elevated linguistic register) reasons. The major authors include Constantine Akropolites (d. 1324), Nikephoros Gregoras (ca. 1292- 1358), Philotheos of Selymbria (d. 1389), and Philotheos Kokkinos (ca. 1300-1377). Talbot notes that women saints are noticeably absent among the new saints of the period.

In Chapter 6," Palestinian Hagiography (Fourth-Eighth Centuries)," Bernard Flusin examines this linguistically and religiously complex region in three periods, from Constantine the Great to the Council of Chalcedon (451), 451 to the Arab conquest, and from the 630s to 800. In the first period narrative hagiography is linked to the cult of martyrs, the spread of Christianity, and the monastic movement; the second is exemplified in part by the work of Cyril of Skythopolis (born ca. 535), author of seven lives of holy monks, focusing on monastic careers where institutions rather than individual asceticism play an important role, and the third where confrontation with Islam resulted in "texts marked with the spirituality of martyrdom." In Chapter 7 Mario Re considers "Italo-Greek Hagiography" defined by place of birth of the protagonist, from the fifth to thirteenth centuries, a corpus of 40 texts, focusing on whether these texts reflect the particular spiritual values of the Greek-speaking communities of Sicily and Southern Italy. In Chapter 8 Sebastian Brock explores "Syriac Hagiography" from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, including vitae originally written in Syriac and translations into Syriac. He includes among their authors' prime intentions the provision of historical information about a particular saint, creating a panegyric with little historical information but intended for commemoration, and promotion of a local cult or a text for a church dedication (often with legendary material). In Chapter 9 Bernadette Martin-Hisard examines "Georgian Hagiography," using the term linguistically rather than geographically. She sees two primary purposes, to serve liturgical purposes or to assert that Georgia too was "a land of saints." Georgian "Translation Hagiography" included texts rendered from Greek, Syriac, Armenian and Arabic, while the lives of some 20 Georgian saints or groups of saints were originally written in that language.

S. Peter Cowe analyzes "Armenian Hagiography" in Chapter 10, distinguishing 20 vitae of Armenian saints, but over 200 martyrologies, from the fifth to nineteenth centuries. He deals with a number of the vitae in great detail, beginning with the efflorescence of Armenian literature following the invention of the alphabet in the fifth through the sixteenth centuries. Arietta Papaconstantinou examines "Hagiography in Coptic," primarily fourth to eighth centuries, in Chapter 11, noting a major distinction between lives and martyrologies, the former "aimed at edification" or use as monastic foundation documents, the latter as supports for a cult or shrine and texts for liturgical use. In Chapter 11, "Arabic Hagiography," Mark Swanson examines specifically Arab Christian literature, primarily from the eighth-fifteenth centuries, noting that many texts have not been edited and many manuscript collections not catalogued. Numerous texts are translations from Greek, Syriac and Coptic, and served as sources for Georgian and Ethiopic. Melkite neo-martyrs (ninth century) were the subjects of the earliest compositions on new Arab Christian saints.

Ingunn Lunde considers "Slavic Hagiography" in Chapter 11, from the earliest original Slavic lives, those of Cyril and Methodios, most likely by Kliment of Ohrid (ca. 840-916), followed by sections on Rus', Serbian and later Bulgarian through the sixteenth century. The final Chapter by Xavier Lequeux considers "Latin Hagiographical Literature Translated into Greek." The author lists 22 such vitae, categorized by Apostles, Popes, martyrs associated with Rome, and saints associated with other Italian cities, observing that additional texts have not yet been critically edited. Criteria for establishing priority, whether Latin or Greek, are presented, as are the authorial motivations and general socio-political contexts.

This volume covers an exceptionally wide linguistic, geographical, chronological, authorial, and topical range of dense and complex material on innumerable holy men and women. The larger contextual settings of each chapter are generally well done and quite valuable. Inevitably treatment of individual saints is often brief and argumentation frequently highly compressed. The chronological and geographical boundaries of the chapters are occasionally problematic (e.g. is the Metaphrastic Menologion tenth or eleventh century?). Nevertheless, the book is a very useful contribution for research on Byzantine hagiography.

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