Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.03.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.03.06

Youval Rotman, Insanity and Sanctity in Byzantium: The Ambiguity of Religious Experience.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2016.  Pp. 256.  ISBN 9780674057616.  $39.95.  


Reviewed by Aaltje Hidding, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (aaltje.hidding@icloud.com)

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In the 1960s and 1970s, the perspective on insanity in psychological and psychiatric studies shifted from the physical condition of the insane person to insanity as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. In other words, what is considered sane or insane behaviour is culturally specific and can be different, depending on whether we are in ancient Greece, imperial Rome, or today’s world. Moreover, even within the same culture extreme forms of behaviour can be experienced in different ways. Therefore, Youval Rotman proposes to examine the extreme behaviour of holy fools, martyrs, and ascetics in its ancient context, surveying the concept of ‘insanity’ as it was understood in Byzantium (here broadly defined as the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East in the period between the birth of Christianity and the rise of Islam). He argues that these figures, whose behaviour was considered as insane by contemporaries as well as modern scholars, were also seen as saints and that their sanctified insanity served as a means to redefine social and cultural norms.

After a ‘prologue’ in which the theme is introduced, the book is structured in two parts. The first part focuses on the figure of the holy fool and discusses the problem of ambiguity that his sanctified insanity poses. First, the holy fool presents a paradox for modern scholarship. Whereas previous scholars have explained the extreme behaviour of ascetics as cases of anorexia or have treated visions as the result of dementia or migraines, Rotman points out that research on the holy fool forces us to acknowledge the difference between what our modern society considers as normal mental and social behaviour and what was the norm in Byzantium. In other words, in its ancient context this extreme behaviour could be considered as insane, but it could also be perceived as sacred behaviour and therefore receive approval, encouragement, and even admiration. Second, Rotman argues that whereas Byzantine literature presents holy fools from the beginning as pious Christians feigning madness, in real life readers were presented with the ambiguity of insanity, that is, how one could distinguish between an insane person and a saint. Rotman then sets out to examine the social background of the holy fool in Byzantium. He argues that this character is not just functional on a literary level, but could also be a real life experience. In literature, the holy fool acts as the moral conscience of his surroundings, being a model for innocence and forgiveness and acting as a fool in order to avoid vainglory or to enact repentance. In society, according to Rotman, he has the ability to affect the perception of reality, challenging ascetic and monastic norms and religious authorities with the aim to change the social structure or power relations.

The second part takes on a comparative analysis of early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, focusing on martyrs and ascetics and the opposite roles that they played in both religions. Rotman posits that the martyrs in the Acta Alexandrinorum and Jewish Rabbinic texts were not portrayed as figures of abnormal behaviour, since the former memorializes the combat of the Alexandrian elite against Roman rule in Egypt and the latter recalls the Jewish revolt in religious rather than political terms. In contrast, Christian martyrs came to represent the eventual Christian triumph over Graeco-Roman religion. Concerning ascetics, he argues that Jewish communities looked for protection, and rabbis were able to give this protection by their ability to influence nature, such as to call upon rain in time of drought. In contrast, the miracles that Christian ascetics performed were explained within a moral framework. Rotman explains that the abnormal behaviour of Christian martyrs as well as ascetics served to create a Christian society, and that it was a means to define and implement a new set of norms and values in a Christian world.

In the epilogue, Rotman turns to a theme that is constantly present throughout studies on social and religious change, namely, individual versus collective experience. Using group psychology, he explains how the ambiguity of individual behaviour is interpreted by and affects the group. In the course of these reflections he returns to observations made in the introduction.

Rotman’s approach of combining religious studies, history, and psychology is admirable, though the author does not make full use of these approaches in order to explore new questions about holy fools, martyrs, or ascetics. It also often remains unclear in how far he advances the field and whether he goes beyond previous studies, for instance those of Sergey Ivanov (Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond [New York, 20062]), and Derek Krueger ( Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius’s Life and the Late Antique City [Berkeley, 1996]). Moreover, some complex and disputed matters of historical interpretation are treated as if simple, such as that Christianity became a tolerated religion with the so-called ‘Edict of Milan’ (p. 150); arguably it had been so since 311, and in some areas since earlier still. Finally, the structure of the book could have been improved by providing the reader with a methodological framework at the beginning instead of giving, for instance, a definition of insanity only at p. 82. This would have created space for a more in-depth discussion of the Byzantine source material, as interesting sources are now often tucked away in footnotes without further analysis (as on p. 46, n. 82).

All in all, the book starts off with promising and challenging ideas, but the precise payoff of its approach is unfortunately left rather vague.

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