Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.08.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.08.09

Despoina Ariantzi (ed.), Coming of Age in Byzantium: Adolescence and Society. Millennium studies, 69.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2018.  Pp. x, 320.  ISBN 9783110576467.  €109,95.  

Reviewed by Grace Stafford, Wolfson College, University of Oxford (

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles listed at the end of the review.]

This edited volume arises from a symposium entitled “Coming of Age – Adolescence and Society in Medieval Byzantium,” held in Vienna in February 2014. This event was related to a larger research project based at the University of Vienna: “Coming of Age, Leaving the Nest: Models of Adolescence in Byzantium (6th – 11th centuries).” The contributions in the book cover a wider chronological scope, spanning the fourth to fifteenth centuries. The aim of the project was to recognize and explore adolescence in Byzantine society as a phase of life that was distinct both from childhood and from adulthood and to more accurately define it in various genres of literature. More specifically, there was a focus on the transitional period from adolescence to adulthood. While the project itself was literary in focus, the book is intentionally interdisciplinary, with contributions that incorporate psychology, sociology, anthropology, and art history. The volume comprises thirteen articles in English and German and the entire book is available online as part of De Gruyter’s open access content.

The chapters are not grouped together into thematic sections and they are very diverse in topic and approach. For this reason, I will comment briefly on each contribution individually. The book opens with an introduction by the editor Despoina Ariantzi, who provides a concise and accessible overview of the goals of the book and the individual contributions. Her introduction outlines some of the book’s main themes: the role of law in defining adolescence and adulthood, gender differences, and the importance of hagiography as a genre that frequently deals with issues of youth. She identifies three main motives for an adolescent to leave the family home: pursuing a career, getting married, or entering the religious life. This introduction is excellent for the general reader, but presents two minor frustrations. Firstly, she does not engage with the material evidence other than in the summary of contributions. This is a shame, as two of the articles deal explicitly with artistic sources. Secondly, despite the explicit recognition of gender as an important feature of adolescent experience, her hypothetical young person is often gendered as male.

The introduction is followed by a discussion by Béatrice Caseau of the flexibility of thresholds for adulthood in Byzantine society. She uses legal sources to show that the age of majority (25 years) could be circumvented in certain situations. Caseau focuses on three laws from the fourth century, sixth century, and eighth century, to argue that between the early Roman empire and the eighth century the “threshold for adult behavior and responsible decisions had been lowered by ten years” (p. 22); i.e., from age 25 to age 15. Caseau’s article is concise and direct, and she recognizes the impact of gender and class.

Legal sources are also examined in Günter Prinzing’s lengthy article, which comes with its own catalogue of the cases that he discusses in the article, providing concise information for each one such as its date, region, a brief synopsis of the case and its outcome, and the sources for it. While initially this seems excessive, the article is a mine of useful information presented in an accessible format. Prinzing offers an overview of the cases presented in the catalogue. These are often harrowing reminders of the dangers faced by minors, frequently at the hands of their own family. A recurring figure is the young girl married before the legal age. One poignant case concerned an under-age bride apparently taken into her bridegroom’s house on the condition that intercourse would be delayed until she was of age. This did not happen and she was so badly assaulted that it left her with permanent physical damage. The marriage was dissolved and the father-in-law was ordered to pay back the dowry and premarital gifts (pp. 47-48). Prinzing identifies that most cases concerning adolescents involved marriage and family problems, inheritance, property, or issues concerned with careers and discipline. He also notes the particularly precarious position of orphans, who often appear engaged in legal struggles with step-parents or relatives.

In the next chapter, Alice-Mary Talbot examines the life of young monastics. Evidence from typika and hagiographical texts are used to illustrate the fact that this was an intentionally testing period for a young postulant. Evidence for educational facilities are relatively limited and novices were often expected to undertake a large amount of menial work. Caring for the elderly and performing hard manual labour were important services that young monastics could provide although they also risked abuse at the hands of superiors to whom they owed obedience. Talbot notes that beatings and ridicule were relatively common experiences that could, in some extreme cases, result in death.

Adolescence in late Byzantine society is the subject of the chapter by Tonia Kiousopoulou, in which she notes the greater potential for ‘typical’ adolescent experiences that existed in urban environments in comparison to rural areas. Sadly, this contribution is let down by an apparent lack of editorial assistance, rendering the argument difficult to follow. An opportunity here has been missed for what has the potential to be an interesting exploration of adolescence from the perspective of saints’ lives from this period.

The first of the contributions to incorporate psychology or psychoanalysis, Petra Melichar’s article analyses decisions made by young women from the perspective of developmental psychology. The article begins with the presupposition that “behavioral patterns accompanying each stage of human development remain constant throughout history” (p. 105). Melichar then uses accounts concerning figures such as Mary of Egypt to discuss parent-child conflict, struggles against authority, and the importance of stable family life.

Despoina Ariantzi’s article is concerned with how groups of male adolescents bonded together and formed peer groups, including groups formed through physical activities such as hunting, leisure activities such as drinking and gambling, and finally violent street gangs. While the first two groups were largely only open to elite young men, her analysis of urban gangs highlights an interesting way in which poorer youths could come together, form connections, and have some kind of socio-political agency. As she recognizes, however, even this opportunity was not open to adolescents from poor, rural communities, who may have therefore made the transition to adulthood quicker than more affluent youths and those living in cities.

Visual evidence for adolescence is assessed by both Leslie Brubaker and Cecily Hennessy, who in several cases utilize the same examples to make their arguments (e.g., images of Mary in the Kokkinobaphos manuscripts). Brubaker uses images of saints, aristocrats and imperial figures to argue that although Byzantine artists could certainly distinguish among infants, children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly, most of the time adolescents of both sexes were not important enough as characters to be depicted with differentiated physical characteristics. Only adult men received any significant variety in their appearance, as they were the only social group with the importance to demand such a representation. Hennessy, by contrast, focuses on imagery based on apocryphal sources and identifies “subtle gradations” (p. 202) in the depictions of adolescents in their development from girl to woman or boy to man.

Catia Galatariotou moves in an entirely different direction, providing a survey of the literature from social anthropology that focuses on rites of passage and of psychoanalytical work on child development. Byzantine evidence is incorporated at the end, in which Galatariotou uses examples from twelfth-century novels of violent passions and the desire to hunt to throw light on male adolescence.

The psychological theme is continued by Ulrike Sirsch, who discusses various theories of child development from Freud onwards, culminating in the recent concept of ‘Emerging Adulthood’ developed by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett.

The following contribution, by Thomas Pratsch, tackles adolescents who sought healing through incubation. He begins by discussing the healing of a young woman by Saint Febronia and the story of a young man who sought a treatment from Saint Artemios after he had given himself a hernia trying to win a bet. As the author himself notes, it is difficult to identify cases where the supplicant was definitely an adolescent. As a result, much of the article is a general discussion of the practice of incubation.

The final article in the volume is by Hans-Werner Goetz, who provides an interesting parallel to the Byzantine material by looking at adolescence in texts from the West, dating from the fifth to the twelfth centuries. His conclusions are broadly similar to those that can be drawn from the Byzantine sources: adolescence was a time of flux, when the character of an individual was formed. Adolescents could exhibit bad behavior, but in general required patience and were often forgiven any indiscretions because of their youth.

In general, the volume suffers from a lack of organization. In particular, grouping together the articles that take their inspiration from anthropology and psychology and perhaps prefacing them with a more thorough justification for their inclusion in the volume would have been welcome. While the intention to approach the subject from an interdisciplinary perspective should be applauded, such a wide scope in the end turns out to be too ambitious. Where theories from anthropology and psychology are used alongside Byzantine sources (for example, in Melichar’s chapter), they seem underdeveloped, and when they are explored in more detail (for example, by Galatariotou and Sirsch), they do not feel entirely relevant to the book. Overall, I remain unconvinced that theories developed in the context of modern (and often Western) societies can be universally applied to pre-modern societies. A disappointing issue with the volume is the lack of editorial control. While concerns with Kiousopoulou’s article have already been noted, there is also a spelling error in the title of Sirsch’s article, which is repeated in the Table of Contents (“Erwachsenenalteraus” should read “Erwachsenenalter aus”).

Despite these criticisms, this volume provides an important and accessible discussion of a concept that has remained largely neglected in the social history of the Byzantine world. These articles will no doubt stimulate further research into Byzantine adolescence and form an excellent resource both for those specifically interested in childhood and adolescence as well as in Byzantine society more broadly. The chronological range and variety of evidence considered means there will be contributions of relevance to a very broad spectrum of people. Notably, this volume offers a glimpse into the lives of groups that we rarely see represented in scholarship: gangs of youths roaming the streets, orphans fighting their extended families for control of their inheritance, and young monastics being bullied and beaten by their superiors.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Approaches to Byzantine Adolescence (6th – 11th centuries) – Despoina Ariantzi
Too Young to Be Accountable: Is 15 Years Old a Threshold in Byzantium? – Béatrice Caseau
Adoleszenten in der kirchlichen Rechtsprechung der Byzantiner im Zeitraum 13.-15. Jahrhundert – Günter Prinzing
The Adolescent Monastic in Middle and Late Byzantium – Alice-Mary Talbot
Adolescence in the Late Byzantine Society (14th – 15th centuries) – Tonia Kiousopoulou
Adolescent Behavior in Byzantine Sources? Some Observations on Young Byzantine Women Pursuing their Goals – Petra Melichar
Soziale Identitätsbildung im Jugendalter in Byzanz – Despoina Ariantzi
Images of Byzantine Adolescents – Leslie Brubaker
Representations and Roles of Adolescence with a focus on Apocryphal Imagery – Cecily Hennessy
The Byzantine Adolescent: Real or Imaginary? – Catia Galatariotou
Erwachsenwerden oder Erwachsensein? Ausgewählte Aspekte zu Jugend, „Emerging Adulthood” und jungem Erwachsenenalter aus Sicht der Entwicklungspyschologie (corrected) – Ulrike Sirsch
Jugendliche und Heilung – Thomas Pratsch
Adolescentia in abendländischen Quellen des frühen Mittelalters zwischen Kindheit und Erwachsensein? Ein begriffsgeschichtlicher Zugang – Hans-Werner Goetz
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