BMCR 2007.01.12

Byzantine Christianity. A People’s History of Christianity, Vol. 3

, Byzantine Christianity. A people's history of Christianity ; v. 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006. xv, 252 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0800634136 $35.00.

This is the third of a seven-volume ‘People’s History of Christianity’. Denis R. Janz, the General Editor, asserts in his foreword that history as a whole neglects the great mass of people, and church history specifically has traditionally concentrated on “theology, dogma, institutions, and ecclesio-political relations” to the exclusion of the ninety-five percent of the people who have made up the Church over the last two thousand years. Derek Krueger, the editor of this volume on Byzantine Christianity (that is, the Greek-speaking Orthodox church — Arabs, Slavs, heretics, and other marginal groups being all but ignored), attempts to redress this imbalance by asking the question, “What did Byzantine Christians do?”. The ten essays included here go some way to answering this question, but they do not therefore constitute the intended lay history of Byzantine Christianity. Such a program requires an answer to the complementary question, “What did Byzantine Christians think?”. What thoughts prompted the laity to do what they did, and what thoughts did those activities instill in them? This question leads us back to a consideration of theology and dogma — even if only at the popular level — and other matters that have been largely eschewed here. This volume, and the others in the series, may have been envisioned as the first step toward a new, inclusive history of Christianity, but a study of thought and action in tandem is necessary even in these preliminary forays in a new direction, and that synthesis is not consistently found here.

Rather than being an overview of Byzantine Christianity from the lay perspective, this volume is a collection of essays, and I intend to address its contents as such. On the whole, however, all of the essays are approachable and readable, having clear introductions and conclusions, and interspersed with illustrations and snippets of primary texts in margin boxes. It would seem that an audience of undergraduates or amateurs was anticipated. So it is surprising that there is very little background material in most of the papers.

Jaclyn Maxwell’s “Lay Piety in the Sermons of John Chrysostom” examines the evidence of the religious practices of the laity in the sermons of John Chrysostom. Maxwell discusses church attendance, prayer, almsgiving, abstinence, and swearing oaths, as well as the lingering paganism of holidays and marriage celebrations. She effectively highlights the tension between the ingrained habits of the congregants and the considered exhortation of their preacher. She presents a laity actively engaged with their faith. But she brings little of the vast body of evidence outside of Chrysostom’s sermons to bear on the customs of the Antiochenes, and she does not show how Chrysostom’s preaching might be distinct from that of other clergymen.

“The Cult of the Martyrs and the Cappadocian Fathers” by Vasiliki Limberis assumes the cult of the martyrs as a nexus between clerical elites, lay elites, and the great mass of the laity. Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa represent both the local secular powers and the episcopal hierarchy of the Church. Limberis shows how they used the calendar of martyr festivals, church construction, and the celebration of funerals and the sacraments to connect themselves and their families to the cult of the martyrs. They were thus able to redirect the popular piety inspired by the martyrs to the entrenchment of the local aristocracy and their own authority as bishops.

Georgia Frank’s “Romanos and the Night Vigil in the Sixth Century” is a work of literary criticism. It is not out of place here because it pays particular attention to reception and the role of the audience, but its primary concern is with the composition of Romanos the Melode’s ‘kontakia’. Frank’s study of these ‘chanted sermons’, especially “On Judas” and “On Peter’s Denial”, underscores that they do indeed invite the engagement of the congregation with the scenes and characters of Biblical stories — and not merely on a rhetorical level, as might be expected, but also on a sensory and bodily level.

“Shrines, Festivals, and the ‘Undistinguished Mob'” by James C. Skedros is something of a dizzying catalogue of the ‘highlights’ of the Byzantine religious calendar and geography. Skedros gathers significant instances of Byzantine people interacting with the shrines of saints, especially healing saints, on their feast days. Despite the paper’s title, it does not really distinguish between the experience of the great mass of the laity and that of the clergy and the aristocracy. There is no discussion of those instances in which the practice of Byzantium imitates that of antiquity. One interesting topic covered quite well is how the healing power of the shrines was conveyed to the outer world by means of ‘eulogiai’: tokens, flasks of water, loaves of bread, or even soil from the shrine itself.

Sharon E. J. Gerstel’s essay, “The Layperson in Church”, takes the reader through the space of the Byzantine church edifice, suggesting that it created a “temporal confusion” in which heaven and earth, living and dead, and eternal and ephemeral were supposed to mingle. The focus sometimes shifts from the neatly factual to the subjectively experiential: “Hands clasped before the body and head slightly bent, one waited, shifting one’s feet on the hard floor.” How would we know? There is some discussion of the liturgy and a few apparently random aspects of Byzantine church life, namely betrothal and marriage, the Blessing of the Waters ceremony, and the practical appeals of churchgoers for good crops and the healing of their livestock.

“Death and Dying in Byzantium” by Nicholas Constas is perhaps the best essay in this collection. It is a lucid introduction to its chosen topic. Constas first follows the body from the deathbed, through preparation, mourning, and funeral, to the grave, carefully noting the Biblical and patristic basis for significant ritual observances. He deals not only with what was done, but why it was done, and he assumes no familiarity with the topic of Byzantine Christianity on the part of his reader. The essay ends with an overview of Byzantine speculation on the afterlife and the resurrection, noting that for the most part it was indeed speculation, rather than doctrine. I would pick this essay out and offer it to any reader without qualification: beginners would learn a great deal, and experts might profitably reflect on the main lines of the picture it creates.

Charles Barber’s “Icons, Prayer, and Vision in the Eleventh Century” focuses narrowly on a manuscript illumination of David before an icon of Christ in the eleventh-century Theodore Psalter, and the theory of vision in the writings of Symeon the New Theologian and Niketas Stethatos. For all its helpful information on the intellectual discourse on icons, this contribution seems to fly in the face of the avowed intentions of the book. The veneration of icons was among the most popular acts of piety in the Byzantine world, and yet we learn practically nothing of the habitual place and role of icons in the house or the church. How did the general run of people approach icons on a daily basis? Despite Barber’s concluding insistence that there were only “fluid boundaries between lay and monastic space”, he deals with material from the sphere of ‘ritual experts’, mystics and intellectuals, leaving us in the dark concerning Janz’s ninety-five percent.

“Objects of Desire and Protection”, Brigitte Pitarakis’ essay, is a piece appropriate to this book, describing as it does some of the most personal evidence of Byzantine devotional practice. Pitarakis describes crosses, amulets, phylacteries with short biblical or liturgical texts, small icons, and ‘enkolpia’ containing relics, all worn about the persons of the faithful. She sees these objects as reflecting “concerns with concrete daily problems with health and salvation”. She notes the early prevalence of images of the ‘Holy Rider’ and military saints for protection, and that the personal cult of relics reached its zenith in the eleventh century.

Peter Hatlie’s “The Religious Lives of Children and Adolescents” once again seems to stray from the intended stress on lay religious life. Hatlie offers some generalities on the role of religion in life before adulthood, but he focuses on the experience of those we might call spiritually precocious, the early years of saints and holy men, or those entering into a religious profession early in life. He notes the difficulties faced by young people when the religious life was chosen for them or when they embarked upon it in youthful enthusiasm. On the whole, however, we are left without much insight into the part played by religion in the lives of the great majority of Byzantine children and young people.

“The Devotional Lives of Women” by Alice Mary Talbot is another exemplary essay. Talbot begins with a survey of the source material, adding the salutary reminder that most of our evidence does not come directly from women, but has been filtered through the perspective of men. Then she discusses the religious life of women under the headings of Bible study and home worship (usually of icons), rituals at birth and death, church attendance (a socially approved appearance outside the home), religious processions, and visiting shrines and going on pilgrimage (the latter over shorter and shorter distances as time went by). She also discusses the charitable acts of women, their views of the afterlife, and their relationship to monasteries. In regard to monasteries, she notes that women were perhaps surprisingly generous in their support of the monasteries of Mount Athos, where they were forbidden to go, and that some women relied on convents to support them in the last years of their lives.

If Krueger could have compelled all of his contributors to fulfill the intentions set out by Janz, this might have been a valuable overview of a neglected subject. As it is, some essays contribute to a history of Byzantine Christianity from the lay perspective, and others are the random and idiosyncratic pieces that gravitate to collections of academic papers. Perhaps the worst result of this is that it is difficult to gauge the audience for whom the book was intended and the readers to whom it might profitably be recommended. The best papers are easily accessible to beginners and would be an ideal introduction to their chosen subjects. These papers, along with the profuse illustrations, marginal excerpts from primary sources, the sparse notes to each essay, and the lists of further readings, would seem to suggest undergraduates and general readers as the intended audience. Other papers, however, assume a degree of background knowledge (Iconoclasm, for instance, is mentioned as pivotal, but is never described or discussed per se), and so specialized as to be of interest to experts for the most part. Altogether, a good deal more overall thought and integration and editorial effort might have been expended on this volume.