BMCR 2009.06.52

The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Oxford Handbooks

, , , The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Oxford Handbooks. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. xxix, 1021. ISBN 9780199252466 $158.00.

Orchideenfach (orchid discipline) is the the German for rare academic disciplines. Undoubtedly (and possibly unfortunately) Byzantine Studies are not part of the scholarly mainstream. It is fairly young for an academic discipline compared to classical philology. This contributes to the fact that students of Byzantine Empire do not have at their disposal all necessary scholarly tools. There are no modern dictionaries of Greek language from the Byzantine period (though works of Erich Trapp and the successors of Emmanuel Kriaras, when finished, will become indispensable tools for all scholars dealing with Byzantium); we still await a grammar of mediaeval Greek (our hopes are running high for the project “Grammar of Medieval Greek” based in Cambridge whose outcome should be a ‘comprehensive description of the Greek language between 1100 and 1700’ 1). However, from the point of view of either students beginning their studies or a simple enthusiast of Byzantium all sorts of introductions and manuals are equally important. Such works were certainly produced before by Otto Mazal, Guyla Moravcsik and Constable Giles and Alexander Kazhdan.2 To a certain extent, these introductory works are complemented by the work edited (in Italian) by Guglielmo Cavallo.3 Still, none of them have a scope comparable to the present volume.

It is a signum temporis and a sign of modern scholarship that one single scholar is unable to produce a work that would cover equally well all subdisciplines of a given specialty. The book under review clearly shows its editors’ awareness of this fact. The editors have brought together over seventy eminent specialists from various areas of Byzantine studies — from archaeology to history to literature. The scholarly perspective is by no means limited to the British one since among the contributors one can find representatives from many European (and non-European) academic centres. The book is clearly aimed at undergraduate students (or enthusiasts) of the Byzantine Empire since it provides readers with basic information and suggests further reading. Undoubtedly, the editors have achieved their purpose and this splendid work will serve future Byzantinists well.

The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies is divided into four parts: “The Discipline”, “The Physical world”, “Institutions and relationships”, and finally “The World around Byzantium”. All four parts are made up of chapters and some chapters are divided into section and sub-sections (though all contributions are called ‘chapters’ by the editors). The divisions are clear and allow cross-references throughout the book. The reader will also find two appendices with lists of Eastern Romans ruler, 324 – 1453 and patriarchs and popes, and an index.

This is not a book that one reads from cover to cover (though there is no obstacle to doing so). Each contribution can be read separately as an entry in the dictionary. The length of the contributions vary from a couple of pages to dozens. All of them are followed by the bibliography and many by suggested further reading (Wolfram Hörandner’s and Athanasios Markopoulos’s contributions are exemplary here). This facilitates the use of the Handbook as a reference book but at the same time some works are listed time and again (number one on the top ten list is Herbert Hunger’s Die Hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner). Paul Lemerle’s Le premier humanisme byzantin is usually listed in French original except for the text of Elizabeth Jeffreys, “Rhetoric” who uses the English translation by A. Moffat and H. Lindsay (Canberra 1986). It would have been useful to have a separate general bibliography encompassing major works on Byzantium but I realize that is one of those things easier said than done.

All authors had a difficult task to perform — to present complex issues as concisely and clearly as possible (which is even more difficult if the contributors are world-class specialists and could easily write a thick book instead of a short article). In my view, they succeeded. The texts gathered in the book are written in a clear style and introduce fairly complex matters in such a way that they can be digested by a beginner. I found texts such as the introductions to Byzantine weights and weighting by Christopher Entwistle or to prosopography by Dion Smythe to be exemplary. All texts in the section ‘Literature’ are written in a very clear, instructive way, and what is perhaps especially important, present studies on Byzantine literature as a modern and important discipline (cf. the contributions of Elizabeth Jeffreys, Margaret Mullett, Alice-Mary Talbot, Wolfram Hörandner etc.) Inevitably, the way of presenting the topic to the reader varies from one author to another, and hence some texts are more academic in style whilst others have a more ‘anecdotal’ approach. Anthony Bryer’s enjoyable text on chronology is, however, not very informative for a person looking for basic definitions and concepts. More useful would be the chapter in Rautman’s book on the daily life in the Byzantine Empire.4

A reviewer can always find things to cavil at; and can always suggest that something is missing, especially when it comes to bibliography. I understand that limited space did not allow extensive bibliographies but I think that Albrecht Berger’s study on Byzantine baths ( Das Bad in der byzantinischen Zeit) has earned its place in the chapter on health, hygiene and healing by Peregrine Horden (Berger’s work is listed, however, in Michael Decker’s chapter on everyday technologies which proves once again that a general bibliography would be helpful). Charlotte Roueché, in the very interesting chapter on entertainment, mentions Walter Puchner’s article “Acting in Byzantine theatre” but there is a newer book of the same author which better summarises modern studies on performances in Byzantium ( The Crusader Kingdom of Cyprus — a Theatre Province of Medieval Europe?). Contrary to what Roueché states, I would argue, pro domo mea, that not all modern works on Byzantine theatre are really based on the studies of Walter Puchner whose contribution is of course invaluable. Nonetheless, I am very glad that Roueché highlights (quite correctly, in my opinion) the idea of performativity of Byzantine culture. It is a pity that, in the same chapter, there is no mention about Anthony Bryer’s article “Byzantine games”. This text, though popular in character, is a very good introduction to tzykanion (polo) mentioned only en passant. These are of course minute changes that does not detract from the general, utterly positive, picture.

The texts in the Handbook cover virtually all areas of Byzantine life and culture. Still, there is at least one more field that should become a part of Byzantine Studies, as it is a part of classics: the study of the reception of Byzantium. This is a sub-discipline that has become fairly popular in the last decades and the number of studies on the reception of Byzantine art and the image of Byzantium in modern literature is growing. It should be embraced by Byzantinists as it was embraced by classical philologists.

The book, including the appendices, has 1021 pages; it is edited almost flawlessly. Even though I tried hard, I found only a handful of typographical errors (e.g. ‘byzantine’ instead of ‘Byzantine’ on p. 794, ‘Literator’ instead of ‘Literatur’ on p. 906).

This book was not intended as an oeuvre to shake the foundations of Byzantine Studies. Nonetheless, it is a magnificent work which will be an invaluable help to all students of Byzantium. In times of crisis, this compliment is worth more than before — the Handbook is worth every penny (or cent) spent on it.



2. O. Mazal, Handbuch der Byzantinistik. Geschichte – Religion – Gesellschaft – Sprache – Kunst, Graz 1989. G. Moravcsik, Einführung in die Byzantologie, Darmstadt 1976. A. Kazhdan, G. Constable, People and Power in Byzantium. An Introduction to Modern Byzantine Studies, Washington 1982.

3. G. Cavallo (ed.), Lo spazio letterario del Medioevo. 3. Le Culture circostanti. Vol. 1. La cultura bizantina, Roma 2004.

4. M. Rautman, Daily life in the Byzantine Empire, Westport-London 2006, 1-8.