BMCR 2019.07.09

Byzantine Hagiography: Texts, Themes and Projects. Studies in Byzantine History and Civilization, 13

, , , Byzantine Hagiography: Texts, Themes and Projects. Studies in Byzantine History and Civilization, 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2018. 450. ISBN 9782503577715. €95,00.

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

The study of Byzantine hagiography is of necessity interdisciplinary, encompassing as it does a diverse range of scholarly fields, methodologies, and languages. This volume, which contains the proceedings from a conference of 2012 at St Tikhon’s Orthodox University of Moscow, reflects this diversity, with papers touching upon themes including philology, art history, and hymnography. As is common in such volumes, the articles vary in quality, but there are enough of sufficient interest and merit to make this a valuable contribution to the field. The volume contains twenty-four papers (eleven in English, eight in French, four in Italian, and one in German). Rather than covering all of these, I will focus on some themes that reoccur across multiple papers and on some of the strengths of the collection.

The volume contains a brief preface by the editor, but the first essay in the collection, by Bernard Flusin, serves as its de facto introduction. Flusin starts by asking rhetorically ‘y a-t-il une hagiographie byzantine?’ (p. 1). In French, of course, this question is more ambiguous than in English, since ‘hagiographie’ encompasses both the body of source material relating to holy people, and the discipline of the study of these hagiographic texts. Flusin provides a helpful and thoughtful discussion of the development of the discipline from the time of the Bollandists to today. He is not only descriptive but analytical, noting, for instance, that while literary approaches to hagiography are essential and productive, they can sometimes unduly ‘secularise’ the studied texts, treating them as part of Byzantine literature rather than in relation to Byzantine religion. He is positive about new developments in hagiographic studies, including the increase in studies of individual manuscripts and collections of texts. This approach is reflected to good effect elsewhere in the volume: André Binggeli, for instance, examines in detail the renowned tenth-century manuscript Paris Coislin 303, which contains an unparalleled collection of Palestinian hagiography written in Greek, most of which dates from after the Islamic conquests. He reconstructs the transmission of the collection from Jerusalem to Byzantium, and explores the apparent lack of interest in Constantinople in most post-conquest Palestinian hagiography.

My only quibble with Flusin’s excellent introduction is that he perhaps draws too strong a contrast between historical and literary approaches to hagiography (for instance on p. 10). It is undoubtedly true that at their extremes both approaches can ignore the other (generally with detrimental results), but to my mind the best studies tend to be both fundamentally historical and literary in focus. This is demonstrated in several of the articles in this volume, including Vincent Déroche’s fine study of Theodore of Petra and Cyril of Scythopolis’s respective hagiographic treatments of the important Palestinian coenobitic monastic leader Theodosius (Theodore was a monk of Theodosius’s own monastery; Cyril was associated with the ‘New Lavra’ and ‘Great Lavra’ of Theodosius’s more famous contemporary Sabas). Déroche, building on earlier work by Flusin and Festugière on these texts, shows through close reading that Theodore eulogises Theodosius completely, depicting him as an ascetic with miraculous powers and links to famous holy men, and presenting him as the main defender of Chalcedon in Palestine (and thereby downplaying the role of other monastic leaders such as Sabas). Cyril, in contrast, reverses this, praising Theodosius but downplaying his ascetic and miraculous achievements, to show that he (and his coenobitic community) were below the level of the lavriote communities founded by Sabas. Déroche cautiously posits that these texts reflect competing stories and rivalry between the monasteries of Theodosius and Sabas (in the context of their ongoing collaboration and interaction). A literary study of the texts thus leads to a profoundly historical conclusion with significant insights into sixth-century Palestinian monasticism. The benefits of a literary-historical approach are also shown in Sophie Metivier’s article on aristocratic themes in middle Byzantine hagiography. Metivier relates detailed discussion of texts including the Lives of Philaretos, Antony the Younger, and Theoktiste of Lesbos to a broader social context of political disruption caused by the renunciation of Iconoclasm and the rise of the Macedonian imperial dynasty. She shows that hagiographic works from this period seek not only to rehabilitate particular aristocratic families who had been implicated in Iconoclasm but also to justify aristocratic claims to wealth and power and to reconcile these with models of Christian piety. A third example of a literary-historical approach to hagiography is the article by Lev Lukhovitskiy on representations of Iconoclasm in late Byzantine metaphrastic rewritings of earlier Lives of anti-Iconoclast saints. He relates the stylistic and thematic changes made by the metaphrasts to their source material to political debates of the early Palaiologan period.

Several contributors explore the question raised by Flusin about the nature of Byzantine hagiography, probing the boundaries between hagiography and other modes of writing. Xavier Lequeux reflects on the origins and development of the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (including its various editions and supplements). He explores the kinds of texts included in it, suggesting that some can rightfully be considered hagiography despite not having originated in the context of the cult of saints (including some sermons pronounced by church fathers on feast days, which had an exegetical rather than cultic purpose, but which were later used in collections of saints’ Lives and in the liturgy). In contrast, he argues that the BHG includes some texts that are not truly hagiographic, such as Eusebius’s Life of Constantine (which was included in the first edition of the BHG, omitted from the second, but reintroduced in the third). Marina Detoraki, focusing on John Moschus’s Spiritual Meadow, considers the relationship between saints’ Lives and collections of edifying stories, tracing this theme through the History of the Monks in Egypt, the Lausiac History, the Apophthegmata Patrum, and the Spiritual Meadow itself. She concludes that, on the one hand, if we restrict the definition of hagiography to texts intended to promote the cult of saints, then collections of spiritual stories such as those found in John Moschus do not qualify. But she suggests (to my mind convincingly) that we should rather recognise that even individual biographies of holy men do not always have a straightforward cult-promoting function, and that Lives and edifying stories ‘sont deux branches d’une même littérature narrative édifiante’ (p. 178). Her account of the development of these edifying tales from the History of the Monks in Egypt, with its fully monastic focus, through to the Spiritual Meadow, which includes stories about pious lay people, is helpful but lacks historical context; it would perhaps have benefited from engagement with Phil Booth’s argument that Moschus’s inclusion of these non-traditional stories reflects a widespread ideological reorientation in the aftermath of the Persian conquests of the early seventh century and a widening of the scope of hagiography to include not only ascetics but ‘pious Christians of all vocations’.1

Dmitry Afinogenov also explores the boundaries of genre, analysing the integration of ‘historiographical’ material into the hagiographic Lives of Stephen the Younger and Niketas of Medikion and the subsequent reuse of this material by later historians and hagiographers (although I was not entirely convinced that, given the malleability and permeability of ‘hagiography’ as a genre, the stark distinction drawn between historiographical and hagiographical material was persuasive). Albrecht Berger’s article on the writing of tenth-century hagiography does not explicitly consider the nature or boundaries of the genre of hagiography, but does challenge us to rethink assumptions about hagiographic production, and to consider forms of authorship and creation other than writing by a single author. He first analyses the collaborative workshop production of the Lives attributed to Symeon Metaphrastes, before moving on to analyse a contemporary group of interlinked Lives, those of Andrew the Fool, Basil the Younger, Gregentios, and Niphon of Constantia, whose authors drew on many of the same stories and names of peoples and places as each other. Berger argues compellingly that we should see the relationship of these texts in terms of mutual influence rather than dependence of one upon another. He suggests that their authors may have been monks of the same monastery in Constantinople, and raises the possibility (as one among several), that they may have been in a form of competition with each other, seeking to surpass their fellow monks in terms of the length and variety of material covered. A volume of this kind could hardly be expected to solve the question of the nature and definition of hagiography but these contributions and others certainly contribute to our understanding of the blurred boundaries of the genre and its diverse characteristics and circumstances of production.

Flusin’s introductory article also makes the important point that we should adopt a loose definition of ‘Byzantine’ hagiography in terms of both chronology and geography, not assuming that it ends either with the fall of the empire in 1453 or with the boundaries of Greek-speaking areas (pp. 9-10). This is reflected in the scope of the volume: while most papers are focused on medieval Greek texts, the chronological range does extend from late antiquity to the final centuries of the empire (Nike Koutrakou’s paper focuses on fifteenth-century hagiography) and beyond (Serge Frantsouzoff’s article considers an eighteenth-century Arabic manuscript preserved in Romania, exploring the reception of Byzantine hagiography by orthodox Arab Christians and arguing that the manuscript also shows the influence of Islamic language). As well as Frantsouzoff and Binggeli’s articles, which both consider the relationship of Arabic and Greek sources, several articles including those of Sergey Ivanov, Afinogenov, Smilja Marjanović-Dušanić, and Antonio Rigo and Marco Scarpa refer to Slavonic texts. (Other important languages of ‘Byzantine hagiography’, including Syriac and Coptic, are little covered, but a collected volume of papers cannot be expected to achieve comprehensiveness). Although the focus of the volume is predominantly textual, mention must be made of Andrea Babuin’s interesting study of the diptychs of Cuenca and Epirus associated with the governor of Ioannina Thomas Preljubović and his wife Maria Palaiologina. Some of these studies are more successful than others but all display the possibilities inherent for the further expansion of the scope of the study of Byzantine hagiography.

The volume is generally nicely produced, but some of the articles (and the abstracts in English that follow them) would have benefited from more thorough editing. A problem arises from the delay (common of course in volumes of this type) between the original conference, which was held in 2012, and the publication of the volume in 2018. One of the subheadings of the volume is ‘projects’, and several papers indeed touch upon projects that were underway in 2012, including Donatalla Bucca’s presentation of the ‘Codices hymnographici Byzantini antiquiores’ database. It would have been helpful for a footnote to have been included in such articles on the current (2018) status of the project. Some papers have inevitably been superseded: for instance, Alice-Mary Talbot’s article previews an at-the-time forthcoming edition of and commentary on the Life of Basil the Younger, but since this edition was published in 2014 there is little reason for a reader to turn to the paper in this volume rather than to the edition itself (indeed there are several pages of interesting discussion on the hagiographer’s textual persona Andrew in the article which appear almost word for word in the introduction to the edition). 2 The volume includes indices of modern and ancient names, but not of texts/places/keywords. These points notwithstanding, this collection will be of interest to scholars of Byzantine hagiography and related fields.

Authors and titles

1) Bernard Flusin, ‘L’hagiographie byzantine et la recherche: tendances actuelles’.
2) Xavier Lequeux, ‘La Bibliotheca hagiographica graeca : Origine – Développements – Mise à jour’.
3) Donatella Bucca, ‘«Codices hymnographici Byzantini antiquiores» : descrizione del database’.
4) Francesco D’Aiuto, ‘Il «Menologio imperiale». Un secolo dopo l’ editio princeps (1911-1912) de Vasilij V. Latyšev’.
5) Andrea Luzzi, ‘Un canone «giambico» per Basilio di Cesarea e la circoncisione del signore e il suo raffinato acrostico tetrastico fra critica filologico-letteraria e teologia’.
6) Daria Penskaya, ‘Hagiography and Fairytale Paradise and the Land of the Blessed in Byzantium’.
7) Yulia Mantova, ‘Space Representation in the Life of St. Gregentios and the Life of St. Nikon the Metanoite
8) Marina Detoraki, ‘Récits édifiants et hagiographie. À propos du Pré spirituel ’.
9) Sophie Métivier, ‘Peut-on parler d’une hagiographie aristocratique à Byzance? (VIII e -XI e siècle)?’.
10) Denis Kashtanov, Alexander Korolev, Andrey Vinogradov, ‘The Chronology of the Hagiographic Tradition of St Clement of Rome’.
11) Sergey A. Ivanov, ‘The Life of Patriarch John the Faster as a Historical Source’.
12) Vincent Déroche, ‘Les deux Vies de Théodose le cénobiarque’.
13) Katerina Nikolaou, ‘The Depiction of Byzantine Woman in Hagiographical Texts (Eighth-Eleventh Centuries)’.
14) André Binggeli, ‘La réception de l’hagiographie palestinienne à Byzance après les conquêtes arabes’.
15) Serge A. Frantsouzoff, ‘La réception et le développement de l’hagiographie byzantine dans le milieu arabe orthodoxe (d’après un recueil hagiographique arabe de la Bibliothèque de l’Académie Roumaine)’.
16) Albrecht Berger, ‘Serienproduktion oder Autorenwettbewerb? Einige Bemerkungen zu Byzantinischen hagiographischen Texten des zehnten Jahrhunderts’.
17) Alice-Mary Talbot, ‘Some Observations on the Life of St. Basil the Younger’.
18) Dimitry Afinogenov, ‘Integration of Hagiographic Texts into Historical Narrative: The Cases of the Lives of St. Stephen the Younger and Niketas of Medikion’.
19) Lev Lukhovitskiy, ‘Perception of Iconoclasm in Late Byzantine Hagiographical Metaphraseis ’.
20) Nike Koutrakou, ‘The Hagiographers’ Pen. Painting Social Unrest and Civil Strife in Late Byzantium’.
21) Eleonora Kountoura Galaki, ‘Ideological Conflicts in Veiled Language as Seen by the Palaiologan Hagiographers. The Lives of St. Theodosia as a Case Study’.
22) Andrea Babuin, ‘Il dittico di Cuenca e l’Epiro in epoca tardo-medievale’.
23) Smilja Marjanović-Dušanić, ‘Le changement de la fonction des récits anachorétiques: l’hagiographie balkano-slave dans le cadre de la fin du XIII e siècle’.
24) Antonio Rigo, Marco Scapa, ‘The Life of Theodosius of Tărnovo Reconsidered’.


1. P. Booth, Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 2014), chapter 3, esp. pp. 137-46.

2. Compare pp. 320-4 of the volume with D.F. Sullivan, A-M. Talbot, S. McGrath (eds.), The Life of St Basil the Younger (Washington DC, 2014), pp. 15-19.