An appeal to my colleagues in Classics: please don’t skip over this review just because you don’t recognize the name Michael Psellos and assume that he was some Byzantine or medieval author unrelated to your discipline. You’ve made it this far, so give me the chance to persuade you that it is worth your while to at least glance at this new edition, and even read some of the texts in it.
Yes, Michael Psellos was a Byzantine intellectual (of the eleventh century). He was active in politics and wrote texts in almost every genre of the Greek literature of the time, including a hugely entertaining history of his times, the Chronographia, which is acerbic and autobiographical. I strongly recommend that you read it too (the Penguin translation by E. R. A. Sewter, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, will have to do, though the French, Italian, modern Greek, and German translations are all better). After twenty years of hard labor, Stratis Papaioannou has delivered the first critical edition of all of Psellos’ letters, some 550 of them plus assorted dubia, spuria, fragmenta, and other manuscript detritus. Here are two reasons why you should check it out and peruse it, even if you had not heard of Psellos before this.
First, you will be shocked by the sheer challenge that was posed by assembling and editing this collection, specifically by its paleographical enormity and philological complexity. Once you grasp that, you will then be amazed by the meticulous skill and good judgment with which Papaioannou has brought it to completion. This project was probably unlike how you imagine editing a text from medieval Greek manuscripts to be. Usually one tracks down the manuscripts, arranges them in a stemma, and uses the most reliable ones to reconstruct the original, or as close to it as we can get, while making the odd correction here or there. When it comes to reediting a classical text, one typically relies on predecessors that have already done most or all of that work, so a new edition contains only a few minor corrections. Yet Psellos’ letters were likely never assembled in a single, original collection. There was no Ur-text (p. clvi), except for that of each letter. Somehow or other, the letters began to circulate in batches that generated their own separate manuscript traditions, with some partial overlap among them, just to make it harder. In sum, Papaioannou had to reconstruct the corpus from 53 manuscripts, with a couple containing over 200 letters, a few containing 20 or 40, and many containing a handful or just one. All 53 manuscripts are carefully described in the introduction, which is in English, not Latin. The paleographical prowess that Papaioannou brings to this dispersed archive is impressive.
Most of Psellos’ letters had been published before in two large collections and a host of separate articles. The two collections were by K. Sathas in 1876, who used one manuscript; not only did his edition not have a critical apparatus, it introduced more errors into the text than existed in the manuscript; and by E-Kurtz and F. Drexl in 1941, whose edition was better, although not without problems and not easy to find. As it happens, Psellos’ letters are major historical sources and also paradigmatic of the genre of Byzantine epistolography. His letters along with those of the monastic reformer and defender of icons Theodoros Stoudites are the two largest and most important collections from middle Byzantium. It is therefore unfortunate that so many scholars, for so many decades, have had to rely on those inadequate editions. We now have a proper critical edition. It is in two volumes that include 185 pages of introduction and bibliography; 986 pages of Greek text-and-apparatus; and 320 pages of indexes (a concordance of all editions; initia; proper names; noteworthy terms; and a huge index of passages cited in the apparatus). In spot-checks of the Greek, I have seen no typographical errors. The font is beautiful and the text is a joy to read on the page; the publisher is also to be commended for this.
The challenges of this edition went far beyond the paleographical and philological. Specifically, Papaioannou had to decide what counted as a “letter,” or at least a letter that should be included in an edition of Psellos’ letters. Many of his works are couched as letters to specific addressees but are treated by scholars as treatises, lectures, or rhetorical works, and have sometimes been published in collections of his works in those genres (p. xxxv), even if they are sometimes transmitted among his other letters. There can be no hard and fast solutions to these problems (see p. cxlvi), and genres overlapped, after all. Moreover, Papaioannou includes the dubious and spurious letters too, even though many of them are certainly not by Psellos. This required a lot more work but was for the best, because if they had not been included here, where else would they have been properly edited? Finally, four of the letters were written to Psellos, rather than by him.
This was not, then, just a matter of editing the text but of constituting a collection. Papaioannou arranges the letters by recipient, alphabetically by surname or, lacking that, his Christian name; following that are letters arranged by the office of the recipient, again alphabetically, if there is no name; then there comes a long section with letters whose recipients are uncertain, fragments, and excerpts; and finally the dubious letters. The section containing named recipients (64 in all) offers a brief outline of his career, with dates when known. Papaioannou includes as much meta-data about each letter as we have, which makes the collection more accessible and user-friendly to historians. Those who wish to delve deeper into the historical and literary aspects of these letters should consult the volume of papers edited by M. Jeffreys and M. D. Lauxtermann, The Letters of Psellos: Cultural Networks and Historical Realities, Oxford University Press, 2017, which contains brief summaries of each letter by Jeffreys.
The first reason, then, why you should go look at this new edition is to see what kind of Herculean feats are still possible with the skills of ancient Greek philology – because that’s the language that Psellos used – if only you step outside the usual stomping grounds of “The Classics.” By now, most ancient and even late antique Greek authors are well served. But much significant work remains to be done if you are willing to follow the thread of Greek literature for a few centuries more.
The second reason is Psellos himself. I’ll grant you that he often wrote in difficult classical Greek, and he sometimes uses highly abstract language to discuss what he and his correspondent already knew and felt no need to explain to posterity. So it is often difficult to know exactly what is going on or what they are talking about – the usual problem of epistolography. Having said that, Psellos was also a wicked wit who often teased or trolled his correspondents, and he had an unconventional philosophical stance (to put it mildly) that enabled him to say some interesting things. There is the letter where he tells a bishop how he would steal icons from churches because he liked their artistic style – “Why won’t you accept them as a gift? It’s nothing to me to give them away” (382). There’s the letter about the “great ascetic” Elias who, during a boat ride, regaled the other passengers with a detailed knowledge of Constantinople’s prostitutes, their skills and drawbacks – “not that he had first-hand knowledge, of course” (219). Another letter about Elias’ exploits was dictated in Elias’ presence, so, Psellos tells his addressee, don’t be surprised if I’m speaking in enigmatic ways, because he’s straining to hear what I’m saying about him (130). Another is to a friend who complained when Psellos was promoted at the court: “As it happens, I am writing a history in which I mention all the noble men of our time, and I put you first. But now what am I supposed to do? Reverse my position? No way! No matter what you may say!” (177). Yet that friend is not mentioned in the Chronographia.
Psellos was also one of very few thinkers who explicitly rejected the ascetic norms of Byzantine orthodoxy to embrace a position that was more tolerant of the body and its desires. He expounds this theory in some letters, especially to the patriarch Michael Keroularios, whom he depicted as a severe, intolerant, and theologically driven disciplinarian: “I love. You hate” (111, p. 250). A scholiast on one of the letters wrote a long philosophical comment in the margins taking issue with Psellos’ lax position in moral matters (printed by Papaioannou on pp. lxiv-lxv). In some letters, Psellos even referred to his “feminine nature” and being “soft” (51), a provocation against Byzantine gender norms. He knew that his letters would be read by a wider audience than just their recipient, and he liked to raise issues of broader significance.
Classicists, apart from Byzantinists, are the only people who can read Psellos. He drank deeply from the spring of classical learning, filling his letters with allusions and references. After all, he wrote for an audience with precisely their training. Papaioannou’s edition of his letters, a triumph of meticulous and patient philology, is yet another reason why classicists should read him.