Late Byzantine Intellectual History


The final three centuries of the Byzantine Empire, often referred to as the Palaiologan period (after the name of a leading imperial family) saw a remarkable proliferation of intellectual work. Ranging from theology to hagiography, from high philosophy drawing on the Ancient Greek traditions to vernacular Greek romance literature and historiography, this varied intellectual output has not been fully appreciated. However, scholars have marveled at how the late Byzantine intellectual flowering occurred over a long and chaotic period marked by gradual diminishing of political power and territorial control. Indeed, considering that intellectual production had for centuries previous been achieved through lavish imperial and aristocratic patronage, it is truly remarkable that scholars were able to achieve so much with relatively little support.

According to accepted tradition, the rough dating of the later Byzantine Empire is from 1261 (when it was restored following a 57-year Latin occupation) to 1453 (when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans). However, the attested influence of Byzantine thought on the Italian Renaissance extends the post-Byzantine intellectual legacy well into the 16th century. So, for the present collection of authors and texts, we have followed the arbitrary enough cut-off dates of works falling between 1200-1500, a dynamic period which saw tumultuous events- and unique scholarly personalities emerge, bequeathing us with some of the most remarkable examples of all Byzantine thought.

It must be noted that the present catalogue of Late Byzantine intellectual work does not include certain forms that, while they may no doubt constitute ‘monuments of unending intellect’ are nevertheless beyond our scope. These include: iconography, and other painting; sculpture and architecture; calligraphy, handicrafts and jewelry. All of these have necessary crossover value with the Byzantine subjects noted on these pages, and some of them have vertainly attracted more attention due to perceived artistic and financial value since the 20th century. However, in the present collect, our concern is primarily the intellectual heritage that survives in and requires language.

Manuscript hand of the 14th-century Cretan scribe Michael Lulludes, from a British Library copy of the Chronicle of Constantine Manasses, 1312-13, Arundel MS 523, f. 143v

That language is, in most cases, Greek. While the Byzantines considered themselves Romaioi (Romans) and derived from the Eastern Roman Empire, Latin had already gone out of official use by the 6th century, and in any case had never been the vernacular in the Eastern Mediterranean, which was the Byzantine heartland. What is most interesting about the Byzantine orientation to language (and has frequently been pointed out by scholars) is the disparity between the vernacular spoken Greek (deriving from the koini of Hellenistic tmes) and the artificially cultivated ‘high’ Greek based on Antique authors. In their attempts to appear more sophisticated and learned than one another, Byzantine intellectuals often ended up writing in syntactically convoluted manners that were often ‘more ancient than the ancients.’

Linguistically, the Byzantine intellectual heritage can be divided between authors and genres that were primarily vernacular, and others that were primarily more learned, with unique hybrids existing, not to mention a specific and unique influence from the Orthodox Church and its own internal influences. Texts that may survive and be worth mentioning from other languages during the target period (like Georgian, Armenian, Syriac, Arabic, Old Church Slavonic and Romance languages) are relevant but beyond the scope of the present exposition.

Late Byzantine Philosophy

Byzantine philosophers were uniquely positioned, in terms of their cultural and linguistic heritage, to directly interact with the philosophy of Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic world. This direct patrimony made such thinkers much sought-out in foreign countries, particularly during the Italian Renaissance from the 14th century. The sense of Byzantine philosophers having an innate and irreplaceable connection with the Ancient Greek philosophical tradition was not only the opinion of the time; it actually influenced the broader Western intellectual imagination, including poetic traditions and political thinking in subsequent centuries, indirectly influencing the West’s perception of not only Byzantium but the Greeks under Ottoman rule and later the nascent Greek state after the 1821-27 War of Independence. For a detailed overview of Byzantine philosophy through all periods, see this Stanford University article.

The 1204 sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, depicted here in a 15th-century woodcut, was the definitive event marking the beginning of the late period of Byzantine society and heavily influenced intellectual developments.

The most-studied Ancient Greek philosophers by Byzantine thinkers were, unsurprisingly, the most famous ones: Plato, Aristotle, and others from the Neoplatonist tradition. In this respect, Late Byzantine philosophers continued traditions of previous centuries by commenting on these authors and debating the correctness of each others’ interpretations, which occasionally led to vitriolic and fulsome exchanges of invective between rival thinkers.

The proximity of philosophy to theology in the Orthodox Christian empire also did not fail to influence the course of intellectual events; while a strong tradition of secular education was kept, inherited from ancient times, theological disputes (particularly from the 14th century) served to separate philosophers in rival camps. This trend, which coincided with territorial losses to the Ottomans, the development of Renaissance culture in the West and other factors, accelerated the physical relocation of Byzantine philosophers and teachers to Italy and other Western countries. The cumulative effect was to further disseminate Greek learning and manuscripts, which had an important impact on the course of Western philosophy.

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Late Byzantine Theology

Theology was an inescapable issue in the staunchly Orthodox Byzantine Empire at all times, and all authors needed to have an opinion. But after the 1054 schism and resulting hardening of relations with Rome following the 1204 Latin sack of Constantinople, rifts also widened between the Catholic West and Orthodox East. At the same time, increasing pressure from the Turks to the east led to continuous and renewed efforts yo bring into force a church union that would guarantee Western military support to stave off the Turks. While this was an attested state policy from 1261 until the very end of the empire, and while it led to several church-union councils, the elusive union was never really achieved and only led to more divisions that have endured.

Even in Late Byzantium, the 9th-century Patriarch Photios the Great was considered a towering figure both for his theological prowess and contributions to collecting ancient texts while writing many of his own.

The main theological issues (aside from the Pope’s alleged claim to primacy) included the filioque clause (inserted into the Nicene Creed by the Catholic Church), and by which that Church opposed the established doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father singly (and not additionally, ‘from the son,’ as the clause adds). This small but momentous innovation would spark centuries of ecclesiastical conflict, and remains a great unresolved issue between the churches today.

Among the notable additions to theology made by Late Byzantine thinkers, perhaps the most influential in the long-term was the doctrine of hesychasm, a form of contemplative reflection utilizing the Jesus Prayer as practiced by the monks of Mt. Athos in Greece. There, Saint Gregory Palamas gained great fame in the middle of the 14th-century for his spirited defense of the monastic tradition against pro-Latin rationalist critics like Barlaam of Calabria. In the long term, the Hesychast debate would further establish the unique identity of the Orthodox Church and its focus on monasticism, as inherited from the Desert Fathers of ancient Egypt and the Middle East.

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Late Byzantine Literature

While literary writings in the High (Ancient) Greek forms) comprise all of the literary criticism, theoretical works and some of the poetry of post-1204 Byzantium, low (Vernacular Greek) is the medium for almost all of the period’s original literary works. This highly intriguing and innovative movement draw on a mix of of regional dialects, often influenced by cross-pollination with Italian and other Western languages, owes to the increased multi-cultural contact between Byzantium and the West during the Palaiogan period.

The renewed interest in secular literature in Byzantium ultimately derives from 11th-century trends under the Komnenian restoration, when a handful of romance novels hearkening back to the Hellenistic Greek novels were written. Some of these have been published in recent years in English translation. For example, see Four Byzantine Novels (translated by a longtime expert in the field, Elizabeth Jeffreys and published Liverpool University Press in 2012). The book contains the Rhodanthe and Dosikles by Theodore Prodromos, Hysmine and Hysminias by Eumathios Makrembolites, Aristandros and Kallithea by Constantine Manasses, and Drosilla and Charikles by Niketas Eugenianos. The first such novels to be produced in Europe since antiquity, these novels intrigue with their blend of ancient references, allusions and their timeless literary devices.

In the post-1204 perioc, scholars have found evidence of mutual influence between original texts produced in Greek and Western European languages, as the newly popular medium of the secular romance caought the attention of the Western High Middle Ages. However, while Byzantine vernacular literary production continued in the late period, its authors were more often anonymous than high-ranking court officials (as had previously been the case). Such is the story with the 14th-century romances Belthandros and Chrysantza, Kallimachos and Chrysorroi and Livistros and Rodamin. As in the Medieval West, such works were concerned with themes like chivalry, honor, courage, love and harrowing challenges, with unexpected plot twists much like modern novels being a regular occurrence.

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Late Byzantine Historiography

Although not the most famous or long-lived of late Byzantine historiographers, Laonikos Chalkokondyles exemplifies in his work the tension between archaizing tendencies and accommodation to the emerging Ottoman reality of his time.

Byzantine historiographers of the Palaiologan period tended to be, as in previous periods, aristocrats or bureaucrats with high functions in the imperial administration- and, in one notable case, the emperor himself. They tended to be well-educated and looked to ancient exemplars like Herodotus and Thucydides when constructing their narratives. Byzantine historiographers also often tended to begin chronicles by briefly tracing events from the beginning of (Biblical) time until the present, but with the greatest amount of concentration on events of their own time.

Many of these texts are invaluable documents for key events like the sack of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204, and again by the Ottomans in 1453, while offering a host of other insights on the complex multi-ethnic world the Byzantines shared. Although personal, religious and other biases are clear in many accounts, they can be usefully counterbalanced with other sources to provide a more detailed understanding of the tumultuous times of the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance periods.

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