Springtime for Byzantium
I just finished a short review of Jonathan Harris’ Constantinople:Capital of Byzantium (2007). Its a nice treatment of the history of Constantinople. It takes as its point of departure the year 1200 and looks back to the City’s founding and ahead to the City’s eventual sack by the Crusaders and then the Turks. Harris’ prose is accessible and lively, and he uses selective footnotes to tie his narrative to the primary sources. The work is rounded about by a good bibliography of largely English language secondary sources and primary sources in translation.
It made me think that over the last decade, or even the last 5 years, there are a number of books that make the teaching of Byzantine History as an upper level undergraduate course far easier. When I sat in on a Byzantine History course 10 years ago at Ohio State (with Tim Gregory), we were still using Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State as a textbook. It’s a fine book to be sure, but with its dense text and emphasis on political and institutional history, it is hardly ideal for a well-balanced undergraduate course filled with “reluctant readers”.
Since I took Byzantine History, Gregory himself has produced A History of Byzantium (2005) which while hardly flawless is accessible for the average undergraduate and includes nice treatments of Byzantine culture and society. Derek Krueger’s edit volume, Byzantine Christianity (2006) while not exactly a textbook provides a good overview of some of the major issues in Byzantine religion for students with only limited background (especially if coupled with something like Robert Taft’s Byzantine Rite: A Short History (1992)).
These books complement the little flurry of good quality books on Byzantine Art from the turn of the century, notable among them are Robin Cormack’s Byzantine Art (2000) and Thomas Mathew’s Byzantine Art: Between Antiquity and the Renaissance (1998). These books provide a basic narrative and analysis of the historical development of Byzantine art and architecture.
Finally, the efforts by Dumbarton Oaks to make some of their survey works (like the Economic History of Byzantium (2002)) and recently translated primary sources like the Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents (2000) and the Holy Women of Byzantium (1996) available online provides an important body of documents and analysis for no cost to the student.
In any event, there no longer seems an easy excuse (i.e. there is no good quality textbooks or the sources are obscure, expensive, or untranslated) to not include Byzantine History in an undergraduate curriculum!