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The Rebranding of Byzantium

Kostis Kourelis posted a valuable defense of the study of Byzantine Art entitled Byzantium N O W on his Buildings, Objects, Situations blog.  It complements earlier critiques (Embodied Bodies in the Coffin of Medieval Art History) of the direction of the study of Byzantine Archaeology, Architecture and Art.  He again bemoans the decline in Byzantine Studies in the American Academy.  His professional plaint clashes perceptibly with Tim Gregory’s optimism for the contribution of the discipline to persistent problems in the field (see his An Archaeological Perspective on the History of Byzantine Greece), and reminds us that the decline of Byzantine Studies is not because of intellectual impasses within the field.  The decline of Byzantine Studies’ fortunes also stands out against the growing visibility of Byzantium across various aspects of popular culture and in expanded offering available for undergraduate courses (see, for example, More Springtime for Byzantium and Springtime for Byzantium).

Thus, Byzantine Studies seems to be at a crossroads where the increase in cultural capital and scholarly resources is braced by a decrease in the positions available for Byzantinists within the Academy.  I’d argue that this contrast is in some ways reflects of the particular academic history of the study of Byzantium in the US.  The growth of Byzantine Studies in the US over the course of the 20th century was largely the product of political events in Europe — from World War II to the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe — which drove a concentrated and prestigious body of European Byzantinists to the US.  Over time they found a happy home in the American Academy at a time when the American culture (not to mention the US government) had distinctly political interest in encouraging research on the cultures located on the other side of the “Iron Curtain”, and as Kostis, has pointed out elsewhere, at a time when there was a   growing appreciation of the Byzantine ascetic all along the ragged edge of the Modernist movement.  The fortuitous coincidence of Modernist interests, the Cold War, and a body of mature, rigorous, and productive immigrant scholars created an American presence in Byzantine Studies that continued through the final decades of the 20th century as the intellectual heirs and students produced by these movement continued their academic appointments.  In fact, one could go a step further and imagine the recent flourish of Byzantium in the popular eye as the high-tide of a wave of influence generated by a very peculiar moment in academic history.  The declining positions available to Byzantinists within the academy marks the return to a kind of academic and professional equilibrium. 

But does this simplistic (and admittedly arbitrary) view of Byzantine Studies accurately describe the status of Byzantine studies as a discourse within the American Academy?  I’d argue that appearance of Byzantine Studies’ decline has been exaggerated by a significant “rebranding” of the field in the last four decades.  The emergence of the study of Late Antiquity has made significant inroads into both the chronological span of Byzantium, but also appropriated many of the crucial elements of its discourse. 

A century ago it was reasonable and common to understand Byzantium as the vast period spanning from the conversion of Constantine in the early 4th century to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.  By the mid 1960s and the publication of A.H.M. Jones monumental Later Roman Empire 248-604, a significant chronological chunk of Byzantium was cut away and appropriated for the new interest in the study of the Late Roman Period.  Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity A.D. 150-750 pushed this even further by conjuring up a Late Antiquity that persisted into the 8th century in some places. This trend has continued in a flurry of scholarship in the last three decades.  Garth Fowden’s 1993 work, Empire to Commonwealth: the Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity, located the roots of even the venerable Byzantine Commonwealth (tellingly dated 500-1453) in a quintessentially Late Antique discourse, the rise of monotheism.  Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages claims for its dates 400-800 and Michael McCormick’s influential book, Origins of the European economy: communications and commerce, A.D. 300-900, embraces an even more extensive period finding it productive to study a period from before the reign of Constantine until after the end of Iconoclasm.  The growing autonomy of the period from 4th century until the 9th or 10th century appropriated the entire Early Byzantine period (312-843?) and encroached menacingly into “Middle Byzantine” (i.e. 843-1204) heartland of Byzantine Studies. The intellectual categories of the Late Roman, Late Antiquity, and the Early Middle Ages owe far more to Western conceptions of the decline of “antiquity” and the “Middle Ages” than to the chronological divisions most commonly understood among Byzantinists.  Thus within the academy certain aspects of the Byzantine narrative have been effectively hijacked by a group of intellectually impressive scholars whose understanding of the history of the Mediterranean is rooted in fundamentally different discursive propositions and assumptions. 

At the same time, the study of Late Antiquity has proven to be particularly capable of absorbing certain key themes in Byzantine studies.  For example, one of the fathers of the discourse of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown makes clear in his important 1973 article, “A Dark-Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy” (EHR 88 (1973), 1-34) that the veneration of icons is not only best understood within a Late Antique context, but, in fact, so is iconoclasm.  Thus, one of the central events in the narrative of Byzantine history is recontextualized or re-branded (as we’d say today) as part of the great tapestry of Late Antiquity that Brown and his students would go on to construct.  Recent work on the rise of icons has continued to emphasis its origins earlier in both Neoplatonic ways of thinking and the distinct elements of Late Antique religiosity.  Brown’s influence on another major element of the Byzantine discourse, the Byzantine Saint and hagiography, is almost too well-known to elaborate here.  His “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” was tellingly published in the Journal of Roman Studies (61 (1971), 80-101), and contributed another key component to the raising cult of Late Antiquity. 

Outside the immediate penumbra of Peter Brown’s work, emphasis on economic and settlement history, long mainstays of the Byzantine discourse, have become increasingly prominent features in the study of Late Antiquity.  For every new city in the Byzantine period, like Monemvasia, there are cities for which there is increasing evidence for continuity spanning the former discursive rupture between the Ancient and Byzantine World (e.g. Guy Sander’s recent work on Corinth which hadn’t yet
exert its full significance in his synthetic summary of the Corinthian economy in the Economic History of Byzantium.)  Recent research on the Late Antique countryside has sought to recontextualize some of the most prominent changes associated with the rise of a Byzantine economy (rise of a rural elite, emergence of villages as key sites of production, et c.) as at least strongly flavored by phenomena best understood as Late Antique.  While the jury remains out on many of these matters, the great synthetic works of McCormick and Wickham cited earlier in this post, have gone far to mark out new discursive parameters for the discussion of what a past generation of scholars might have considered fundamentally a topic for Byzantine historiography.

The exact reasons for the rise of Late Antiquity and its absorption of significant strands of the Byzantine discourse, particularly in the Anglophone world, where Byzantium’s roots were far shallower, are surely complex.  Perhaps Late Antiquity was a way to ground the study of later period in the thriving, safe, and familiar world of Classical Studies (i.e. the “Antiquity” in Late Antiquity) rather than the unfamiliar, mystical, and Oriental confines of Byzantium.  Whatever the reason, some of the consequences are clear.  Byzantine Studies became increasingly relegated to a smaller and smaller discursive and chronological range.  What once majestically spanned 1100 years of European history now occupies a period of sometimes less than half that (from 1000-1453?).  Its religious, economic, and even literary significance has become transformed as a post-script to the imposing and healthy edifice of Late Antiquity with its Janus faced comportment that seeks in equal parts sound roots in the safe confines of antiquity and validation in their Byzantine consequences. 

Categories: Byzantium, Late Antiquity
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