08 September 2009

'Monuments of Unageing Intellect'


Yesterday was the last of a four-day 20%-off sale at Half Price Books here in OKC, and as it was also my birthday, I happened serendipitously to be in possession of a little money to spend. Thus, I thought it already time for another report of books acquired. I will not list them all, as the sheer number may prove scandalous, and even worse, tedious, but instead I shall concentrate on a particular theme common to several of them: Byzantium. It was an area in which I felt my library could use some thickening, so I basically bought just about anything on the subject that I saw.

1) Henry Maguire, ed., Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204 (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2004). This post should provide an excellent illustration of why I’d be interested specifically in the Byzantine court. As C.S. Lewis notes in his commentary on Charles Williams’s Arthurian poetry, ‘The throne-room of the Emperor of Byzantium . . . typifies the presence of God: an audience with the Emperor, the vision of God’ (Taliessin Through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso, by Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980], p. 291). This book includes such papers as ‘The Emperor in His Church: Imperial Ritual in the Church of St Sophia’, ‘Court Culture and Cult Icons in Middle Byzantine Constantinople’, ‘Imperial Panegyric: Rhetoric and Reality’, ‘Daedalus and the Nightingale: Art and Technology in the Myth of the Byzantine Court’, and ‘The Heavenly Court’. This should be fascinating reading!

2) Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome (London: Phoenix, 1998). Not so much a history as a cultural overview, this is precisely the sort of study of Byzantium I find most interesting. The book is divided into three parts: 1. ‘Aspects of Byzantine Life’, including chapters on ‘People and Languages’, ‘Monasticism’, and ‘Education’; 2. ‘The Conceptual World of Byzantium’, with chapters on ‘The Invisible World of Good and Evil’, ‘The Inhabitants of the Earth’, and ‘The Ideal Life’; and 3. ‘The Legacy’, made up of chapters on ‘Literature’ and ‘Art & Architecture’. Here is an interesting passage from ‘The Invisible World’:

Unlike Milton’s Satan, the Byzantine devil was not a proud rebel; instead, he was rather seedy, as Dostoevsky, too, imagined him. He usually appeared as a Negro of small stature or as a serpent, a black dog, an ape, a crow or a mouse. He could, however, assume other disguises, for example, that of an Arab merchant or of an old woman. He was a coward and a liar and he emitted a bad smell. (p. 163)

3) A.P. Kazhdan and Ann Wharton Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Berkeley, CA: U of California, 1990). Although this one begins with rather boring geo-political history, in chapter 3 it picks up with a study of ‘Popular and Aristocratic Cultural Trends’, even more in chapter 4 with ‘The Pursuit of Knowledge’, and hits another high point in chapter 6, ‘Man in Literature and Art’. Best of all, there is a neat appendix featuring excerpts from primary sources. As a sample, here is a passage from the Syntagma de alimentorum facultatibus of the 11th-c. Jewish doctor, scholar, and grand Chamberlain, Symeon Seth, on butter:

Butter is harmoniously warm and nutritious. It is good for the lungs and the chest and helps to discharge saliva out of them. It is serviceable against the cough produced by cold or dryness. Used in sufficient quantities, butter stimulates [the evacuation of] the stomach. The older it is, the warmer it becomes, and it is more nutritious than any olive oil. It promotes digestion and perspiration, especially in feeble bodies. Therefore it cures swollen glands and tumors when smeared over [them] and alleviates children’s pain during teething. If used excessively, it sometimes causes nausea and loss of appetite. In warmer bellies it is frequently transformed into a light bile. (p. 253)

4) J.N.D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom—Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 1998). I’ve already read this one through, having borrowed my dad’s copy a few years ago, but I thought it worth acquiring for my own shelves. Kelly’s is an extremely helpful scholarly biography (not at all popular level), and an excellent synthesis of the primary sources. Kelly explains clearly and concisely why he chooses the position he does in the various questions that are open to debate, presenting the issues in a way that the non-specialist can understand. He also defends, if I remember correctly, a number of traditional details of St Chrysostom’s life that have been criticised in more recent years. The one thing I remember being truly bothered by—Kelly’s readiness to psychologise, and particularly when it comes to sexual matters—is at least presented with the caveat that what is being offered is a uniquely modern take on the figures in question, and it is further tempered by the fact that he does try to see things from the perspective of the 4th century.

5) John Moorhead, Justinian (London: Longman, 1994). A Saint of the Orthodox Church, this influential Emperor deserves a balanced treatment (unfortunately I do not yet have Fr Gerostergios's study of his life). Too frequently are Procopius’s malicious characterisations of St Justinian simply quoted as unbiased fact. When I saw this book I carefully read the description on the back, and was encouraged in my purchase by this:

In exploring Justinian’s life and times, John Moorhead makes full but judicious use of the wide variety of sources available to historians. Indeed one of the interests of the book is the way the evidence is weighed, probing indirect and unpromising sources for the unexpected light they can throw on the period, while approaching with caution the all too vivid and forthcoming accounts of contemporary writers like Procopius, who had their own reasons for presenting Justinian as they did.

The result is a convincing reassessment of the character and actions of the emperor himself, and the other major figures of the reign—his generals Belisarius and Narses amongst them, and, especially, his formidable wife Theodora, a former actress, whose character and influence have been the subject of much controversy. The book also examines the general question of how the civilization of classical antiquity came to be replaced by a distinctively new one which we now regard as medieval, and seeks to identify those elements that are important in this transition.

Finally, I include one more which, while not solely concerned with Byzantium, does include one substantial chapter devoted to ‘Byzantine Civilization’—

6) Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey, AD 200-1500, 3rd ed., rev. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980). Artz’s is a remarkably comprehensive study, it seems. It is divided into two parts: ‘Part One: The Dominance of the East’, and ‘Part Two: The Dominance of the West’. Part 1 features chapters on ‘The Classical Backgrounds of Mediaeval Christianity’, ‘The Jewish and Early Christian Sources of Mediaeval Faith’, ‘The Patristic Age, 2nd-5th Centuries’, ‘Byzantine Civilization’, ‘Islamic Civilization’, and ‘The Latin West, 5th-10th Centuries’. Part 2 features chapters on ‘Learning’ (chapters 7 and 8), ‘Literature’ (chapters 9 and 10), ‘Art and Music’, and ‘Underlying Attitudes’ (subdivided into ‘The Way of the Mystics’ and ‘The Interests of the Humanists’). It is a big, beautiful book filled with neat stuff! I was pleased to note that the chapter on Byzantium began with these observations:

Gibbon dismissed Byzantine civilization with mordant epigrams . . . . The twentieth century has at last revised this judgment.

For over a thousand years, from the later fourth century to the middle of the fifteenth, the old city of Byzantium, the largest and greatest Christian city, was the center of a brilliant culture. The empire about it was the home of art, literature, learning, manufacture, and commerce when Latin Christendom in the West was sunk in a backward economic localism with a low level of intellectual culture. (p. 95)

4 comments:

Esteban Vázquez said...

My goodness, happy belated birthday, Aaron! And I even spoke to you on the phone.

aaronandbrighid said...

Ah yes, but we were speaking of more important things, like the study of the ancient Greek tongue, weren't we?

Thank you, my friend!

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Happy Birthday and Many Years !
Looks like you got a good haul of books :-)

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Happy Birthday, Aharon!

Consider this an extra birthday present: the knowledge that your Half Price Books has much better books than the Berkeley one!