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Prologue: the two worlds of Christendom

[From, Byzantine East & Latin West: Two Worlds in Middle Ages and Renaissance, Harper Torch books, New York 1966]


What may we say in conclusion about the impact of Byzantine culture on the West? How is its influence to be assessed? It must be pointed out, first, that such important facets of Western culture as parliaments, Gothic architecture, and Scholasticism, above all the basic institutions of feudalism, manorialism, and chivalry were essentially Germano-Latin in origin; they're being little or no Byzantine influence whatever. Indeed in connection with feudalism, chivalry, and Scholasticism certain influences seem rather to have flowed from West to East. But though not a few examples may be cited of Medieval Greek acculturation to individual western practices, especially among the Byzantine upper classes, the Byzantine influence on the West seems to have been far stronger than the reverse. This was partly because at least up to the twelfth or early thirteenth century western civilization in almost all aspects was markedly inferior to the eastern (in classical Greek learning of course few westerners could equal the Greeks until the High Renaissance), and also because owing to its developing antipathy to the West, the East in general -the lower classes, monks and lesser clergy in particular- strongly resisted the adoption of Latin customs.

Though it must be clear from our investigation that there was a more or less continuing influence of Byzantium on western culture from the fourth all the Way to at least the end of the fifteenth century, it is no less manifest that the degree of influence varied greatly from field to field, depending not only on the pattern of contacts but on the attitudes and receptivity of the various western areas. Italy for example was more deeply influenced than more distant, rather conservative France and immeasurably more than England. Nor is it easy to ascertain how deeply the Byzantine influences we have discussed penetrated the various classes of the western social structure, though it would seem that because of greater contacts with the East and a generally more flexible attitude the upper classes and merchants were most affected. It should not be overlooked also that our judgements as to the degree of influence must of necessity be tempered by the scarcity of the evidence remaining as well as by the status of scholarly research at the moment. It is easier to show, on the basis of the extant artistic monuments, what the eastern influence may have been in art than, say, in the development of the guild system, where we are reduced to hypothesis or deduction. Similarly we should consider, Ι think (as is usually not done), the evidence of such phenomena as vocabulary borrowings -borrowings which in most cases would not have taken place unless there were at least some degree of cultural transfer involved. On the other hand, the mere presence in the West of a great many Byzantine luxury items should not mislead us into assigning the same importance to these as cultural agents as we would attach to the adoption of Byzantine ideas, institutions, or techniques -considerations which in the long run were to prove of more permanent value.

With these qualifications and bearing in mind that western culture was at bottom Germano-Latin, we may then affirm our findings that Byzantium, through its amalgamation of classicism and the more original 'Byzantine' elements of its culture, above all its unique brand of Christianity which permeated every facet of medieval Greek life, was able, directly or indirectly, to influence a great many aspects of western cultural development: in certain types of art and architecture, in the sphere of industrial techniques, in law and statecraft, in navigational terms and regulations, the recovery of classical Greek literature and possibly the composition of the romance, in the development of a more refined mode of living and in some forms of religious piety and music as well as in religious thought. In these aspects of most of the cultural areas meaningful to medieval man there seems to have been some tangible specific evidence of Byzantine influence in one area or another of western European society. Once more, however, it should be emphasized that these influences ranged from the very minor in some spheres to the very substantial in others.

No doubt the Byzantine contributions were more passive and less creative in certain fields, for instance in literature, philosophy, and science, which had in the main been taken over from the ancient Greeks and which, especially in the case of Aristotle, were first transmitted to the West via the Arabs. Yet even in their vaunted preservation of the ancient literary masterpieces the Byzantines were able to make a few contributions of their own. For example they developed certain philological methods of scholarship-methods which if sometimes faulty, nonetheless had more impact than is usually realized on the development of Renaissance textual criticism and which therefore could not help but influence the meaning and interpretation of the ancient texts transmitted (the ancient tragedies for instance).(82) Even in the domain of science, despite their almost worshipful devotion to ecclesiastical tradition as well as to the authority of the ancient Greek writers, a few Byzantines seem to have broken out of these restraints and at least to have anticipated certain later western scientific developments. Moreover, as we have observed, in several other areas there can be no doubt that the Byzantines were able to make truly original contributions, specifically in art and architecture, in forms of religious piety and ecclesiastical literature, and, perhaps not least, in providing to the West something often overlooked by historians -a living example of a state with a highly centralized administration and tradition of statecraft under the rule of public law. In view of these considerations it is obvious that Byzantine civilization was far from being the mere 'fossilization of antiquity' that western historians were wont to term it not many years ago.

In sum, then, it was the rich content, the diverse elements both ancient and medieval, of Byzantium's unique cultural synthesis, that enabled it to attract the interest of the westerners and, little by little and despite the frequent reluctance or outright hostility of the Latins, to provide them with inspiration and guidance. And so in 1453 when Constantinople finally succumbed to the Turks, not only had Byzantium handed over its previous legacy of ancient Greek culture to the West -now prepared in part by the East itself to receive it- but also, no less important, the West had assimilated a good deal of the products of Byzantium's own creativity. As a consequence of what might be called this long-term process of cultural infiltration, Byzantium played a much more pervasive role than is generally realized in moulding the civilization of the medieval and hence, indirectly, of the modern, western world.


82. - See e.g. U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Euripides-Herakles, Ι (Berlin, 1889) 194, and Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars in Venice, 288, 290. Cf. also now Ρ. Kristeller, 'Umanesimo italiano e Bisanzio', Lettere italiane, XVI (1964) esp. 8-9, who thinks the selection and order in which western Renaissance humanists read certain ancient Greek authors (e.g. Aristophanes beginning with Pluto, Euripides with Hecuba), and the tendency of treating Plato, Aristotle, and the patristic authors together with the poets and authors, was probably influenced to a large degree by Byzantine practice.

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