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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]


Apart from a certain influence on western historical writing as revealed through such works as the papal librarian Anastasius' ninth century translation of the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes, the Byzantine influence on western medieval literature was small. Creativity in Byzantine literature was relatively rare, except in the sometimes remarkable poetry found in the Byzantine hymnology and the unique eleventh century epic poem, 'Digenes Akritas' (37) Byzantium never produced a Dante, though probably the most learned scholar of the entire medieval world was the ninth century Patriarch Photius. This deficiency in literary creativeness is usually attributed (perhaps with a certain exaggeration) to the slavish Byzantine imitation of the ancient literary models. The cultured Byzantine felt that ancient Greek literature had reached such a state of perfection that in many respects it was impossible to surpass, a fact which led not only to the close Byzantine imitation of ancient rhetorical style but, more important, to the use by most writers of an artificial form of ancient Greek rather than the living vernacular spoken by the Byzantines themselves. It was this anomalous situation, somewhat analogous to that of an American attempting to write in Chaucerian English that served in large part to stultify creativity in Byzantine literature.

Since Byzantium was the medieval repository for the ancient Greek literary treasures, it was from there or Byzantine southern Italy that they passed to the West. The medieval Greeks preserved the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and other poets and dramatists when they were unknown to or had been lost to the western world. And it is this work of preservation that some critics have termed Byzantium's most significant cultural contribution to the modern world.

While the classic dramatists were read in the East, they were never apparently performed on the stage, probably because of ecclesiastical objection to their pagan character and occasional immoral themes. As for Homer, he was read by all eastern schoolboys. But his work did not become familiar to western scholars until the fourteenth century when, at Petrarch and Boccaccio's commission, Pilatus, a Greek of southern Italy, translated the Iliad and Odyssey into Latin prose. The version was not very successful (he did not know Latin too well), nor was Pilatus very effective in teaching Greek to Petrarch and Boccaccio. (It may not have been entirely his fault since dictionaries and other such aids were then unavailable, nor did the two Italian humanists really like Pilatus.) Nevertheless, Pilatus provided Boccaccio with material for his Genealogy of the Gods, the first exposition since antiquity of the Greek myths in their original pagan setting. It was at Boccaccio's initiative, moreover, that Pilatus, in 1361, was appointed at Florence to the first chair of the Greek language to be established in western Europe.(38) Α subsequent and more important holder of this post (1396) was the distinguished Byzantine nobleman Manuel Chrysoloras, during whose tenure so many leading Italian statesmen and humanists came to study with him that the formal study of classical Greek letters may be said to have begun in the Renaissance.(39)

Researchers differ sharply over the problem of the origin of the so-called Franco-Greek romances, epic poems of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries about love and adventure which were popular in both the Greek East and the West. Some scholars believe that their genesis is to be traced to the medieval Byzantine East, others to the courtly love poems of France. Still others consider their prototype to be the novel of Greek antiquity. Certainly, in the late medieval period, Byzantine poets translated into their own language French and Italian narratives of love and combat and also, perhaps to an even greater extent, created their own works of this genre, examples being 'Floire and Blanchfleur', 'Lybistros and Rhodamne' and 'Belthandros and Chrysantza'. Moreover, it is well-known that a number of twelfth century French romances of adventure had their setting in southern Italy, Constantinople, or Rome, and that the names of some of the characters in these works are distortions from the Greek.(40.- Thus, whatever the origin of the form of the so-called Franco-Greek romance, it may at least be affirmed that a mutual interaction of Byzantine and western elements in the development of this type of literature is clearly indicated.


37. - See in Ν. Baynes and Η. Moss, Byzantium: An Introduction to East Roman Civilization (Oxford, 1961) the essay by F. Marshall and J. Mavrogordato, 'Byzantine Literature', 221ff. Also cf., R. Jenkins 'The Hellenistic Origins of Byzantine Literature', Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XVII (1963), esp.39 and 52, and Ν. Β. Tomadakes, Introduction to Byzantine Literature (in Greek) Ι (Athens, 1958), esp. 16 and ff. The basic work on Byzantine literature is Κ. Krumbacher, Geschichte der byzantinischen Literatur (Munich, 1897).

38. - Pertusi, Leonzio Ρilatο fra Petrarca e Boccaccio (Venice-Rome, 1964), esp. 433 ff. See G. Cammelli, Μanuele Crisolora (Florence, 1941,) 8, 44, etc.

39. - Cammelli, op. cit., and Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars 24.

40. - On the problem of origins and the romance see bibl. in Κ. Setton, 'The Byzantine Background to the Italian Renaissance', 38-39. Also see Basic Library (in Greek) (Athens, 1955), analysis of Ε. Kriaras. Cf.U. Holmes, Α History of Old French Literature to 1300 (New York, 1937) 146-49.

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