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Storms Over Byzantium

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice
Book cover with Christ Pantokrator surrounded by saints (detail), Constantinople, late tenth–early eleventh century

When the British Byzantinist Judith Herrin published her book The Formation of Christendom in 1987, many historians suddenly discovered that early medieval Christianity was far more complex than they had ever imagined. The concept of Christendom embraced not only medieval European Christianity, which ultimately led to the Crusades, but also the rival Byzantine orthodoxy that was based in Constantinople as well as the new faith of Islam that challenged it. By capturing Constantinople in 1204, the Roman Catholic Crusaders from Europe finally succeeded in doing what the Arabs had been desperately trying to do in the seventh and eighth centuries.

Herrin understood that Islam was no less important a component of the overall history of Christendom than European or Byzantine Christianity. Her view recognized Muhammad’s revelation as a vigorous form of monotheism that stood, militarily and theologically, in direct competition with both Christianities. It was a terrible irony when crusading Christians from the West succeeded where the Muslims, coming from the East, had failed.

The great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne had famously argued that there would have been no Charlemagne without Muhammad because Muslim control of Mediterranean trade reduced the European economy to subsistence agriculture and allowed the Franks to promote themselves and win papal support for their king. Herrin’s argument revised Pirenne’s thesis in a novel way, which she reiterated in her 2007 study, Byzantium.1 For her there would have been no Europe without Byzantium.

She returns to this view once again in introducing the first of her two new volumes of collected essays on Byzantine history. She is a forceful advocate of this hypothesis, which puts Muhammad in a very different position from the one that Pirenne had given him, without diminishing his impact on the European economy or on Christendom. She stresses the success of Byzantium in warding off a series of assaults on Constantinople from the Umayyads, the early caliphs of Islam. If the Byzantines had failed to hold the Arabs back at that time, Herrin believes they would have overrun Europe from the east just as they moved into North Africa and Spain.

Herrin’s comparative perspective on Byzantium, European Christendom, and Islam reflects a lifetime of distinguished work on the Byzantine Empire. With these two new volumes, comprising papers written over many years between the late 1960s and the present, we can watch her interests develop across a long period in which Byzantine studies grew dramatically from academic obscurity into an industry. This growth has been fueled in part by current interest in late antiquity as a transition from the pagan classical past into the Middle Ages, together with all the accommodations and transformations that Christianity and Islam devised to facilitate this transition.

Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, lying between Christian Europe and the Muslim East, and itself the head of a militantly Christian empire, was recognized as nothing less than the New Rome at a time when the old Rome in Italy was in serious decline. Byzantine history, transmitted through a welter of complex and difficult texts in many languages—Greek above all, but also, among others, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, and Georgian—is a challenge for any scholar, and the recent surge of interest is as astonishing as it is welcome.

In preparing the thirty papers for her two volumes, Herrin has followed her publisher’s excellent advice that she preface each piece with a generous account of when and how it came to be written. This means that, together with her general introductions for the two volumes, the reader has an extraordinary glimpse into the evolution of Byzantine studies from the 1960s onward as well as for the personal development of Herrin herself as a Byzantine historian. The two volumes are a kind of intellectual autobiography. I know of nothing quite like them in the time-honored tradition of collecting a scholar’s papers. We can see clearly, step by step, how Herrin became the historian she is today as well as the environment that supported her, and through her, the field to which she has dedicated her life.

As a student at the University of Cambridge in the late 1960s, Herrin participated in the political and social turbulence that roiled so many universities in England and America. She demonstrated against the Vietnam War and pursued an interest in the writings of Karl Marx to bolster her leftish sympathies. At the same time she became aware of the forgotten history of women and aligned herself with the academic feminists of the day. Although her enthusiasm for Marx as a guide to historical analysis eventually waned, her left-wing sympathies did not.

It was scarcely surprising that as she began her career she agreed to write one of her first papers for the eminent Byzantinist Robert Browning, whose political sympathies were very much on the left. She moved to Birmingham to pursue a doctorate where one of England’s most highly regarded Marxist historians of antiquity, George Thomson, was teaching. She pays tribute to other like-minded professors she met there, such as Rodney Hilton and Roy Pascal. Fortified by her earlier association at Cambridge with the New Left and the feminists, she found congenial company in Birmingham.

But she also found one of the twentieth century’s greatest teachers of Byzantinology, Anthony Bryer, who almost single-handedly turned Birmingham into a world center of Byzantine studies, comparable to Gilbert Dagron’s center in Paris and Herbert Hunger’s in Vienna. Bryer had been an erudite and charismatic undergraduate at Balliol College in Oxford, where I first met him. His passion for Byzantium and its empire and, even at a young age, his breathtakingly deep knowledge of its culture made him a kind of cult figure among the students at Balliol. Invitations to his elegant lunches were much prized, although guests were obliged to bring their own refreshments.

Everyone who knew him called him Bryer, as, I believe, they still do today, ignoring his first name and any academic titles. When he went to Birmingham, he created a program in Byzantinology that was a mirror image of those lunches at Balliol. Scholars from all over the world craved to be invited to his annual symposia, and those gatherings were, as Herrin’s notes reveal, immensely influential. But the guests came at their own expense.

Bryer trained not only Herrin but others who have subsequently gone on to become leaders in the Byzantine field, notably John Haldon, now at Princeton, and Margaret Mullett, now at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington. Strange as it may sound, there was no better place to study Byzantium in the 1970s and 1980s than Birmingham. Bryer undoubtedly laid a foundation for what is now known as the Byzantine Studies Conference, a group that meets annually and welcomes hundreds of Byzantinists of all ages.

During this time of explosive growth, the research center at Dumbarton Oaks continued to foster Byzantine studies, as it had from the days of its endowment by the Bliss family in the early 1940s. But its fortunes had been troubled by factional struggles that might legitimately be called byzantine, and the highly respected scholar Ihor Ševˇcenko, who had been a professor at Dumbarton Oaks, departed to teach at Harvard. Equilibrium was restored with the arrival of the Byzantine historian Angeliki Laiou as director. The presence of Margaret Mullett there today as director of the Byzantine Studies Program is as much a substantive as a symbolic indication of the achievement of Bryer at Birmingham.

Herrin candidly admits that she has often been attracted to topics in Byzantine history under the impact of contemporary events. The burning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1989 at Bradford (in the UK) and the infamous fatwa against him impelled her to look again at many well-documented examples of book-burning from classical antiquity through the Byzantine age. Many of the incidents she reviews are familiar examples of the suppression of works that were seditious, or appeared to be so to the authorities of the day. Augustus and his successors tried to eradicate subversive writings, but the emperors soon learned that the memory of such works would outlast them.

In her indignation over the treatment of Rushdie, Herrin sought a deeper explanation of these episodes by considering fire as a purifying element as well as a destructive one. While it is undoubtedly true that fire could be part of purifying rituals, as in the cremations from which deceased Roman emperors ascended to heaven to become gods, it is less obvious that anyone was conscious of a “refiner’s fire” when Epicurus’ texts were consigned to the flames and their ashes scattered at sea along with a curse to ensure their oblivion.

Christians adopted the pagans’ penchant for book-burning, and a canon from the council in Trullo at Constantinople in the late seventh century called for the burning of fictitious martyr acts that might beguile and corrupt innocent believers. Herrin’s exploration of this ancient and barbarous practice leads her to suggest that in one case the burning might have been merely symbolic. A bishop at Edessa during the Muslim conquest burned the Trullo canons as “a symbolic gesture,” in her view, against a patriarch whom he judged too lenient in dealing with clerical irregularities. This was not, according to Herrin, “an instance of suppression but of purification.” It was certainly not suppression, but purification is less obvious. The bishop’s intent was evidently to restore strict adherence to the canons through a symbolic enactment of what the errant patriarch had done.

In fact, book-burning as a dramatic gesture of protest or disgust may have nothing at all to do with suppressing a book or with purification but everything to do with arousing emotions and a public response. Americans will not have forgotten the efforts of Florida pastor Terry Jones in 2010 to burn two hundred Korans, a scandalous act from which he was dissuaded, only to leave him free to burn a few copies of the Koran a year later. The issues that Herrin has raised in her paper on book-burning continue to be as contemporary as they were when she wrote it.

It is hardly surprising that a historian of the Byzantine world would be no less interested in the destruction or defacement of objects. Iconoclasm, or the breaking and banning of devotional icons with portraits of holy figures, was a conspicuous feature of Byzantine ecclesiastical policy under the emperors Leo III and Constantine V in the middle of the eighth century. This notorious prohibition of what was seen as direct access to divine power through the images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints has been a contentious subject for a long time, not least because the Muslims at the same time imposed a ban on the representation of living creatures.

In the early decades of Islam, before the formal interdict, the Muslims had ignored the issue in mosaics and wall paintings, but in the early eighth century, in 721, only a few years before Leo’s campaign against icons, the Umayyad caliph Yazid II issued a formal prohibition on the representation of anything “with breath.” Many mosaics in the Near East survive today with clear signs of the eradicated shapes of living beings, whose outlines can be traced around the mosaic pieces that were put in their place.

  1. 1

    Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Princeton University Press, 2007). See my review in these pages, September 25, 2008, and Herrin’s letter, November 20, 2008. 

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