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.


V&A Images/Art Resource

A detail of the front panel of the Veroli Casket, Constantinople, tenth century. The second figure from the right may be the Greek mythological hero Bellerophon with the winged horse Pegasus.

Herrin tells us that she and Bryer decided in 1975 to devote the spring Byzantine symposium at Birmingham that year to iconoclasm. It was a wonderful theme, and Herrin may be forgiven for exaggeration in saying, “The subject was not then as popular as it is now.” After all, André Grabar’s great book L’Iconoclasme byzantin had appeared in 1957 and had engendered much debate. Peter Brown joined the discussion in a masterly article in 1973, when he observed, “The Iconoclast controversy is in the grip of a crisis of over-explanation.” The great question was whether or not Muslim and Christian iconoclasm had anything to do with each other, or whether they were simply parallel and unrelated policies. The startling contemporaneity of the two outbreaks of iconoclast fervor is hard to explain away, even if the Muslim ban on depictions of living creatures is much more comprehensive than the Byzantine ban on images of holy persons.

With characteristic candor, Herrin believes that “the first iconoclasts were forced to question the Christian use of icons by the pervasive triumphs of the rival faith.” She admits that her view is contested and that the excellent historian Chris Wickham has unambiguously written, “There is absolutely no sign that the Byzantine Iconoclasts were influenced by the Arabs.” But to this Herrin bluntly replies, “I think it is impossible to sustain this claim.” She has a point. The Abrahamic religions shared too much in common for us to imagine that two of them would have promulgated, by sheer coincidence, an exclusionary policy on images in the eastern Mediterranean at exactly the same time.

Near the end of her second volume, which is entirely devoted to women in Byzantium, Herrin returns to icons in order to argue that they were in some way the particular province of women. She argues that women were responsible for looking after icons in private houses, and that they were exceptionally devoted to them in public as well as private settings. The display of icons in public shrines, churches, and ceremonials was fundamental for their veneration. But Herrin observes, in an arresting remark that any traveler in Orthodox lands can readily confirm, “Even in a crowded church or at a busy road shrine, wherever an icon is displayed in public, it can become private momentarily.” The case for feminine care and veneration of icons seems to be reinforced by reports of women who resisted the iconoclast decrees and offered help to men of the same persuasion. Even though there is disagreement about that,2 domestic shrines for icons, the so-called “icon corners,” have traditionally been entrusted to the care of women in the household.

Herrin’s account of domestic icons is somewhat clouded by her receptiveness to an idea that the icon corner is essentially a Christian continuation of the pagan household shrine, which displayed small statues of gods who were considered special protectors of the house. Although Christians took over many practices and images from their pagan predecessors, no one until recently has ever imagined that pagans had icon panels at home.

An argument for such a practice has been advanced in the last decade on the basis of dozens of Egyptian portraits of pagan gods. Most of these have been known for a long time. They are now claimed as decorations of domestic interiors, but very few were found in houses. There is no reason whatever to assume that Egyptians kept icons of pagan gods at home. A pagan Egyptian precedent for Christian icons would naturally be intriguing, but fortunately Herrin, though open to the idea, does not depend upon it. Until the late seventh century private veneration of Byzantine saints appears to have been confined to relics.

Ten years after the Birmingham symposium on iconoclasm, Herrin was a visitor in the Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton. She participated in the legendary Davis seminars that Lawrence Stone led at that time, and she had Peter Brown as a colleague and interlocutor. This was the period in which The Formation of Christendom took final shape. Herrin has now published for the first time the paper she gave at the Davis seminar in 1985 on the origins of Byzantine charity.

Even though, as she says in her prefatory note, her paper was written before Peter Brown’s work on poverty, it remains a valuable essay on the gradual emergence of institutionalized Christian charity. This feature of the early church impelled Julian the Apostate, who had been raised as a Christian, to try desperately to import something similar into his short-lived pagan church. But early Christian charity was inevitably complicated from the start by aspiring to help both the poor and the sick, who were by no means the same constituencies. Poorhouses and hospitals had different aims. Herrin stresses that pagan charity before Christianity had been differently organized, giving priority to free bread, distributions of money, and entertainment.

Although the Christian mission was by no means comparable to the provision of bread and circuses, its compassionate care could sometimes be badly diluted by the corruption of its Christian administrators. Someone as alert as Herrin to the relevance of current social and political issues to the late antique and Byzantine past cannot have missed the prevalence of charity among certain terrorists today. The charitable work of Hezbollah is famous and illustrates the dangers of religious philanthropy. For all the poorhouses and hospitals that the early Byzantines set up, trouble lurked in the system precisely through the subordination of their caregivers to ecclesiastical superiors.

Dessislava, wife of the Sebastrokrator Kalojan, a thirteenth-century ruler of Sofia and the surrounding region; detail of a fresco from the Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleimon, Boyana, Bulgaria, 1259

There was no better example of this than the terrible events of 415 in Alexandria, when a cadre of caregivers or paramedics, known as parabalani or parabolani (the meaning is obscure: either “bath attendants” or “daredevils”), were recruited by the patriarch in order to wipe out dissident pagans in the city. The parabalani served to rescue and support the poor, the frail, and the sick, including lepers. They were necessarily healthy and strong themselves, since they had to do considerable heavy lifting in moving their patients while fighting off their germs. The tradition of their name as daredevils may even reflect this. When the patriarch Cyril enlisted them against the supporters of his pagan opponent Orestes, the city’s imperial prefect, they ran amok and targeted one of Orestes’ most conspicuous allies, the pagan philosopher and mathematician Hypatia.

This extraordinary woman came from a family of Egyptian intellectuals. Theon, her father, was an accomplished mathematician and astronomer with a profound interest in local Egyptian culture. His daughter became one of the greatest teachers in Alexandria. At the bidding of the patriarch, the parabalani took time off from their charitable work, murdered Hypatia, dismembered her body, and burned her remains. Their infamous act moved the emperors in Constantinople, Theodosius and Honorius, to impose restrictions in the very next year on the organization of these overzealous Christians. They reiterated these restrictions again two years later. Fortunately the luminous reputation of Hypatia as a scientist and teacher long outlived her, and in recent years she has become not only a feminist hero but the eponym of a feminist journal. A recent and somewhat disappointing film, Agora, returned to her story with the addition of a fictitious romance.

It seems strange that Hypatia is absent from Herrin’s second volume with its concentration on women, although this may be because she is more interested in powerful women at court than in female writers. Such women were relatively rare, but the formidable Byzantine princess Anna Komnene (1083–1153) does appear in Herrin’s second volume, though more for her palace intrigues than as the highly accomplished historian and author she was.

Herrin finds a place for Hypatia in her first volume in a fascinating paper that is unexpectedly devoted to the solution of a mathematical puzzle, Fermat’s last theorem. In the seventeenth century Pierre de Fermat was studying the first published edition of the Greek text of Diophantus from 1621. This Alexandrian mathematician of the third century AD had investigated equations, still called Diophantine by mathematicians today, in a large work entitled Arithmetika. Ten books survive, six in Greek and four in Arabic translation. Diophantus’ work had served as a basic text for Hypatia’s public lectures on mathematics at Alexandria, and her voluminous writings included commentaries on the Arithmetika. Although almost nothing of hers has survived, there can be little doubt that her interest in Diophantus secured his posthumous reputation.

The original Greek of the six surviving books had to wait until the seventeenth century for an edition, but Diophantus’ work had become known in the West toward the end of the previous century through a Latin translation. When Fermat applied himself to the first Greek edition, he annotated his copy, from which his son transcribed his father’s annotations for a reprint of the Greek edition. In the margin of an observation by Diophantus in Book II Fermat had written, “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which however the margin is not large enough to contain.”

Rediscovering Fermat’s proof became an obsession for number theorists from that time to the late twentieth century, when Andrew Wiles at Princeton finally solved it with a little tweaking from colleagues. As with several of her topics, this rather surprising one engaged Herrin directly as a result of a personal encounter. In 1993 she heard Wiles lecture on his solution. When she discovered that Fermat had developed his theorem on the basis of studies of so-called Diophantine equations, this piqued her curiosity as a Byzantinist, although, as she candidly admits, “mathematics was never my strong suit.” She undertook to learn more about the great Diophantus. Her paper, “Mathematical Mysteries in Byzantium,” reflects the excitement of her research on Byzantine mathematics.

What is perhaps the most distinctive feature of all the papers in these two volumes is the sense of excitement that runs through them. Partly because of the autobiographical prefaces, the reader enters into Herrin’s discovery of new material. But equally her constant references to the contemporary modern world make her Byzantium unusually vivid. At times she seems still to be reacting against a prejudice against her field that was prevalent in earlier generations. She writes ruefully:

The focus on the ancient world as the source of all good things—pagan myths, democracy, mathematics, and science, among others—has cast a long shadow over everything that followed…. Voltaire and Gibbon epitomized this condemnation of everything medieval…. As a result of this unbalanced view, a European system of education was developed that exalted the ancients.

Herrin is quite right to deplore this attitude, but there is far less need to do so than before. This is a perspective that we can thankfully see dissolving before our eyes, as historians increasingly cross the old disciplinary boundaries, chronological, geographical, and thematic, to enable the new kind of historiography that Herrin’s books both advocate and exemplify.