Stephanos Efthymiadis (ed.), Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography. Volume I: Periods and Places. Ashgate research companions. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. xix, 440. ISBN 9780754650331. $149.95.
Hagiography was one of the most flourishing literary genres in Byzantium. Historians of Byzantine Studies can obtain information about political, religious, social, and economic life from the fourth to the fifteenth century from hagiography. The dynamics of this field have been portrayed and practiced in many Oriental and Slavic languages, such as Slavic, Russian, Arabic, Coptic, and Armenian. This two-volumed work (the second volume is expected to be published shortly), is a serious attempt to present Byzantine Hagiography. The first volume is divided in two sections: the first part dedicated to the periods, authors’ texts, and inter-influences of Byzantine Hagiography, while the second part deals with the Hagiography of the Byzantine periphery (Armenian, Syriac, Arabic, Slavic Hagiographies, etc.). The Companion begins with the editor’s introduction; Stephanos Efthymiadis presents the discipline of hagiography, its cultivators (e.g. Hippolyte Delehaye, Francois Halkin) and the various scholarly series dedicated to the field (Acta Sanctorum, Analecta Bollandiana, Subsidia Hagiographica). The first section consists of five chapters referring to the four periods of Byzantine Hagiography: Late Antiquity (4th-7th centuries), “Dark Age” (8th-10th centuries), the 11th and 12th centuries, and the Late Byzantine period (1204-1453). Of course, because of the Companion’s length, it is impossible for a reviewer to discuss all the topics in detail; so I will try to focus on the main points of this book.
The first chapter, written by the late Tomas Hägg, is titled, “The Life of St. Antony between Biography and Hagiography”. The article is dedicated to the exemplar of Christian biography and hagiography and the model of Christian anchoret and saint, the Life of St. Antony, composed by Athanasius of Alexandria. Hägg discusses the various versions of the Life (Greek, Latin, Syrian), and he analyzes in detail the basic elements of the plot. Hägg gives a new sense to the term “biography” as the literary genre that describes the life of a historical figure; Christian Hagiography is the continuation of this biographical genre. Hägg’s contribution is in reality a detailed presentation of the Life of Anthony, relying on the rhetoric patterns of the text borrowed by classical authors (cf. Porphyry’s and Iamblichus’ Lives of Pythagoras), the identification of Life’s loci with real places, as also about the intertextualities of the different versions. Hägg concludes that Athanasius with the Vita of Anthonius wished to give the model of the Christian ascetic.
The second chapter, “Greek Hagiography in late Antiquity (Fourth-Eighth Centuries)”, by Stephanos Efthymiadis with contributions by André Bingelli and Zissis Aïnalis, deals with late antique hagiography. The chapter begins with the Church Fathers of the early Christian era who dealt with the writing of saints’ Lives, such as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom. These Church Fathers, according to Delehaye, engaged in the composition of Vitae, paying honour to martyrs, holy bishops, ascetics, and virgins. The rest of the chapter deals with monastic biographies (Pachomian Hagiography, Palladios’ Historia Lausiaca), Vitae of the desert fathers (Life of Arsenios the Great, Life of St. Mary of Egypt), and monastic collections, such as the sayings of the desert fathers (Apopthegmata Patrum, Gerontika, Paterika, Meterika), Historia Monachorum, the famous Historia Lausiaca by Palladios Bishop of Hellenopolis, the Spiritual Meadow by John Moschos and Philotheos Historia by Theodoret Bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria. The last section of Efthymiadis’ contribution deals with the monastic collections of Constantinople and its provinces, Asia Minor, Cyprus, and Thessalonike’s two Miracle Collections (those supposed to have been composed by John Bishop of Thessalonike (±560-±626) in honour of St. Demetrius, the patron saint of the city). Efthymiadis offers an image of early monasticism and anchoritic life in Constantinople and its provinces (e.g. St. Symeon Stylites the Younger, St. Theodore of Sykeon, Hermit Isaac, Patriarchs Nektarios & Anatolios, St. Thecla, St. Symeon the Fool etc.). Most Vitae, he concludes, were composed for the canonization of a saint.
The third chapter, again by Efthymiadis, “Hagiography from the ‘dark age’ to the age of Symeon Metaphrastes (8th–10th centuries)”, deals with the hagiography in the so-called “Dark Age” that is the hagiography of both the pre- and post- iconoclastic periods. These periods saw the evolution of hagiography with the composition of new martyrs’ and saints’ vitae – nearly 100 extant biographies, Encomia and Translations of relics – in honour of those who suffered because of their veneration of the holy images and their dedication to Orthodoxy. This period is also the era of the first Arab attacks against the Byzantine Empire, which resulted in the fact that many vitae were composed in order to praise men and women who refused to espouse Islam. Efthymiadis first makes special mention of the re-writing of early Christian martyrs’ and saints’ Vitae and their compiler John, Bishop of Sardis, a forerunner of Symeon Metaphrastes. This era is the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages in terms of social, economic, and cultural changes. According to many scholars who deal with Byzantine Hagiography, this period sees the beginning of “family cults”, i.e. Saints’ Lives, which were written to commemorate the memory of Byzantine noble families’ members. An extraordinary example is that of St. Theodore the Stoudite and his family, all of whom were dedicated to monasticism and many of whom were sanctified. Efthymiadis refers also to other learned hagiographers (Ignatios the Deacon, Michael Synkellos, Methodios, the Patriarch of Constantinople) who have contributed in their own way to the hagiography of this period. The author dedicates the rest of the third chapter to the hagiography and its characteristics after Iconoclasm, as well as to hagiography during the age of the Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912). The chapter concludes with a special reference to the Synaxarion of Constantinople and the Metaphrastic Menologion, two of the most pivotal Hagiographic works of this period.
The last two chapters of the first section, by Symeon Paschalidis (“The Hagiography of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries”) and by Alice-Mary Talbot (“Hagiography in Late Byzantium (1204-1453)”), deal with late Byzantine Hagiography. Specifically, Chapter Four deals with hagiographic collections, such as Menologion and Synaxarion of the Church of Constantinople. According to Paschalidis, the eleventh century was not suitable for the elevation of new saints. Paschalidis rightly argues that this phenomenon was mainly due to the philosophical opinions of diverse Byzantine literati (e.g. John Italos) who disputed all miracles attributed to Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints. Nevertheless, some vitae make their appearance in this period: the vitae of St Symeon the New Theologian, St Loukas of Steiris, and St Lazaros of Mt. Galesion, to name a few. Paschalidis suggests that three factors affected the hagiographic production of 11th-12th centuries. The first is that we now have a consolidation of the saints’ cult, “institutionalized” by the Menologion and the Synaxarion. These two “collections” would establish for the next centuries the official cult of the saints in the Byzantine Church; the second reason is that on the one hand many believed that the saints’ cult had expired, while on the other hand others believed that the saints were not able to help people posthumously and that their honour and cults were useless. The above phenomenon is due to the evolution of sciences, philosophy, and logic during these centuries (e.g. Michael Psellos and John Italos). The third factor is that during these centuries there was a “decentralization” of hagiographic production in provincial centres, from major cities such as Constantinople and Thessalonike, to other “hinterland” areas such as Cyprus, Asia Minor, Southern Italy, and Sicily; these provinces suffered from invasions and conquerors (Seljuk Turks, Normans, Crusaders). This circumstance favored the “creation” of new saints and martyrs of the Christian faith. In the last chapter of the first section Talbot deals with the hagiographic production of the last two and half centuries of the Byzantine Empire (1204-1453). Talbot suggests that during this period, an era of general decline, there was also an efflorescence of hagiography with over 60 practitioners of the genre. In addition, she demonstrates that women are noticeably absent among the new saints of this period.
The second section presents the Hagiographic production of the Byzantine periphery and the Orient. The authors of this section cover a wide linguistic, geographical, chronological, authorial, and topical range of dense and complex material on innumerable holy men and women. The different geographic hagiographic traditions that are represented are Italy, Syria, Georgia, Armenia, as well as hagiography in Coptic, Arabic and Slavic languages and Latin hagiographic literature translated into Greek. In this section the authors present the various themes, motifs and special characteristics of each locus Hagiographicus of the Byzantine oecumene. Each chapter of both sections is followed by a thorough list of both primary and secondary sources.
Above I tried to sketch the basic points of the papers contained in this volume. The contributors of the volume, all eminent scholars in their fields, have attempted to present an overall view of the Byzantine Hagiography, from the 4th up to the 15th century. Some of the reasons that the present volume is important to scholarship are as follows: a) we have for the first time a complete view of the Byzantine Hagiography. The selections of contextual Byzantine hagiography place it within its respective provincial, political, and social atmosphere. The book’s wide geographic and chronological scope also provides a well-rounded and holistic picture of the genre, regarding periods, topics, genres, places; b) Each Hagiographic period is presented within its social, economic, political period; c) New evidence is provided and new hagiographic topics are discussed in detail. At the end of each chapter, extensive literature, both primary and secondary, is cited; d) Prominent hagiographers, both Constantinopolitan and provincial, are presented (e.g. Theodoros of Stoudios, Ignatios the Deacon, Michael Synkellos, Leontios of Neapolis, John Mauropous etc.; e) Hagiography is connected to other genres such as 12th century Rhetoric.
Many congratulations are owed to the editor, Professor Stephanos Efthymiadis, as he succeeded in presenting a serious study to modern scholarship, an important study not only to Byzantinists, but also to scholars, interested in theology, literature, and social history of Byzantium. Given the major names of the contributors and the well-written content, there is no doubt that this companion will be the primer for years to come. Every university library should have a copy. I await with great interest the second volume, which will be dedicated to aspects of hagiography as a literary genre.
Spyros P. Panagopoulos is an independent scholar of Byzantine and Patristic studies in Greece. His current research is focusing on Byzantine scholarship and Hagiography during the Palaiologan period.