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Church and Society in Byzantium Under the Comneni 1081-1261.

By Michael Angold. Pp. xvi + 604. Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0 521 26432 4. 60[pounds sterling]/$89.95.

In this fine work Michael Angold puts forward a major revision of our understanding of the relationship of Church and society in the Byzantine Empire under the Comneni. He provides a subtly nuanced view, soundly based on a wide range of recent research and--perhaps even more important--newly discovered and critically established texts, that skirts the simplicities whether of Caesaropapism, or an `Orthodox society', perceived through rosy-coloured spectacles, or the hard-nosed, even cynical view, associated with H.-G. Beck, of a purely political Orthodoxy disguising a fundamentally still pagan society. Instead, Angold scrutinizes the genuine complicities that characterized Byzantine society, arguing that they produced a society in which power and leadership failed to mesh, thus making the fall of Constantinople perhaps more inevitable than it has sometimes been regarded.

Angold begins by setting the scene with a brief account of the state of play in Byzantine society in the eleventh century, a century that saw the death, oblivion, and then renewed popularity of St Symeon the New Theologian with his theology of mystical vision and spiritual authenticity, new monastic foundations, including that of the Theotokos Evergetis in Constantinople, the anathemas of the `Great Schism' of 1054, the Byzantine humanism of such as Michael Psellus, and the defeat at Manzikert with the loss of most of Asia Minor: all of which Alexius I Comnenus inherited in 1081. He then turns his attention to the Comnene religious settlement, established by Alexius and handled rather nervously by Manuel I, which failed in the closing decades of the twelfth century. This was a settlement established between Emperor and Patriarch and the clergy of the `Great Church', Hagia Sophia, in which each lent the other power, rather than being `caesaropapist' in any simple way. Angold then turns to the different areas in which the functioning of this society can be examined. First, the bishop and local society: this section discusses the way in which bishops, who were often recruited from the clergy of the Great Church, but, as bishops, were required to live in the communities they served, acted as a bridge between the centre and the periphery. It is possible to discuss this in some detail as a good deal of episcopal correspondence survives from the `long twelfth century' that is Angold's period: there are chapters on eight bishops from Theophylact of Ohrid to his successor, Demetrius Chomatianos. Secondly, there is a thorough discussion of monasticism and the different ways in which it served the lay society that provided it with its material resources. Angold tells a complex story and shows how the Comnene attack on kharistike, the arrangement whereby the property of a monastery was `looked after' by a lay patron, far from removing lay patronage, simply established it in another form, while at the same time allowing the Comnene dynasty to cast itself as the protector of monastic reform. Thirdly, Angold discusses the religion of the laity. Again, he is alive to the complexities of the issue, showing, for instance, how the way in which marriage law tended to shift over the period from being a matter of civil law to being one of canon law can be seen as favouring women, and indeed giving women a valued place in society, but doing this in the context of a prevailing patriarchal system, so that to talk of liberation is quite misleading. There is a fine chapter on popular beliefs, which makes some good points against Beck, but suffers perhaps from an ill-defined framework: popular as opposed to the clergy, the learned, or the ideals contained in the canons? Canons against priests and bishops who allow pagan practices do not serve to draw a line between clergy and laity, else there would be no need for them. Angold has another chapter on the bogomils which treads a careful path between the rather confident exaggerations that have characterized some discussions of this matter. Angold's final section is concerned with the experience of exile from 1204 to 1261, and the effect this had both on the relationship between the Byzantines and the Latins, and between imperial and patriarchal authority. This section seemed a little breathless, with a lot of good points being made, rather than any clear position advocated. Particularly in relation to the question of the Latins, it seemed to me that Angold was not at all keen on engaging with the issue in the terms which were primary to the participants, namely in theological terms.

As this brief summary indicates, Angold's book is a major achievement: it draws together a mass of scholarship and has an even-handedness that is based on a sure knowledge of the sources. It is also the work of an historian of broad horizons, who, without making this work a comparative study (which would need another volume again), is aware of the parallels between Byzantine history and the history of Medieval (Western) Europe in matters like marriage law and monastic reform. The result is his nuanced sense of what is distinctive about the course that Byzantine society took. Serendipitously, Angold's book also forms a marvellous complement to Paul Magdalino's The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos (Cambridge University Press, 1993) which provides a rather different approach to part of the same period.
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Author:Louth, Andrew
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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