Psellos, Michael, Psellos and the Patriarchs: Letters and Funeral Orations for Keroullarios, Leichoudes, and Xiphilinos.
Byzantinists have long bemoaned the apathy of many medievalists towards the large corpus of Byzantine literature. Recently, however, the tide has been shifting. An abundance of new scholarly journals and social media feeds suggests that the number of academics and members of the general public fascinated by Byzantium is growing. The past ten years have seen a swell of new critical editions and translations of formerly obscure medieval Byzantine texts, particularly histories.
Little wonder, then, that the University of Notre Dame Press has initiated a multi-volume series of English translations of a wide spectrum of writings from the most prolific and popular medieval Byzantine author in modern circles, the eleventh-century courtier and philosopher, Michael Psellos (1018-c.1078). The present volume is the second in this series. Translators and editors, Anthony Kaldellis and Ioannis Polemis, have gathered together their previously published solo commentaries and translations of Psellos s encomiums and letters to three, mid-eleventh-century patriarchs.
At first glance, a selection of writings concerning Constantinopolitan churchmen might seem an odd choice for a publisher hoping to appeal to a wider readership. Yet, as the editors explain in their thoughtful and useful two-pronged Introduction, these speeches and letters add needed details to Psellos's long-popular Chronographia, a history composed at a key moment in Byzantium's history, when it was teetering on the edge of collapse. Far from run-of-the mill panegyrics, Pselloss authorial self pervades these texts, providing fascinating insights into both the author and the complex social networks and rivalries that shaped eleventh-century Byzantium.
Helpful introductions provided for each of the addressees allow the reader to better understand the vibrant, intellectual court culture that first united and then divided these men. Both editors also admirably examine these works' literary subtext, showing that they should be seen as essential aspects of Psellos's enduring public struggle to preserve his position in a constantly shifting and hazardous political landscape. The reader also comes away with a greater appreciation for the deep intertextual relationships of Psellos's texts with earlier Christian and classical literature. Regrettably, however, the volume's bibliography is rather sparse and omits a number of essential, recent publications on Psellos: Stratis Papaioannou's study on Psellos's rhetoric, for instance, lauded in the Introduction, is missing.
Psellos's troubled relationship with Keroullarios offers the volumes longest and most stimulating section. What outwardly appears to be a flowery panegyric of the patriarch's Christian virtues, on closer inspection, offers instead a rebuke. Deftly and carefully subverting the genre of encomium for a contemporary audience that included Keroullarioss nephews, Psellos pounced upon the opportunity to both restore his relations with the patriarch's relatives, and gain the final word in the pair's frequent clashes. Ultimately, rigid inflexibility and arrogance when dealing with the emperor--sugar-coated by Psellos in the speech as religious zeal--led to Keroullarioss undoing and subsequent banishment. This theme of the incompatibility of the spiritual and secular realms interlocks each of the speeches. As Kaldellis points out, Psellos's admiration of Leichoudes, 'cannot be understood apart from his rejection of the inflexible, intransigent, and harsh types exemplified by Keroullarios' (p. 31).
The texts presented here also provide insight into the ammunition Psellos's rivals wielded against the shifty courtier: they openly used his love of pagan literature and philosophy to question Psellos's religious devotion. His fondness for non-religious literature and critical attitude towards monasticism and the Church's senior figures aroused the suspicions of even former friends like Xiphilinos. To refute the accusations, Psellos maintained that he drew on the glorious intellectual achievements of a pre-Christian past in order to discover in pagan philosophy a means to better understand his Christian faith. He further countered that a good theologian must also be a good philosopher. Some of Psellos's modern popularity may indeed be attributed to his embracing of classical literature and what is seen as his progressive rejection of the meddling of inflexible churchmen in state affairs.
Was Psellos an anomaly in a religious age? Or were his esoteric tastes and philosophic agenda reflective of a shifting cultural milieu? These questions continue to spark debate. One suspects that Psellos himself--a notorious narcissist--would be thrilled with these disputes, and his thriving popularity nearly a millennium after his demise. Of course more work needs to be done. The bulk of Psellos's one thousand or so theological and philosophical works remain untranslated in any language. The planned future volumes in this series will begin to fill this gap, and thus deservedly make more accessible the fascinating world and mind of Michael Psellos to a larger audience.
MICHAEL EDWARD STEWART, The University of Queensland
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|Author:||Stewart, Michael Edward|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2016|
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