"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 1, 2012

Miracles, Byzantium, and Dumbarton Oaks

Anybody who knows anything about the study of all things Byzantine today knows that Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute of Harvard University, is North America's leading place for Byzantine scholars today. They publish their own journal as well as a series of books, and among the most recent offerings is Alice-Mary Talbot and Scott Fitzgerald Johnson, trans., Miracle Tales from Byzantium (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library/Harvard UP, 2012), 480pp.

I asked both translators for an interview about this book, and here are their thoughts. 

AD: Tell us about your background(s) 

(AMT) I am a classicist and Byzantine historian by training, with special interests in monasticism and the lives of saints. I have long advocated the importance of translating Byzantine texts in order to make this medieval Greek literature more accessible to students and the general public, especially those actively engaged in the practice of the Christian faith. To this end in the 1990s I served as general editor of three volumes of saints’ lives in translation published by Dumbarton Oaks.

(SFJ) I too am a classicist by training, though more on the late Roman than the Byzantine side. My work has focused primarily on the literary history of the fourth to seventh centuries, mainly in Greek, but also in Latin and Syriac. I find the intersection of all the late antique Christian languages quite a compelling topic -- translation of the Bible, sites of multilingualism, etc. -- and I think more and more work will be done on this field as students of Late Antiquity and Byzantium take up the study of other languages (Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, etc.).

AD: What led to work on this book in particular?

(AMT) In 2009 I was asked to become editor of the Byzantine Greek series of the new Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, a series which also includes texts and translations in medieval Latin and Old English. Each volume has the original-language text on the left-hand page and a modern English translation on the right hand side. I felt that a collection of Byzantine miracle tales would be a good choice to launch the Byzantine Greek series, and so invited Scott to collaborate with me, since I knew he was very familiar with the miracles of Saint Thekla. I myself had already prepared draft translations of the anonymous miracles of the shrine of the Virgin of the Spring (Pege) in Constantinople and of the miracles of Gregory Palamas in Thessalonike, and was anxious to revise them for publication.

AD: Take us behind the scenes, as it were, in the translation process. Were most of these texts in Greek, or other languages? What was the status of the manuscripts or other texts and editions from which you were working? 

(AMT) All the texts in the Byzantine series are in medieval Greek. For this volume we had the advantage of working with Greek texts that already existed in good editions, but for the miracles of the Pege I ordered a copy of the manuscript from the Vatican and checked it against the printed edition. This enabled me to correct a few minor errors in the Greek text. I hope that the new DOML series will make people as familiar with Byzantine literature as they are with its art.

AD: There seems to be an endless interest today in all things Byzantine, with book upon book being published on all aspects of the East-Roman Empire. What do you think explains this abiding, if not burgeoning, interest today? 

(AMT) Interest in Byzantium has been spurred by a number of factors, including the major exhibits of Byzantine art at the Metropolitan Museum in recent years. I also think more people are visiting Turkey, where they encounter Byzantine churches and monuments, and are inspired to read further about this long-lived medieval civilization.

(SFJ) My former advisor, Averil Cameron, a few years ago wrote an article called "The Absence of Byzantium" which addressed particularly the lack of a sophisticated understanding of what role Byzantium should play in the modern debates over the "clash of cultures". I will leave your readers to engage her political commentary, but I would say the interest of a popular readership in Byzantium is somewhat mixed. There is an awareness of Byzantium being between East and West, and being between ancient and modern, and that makes it attractive since it seems to speak to every possible imaginary world in some way. But Byzantium itself had its own forms of discourse, political and religious, and is not always the easiest field to get a handle on. One must learn these forms and develop a knack for them. I think the DOML series will go some way to putting this unique culture in front of more readers.

AD: For some miracles are the biggest stumbling block to Christianity--superstition and trickery to dupe the credulous. To others, miracles are the supreme proof of Christianity's truth. Where, broadly speaking, did the Byzantines come down on this? 

(AMT) Although Byzantine laypeople occasionally expressed their incredulity about the efficacy of miracle-working shrines, in general the population was extremely pious and accepting of miraculous events. In an age when professional medicine had made few advances from the Greco-Roman period, and physicians were often unable to cure illnesses, the devout often visited healing shrines after the doctors had given up hope. The working of miracles was important, although not essential, testimony to the holy powers of a saint, and thus the lives of saints very often include miracles performed both during the saint’s lifetime and after his or her death.

AD: Thekla seems to be increasingly popular today, with several recent books written about her. Tell us about her, her miracles, and legend. 

(SFJ) Thekla is a legendary female companion of St. Paul during his travels in Asia Minor (40s–50s CE). I say legendary because there is no contemporary historical evidence for her life. Her fame arose during the late second century, as shown by a famous piece of Christian apocrypha called the Acts of Paul and Thekla (c.180 CE). The fifth-century Life and Miracles of Thekla rewrites this original Acts of Paul and Thekla into a high Greek style and adds a new text of forty-six miracles contemporary to the fifth-century that Thekla worked posthumously. This later text was written in Seleukeia-on-the-Kalykadnos, the site of a flourishing pilgrimage and healing shrine devoted to Thekla in late antiquity. Figures as significant as the pilgrim Egeria and Gregory of Nazianzus visited the site during this period. This fifth-century collection marks the apex of literary interest in Thekla and describes numerous cures and other miracles she worked for the people of Seleukeia during this period. The Miracles of Thekla are highly important for religious, literary, and cultural historians alike and have often been mined by scholars of late antique Christianity. However, due to the lack of an English translation, the text has not reached its widest possible audience. It is no exaggeration to claim that Thekla was the most famous female saint in early Mediterranean Christianity, only to be eclipsed by the Virgin Mary as late as the end of the fifth century or so.

AD: For some in the Christian East, Gregory Palamas remains the most important late medieval figure--the "last of the Fathers." What is your assessment of his life and influence? What do these newly translated miracles tell us about him and his reputation and legacy?

(AMT) Palamas is indeed the most important of the late Byzantine theologians. Since his views on the doctrines of hesychasm prevailed and were confirmed by three church councils, he had major influence on the evolution of Greek Orthodoxy as it is still practiced today. The account of Palamas’s healing miracles presents him not as a theologian, however, but as a beloved bishop of Thessalonike, who cared greatly for his flock. One particular point of interest in Philotheos Kokkinos’s narrative is that he offers one of the best surviving descriptions of the way in which the cult of a holy man developed in late Byzantium.

AD: What other projects are you at work on currently?

(AMT) Together with two colleagues, I am completing a critical edition and annotated English translation of the Life of St. Basil the Younger, a holy man of 10th-c. Constantinople, who was unusual for residing in private homes rather than in a monastic community. The Life contains a celebrated account of a vision of the journey of the soul past the “tollhouses of the air” where demons exact payment for sins committed on earth; it also includes the lengthiest surviving
description in Byzantine literature of a vision of the celestial Jerusalem and the Last Judgment.

(SFJ) I am finishing up a book on the role of Greek among Eastern Christians for whom Greek may not have been their mother tongue. It is a cultural history of Greek as a lingua franca in the eastern Roman empire. This is both daunting and exciting because is requires direct interaction with a host of languages and literatures I was not originally trained to work with. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool classicist, I can admit that some of the most interesting things in late antique
literature are happening on the fringes of the traditional Greco-Roman world. As much as possible, I hope to encourage young classicists to learn languages like Syriac and Coptic and make that a part of their research. Eventually it won’t be optional anymore. Also, a big book I edited, the The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquitywill be out late this summer.

This book takes some of the less acknowledged trends in late antiquity and puts them at the forefront: the broadened geographical and chronological scope, the engagement with multiple Eastern Christian languages, and new models of economy and society. I feel very proud of this book and the hard work our contributors put into it.

AD: Sum up what you were hoping to accomplish with 
this book and what you see as its merits.

(AMT) I included the miracles of the Pege shrine in the volume because they shed light on the visitation of healing shrines to obtain cures, and the development of a cult of the Virgin over many centuries. I chose the miracles of Palamas because I myself so enjoyed reading these vivid descriptions of the afflictions of ordinary citizens in Thessalonike, and details of their everyday lives. Philotheos Kokkinos was the most gifted hagiographer of late Byzantium, and writes with great empathy of the suffering of the men and women who were eventually healed by Palamas.

(SFJ) it was a great thrill for me to work with Alice-Mary. She is a marvelous translator and Byzantinist, and I learned a great deal from her during this project. For my part, that was a major motivation! But, of course, I hope this volume opens up the miracles of Thekla to a wider audience. It's a really diverse and compelling text, and the language itself is interesting as a transitional phase from classical to Byzantine Greek, in the midst of major social and religious changes surrounding Christianity in Late Antiquity.

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