Byzantine literary criticism and the classical heritage

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It is a paradox of Byzantine scholarship that a society rightly credited with preserving so much of the classical canon should not enjoy a better reputation for its critical reception of ancient Greek literature. Remembered primarily as assiduous copyists and curators of ancient manuscripts, the Byzantines have often been portrayed as irremediably blinkered in their literary criticism. But if it must be conceded that no Byzantine work of literary criticism compares in scale or renown to Aristotle’s Poetics or Horace’s Ars poetica, criticism was nevertheless highly valued in Byzantine literary culture. Broadly conceived, literary criticism could be so integral to the articulation of cultural, or even social, identity that we risk underestimating its role in Byzantine intellectual history rather than exaggerating it. If recent historical surveys of literary criticism no longer vault over the western Middle Ages, it is largely because scholars have become convinced of its existence and significance during this period. This is a salutary development due to an expanded definition of what may constitute literary criticism in any period. No longer identified along a single, diachronic axis joining antiquity to modernity, it is increasingly understood in relation to the literary culture that it served. Western medieval authors such as Fulgentius, Alcuin, Remigius of Auxerre, and Bernard of Utrecht have thus entered the rolls as critics not because of any immediate affinity with our own practices but as having performed analogous cultural functions within their respective intellectual settings. Recognition of criticism’s role in Byzantine intellectual life has been slower in coming. Many of the texts that might constitute a canon of Byzantine criticism have long been classified under the generic and, to many, intellectually uninviting rubrics of “rhetoric” or “philology.” Such designations have tended to make Byzantine evaluations of ancient literature appear hamstrung by a narrow technical agenda. Byzantine essays or treatises on ancient literature can seem more like products of the schoolroom than the literary salon. The culprit here, as in many of Byzantium’s perceived deficits of literary creativity and originality, was once thought to be mimesis, the cultural injunction to “imitate” the best literary practices of antiquity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781107300859
ISBN (Print)9781107041813
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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