Byzantine Literary History in a Eurasian Context


The Gutenberg Project has as its main goal to present a new narrative account of literary production in Byzantium from the mid-11th century to the end of the 15th century, but at the same time to establish the methodological prerequisites to also present textual production from the 4th to the mid-11th century.


Often Byzantine literature is defined as “the textual production written in Greek between the 4th and the 15th centuries.” It is not so simple, however, because (1.) within the Byzantine Empire, texts were written in other languages, but Greek texts were also written outside the Empire; (2.) Byzantine texts were separated by older scholarship into an archaizing and a vernacular group according to the supposed linguistic idiom in which they were written; (3.) Byzantine texts were divided according to their subject matter into secular, religious, and scientific writing and were also treated separately; (4.) not all scholars agree that the Byzantine Empire began in the early 4th century, since for several decades Late Antiquity has claimed “Early Byzantium” as a new historical period; (5.) the so-called vernacular texts from the 12th to the 15th centuries were indiscriminately assigned to Modern Greek literature.

Such divisions, however, do not correspond to actual practice, for example, when authors from quite different social backgrounds composed secular, religious, and scientific texts in both archaic and vernacular idioms; when one finds several of these groups united in one and the same manuscript; when scholars and teachers of rhetoric from different periods regard, on the one hand, “late antique” texts as a central part of their literary heritage and, on the other, also compose vernacular texts.


Accordingly, the project will develop an innovative “literary periodization model” to holistically interpret Byzantine textual production. This approach will be supported by a selection of literary theories (post-structuralist narratology, semiotics, aesthetics, reception and performance theory) and historical approaches (contextualization, socio-economic history, gender and postcolonial studies). In this way, Byzantine texts are read within a “horizontal” axis of open interpretation (i.e., they are seen as dynamic carriers of meaning within their specific social, cultural, and political environments) rather than understood exclusively within a “vertical” axis of closed taxonomy (i.e., they are not seen as examples of fixed genres in an ahistorical sequence of abstract variations). In this way, the boundaries imposed by older research will be removed and Byzantine textual production will be understood as part of a broad “medieval Eurasian literary system,” wherein texts written in Greek will be read in their interrelationships with texts written in Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and Old Slavonic. In this way, it will be possible to bring Byzantine literature more into the center of international medievalist research and literary studies.


Within the project, three networking activities will be organized for the LWC: an international symposium on “Byzantine literary history and theory: the Eurasian context,” an international workshop on “Genre, taxonomy and the materiality of Byzantine Texts,” and a series of four guest lectures on specific topics, such as the place of scientific literature within a Byzantine literary history, or the problematic division between religious and secular writings. In this way, the research program of the LWC is substantially complemented by the presence of philology and literary history.