English Historians With Historiographical Problems on the the Byzantine Age in Byzantine Matters

Categories: Byzantine Empire

In 1983, Averil Cameron became the first chair of the ‘society for the promotion of Byzantine studies,’ she later wrote ‘Byzantine Matters,’ which focuses on English historians with historiographical problems on the Byzantine age.

She believes this era is severely ‘understudied and undertheorized’ (page 6) and may turn the study of the Byzantines into a ‘subulturn’ position as they fail to grasp Byzantine matters fully. She therefore in her books speaks of ways to alter this; her main solution is for there to be full and in depth studies of texts, art, literature without any prior judgement or idea’s from the past generation of historians.

The book is split into 7 sections, an introduction and epilogue with the main body of writing being five essays on different aspects of the Byzantine period; absence, empire, Hellenism, art and orthodoxy. Each essay usually has a question it’s trying to answer; chapter 1 (absence) why is Byzantine history neglected? Chapter 2 (empire) Was Byzantium an empire? Chapter 3(Hellenism) Who owns Byzantium? Is there a Byzantine identity? Chapter 5 (orthodox) Was Byzantium an “Orthodox society”?

Although the book does have a lot of historical content, I think the main point of the book was to question other historians’ beliefs and histiography in regards to Byzantine matters. In order to do this, the main sources she looks at are other people’s works meaning she has a lot of secondary source literature. Cameron states that “contemporary source material has been consciously or not-written from a western, or indeed a Roman Catholic, standpoint,” (Cameron, 2014, page 17) showing that majority of the sources will have a “western triumphalist perspective”( Cameron, 2014, page 17).

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Averil Cameron inquires about the problems faced as well as presenting important questions at the end of each chapter.

The first chapter, ‘Absence’ looks at why Byzantium history is not looked at in great detail by Western historians; and how its fall was simply “an essentialist and inexorable rhetoric of decline and victimhood. (Cameron, 2014, page 10).” Cameron believes the western world looks negatively on Byzantium; this may possibly be due to the belief that their important intellectual traditions are not ‘original’ or ‘sophisticated’, which may possibly answer why many English speaking historians are critical of Byzantine literature. Cameron argues Historians like Edward Gibbon created this image of the Byzantine era. After hearing this view, it is not surprising that historians like Gibbon have this view as he was a scholar in a time where his country was colonising other places. He would likely have a cultural bias.

However, in the twentieth century, historians like T. Whittemore, R Byron and D Talbot Rice discovers the world of Byzantium and introduce it to ‘English Philhellenism’ (Cameron, 2014, page 11). Cameron is dissatisfied with these historians and the Byzantine historians to follow. She speaks of how one of the main problems that current scholars have, is the fact that that many fail to study and comprehend the huge amounts of scriptures created by the Byzantines. Plus many English historians follow their predecessors by researching and explaining this time period for an English audience. Since this happens, the historians fail to fully grasp Byzantine religions and literature. It therefore fails to fully depicts the Byzantine era in a well-balanced way as their view may be more ethnocentric even though they try to capture the ‘exoticness’ of the Byzantine people and culture.

In order to try and stop this from reoccurring, Cameron suggests that “Byzantine view should be in the secondary literature”( Cameron, 2014, page 16). I agree with this being a solution as it will not be too difficult and I feel like it would help give a much better understanding of the Byzantine Empire, as well as the study of it being less elite.

In the second chapter, Cameron looks at how the Byzantium’s political identity changed throughout time and if it should be called an empire or not? 

Due to the ever evolving political nature of the Byzantines it does not fit the stereotypical definition of an empire and so she argues a clear definition needs to be given. The basic definition of ’empire’ according to J.F. Haldon would include “the capability to centralize control over different areas and to be able to get a type of tribute”(J.F. Haldon, 1993). To centralize control it can mean militarily, economically and to just in general have domination in those territories that was unified by a form of system. Cameron agrees that the Byzantine had this, so therefore could be called an empire. The Byzantine period spanned over a vast time range and so aspects of it changed, yet, they still always had the characteristics of an empire.

The main problem that has occurred when speaking about the Byzantines, is that there is a generally accepted idea regarding them. This can be seen in the Balkans where many people just read from a one standard volume book by George Ostrogorsky (Cameron, 2014, page 40).

It can be seen all throughout the different chapters that many historians studying the Byzantine era don’t question the ideas historians before them wrote. Dmitri Obolenski wrote a book called ‘The Byzantine Commonwealth:Eastern Europe, 500-1453′ which states that the Byzantine was multinational and coins the name ‘Byzantium commonwealth’ for it. Cameron does not agree with this, as she writes “the Byzantine have maintained a legal framework, an ability to extract a surplus through taxation, and to sustain an army” (Paul Stephenson, 2014, page 484). I agree with Cameron in this article, and believe that although the Byzantine didn’t imperially expand they were still an empire.

The third chapter tries to explain the difficulty in trying to give the Byzantine people an ethnicity. The Byzantines saw themselves as Romans and followed Roman law but spoke Greek and had Greek roots in their culture(Cameron, 2014, page 65); but when the crusades came, the Byzantine Empire started to use the term ‘Hellenes’ about themselves (Cameron, 2014, page 52). However, Cameron has found that ‘Hellenism’ “is as apprehensive a concept within Byzantine studies as the Byzantine tradition is to Greeks today.” (Cameron, 2014,page 48) The term ‘Hellanism’ has been used as “theoretical toolbox by historians to better understand the cultural and religious changes that occurred” (Cameron, 2014, page 52). Cameron agrees that ‘Hellenism’ is important in understanding byzantine, however, she also agrees with a Greek historian, Kaldellis who argues that the Byzantine people were not a selfconsciously multi ethnic empire but a “nation state of the Romans” (Cameron, 2014, page 55).

This view is quite a large contrast to what historians had previously stated. Although Cameron does agree with Kaldellis about some parts, she does not agree with some fundamental aspects. Some of these contrasting ideas include whether or not their idea on byzantine people not being multi ethnic is throughout the whole period or only parts. As well as how long Christianity helped unite the Byzantine people and if it was actually important and needed. She feels his arguments are too narrow and that there has to be more research on the Byzantine identity as “Hybridity was built into the very nature of Byzantium and so were the multiple identities so familiar to its varying population and the different phases of its history.”( Cameron, 2014, page 66) the solution seems to be occurring, as there is applied theoretical models on identity and religion. A critic wrote, “the main question at the beginning appears to be if the Byzantines were the Greek successors, but by the end, it appears like Cameron is answering the question ‘modern Greek inheritance from Byzantium”” and I have to agree. I did not feel like the initial question had been answered.

In terms of histiography, Cameron touches on how many orthodox countries learn about the Byzantines where as in the Anglo-Saxon world, the only historians to do so, usually were and still are “classicists by origin” (Cameron, 2014, page 66); which has led it to becoming “caught between hostile….assumptions of these classically trained scholars”( Cameron, 2014, page 67) these assumptions usually include the consensus among previous historians that the Byzantines were not innovative and just imitated. Cameron contest this however she does not give a clear view on how to do this. She remarks on how “Byzantine historians need to look into discourse analysis and to language and writing as mechanism of identity and power” (Cameron, 2014, page 64). I find this solution is more towards historians getting a better understanding on the identity of the byzantine people rather than using it to see how unique byzantine literature and art was. This may be because earlier on in the book she talks about literature while later on in the book (chapter 4) tries to figure out solutions for the art but it would still have been good for her to speak a little bit on it.

Chapter 4 is called The realms of God’ and focuses on Byzantine art and the importance of it. Byzantine art has intrigued the masses, resulting in exhibitions and more interest in this time period; Cameron suggests it’s because of the Byzantine legacy of luxury and exoticness. Cameron has argued for the absolute need of Byzantine art to be looked into by all historians not just art historians as she states “Historians need texts and “text historians” need art history (Cameron, 2014, page 78)”. She believes that learning about art is of the utmost importance because words can lie whether it be intentionally or not where as “images conveyed the truth” (Cameron, 2014, page 73). She feels it is necessary for historians to look into art as many art historians look at the primary piece and feel captivated by the colours and symbols but may possibly miss the artists milieu.

Cameron argues that traditional scholars who have stated that Byzantine literature is an ‘imitation’ has limited the full appreciation of Byzantine art and literature (Cameron, 2014, page 78). She argues that past historians “inherited rhetorical strategies and assumptions.” 

Cameron points out that Robert Bryon had an idealized view of Byzantine art and his approach was patronising (Cameron, 2014, page 70), using Bryon as an example, Cameron is trying to emphasize how many art historians are focused on the aesthetic of the art. They may fail to delve deeper and look into meanings and the reason the art was created at that exact time and what it may have symbolised. This is why it is important for historians in general to look into Byzantine art. Cameron notes the importance of looking at Byzantine art in modern times where there are greater technological advances as well as more knowledge on the empire itself as “the availability of archaeological data also invites an interdisciplinary methodology… which may have some lessons for the Byzantists”( Cameron, 2014, page 83).

I enjoyed reading this essay, it was insightful and Cameron was able to look at it all in a different perspective.

“The very model of Orthodoxy’ is the last essay in the book, it looks at the religious life of the Byzantine and questions if they were actually an orthodox society. Cameron states that orthodoxy in Byzantium occurred because of the “patristic period”. She states that many scholars think this time was around the mid ninth century when “iconoclastic policies came to an end” (Cameron, 2014,page 106). She later questions if ‘Orthodoxy’ was “a hegemonic and dominant system that intellectual independency was made to find expression in suppression or if the Byzantine Orthodoxy was just a mix of people and their beliefs who were trying to promote and enforce.”( Cameron, 2014, page 92)

Cameron notes that when this is being asked only a few scholars from the ninth to the twelfth century are spoken about but their views are difficult to analyse, she states that the ambiguity of the intellects thoughts are a parallel to the ambiguity of religious authority in the period (Cameron, 2014, page 110). Primary sources like official byzantine art shows that there was a hierarchy in society (emperor on top and higher clergy’s etc… are just beneath the emperor) however, in reality Cameron argues that there was no central religious authority and that discourse of orthodoxy was key in Byzantine society. Cameron is suggesting that many think that Byzantine was orthodox because those who study it leave the theological issues as ‘church history’ and she strongly disapproves of this. She suggests that it should be studied by those who specialise in the study of religion as the theological ideas rooted in it would be difficult for historians to fully understand and appreciate, unlike a theologist.

In regards to this chapter, Cameron states that historians are failing to look at all the writing and debates that was dedicated to orthodoxy and other theological/philosophical ideas in the Byzantine period. She calls for a full in depth study of the subject and for all the texts to be studied.

Byzantine Matters was an interesting read and it was not too difficult for someonewith no  knowledge on the Byzantine empire to follow . Although it was solely about Byzantine matters and the difficulties Byzantine historians face, similar challenges could affect a number of different historical topics and times. I agree with Danny Yee that the books main goal is to try and persuade both historians and students alike to start speculating on less known time periods. Shaun Tougher in his review writes “Cameron articulates that Byzantine Studies is still running to catch up…….disheartening to reveal how much more still needs to be done” which I think sums up my main feeling after reading the book. The book did make me want to research into the Byzantines a bit more, however on the whole I must agree with Warren Treadgold in that Cameron wants us all to study the Byzantines but she never fully explains why we should all be interested in the Byzantines. She fails to mention events that occurred in the Byzantine era that affects us today. Many times, she writes about how well researched the Roman time period is but I think one of the reasons for that is because of how the Romans impacted our lives today. I feel like if she gave examples of how the Byzantines impacted us, more people would be inclined to study about them.

Bibliography

  1. Cameron, Averil. Byzantine Matters. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. https://www.scribd.com/read/260985436/Byzantine-Matters – Online version I used of Byzantine Matters.
  2. Haldon, John F. The State and the Tributary Mode of Production, London: Verso, 1993.
  3. Stephenson, Paul. Ancient, Classical, Medieval and Renassance/L’Antiquite, l’Epoque Classique, le Moyen Age at la Renaissance 2014 ,pg 483-5
  4. Tougher, Shawn. Cardiff University http://research.ncl.ac.uk/histos/documents/2015RR12 Tougheron Cameron.pdf
  5. Treadgold, Warren. St Louis University file:///C:/Users/Zahraa/Downloads/Review_of_Averil_Cameron_Byzantine_Matte.pdf
  6. Danny Yee http://dannyreviews.com/h/Byzantine_Matters.html (Accessed 13/12/16) https://intellectusspeculativus.wordpress.com/2014/07/30/byzantine-matters-by-averil cameron/ (Accessed 13/12/16)

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English Historians With Historiographical Problems on the the Byzantine Age in Byzantine Matters. (2021, Sep 13). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/english-historians-with-historiographical-problems-on-the-the-byzantine-age-in-byzantine-matters-essay

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