25 May 2017

Mango On Byzantine Literature And Byzantine Anti-Feminism

Cyril Mango’s 1980 book Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome influentially described Byzantine literature and Byzantine anti-feminism. Mango published this book from his lofty position as Bywater and Sotheby Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature at the University of Oxford. Mango’s introduction recognized that “Byzantine” inaptly labels the continuation of the Roman Empire. Yet Mango’s descriptions of Byzantine literature and Byzantine anti-feminism are much more misleading.
Misunderstanding largely defines popular western understanding of the fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire didn’t fall in the fifth century in accordance with the influential myth of eighteenth-century English historian Edward Gibbon. The Roman Empire continued at its capital at Constantinople until western European crusaders took Constantinople in 1204. Common use of the term Byzantium and Byzantine for the post-fifth-century continuation of the Roman Empire began only from the time of the European Renaissance. The issue isn’t merely the historical pedigree of a particular term. Separating the Roman Empire from Byzantium separated classical culture from its eastern Christian continuation. That conceptual separation has contributed to learned misunderstanding and cultured bigotry.
Mango’s Byzantium shows the extent of learned misunderstanding and cultured bigotry. Mango described the four surviving Komnenian-era Byzantine novels as “unbelievably tedious.” That’s a grave misunderstanding. Rhodanthe and Dosikles offers intriguing psychological insight. Drosilla and Charikles remains profoundly relevant today for overcoming prudery and understanding the complexities of passionate engagements. Hsymine and Hysminias provides an engaging, transgressive perspective on sexual harassment. Aristandros and Kallithea, although surviving only in fragments, provides a critical perspective on men’s disposability and women’s advantages in fighting. These four Komnenian-era Byzantine novels are far less tedious than Mango’s own book.
Mango’s failure to appreciate Byzantine literature goes well beyond the Komnenian-era Byzantine novels. With respect to the wildly creative Prodomic poems, Mango declared, “as literature they are pretty {sic} disappointing.” The romance Kallimachos and Chrysorroi includes an outrageously funny parody of dragon-slaying and a profound fable about a man having to earn love. Mango described Kallimachos and Chrysorroi as “nearly all verbiage.” Mango found in Byzantine writers “no real conception of ancient Greek literature.” The classicist of classicists John Tzetzes, a Byzantine writer who produced scholarly commentaries and interpretations of ancient Greek literature, might respond that a anyone believing such a claim must be “possessed and epileptic, a moonstruck son of a goat.” Overall, Mango’s view of Byzantine literature is a crude caricature:
To a modern observer this literature appears deficient in many respects. It has irony, often heavy-handed, but practically no humour. With very few exceptions, it is not concerned with love, other than sacred or parental love. It has no ribaldry and no joie de vivre. Byzantine literature is solemn, even sombre, in tone and is probably at its best when describing death, disasters, and the instability of human existence.
Early Byzantine hymnist Romanos the Melodist would imagine Mary ordering Jesus to call down woes upon Mango. The Byzantine satirist Mazaris or one of the articulate animals in the Byzantine Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds might claim that a potato stuck in Mango’s ass is causing his head to filled with crap. The Byzantine scholar John Italos probably would punch Mango in the face. Is it any wonder that Mango imagined a Priapic ass-driver statute in Constantinople to be a bath attendant wearing a loincloth and a helmet?
The Roman Empire arguably was restored in 1261 and continued to exist until the Turkish overthrow of Constantinople in 1453.

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