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Sofia Kotzabassi (ed.), A Companion to the Intellectual Life of the Palaeologan Period (Leiden: Brill, 2023) by Dimitra Moniou

A Companion to the Intellectual Life of the Palaeologan Period, edited by Professor Sofia Kotzabassi, is a collection of essays that provides a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of the intellectual life during the Palaeologan period (1261-1453). The book covers a wide range of topics, including rhetoric, philosophy, autobiography, history, poetry, epistolograply, Monasticism, Hesychasm etc., offering valuable insights into the complexities of Palaeologan scholarship. This makes Kotzabassi’s Companion an enlightening exploration of the cultural landscape during the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire and simultaneously an essential tool for researchers, students, and the general public interested in Byzantine literature and history.

Kotzabassi’s Companion is divided into twelve well-structured chapters, each exploring different aspects of the intellectual life of the Palaeologan period. In the Introduction (pp. 1-14), Kotzabassi, in addition to her contributions as editor, provides a clear and concise overview of the intellectual life of the Palaeologan period, focusing on the role of women, manuscripts as significant factors in the blossoming of the last centuries in Byzantium, the sciences etc. Kotzabassi also points out the role of Byzantine scholarsandtheir profound impact on the renewal and innovation of the long and rich intellectual tradition in Byzantium.

The first chapter by Eleni Kaltsogianni, “The ‘Legacy’ of Aphthonios, Hermogenes and Pseudo-Menander: Aspects of Byzantine Rhetoric under the Palaiologoi,” (pp. 15-75) refers to the fundamental role of rhetoric in Byzantine intellectual life and society in the Palaeologan era. Kaltsogianni concentrates on free-standing rhetorical texts and draws interesting conclusions for this period. According to her remarks, traditional forms continue to serve as the basis for rhetorical composition, while the rhetors of the Palaeologan period re-discovered authors of the Second-Sophistic and brought to light neglected forms. However, it is apparent that during the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire rhetoric assumed a more ‘pragmatic’ role occasionally presenting in a refined way state-of-the art events.

In the second chapter, “Intellectual Pursuits for Their Own Sake”, (pp. 76-111) Sophia Mergiali-Sahas examines five intellectual figures (Theodore Metochites, John Zacharias, Gregory Chioniades, Demetrios Kydones and Manouel Palaiologos), which at a time of irreversible political decline and decay of Empire, flashed about an exaltation and flourishing in learning. According to Mergiali-Sahas their pursuit of learning and mental growth, which go against the main currents of Byzantine traditional scholarship, was an alternative way of life and an exercise in making their life worth living, contributing in a way to the Renaissance.

In the third chapter of the Companion “Continuity and Evolution in Autobiographical Literature” (pp. 112-132), Kotzabassi delves into the autobiography genre during the last centuries of Byzantine Empire. After meticulous research, Kotzabassi refers to the autobiographical works from the early Byzantine period and highlights the way of this genre’s evolution. The chapter also analyzes basic elements in autobiography such as the title, the preface, and the autobiographical confessions with reference to specific authors and texts. Kotzabassi points out an extroversion in the Palaeologan era, evidenced mainly by the large number of copyists’ names on Byzantine manuscripts, which may have been a trend of this period or an interesting change of mentality.

The fourth chapter, “Writing the History of Decline” by Apostolos Karpozilos (pp. 133-171), deals with historiography and historical writing in the Byzantine Empire during the Palaeologan period. The chapter begins by discussing the historical tradition in the Byzantine Empire before the last centuries and then turns to the Byzantine historians of this era (George Akropolites, George Pachymeres, Nikephoros Gregoras, John Kantakouzenos and finally the historians Michael Kritoboulos, Michael Doukas, George Sphrantzes and Laonikos Chalkokondyles), their aims, sources, circumstances and the specific way in which each of them wrote their texts. According to Karpozilos, the historians’ intellectual dependence on the ancient historical texts with their pessimism for the future and the conviction that everything is the result of the divine providence raise the question of how faithfully the events are described.

In the fifth chapter, “Spirituality and Emotion: Poetic trends in the Palaelogan period,” (pp. 172-210), Ioannis Vassis examines the poetry in the Byzantine Empire during the last centuries. The chapter defines the causes and the circumstances of the poetic production in this era and points out the role of the intellectuals who showed off their skills to the members of the elite and their powerful patrons. Vassis deals with the poets who wrote for the court and then turns to specific genres and their writers, such as the Epigram with Manuel Philes, the Autobiography of Theodore Metochites, the poetry in the service of the church or for teaching purposes and other genres such as chronicles, satirical poems, romances etc. Vassis masterfully analyzes the poetry of the late Byzantine era and concludes that all the genres were cultivated with enthusiasm enriching and renewing the traditional characteristics and steadily leading to the Renaissance.

Τhe sixth chapter, “Epistolography, Social Exchange and Intellectual Discourse” by Alexander Riehle (pp. 211-251), examines Epistolography as a means of communication and expression in Byzantine society and a contributing factor to the social exchange and intellectual discourse. Riehle refers to the types of letters that were written in the Byzantine era, their purposes, and the ways in which they were used. The chapter begins with a brief overview of the history of Epistolography and continues with remarks on the theory and terminology. Riehle presents the letters within the microcosm of the Constantinopolitan intellectual elite, the evolution of this genre during the period of Civil Wars and also the letters not only in the last decades of the Empire but also until the 19th century.

In the seventh chapter, “The Reappropriation of Philosophy in the Palaeologan Period”, by Pantelis Golitsis (pp. 252-280), the factors that led to the reappropriation of philosophy, as well as the forms that this reappropriation took are presented. Golitsis notes that philosophy was always present in Byzantine society, but in the Palaeologan period was characterized by two specific features: autonomy and high sophistication. The chapter continues with the byzantine commentaries on ancient philosophical texts, which contributed to the accessibility to this genre and then refers to the efflorescence of philosophy in the last centuries as an essential educative factor for the Byzantine intellectuals. Golitsis also presents the rehabilitation of ancient philosophers by Byzantine authors and concludes that the reappropriation of Philosophy in the Palaeologan era cultivated a new generation of philosophers, such as Nicephoros Blemmydes, George Acropolites, George Pachymeres, Theodore Metochites etc.

In the eighth chapter, “Κόσμου θεωρία: Cosmic Vision and Its Significance in the Works of Theodore Metochites and Other Contemporary Intellectuals” (pp. 281-321), Ioannis Polemis defines the cosmic vision, or the perception of the universe as a unified and organized whole in the Byzantine texts of the Palaeologan period. Polemis analyzes the ways in which Byzantine intellectuals perceived the universe and the role of man in it. The chapter begins with a brief overview of the history of cosmic vision in ancient Greece and then Polemis discussing a number of specific examples of cosmic vision in the works of Theodore Metochites, delves into the ideas of Metochites, who incorporates elements of ancient Greek philosophy and Christian theology and envisioned the universe as a sacred and harmonious whole created by God. Then, Polemis turns to cosmic vision in the works of other contemporary Byzantine intellectuals, such as Nikephoros Gregoras. The chapter, after an overview of cosmic vision in Byzantine thought, concludes that the pessimistic approach to life in Metochite’s works had undoubtedly influenced his contemporary philosophers.

In the ninth chapter ,“Monasticism and Intellectual Trends in Late Byzantium” (pp. 322-344), Demetra Samara and Ilias Taxidis discuss the way in which monasticism influenced the spiritual life of Byzantine society during the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire. The chapter begins with a brief overview of the history of monasticism and then Samara and Taxidis note that monasticism experienced a period of flourishing in the 14th century, as many people sought in monasticism a form of salvation and spiritual elevation in a time of political and social turmoil. The chapter continues with an in-depth presentation of the monastic centers in the Palaeologan era, such as the centers in and outside Asia Minor, and the role of spirituality in Constantinople and Thessaloniki. The authors offer valuable insights into the significant role of monasticism in the dissemination of knowledge and ideas in Byzantine society and generally in the intellectual movement of this period.

The tenth chapter, “The Hesychast Controversy: Events, Personalities, Texts and Trends” by Ioannis Polemis (pp. 345-398), is an in-depth analysis of a significant religious quarrel that took place in the late Byzantine Empire (14th-15th centuries). Polemis delves into the factors that led to the controversy, the protagonists, the basic ideas, the texts that were written, and the aftermath of this controversy. The chapter begins with a brief overview of the history of the Hesychasm, and then the spiritual and political factors are presented, which led to political and religious turmoil. Polemis presents each of the protagonists and points out the significant impact of this controversy, which strengthened the Hesychast tradition and established it as an important aspect of the Orthodox Christian tradition. Polemis draws interesting conclusions not only for the impact of the controversy on the late Byzantine Empire but also for the key role of the Palamas’ original theory about man’s union with God.

In the eleventh chapter, “Working in the Imperial and Patriarchal Chanceries”, by Giuseppe De Gregorio (pp. 399-457), the organization and operation of the imperial and patriarchal chanceries, the offices responsible for the drafting and issuing of official documents in the late Byzantine Empire (13th-15th centuries) are presented. De Gregorio discusses the employees of the chanceries, their duties, and their importance to imperial and ecclesiastical administration. The chapter begins with a brief overview of the history of the chanceries, which had a long history in the empire and had also developed significantly during the 13th century. Next, the author examines different aspects of chanceries such as their use in the service of Rhetoric, and the officials and intellectuals in the Imperial and Patriarchal Chanceries. De Gregorio concludes highlighting the importance of the chanceries to imperial and ecclesiastical administration.

The twelfth chapter, “Public and Private Libraries in Byzantium” by Ilias Taxidis (pp. 458-490), examines the history and operation of public and private libraries in the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). Taxidis discusses the types of libraries (Imperial Library, Monastery Libraries and Private libraries), their resources, and their users. He also notes that libraries were important forms of culture and played a key factor in the dissemination of knowledge and culture in the Byzantine Empire. The chapter, after a multifaceted presentation of the topic, concludes with two maps, where the Libraries in Constantinople and the Monastic Libraries in Asia Minor are shown as well.

Each of the twelve chapters is completed by a bibliography containing the primary sources and secondary literature. The meticulous research and analysis presented in the chapters of the Companion are complemented by a general bibliography (pp. 491-502) and three Indices: an Index of Manuscripts and Documents (pp. 503-506), an Index of Places (pp. 507-509) and finally a General Index (pp. 511-519).

Overall, Kotzabassi’ Companion constitutes a significant and useful collection that thoroughly examines the intellectual and cultural environment during a critical period. The chapters are well-organized, draw upon a wide range of primary and secondary sources, and offer a systematic approach to historical, philosophical, religious, and social dimensions of the Byzantine literature in the Palaeologan era. From the theological debates to the philosophical aspects and the autobiographical texts, each chapter contributes to a rich tapestry of insights, shedding light on the dynamic interplay of ideas that shaped intellectual thought during this time. Furthermore, the Companion’s chapters offer a captivating glimpse into the wealth of ideas and events, showing off the renewal and innovation of this era.

Kotzabassi’s editorial prowess ensures a cohesive narrative, guiding readers through a diverse array of topics, including philosophy, literature, theology, history etc. The editor emerges as a trailblazer, coordinating an exceptional collaborative effort, and her contribution proves pivotal to the success of the book. By examining the intellectual endeavors of key figures, Kotzabassi offers this companion as a valuable resource for scholars, students, and everyone interested in the Byzantine Empire’s intellectual legacy.

In conclusion, A Companion to the Intellectual life of the Palaeologan Period, edited by Sofia Kotzabassi focuses on different fields and their key role in the cultural life of the Palaeologan era, and covers a broad range of topics allowing readers to delve into the details of various facets of the last centuries in Byzantium. It is obvious that Kotzabassi’ s Companion stands as an indispensable addition to the literature on Palaeologan scholarship and elevates our understanding of Byzantine culture to new heights.

Dimitra Moniou, PhD, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Literature, University of the Peloponnese

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