Past and Present in Mid-Byzantine Chronicles: Change in Narrative Technique and the Transmission of Knowledge

Past and Present in Mid-Byzantine Chronicles: Change in Narrative Technique and the Transmission of Knowledge

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Past and Present in Mid-Byzantine Chronicles: Change in Narrative Technique and the Transmission of Knowledge

By Staffan Wahlgren

Collegium: Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 17:2 (2015)

Abstract: In this article I will discuss the presentation of the past and, to some extent, the present (or immediate past) in selected Byzantine chronicles of the ninth and tenth centuries, from prosopographical-political, geographical and other perspectives. Particular emphasis will be placed on the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor and the Chronicle of Symeon the Logothete. My main contention will be that changes in a narrative’s form can, to a considerable degree, explain why the knowledge therein is so different in each text. In other words, how a text is organised decides the kind of information it will contain, and therefore, the value of a text as an historical document is very much dependent upon its form.

Introduction: This article takes as its starting point a message by our conference host who, in an early email, wrote about ‘how deeply medieval literary chronicles were tied to literary etiquette in their presentations of the past’. This is certainly true, although we should perhaps not stress the word literary too much, because it is obvious that literary devices are present in all kinds of texts, and it is hardly possible to make any meaningful distinction between literary chronicles and other chronicles. At any rate, the importance of literary form for how the past is conceived has all too seldom been stressed in research, which, as far as chronicles in general are concerned, and Byzantine chronicles in particular, has had a very strong focus on the purely philological study and usefulness of the texts as historical sources.

Therefore, my subject will be the transmission of historical knowledge and literary form, and a way of putting this, which is by no means original (in the sense that it has been the concern of scholars working on other texts and epochs), is that the form chosen for the narrative is of decisive importance in the ability of an historical text to function as a carrier of information. A text’s literary form decides what information the text will contain and what it can tell us about the past or, for that matter, the present (even though I consider it clear that the kind of stylization which we will discuss here is less common when the events of recent times are narrated). If an old chronicle by virtue of its literary form has restricted information about the past, then a later text dependent on this older one will have the same serious limitations in its depiction of the past. Indeed, literary conventions can have far-reaching consequences for collective memory.

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