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Recent reading: Byzantium, the surprising life of a medieval empire

4 December 2009

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Several years ago I had the opportunity of completing a History Honours degree that I had had to leave unfinished because of lack of funds. I had to choose three papers out of several on offer, and one of them was Medieval History. I asked the professor what it covered. “Diplomatic and political history of England, France and Germany,” he told me. I lost interest, and enrolled for courses on other places and periods.

The syllabus illustrates the prejudice among Western historians, from the Renaissance to the present, that Judith Herrin’s book attempts to counter. Perhaps it was just as well that I was put off from taking the course on Medieval history, because this book was not available back then, and so even if the course had covered the so-called Byzantine Empire, I would have lacked an important resource for understanding it.

The term “Byzantine Empire” is itself an invention of Western historians, and a reflection of their prejudices. None of its citizens regarded themselves as Byzantine, or would even have known what it meant. In their own view they were Romans and the empire was the Roman Empire, founded in 753 BC. But even if we do regard it as Byzantine, it lasted for 1123 years, from 330 to 1453, which is longer than any other polity in Europe.

Herrin’s book is about the life of the Empire. She touches on diplomatic and political history, but includes far more. Economics and trade, religion and spiritual life, education, art and everything else. The way she tells the story is fascinating, and she gives a rounded picture.

The book is an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to study Byzantine history in more detail. But even if one reads nothing else on the subject, it plugs a significant gap in many people’s knowledge of world history.

As an Orthodox Christian I found it especially interesting, because it helps to place much church history into context, and especially the divide between the Christian East and West, which was fixed by the Western occupation of Constantinople in 1204. Herrin maintains that it was in an attempt to justify this that the West denigrated the Byzantine empire, and Western historians did so down to the present. Twenty years ago, just before the outbreak of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, the Western press was full of op-ed articles trying to re-awaken the old prejudices. We have learnt since that a lot of this was the work of public relations firms hired by Croatian and Slovenian secessionists. Herrin notes the essence of it, quoting an Irish historian, William Lecky

Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other eduring civilization to absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet ‘mean’ may be so emphatically applied… The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.

That there were intrigues and conspiracies there can be no doubt, and Herrin describes many of them, but such things were not lacking in the West either, nor, indeed, in other parts of the world. The book is also helpful in understanding Christian-Muslim relations over a period of many centuries.

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Here’s another review, from the person who recommended the book to me: Notes from a Common-place Book: Search results for Herrin: “I finally finished Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. I highly recommend the work. The book is arranged topically, and is accessible to the general reader, as well as containing enough meat for the more advanced Byzantinist.

The area of Byzantine studies has made great strides since the middle part of the 20th-century. The old stereotypes are falling away, and the civilization is increasingly seen in a new light, both among the general public and academics alike. The author seeks to counter any lingering misconceptions about the Empire among her peers. In her concluding chapter, Herrin chronicles the growth of prejudice against Constantinople in medieval Europe, and how this led to the prejudicial views of Gibbon and other 18th and 19th-century historians.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 December 2009 11:47 am

    This sounds good. Did you know that the Vikings referred to Byzantium as Micklegarth and regarded it as the centre of the world?

    I think you would have enjoyed the first episode of The History of Christianity on the BBC – still available on iPlayer if you hurry. It covers things like Nestorianism and the Syrian Orthodox church. Fascinating.

    • 6 December 2009 4:25 am

      Yes, the book refers to it, though it spelt Micklegarth differently. Charles Williams also referred to the city in his poetry.

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