Byzantine Studies

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Byzantine Studies


a branch of medieval studies that represents a complex of scholarly fields—the history, law, language, and cultural heritage (including literature, philosophy, and art) of Byzantium.

Byzantine studies constituted a special branch of knowledge in the second half of the 19th century, when the term “Byzantium” was adopted in scholarly usage, and the sources of Byzantine studies date back to the distant past. Interest in the civilization and history of Byzantium appeared outside of its borders as early as the early Middle Ages in Armenia, Georgia, the southern Slavic countries, and ancient Russia, countries whose historic destinies had been closely linked with the empire. In the rest of Europe continuous and consistent attention was paid to Byzantium during the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, in connection with the renewal of interest in antiquity. (Byzantium was regarded as a continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire; it had preserved the cultural heritage of ancient civilization, which Byzantine scholars had been the first to study.) There was also a general interest in the important political events of the time—that is, the Turkish expansion into the Balkan peninsula and the struggle around the union between the Western Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Byzantine studies in the Western European countries developed from the study of the classical authors, Roman law (the Code of Justinian), and theology. The interest in Byzantium in Western Europe received a further impetus after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the Osmanli Turks conquered Byzantium and began to threaten other European countries. From the 16th century Byzantine studies were rapidly developing in France, Italy, and Germany. Greek scholars who had emigrated to the West during the conquest of their homelands by the Turks played a large role in furthering Byzantine studies.

After the end of the 17th century Byzantine studies gained the greatest importance in France. C. Du. Cange laid the foundations of French Byzantine scholarship. The dictionary of the middle Greek language begun by him retains its value even today. Byzantine studies during the 16th and 17th centuries consisted mainly of editing and annotating Byzantine sources and working out the methodology and auxiliary disciplines of Byzantine studies. Between the middle of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century the so-called Paris Corpus of Byzantine History was issued in France. Byzantine studies in France enjoyed the patronage of the royal court and served the political aims of absolutism, because Byzantium was represented as a model of centralized monarchy. In the 18th century the French philosophers of the Enlightenment who fought against absolutism advanced a sharply critical interpretation of the history of the Byzantine Empire, drawing attention only to its negative aspects (Voltaire, Montesquieu). This interpretation was developed and demonstrated in the works of C. Le Beau and the English historian E. Gibbon, the founder of scholarly Byzantine studies in Great Britain.

In 1828 the Corpus of Writers on Byzantine History, the so-called Bonn Corpus, began to be published in Bonn; it was an international edition of Byzantine historical documents, largely a reprint of the Paris Corpus. The significance of the Bonn Corpus lies in the fact that it is the most accessible source collection for Byzantinists today. During the next 50 years 49 volumes of the collection appeared, and the 50th came out in 1897. The work done on this edition promoted the predominance of philological research in Western Byzantine studies, in which the Byzantinists of Germany played the leading role. In Germany in the last quarter of the 19th century C. de Boor embarked upon a scholarly critical reedition of the Byzantine classics. In Germany historical studies were also overshadowed by juridical research; the name of K. E. Zachariä von Lingenthal, the editor of Byzantine legal documents and the greatest expert on Byzantine law, is closely linked with it. In 1892 the German philologist and literary historian K. Krumbacher founded the special yearly periodical Byzantinische Zeitschrift, which has become the most important organizational publication of international Byzantine studies and is still the major bibliographical reference tool for them. The progress in the study of Byzantine civilization, the recognition of its important influence on world culture, and the realization of the essential uniqueness of Byzantine historic development all furthered the rapid development of Byzantine studies. Krumbacher in Germany wrote a general outline of Byzantine literature, C. Diehl in France wrote the first outline of Byzantine history up to the fall of the empire, and J. B. Bury in Great Britain wrote basic works on the Byzantine administrative system.

At the same time, in the second half of the 19th century, Byzantine studies also were established in Russia. They developed from the preoccupation with national history, which is closely linked with the history of Byzantium, and Slavic studies. The exacerbation of the fight of the southern Slavic peoples against the Turkish yoke and the sharpening of the Eastern Question attracted considerable attention to this branch of science from the scholarly and cultural communities. V. G. Vasil’evskii played a fundamental role in the creation of Russian Byzantine studies. In 1894 he founded the yearly periodical Vizantiiskii Vremennik, which has be-come a recognized organizational publication of international Byzantine studies along with Byzantinische Zeitschrift. The Russian school of Byzantinists (V. G. Vasil’evskii, F. I. Uspenskii, N. A. Skabalanovich, P. N. Bezobrazov, B. A. Panchenko, A. A. Vasil’ev, K. N. Uspenskii, P. A. Iakovenko, and others), in which historical investigation predominated from the beginning, attached great importance to the study of the domestic, especially agrarian, history of Byzantium and to the study of ancient Russian history. This school introduced the Byzantine sources on medieval Russian history into scholarly research. Many official Byzantine documents were edited in Russia. The works of N. P. Kondakov on Byzantine art also gained great international importance.

The development of Byzantine studies in Western Europe between the two world wars was especially active. In the foreground stood historical research and art history, whereas philological research receded into the background. Special branches of Byzantine studies appeared, such as sphragistics, numismatics, and paleography. New scholarly centers of Byzantine studies arose, new special publications appeared, and many of the general periodicals on medieval history began to publish Byzantine research systematically. In addition to Germany, France, and Great Britain, Byzantine studies underwent considerable growth in Italy, Austria, Belgium, Greece, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. On a still wider scale Byzantine studies developed in Europe after World War II. An important center of Byzantine studies also arose in the USA. In the German Federal Republic the school of philological studies headed by F. Dölger, who had developed the fundamentals of a scientific study of official Byzantine documents (diplomatics), was of major importance until recently. In Belgium, H. Grégoire, the founder of the periodical Byzantion, played a large role in the development of Byzantine philology. G. Ostrogorsky of Yugoslavia established the first complete Byzantine history course in which the main achievements of modern Byzantine studies were taught. In France a new school of French Byzantinists founded by P. Lemerle paid great attention to source research and social and economic history. Serious studies on the history of Byzantine ideology were done by I. Sevcenko and J. Meyendorff in the USA. H. Hunger of Austria attempted to characterize Byzantine society sociopsychologically. The leaders in Western Byzantine studies are currently the French Byzantinists (in history, sources, art, sphragistics, and paleography) and Byzantinists from the German Federal Republic (sources, law, theology, literature, and philology). Byzantine studies are presently characterized by an intensification of interest in social problems and in the strengthening of international ties. International congresses of Byzantinists are convened regularly (the first congress in Bucharest, 1924; the most recent, the 13th, in Oxford, 1966). Soviet Byzantinists have participated in these congresses since the tenth, which was held in Istanbul in 1955. In 1955 the International Association for Byzantine Studies was founded. Extensive work is being done in the study of Byzantine sources. The issue of unpublished sources and the critical reissue of sources published in the 19th century were begun by the association.

In the USSR the first historical studies that viewed Byzantine history from a Marxist position appeared in the 1930’s. An organized scholarly center of Soviet Byzantine studies was established in Leningrad before the Great Patriotic War (the subdepartment of Byzantine studies at the Leningrad State University [LGU] under the direction of M. V. Levchenko), and another was established after the war in Moscow (the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR [AN SSSR], Byzantine Studies Group under the guidance of E. A. Kosminskii). In 1947 the publication of the Vizantiiskii Vremennik (Soviet series), which had been interrupted after 1927, was renewed by the AN SSSR. The section of Byzantine studies was established in 1956 at the Institute of History of the AN SSSR, and it serves as the basic scholarly center of Soviet Byzantine studies. (The section now belongs to the Institute of General History of the AN SSSR.) The scholarly centers for Byzantine studies in Leningrad and other cities play an important organizational role: the Lenin-grad Division of the Institute of the Peoples of Asia at the AN SSSR; LGU; the Hermitage; the Institute for the History of Language and Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the Georgian SSR in Tiflis; the University of the Urals in Sverdlovsk; and the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the Armenian SSR in Yerevan. Particularly remarkable are the efforts of Soviet Byzantinists to find solutions to questions about the socioeconomic history of Byzantium (M. V. Levchenko, N. V. Pigulevskaia, E. E. Lipshits, M. la. Siuziumov, Z. V. Udal’tsova, A. P. Kazhdan, and G. L. Kurbatov), Byzantine-Slavic relations (E. E. Lipshits and G. G. Litavrin), Byzantine art (V. N. Lazarev and A. V. Bank), and Byzantine sources and history of civilization (P. E. Ernshtedt, S. G. Kaukhchishvili, and E. Ch. Skrzhinskaia). Soviet Byzantinists are also doing research in the auxiliary Byzantine disciplines, such as numismatics, sphragistics, paleography, and the study of manuscripts. In 1967 the basic conclusions of Soviet Byzantine studies were assembled into the collective work Istoriia Vizantii (three volumes). An outline of the development of Soviet Byzantine studies was presented in Z. V. Udal’tsova’s book Sovetskoe vizantinovedenie za 50 let (1969).

In the other socialist countries Byzantine studies also attained considerable successes—in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Poland, and Rumania. Some of the most prominent Byzantinists of today are working in these countries—G. A. Ostrogorsky in Yugoslavia, G. Moravcsik in Hungary, I. Duichev and D. Angelov in Bulgaria, and E. Werner in the GDR.

Marxist Byzantine studies now play an ever more important role in the development of Byzantine studies all over the world.

A major point of dispute concerning the history and cultural development of the Byzantine Empire has been the question of the significance of Byzantium in the cultural historical process. The Marxist Byzantinists acknowledge the peculiarity of Byzantium’s historic fate and at the same time emphasize the similarity between the course of its development and that of Western Europe. They defend the idea of the gradual progressive development of Byzantium and characterize its history as a natural development of stages in the birth and evolution of a variant of a feudal society. On the other hand, the majority of scholars in the capitalist countries stress the conservative features of Byzantine social institutions and their historical origin from Roman institutions and regard Byzantium as a specific type of Eastern Orthodox society whose evolution was counterposed, as it were, to the development of Western Europe during the period of feudalism. Many other questions are also disputed—the question of the role of state power in Byzantium and Byzantium’s influence on the development of other peoples, for example. A large number of the bourgeois Byzantinists describe the Byzantine state as an institution standing above the classes and exaggerate its influence on the cultural development of the southern and eastern Slavs.

Today’s most important scholarly centers are attached to the universities and academies of sciences of the USSR, Bulgaria, Hungary, the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Austria, Great Britain, Belgium, Greece, Italy, the USA, France, the German Federal Republic, and other countries.

The most important periodical publications of Byzantine studies today are Visantiiskii Vremennik (St. Petersburg, 1894; Petrograd, 1918-24; Leningrad, 1924-27: and Moscow, 1947 to the present): Byzantinobulgarica (Sofia, since 1962); Byzantinoslavica (Prague, since 1929); Byzantion (Paris-Brussels, since 1924); Byzantinisch-Neugriechische Jahrbiicher (Athens, since 1920); Byzantinische Zeitschrift (Leipzig-Berlin, since 1892); Dumbarton Oaks Papers (Cambridge, Massachusetts, since 1940); Epeteris Hetaireion Byzantinon Spudon (Athens, since 1924); Zbornik Radova Vizantoloshkog instituta (Belgrade, since 1952); Jahrbuch der Osterreichischen Byzantinischen Gesellschaft (Vienna, from 1951; from 1969 entitled Jahrbuch der Osterreichischen Byzantinistik)\ Etudes Byzantines (Bucharest, from 1943; from 1946 entitled Revue des Études Byzantines, Paris); and Travaux et Mémoires (Paris, since 1966).


Vasil’evskii, V. G. Obozrenie trudov po vizantiiskoi istorii. St. Petersburg, 1890.
Udal’tsova, Z. V. Osnovnye problemy vizantinovedeniia v sovetskoi istoricheskoi nauke. Moscow, 1955.
Sokolov, N. P. Sorok let sovetskogo vizantinovedeniia, vol. 1. Gorky, 1959.
Udal’tsova, Z. V. “Vizantinovedenie.” In Ocherki istorii istoricheskoi nauki v SSSR, vol. 4. Moscow, 1966.
Moravcsik, Gy. Byzantinoturcica, 2nd ed., vol. 2. Berlin, 1958. Pages 1-164.
Ostrogorsky, G. Geschichte des byzantinischen Staates. Munich, 1963. Pages 1-18.
Ostrogorsky, G. In Jahrbuch der Österreichischen byzantinischen Gesellschaft, vol. 15. Vienna, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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