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Akronym: Byz Hag – Byzantine Hagiography

Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Claudia SodeProf. Dr. Reinhart Ceulemans

Turning points in history have never been, and must never be reduced to, bare historical events occurring in a cultural vacuum. Such events are accompanied and followed by the production of art, not least literature, whose dynamic is two-fold: it reflects the impact and reception of political and economic decisions and measures taken by rulers, as well as serves as an instrument in their implementation and propagation.

In Byzantium, hagiography was a genre very much suited for this two-fold function: although in essence a product of the elite, it was also a form of mass media that deserves the label ‘popular’. The eighth to tenth century was without a doubt a turning point in Byzantine history: an existential crisis caused by internal and external turmoil was followed by the emergence of a transformed empire, ruled by emperors who actively reflected on its identity and governed with strengthened imperial authority. Critical research of hagiographical literature from this time, which falls into what is called the Middle Byzantine period, therefore discloses valuable information on that period of history that complements that of more traditional historiographical approaches.

This line of research has much chance of success when choosing as its point of entry the use of the Bible. Many of the controversies that made the eighth to tenth centuries such a pivotal period, were of a religious nature. Moreover, the Bible was used by the rulers of that time as an important instrument in the development of their imperial ideology and in the design of their program of political and religious reform. This explains the highly significant role of the Bible.

This project addresses these issues. Benefiting from expertise present in Cologne and Leuven combined, it explores the topic of the Bible in Middle Byzantine hagiography. The overarching project rests on three pillars. Research on each of these three axes will be carried out simultaneously and will continue for the duration of the project.

(1) The first of the three parts will document and interpret the presence of Biblical citations in hagiographical literature from the eighth to tenth century. This will increase our knowledge of popular reception of the Bible in Byzantium (cf. Krueger 2015 and 2016). The data that inform our study will be collected by a student collaborator and made available in an open access database, in collaboration with www.biblindex.mom.fr.

(2) In the second axis, we focus on the relation with the historical context. For this purpose, polemical hagiography is selected as the primary research corpus. Investigating the function of Biblical echoes in such works, we will be able to assess how hagiography functioned in terms of Meinungsbildung, in relation to religious imperial policy and high-culture ideology.

Several Lives contain scenes that have the saint enter into one or more debates with representatives of non-Christian beliefs or heterodox Christians: Jews, Muslims, iconoclasts, Paulicians, etc. (‘polemical hagiography’). In part these dialectics echo what must have been historical reality, witness the debate between Constantine-Cyril and the caliph Mutawakkil shortly after the Triumph of Orthodoxy (Dvornik 1967). But in several Lives, they were further developed beyond that reality and have topical value.

The way the Bible is used in these dialectical passages is a precious source of information on the larger picture of Biblical reception in the Middle Byzantine period. That use of the Bible is not restricted to discussions that involve proselytization (which in turn also echo historical events, such as the central position of Scriptural interpretation in the discussions between Basil I and Jews, Prieto Domínguez 2013). It is not even restricted to dialectical passages: also other sections in the Lives in question are relevant (i.e. discussions are not the only relevant form; see also Photios’ homilies 3 and 4). Biblical models were very important in the construction of the concept of the elect nation, which was very much alive in ideology from this period (Eshel 2018), and part of a broader process of identity formation (Identitätsbildung). That argument is one that obviously implies and nurtures the contrast with non-Christian and heterodox beliefs, as in these episodes in hagiography, Biblical citations, imagery and interpretations are used to contrast the saint with religious adversaries (cf. e.g. Efthymiadis, Bingelli and Métivier 2021).

(3) The third axis will investigate the way in which the use of Biblical text and imagery was for Middle Byzantine hagiographers a tool of differentiation, next to register, style and subject matter, and how it interacted with to the producer/consumer relation. Here we will bring out the literary aspects of hagiographical writing and show that Biblical imagery and citations were a means of literary expression. This will help us to understand the rhetorical strategies used in the Lives to convey the narrative to the audience for whom they were composed.

Like other genres of literature, hagiography was affected by the decline of culture that marked Byzantium in the so-called ’Dark Ages’, i.e. the interruption of the educational system and the lack of literary erudition. The transformation of the Byzantine society after the end of the ‘Dark Ages’ during the so-called Macedonian Renaissance was characterized by a significant return to late antique forms of culture and the production of literature in which a high-register language was cultivated. Whereas hagiography in the transitional period of the seventh and eighth centuries features much spoken Greek of the time and a high degree of narrative vividness, hagiographers of the ninth and tenth centuries, inspired by a general change in society and different taste, outdid each other in the use of elaborate means of expression and rhetorical ornaments. Style, language, and the use of specific literary devices (stereotypes and literary conventions) have been determined as the main elements of differentiation between individual hagiographers (as revealed by Ševčenko 1981, Hinterberger 2007, Churik 2019, Agapitos 2004 and others).

Differentiation characterizes the producers of hagiographical texts: in the same way we can argue that there were also different types of consumers of that literature. Research on the interrelation between authors and audience (starting with Efthymiadis 1996) showed that hagiographers on the one hand satisfied the expectations, taste and literary education of a specific audience and that, on the other hand, they could presuppose (but also had to live with) a specific level of knowledge and literacy on the part of their clients. In axis 3 we want to investigate the role the Bible played in this relation.

Our goal in this part of the project is to bring out the literary aspects of hagiographical writing and to show that Biblical imagery and citations were a means of literary expression of a writer. In our opinion, the use of the Bible was part of greater literary complexity and another key (next to language, topic, and style) to understand the rhetorical strategies used in the Lives to convey the narrative to the audience for whom they were composed. Familiarity with the Bible was after all a common ground between author and audience.


Agapitos, P.A. 2004. Mortuary Typology in the Lives of Saints: Michael the Synkellos and Stephen the Younger, in P.A. Agapitos & P. Odorico (eds) 2004. Les Vies des saints a Byzance: genre litteraire ou biographie historique? Actes du IIe colloque international ”ERMENEIA” (Dossiers byzantins, 4). Paris, 103–135.

Churik, N. 2019. Greek Explicating Greek. A Study of Metaphrase Language and Style, in M. Kinloch & A. MacFarlane (eds), Trends and Turning Points. Constructing the Late Antique and Byzantine World (The Medieval Mediterranean, 117). Leiden, 66–82.

Dvornik, F. 1967. The Embassies of Constantine-Cyril and Photius to the Arabs, in To Honor Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday. Vol. 1 (Janua linguarum. Series major, 31). The Hague, 569–576.

Efthymiadis, S. 1996. The Byzantine Hagiographer and his Audience in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Ch. Høgel (ed.) 1996. Metaphrasis. Redactions and Audiences in Middle Byzantine Hagiography (Kults skriftserie, 59). Oslo, 59–80.

Efthymiadis, S. 2011. Hagiography from the ‘Dark Age’ to the Age of Symeon Metaphrastes (Eighth–Tenth Centuries), in St. Efthymiadis (ed.). The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography. Farnham, vol. I: 95–142.

Efthymiadis, S., A. Bingelli and S. Métivier 2021. Les nouveaux martyrs à Byzance: I. Vie et Passion de Bacchos le Jeune par Étienne le Diacre. II. Études sur les nouveaux martyrs. Paris.

Eshel, S. 2018. The Concept of the Elect Nation in Byzantium (The Medieval Mediterranean, 113). Leiden.

Hinterberger, M. 2007. Die Sprache der byzantinischen Literatur: Der Gebrauch der synthetischen Plusquamperfektformen, in M. Hinterberger & E. Schiffer (eds), Byzantinische Sprachkunst. Studien zur byzantinischen Literatur gewidmet Wolfram Hörandner zum 65. Geburtstag (Byzantinisches Archiv, 20). Berlin/Boston, 107–142.

Krueger, D. 2015. Biblical Quotations and Liturgical Echoes in Leontios of Neapolis’s Life of Symeon the Fool: Scriptural Familiarity and the Culture of Reference in Seventh-century Cyprus, in Th. Giankou et al. (eds), Κυπριακή Αγιολογία. Πρακτικά Α΄ διεθνούς συνεδρίου, Παραλίμνι, 9-12 Φεβρουαρίου 2012. Ayia Napa-Paralimni, 267–280.

Krueger, D. 2016. The Hagiographers’ Bible. Intertextuality and Sriptural Culture in the Late Sixth and the First Half of the Seventh Century, in D. Krueger & R.S. Nelson (eds) 2016. The New Testament in Byzantium. Washington, DC, 177–189.

Prieto Domínguez, Ó. 2013. The Mass Conversion of Jews Decreed by Emperor Basil in 873–4: Its Reflection in Contemporary Legal Codes and its Underlying Reasons, in J. Tolan, N. de Lange, L. Foschia & C. Nemo-Pekelman (eds), Jews in Early Christian Law: Byzantium and the Latin West, 6th-11th centuries (Religion and Law in Medieval Christian and Muslim Societies, 2). Turnhout, 283–310.

Ševčenko, I. 1981. Levels of Style in Byzantine Prose, in Jahrbuch der Osterreichischen Byzantinistik 31, 289–312.


Projektlaufzeit: 01.10.2022 – 30.09.2024 (Möglichkeit der Verlängerung um 1 Jahr)


Gefördert durch die Fritz Thyssen Stiftung