In This Chapter

Political Literacy

Authored by: Catherine Holmes

The Byzantine World

Print publication date:  February  2010
Online publication date:  December  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415440103
eBook ISBN: 9780203817254
Adobe ISBN: 9781136727870


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Historians working on medieval cultures outside the Byzantine empire sometimes see Byzantium and literacy as virtual synonyms. Byzantium’s selfproclaimed status as the continuation of the Roman empire, its apparent disdain for its “barbarian” neighbours and its later reputation among scholars as the preserver of Hellenic culture, can all lead to the general supposition that the Byzantine empire was governed according to complex bureaucratic procedures, and that this system was run by a large and well-educated class of civil servants, all of whom had a profound knowledge of the classical world. Byzantinists themselves, on the other hand, have not always been so convinced by this bookish image, particularly for the centuries after ad 650. Since the 1970s it has often been argued that the number of individuals in Byzantium whose literacy skills or book-owning habits were sufficiently advanced to read and understand classical Greek literature remained tiny throughout the medieval period. 1 In addition, recent studies have suggested that the medieval empire often preferred to use relatively few bureaucrats and simple mechanisms of administration wherever possible rather than relying on vast armies of learned administrators and complex procedures. 2 Of course, this relatively negative picture of learning and written culture in Byzantium has been challenged. Revisionist appraisals have suggested a creative Byzantine engagement with the classical tradition. 3 And even if the study of literacy in Byzantium remains embryonic compared with treatments by western medievalists, initiatives have still been taken in this direction. No longer is consideration of Byzantine literacy limited to the classical interests of a handful of highly educated senior administrators in Constantinople; instead a much broader range of texts, materials, scribes, audiences and functions are now considered legitimate objects of study. 4 Nonetheless, despite this more catholic approach, scholars of the medieval empire have yet to think extensively about the intersection of literacy with politics. This lack of engagement contrasts with assessments of late antique Byzantium, where literacy has been seen as a vital adhesive in the relationship between imperial authority and provincial elites. According to this model, Constantinople’s provision of offices and salaries to those with the requisite literacy skills provided substantial incentives to provincial elites to invest in education. 5 Neglect of the relationship between politics and literacy in later Byzantine centuries also compares unfavourably with recent treatment of the Rus, a near neighbour of medieval Byzantium. 6

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