New Research on Byzantium: Adolescence, Polished Language

Two current research projects are dedicated to a detailed analysis of adolescence, on the one hand, and the language of subversion in Byzantium, on the other. The aim of the first project is to gain a better understanding of the adolescent life stage in the Eastern Roman Empire. Initial interim findings were recently presented to an audience of experts at the "Coming of Age – Adolescence and Society in Medieval Byzantium" symposium in Vienna. The second project addresses the literature of the empire at its cultural apex, from the 11th to the 13th century, analysing particularly the use of irony. Both projects are funded by the FWF.

Byzantium still has a lot to tell to science. Two projects of the FWF are listening. © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: © Wikimedia Commons / antmoose

The magnificent cultural heritage of the Byzantine Empire is widely known for its works of art and architectural monuments. But in addition to gold, silk, gemstones and ivory, a further valuable source for understanding the culture of the more than 1,000-year-old history of the Byzantine Empire is a substantial literary heritage. Two projects at the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Vienna are conducting a detailed analysis of these written sources as a door to understanding the social framework and the mentality of the mainstream Byzantine culture. The texts offer insights into this long-standing, rich and widely influential cultural epoch.

Growing up in The Middle Ages

Initial research findings were now presented to and discussed with an international symposium audience. The symposium offered international experts (Byzantinists, Medievalists, art historians, legal scholars and psychologists) a stage for the lively exchange of thoughts from various disciplines on the adolescent life stage of "homo byzantinus". Prof. Johannes Koder, project leader from the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Vienna, on the significance of the event: "This symposium successfully presented the Institute's extensive and complex fields of work to an international audience of experts, in developing a more refined picture of adolescence in Byzantium, and in demonstrating important guidelines for future research projects. " The project is dedicated to analysing the "discharge" of youth from the family in the period from the 6th to the 11th century. "At that time, the reasons for this discharge were for general or professional education, marriage, and entering a monastery. These form the starting point of our study of extensive written sources, such as legal documents, hagiographies, chronicles and letters," explains project member Dr. Despoina Ariantzi. One of the aims here is to clarify to what extent not only parental influence was significant for this discharge from adolescence, in contrast to childhood, but also the wishes of the youngsters. This offers insights into the role of the family in society, in the expectations of the two or three familial generations involved with respect to the future, and in the change in these expectations on the part of society for each subsequent generation.

Semantically Subversive

Another project at the Institute, dealing with the cultural phenomenon of irony, offers insights into the Byzantine mentality. Substantially more multifaceted than humour, to which it is related, irony can be systematically used for various purposes, especially for calling one's opponent or specific issues into question, creating distance, and demonstrating one's intellectual superiority. The playful, humorous element of irony was thus only superficially about amusement, as project leader Claudia Rapp, who succeeded Professor Koder at the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, explains: "The authors used rhetorical devices to produce subversive effects like irony. This enabled them to express critical opinions in a hidden manner." Project member Dr. Efthymia Braounou undertook the pioneering work to trace the conceptual history of irony from classical (Greek-speaking) antiquity into the Byzantine era, which allowed her to show the continuities of literary customs and usage. The next step will be to undertake a semantic analysis of works by Byzantine historians of the 11th and 12th centuries, the height of Byzantine literature, to uncover authors' ironic intentions and the effect on their audience. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the "poetry of subversion" (the title of the project) in Byzantine literature, thus contributing to the latter's appreciation as an independent phenomenon in its socio-cultural context, and not just as a conveyor of the literary heritage of Greco-Roman antiquity.

Both FWF projects are prime examples of Austria's international excellence in research into Byzantine culture. Innovative humanities research in the field of Byzantine studies as is currently being done in Vienna makes it possible to dust off established views and take a more discriminating look at, not only at the artistic treasures, but also the rich and complex significance of Byzantium in shaping modern European culture.

Scientific contact
Prof. Johannes Koder
Prof. Claudia Rapp
University of Vienna
Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies
Postgasse 7/1/3
1010 Vienna
T +43 / 1 / 51581 - 3456

Austrian Science Fund FWF
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
Haus der Forschung
Sensengasse 1
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / (0)1 / 505 67 40 - 8111

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T +43 / (0)1 / 505 70 44

Vienna, February 24th, 2014