Revealing the Voices behind the Cover: Paul Magdalino
Date: 30 August 2017
Location: Seyssel/Corbonod, France
DM: Paul, what you are mostly known for is your studies of Byzantine history and culture. In other words, you are mostly known for your scholarship. But during your entire career, you were also a teacher of Byzantine studies. So let’s start from there and this would be my first question. What role did teaching play in your scholarly life and what are the specificities of teaching Byzantium?
PM: The role that teaching played in my scholarly life is quite simply that it was a part of my scholarly life. You know, it can only be, I think, if you are a good scholar and a good teacher; and the two have to go together. Although there are some people who will always invest in the one rather than the other. And I, to be honest, yes, I did invest more in research than in teaching, but my teaching always informed my research and above all, my teaching made me constantly aware of how important it was to be clear and comprehensible and not to get lost in details in anything that I write, any paper that I give, any book that I write. And the other thing was that teaching did influence actually what I worked on at more than one point. Especially when I started teaching at St Andrews. I was hired to teach, among other things, a course on the Italian Renaissance, so, to co-teach with art history. And so that made me very aware of, of course, aesthetics and history, of the cultural world of courts, I think, if you read the preface to my book on Manuel I – or was it an article on Manuel? – I can’t remember, you will see that it was actually the Renaissance court culture, it was working on that and teaching that that made me transfer some of the methods and the questions to my work on Byzantium in the twelfth century. And then, why did I come to work on Byzantium in the twelfth century? Well, it was partly because of what I was reading before I took my job at St Andrews, which was Choniates and other twelfth-century authors, but also because at St Andrews there was a great focus, in the teaching of European history anyway, on the Crusades and again because of my specialty I had to teach a lot of that. So, that again, that gave me a focus on the twelfth century. So this is one way in which my teaching in the beginnings of my university teaching really did have a lasting effect on my scholarship.
DM: Would you say that it is still the case, namely, that you still follow some of the themes that started back then?
PM: Yes, and I would add to that the fact that I usually try to translate the key passages that I cite.
DM: And the translations then open new perspectives?
DM: Following this same thought and again about teaching. One of the topics we often discuss now in relation to the teaching and learning of the classics and the Middle Ages including Byzantium concerns the advantages and disadvantages of teaching through translations. Now you also touched upon this topic. So, what do you think about this method? It is clear that it renders the classical and medieval cultures more widely accessible, but what do we gain and what do we lose when we teach through translations? And is it inevitable to do it?
PM: I think we gain ourselves because we always, the teachers who compare the translation to the original and it actually makes them see things in the original that they had not seen, and that goes for producing your own translations as well. But it is always a second best and if you continue with the subject beyond undergraduate level then it’s impossible to do it all with translation. Translations serve just to give you a quick orientation in the text, a quick overview of the text, after which you have to go to the original language. This is, of course, what makes me and, I’m sure, other Byzantinists of my generation feel somewhat awkward when we are dealing with languages we have to read in translation like Arabic. I am not talking about secondary literature here, but rather about sources in translation. When you go there, when you consider what importance the Byzantines themselves attached to their language and to the right terminology, to the right construction of a sentence, then you realise how much you are losing of what they experienced and expected from the text.
DM: Again on the topic of how we relate our work to the public: we address not only our peers and our students but also the wider, not necessarily academic, public. I remember you told me once that there were three aspects of Byzantium that are rather well-known and serve as relevant points of entry into Byzantine history and culture, namely Byzantine art and architecture, Byzantium’s religious heritage and, then, its role in the reception of the classics. Could you return to this topic and say a little bit more about each of those three aspects and more specifically, about what kind of Byzantium we see through the respective perspectives they offer. In other words, what is revealed and what is hidden when our notion of Byzantine culture is informed by those three aspects alone?
PM: Well, I will say one thing immediately that there is also something which actually generates some enthusiasm on Byzantium and that is Byzantine military history because the Byzantines had a long tradition of military usage, also quite a highly developed body of military theory. And just looking at war books and some military sites I’ve seen that Byzantine history actually appeals to that kind of historian, that kind of nerd, if you like.
But to return to the three main points. Art: well, if you enter via the art and you just stay with the art, then you’re not going to get a deep understanding, obviously, of the culture, but it may be enough to get you hooked, as, you know, medieval Gothic art gets people hooked on French or British medieval history, the Italian Renaissance art, etc. It depends on the purpose of the general reader, because the general reader is not in it for the full experience, or producing something original at the end of the day. So, I think, getting into it via art can get you a long way and it’s probably enough. Religion: I think religion is an area where, unless you are an academic and you are visiting the subject for academic purposes, you are likely to take it on its own terms: that is, you are interested in religion and interested in Orthodoxy, in the practice of the Orthodox faith today. The reception of the classics: well, of course, that, I think, calls for a more academic background than the others, because you are not interested in the reception of the classics particularly unless you’ve read the classics, so that you are a classicist or even a medievalist who’s interested in the classical tradition. Or you know about what happens in the west, but then you are aware that something equally important is happening through Byzantium.
DM: I have three more questions and the first two relate to some of the topics we have touched upon so far. So, in addition to the entry points of art, religion, reception of the classics and military history and continuing the same line of thought, what can we then say about Byzantine literature? How do we read it when we read it against or alongside medieval authors and also how is the contemporary reader reading it while approaching it together with contemporary literature? What is your take on the question as to how Byzantine literature forms part of the same process we discussed earlier, namely of opening Byzantium to the wider audience?
PM: I think Byzantine literature exhibits something that, and probably exhibits that to a greater degree and more refined degree than medieval literature, ancient literature and sometimes than modern literature, which is that it requires an intellectual approach to the enjoyment of reading. Well, obviously reading is an intellectual activity, but perhaps I should say a philosophical approach, namely that it’s not just sensual enjoyment or the enjoyment of narrative and visual imagination. Reading Byzantine literature demands something more of you; it demands a world view, a method and it requires you to follow the author, the writer in the construction of the text, because only that way can you appreciate the quality of what you are reading.
DM: So it is almost meditation-like, let’s say, or in other words, you have to really be donning the mask of the author, as it were, to understand the construction of the text.
PM: Yes, you have to be aware of his education, his reading and you have to have some idea about his purpose in writing.
DM: It is very demanding!
PM: Yes, it is demanding. Perhaps that isn’t quite the case with vernacular literature which you can appreciate quite immediately. Even so, I think, even things like Digenis and Ptochoprodromos make better sense when you have some background knowledge of what else was in the author’s mind, which is not true of reading a novel or seeing a film today.
DM: It isn’t?
PM: Well, every work of art, every work of fiction, every work of literature requires a certain cultural baggage possessed by the reader, but that cultural baggage can be very simple. And I think modern vernacular literatures cater to that simplicity and light baggage of the reader certainly more than medieval literatures in the learned language and certainly more than ambitious modern fiction and drama.
DM: I think I see your point and what it makes me think about is the following: that one big difference then and it may not be strictly Byzantine, but according to what you have just said it may be strongly present in Byzantium, is that when we have such a sophisticated process of writing, it means that we also have an equally sophisticated reader on the other side of this process. The author and the reader then are in dialogue, basically, as they share the same knowledge in order to both understand or engage with a given work and that also means that most likely, not only all authors in Byzantium are also readers, but that the readers are also the authors, as opposed to today when we have a large number of readers who are not authors. They would never write anything of their own, but they consume literature. And needless to say, today’s authors are also readers, as it is part of their profession. So would you say that this is something important to take into consideration when we talk about the experience of producing and receiving Byzantine literature?
PM: Yes, I would say that the purely passive reception of literature in Byzantium exists too, but it doesn’t exist with ambitious compositions. It exists simply in reading the Bible, listening to hymns in church, listening to hagiography being read out in a monastic gathering or at a vigil service, something like that. This is more like the sort of passive reading of the modern era. There, of course, the author is more remote from the reader.
DM: You concluded on the point of hymns and reading the Bible, so let’s ask the question about religion and orthodoxy in Byzantium. Could you speak about not how orthodox Byzantium was or what else is there except for a very pious Byzantium, but rather about the challenges for the historian who studies a Christian medieval culture?
PM: Yes. I think perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that you have to suspend scepticism. You have to be sympathetic and receptive to a milieu which firmly believes in the existence of the intangible and the invisible and that this is a more powerful reality than the reality we perceive with our senses. And because it’s from there that all really big acts and forces come, that is, starting with creation and then, in the case of Christianity, in the fact of the incarnation and in the performance of miracles. And you have to share the mentality that all this is possible and normal. That is not to say that scepticism is not always present in all the societies we study. There is a sort of a gut scepticism which you can see in Christian writings of all periods. You can sense that the writer wants to overcome a sense of that in the reader. That doubt is basically left out and you have to enter at the level where the doubt had been expelled.
DM: This might be difficult for the historian, to doubt and to get rid of all kind of presumptions.
PM: Yes. The historian does not have to believe what the people he studies believe. In fact, he shouldn’t. He shouldn’t believe anything that anybody believes. He shouldn’t take it on trust, he shouldn’t take their word for it. But at the same time he has to be quite willing to accept that they believed everything that they wrote about the supernatural.
DM: So the historian should accept the culture she studies on its own terms and she should not be judgmental.
DM: In order to finish our conversation, I have one final question. What do you think is the next thing we should be doing as Byzantinists? Where are you headed to and where do you think we should go next?
PM: It is interesting and important just to try and shed light on things that have been ignored, like texts or objects that have been ignored, to bring them to light wherever possible, or simply ways of looking at something that have not been tried. One should always be alive to the possibility of seeing things in new ways and seeing what hasn’t been seen before. Having done that, having explored the material to the best of our ability, it is our duty as scholars to write about it in the most interesting way possible, in a way that will make other people in our field read what we write and will make other people outside the field want to read what we write. In the end, and I say this unashamedly, our purpose is to show that Byzantium was special.