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Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam. Joseph Rhakendytès' Synopsis of Byzantine Learning

Book Contribution - Chapter

© Cambridge University Press 2013. Introduction. During the last decades of the thirteenth and the early fourteenth century, the reign of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II (1282–1328) was marked by serious social, political and economic upheavals. The Byzantine empire, once the proud and powerful heir of the great eastern Roman empire, was gradually losing most of its territories. Yet, the very same period was also an age of imperial patronage, characterised by a revival of ancient Greek culture. One of its representatives was the Greek monk and scholar, Joseph Rhakendytès, also known as the Philosopher, and author of a monumental work entitled Synopsis variarum disciplinarum. Modern scholars mostly refer to this work as Joseph's ‘encyclopaedia’, placing it within the tradition of ‘Byzantine encyclopaedism’, which is usually judged negatively. This concept was introduced in 1971 by the French scholar Paul Lemerle, to characterise the Byzantine culture of the ninth and tenth centuries AD. His starting point was an intriguing analysis of the reign of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (945–959) and its vast literary production. Yet, without giving any detailed definition of the Byzantine ‘encyclopaedia’ or describing its specific characteristics, Lemerle classified a wide range of very diverse texts as part of this one vague genre. Since then, many scholars, using Lemerle's book as an authoritative reference work, have copied the term to refer to divergent examples of Byzantine literature, without much further investigation. It follows that, in most cases, their final conclusion has been, in line with Lemerle, rather negative. Lemerle, for example, ends his chapter on tenth-century encyclopaedism as follows: ‘Many features of this tenth-century Byzantine encyclopaedism surprise us. It ignores and thrusts aside the spirit of criticism. If it has recourse to original works, it is only to dismember them and deprive them of their soul. It is insensitive to antique beauty, or at least it leaves us with that impression. It lacks the idea that there can be progress, or simply adaptation…We have the impression of a closed world, where living reality does not penetrate.
Book: Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance
Pages: 259 - 276
Publication year:2013