Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Libraries & literacy of the Byzantine Empire

My topic is the Byzantine Empire and its libraries.
In order to cover this topic I feel I need to provide a context for the information I produce; To this end I intend to cover as my main areas: The transformation of the eastern half of the Roman Empire into what we refer to as the Byzantine Empire, The state and system of libraries in the old Roman Empire, the changes to this system that occurred as part of the Byzantine Empire and how those techniques and systems developed, what materials they collected and what impact this had on how contemporary libraries developed and operate. Another issue I intend to cover is literacy in the Byzantine Empire; With public schools in the old Roman Empire and a strong degree of literacy comparative to later groups I intend to examine how the development of the Byzantine Empire impacted on literacy, whether it helped or hindered.

The Fall & Rise of an Empire

Before its division into East and West by the invasion of the Goths and Vandals (these invasions occured in the 2nd & 3rd century A.D) the original Roman Empire was a literary powerhouse of the ancient world.
During the 2nd century the empire still possessed numerous public libraries that stood in testament to the literacy and education of the empire. However by the 4th century the invasions had taken their toll. The constant invasions and wars waged by the Goths and Vandals had split the empire in twain. The empire had been divided and as a Latin scholar in 378 A.D. wrote "the libraries, like tombs, were closed forever" (Ilie 2007 p. 1).

It was during this period that Constantine I, son of Constantius Chlorus of the original tetrachy, rose to power and brought into being what we think of today as the Byzantine Empire (Ilie 2007). Before inaugurating Constantinople as the new seat of the empire he recognized Christianity after its years of suppression (Ilie 2007 p. 2) and began to present himself as Christ's representative on Earth. Christianity was to have a huge impact on this new empire and help shape the form of things yet to come.

Constantine and the Founding of the Great Libraries of the Empire

At the start of this new empire Constantine I modeled it greatly on the fallen empire of old Rome (Ilie 2007 p. 2). Consequently he modeled the new empire's literary culture after that of the old; Latin was the official language of speech and literature in theory if not in practice. Greek, which would, in time, completely replace Latin for the majority of the life of the empire, was still the language of the day to day and continued to be used in books produced.

Constantine's emphasis on literacy and learning would see the creation of the Imperial and Patriarchal (in the religious sense) libraries of the empire.
The old empire's literary culture would become the basis for the development of these new libraries which were inspired by old Rome's many libraries (Ilie 2007 p.2); The great private libraries, including those of Cicero, and the public libraries such as that planned by Julius Caesar that was eventually realised after his death by a man named Gaius Asinius Pollio, a patron of the literary arts (Britannica Online 2012).

Constantine I, and by extension, the empire placed such importance upon literacy and education that the Imperial Library & Patriarchal Library were created at the very inception of the empire. The date of their creation, as Ilie puts it "illustrates the significance the founding emperor placed on them as integral pieces of the new empire."

Constantine was a very generous benefactor for the Imperial Library. Agents were sent across the empire in order to find books with which to fill it (Ilie 2007 p. 4). Indeed by the time of his death in 337 A.D., a mere seven years after the Library was opened, possessed an amazing 6900 volumes (Ilie 2007 p. 4); An astonishing number for a time before print.

These first library institutions were soon joined by two additions; The Academy or University Library and the Law Library (Ilie 2007 p. 3).

The Imperial Benefactors and Rise of the Codex

It was during this time that the codex (book) began to come into popular use, trumping the papyrus scroll. Constantine himself ordered that the scriptures for his new churchs be inscribed upon vellum (a type of fine parchment) and bound in a codex (Ilie 2007 p. 4).

This use of codexs revolutionised libraries; With a stable spine on which to write a title items could be catalogued & organised more quickly & effectively. The codex would become the favoured format for both Christian and Western society in part for it's favourable properties and for the favour shown to it by the empire.

All in all Constantine was a tremendous supporter and enthusiast for the literary arts as his patronage of them shows. His son however, Constantius, was not the ardent fan that his father had been. Despite his lack of interest the Imperial Library experienced steady growth under his reign (Ilie 2007 p. 5).

The next emperor whom would take up the role of patron and benefactor for the libraries with zeal was Julian the Apostate. Julian, named Apostate for his anti-Christian politics, built a portico to create more space and made considerable additions to the library (Ilie 2007 p. 5).

His unique way of gathering materials for the library even led him to threaten the Bishop George as a means to acquire the Bishop's personal library. During his reign he ordered "that the works of the impious Galileans be destroyed"  referring to works of Christian authors (Ilie 2007 p. 5); From this we can pretty safely say that Christian works were not high on Julian's shopping list and may have in fact helped heat his chambers on those cold drafty days (Ilie 2007 p. 5).

Despite his strong personal views and unique methods for collection acquistion, and thanks to his less interested predecessors, Julian, was to be the Library's greatest benefactor for quite some time.

The Preservation and Dissemination of Literature

The last emperor who made major to contributions to the library in the empire's first century was Emperor Theodosius II. Both he and his wife, the daughter of the Athenian philosopher Leo, were great benefactors for the Imperial Library (Ilie 2007 p. 6). Indeed by 477 A.D. the library possessed 120,000 volumes (Ilie 2007 p. 6); Unfortunately in the year that count was taken the library burnt down. In time it was rebuilt and would endure until the arrival of the Turks when the city was captured in the 15th century (Ilie 2007 p. 6).

Although it possessed a great many volumes at the time it burnt down there was in fact a private library during the reign of Justinian I which possessed an equal amount. An astonishing amount considering a collection of 20 volumes would be considered a library (Ilie 2007 p. 20.).

It was these private collections that together with the official libraries of the empire helped to preserve and disseminate many of the classical works which remain to this day. These works spread and survived not only through the efforts of copyists and scribes but also as a side effect of the invasions the empire suffered.

Whilst other invasions had been more destructive to the collections and the empire's treasures, when the Turks invaded they understood the value of the books and instead sold them to the Italians (Ilie 2007 p. 21)

The books of the empire also spread through more conventional means; Some books were requested by King Charlemagne for his palace at Aachen. In one instance an entire library was transferred to Armenia at the request of an Armenian princess (Ilie 2007 p. 21).

Much was also preserved by the Byzantine monasteries and from those works that were passed on to schools and universities of western Europe.


Byzantine Influence & Education

As mentioned previously the works of the Byzantine Empire and also those items they copied and preserved were disseminated throughout Europe by the Turks after their conquest of Constantinople and the subsequent sale of such items to the Italians. The Byzantine Empire however played a role that served as a bridge between the Classic era and the Middle Ages; Freely providing the knowledge and works of the former with the latter. Even without the spread of these items by the Turks through the Italians the Byzantine Empire provided literacy and knowledge for many in the Middle Ages (Ilie 2007 p. 21.).

As the distribution of items to King Charlemagne and the Armenian princess demonstrate, the empire was willing to share its knowledge and works, new & old, to the rest of Europe.
Although considering their Empire the beginning and end of civilisation those of the Byzantine Empire did not begrudge the elevation of the Barbarians provided they accepted Baptism and swore fealty to the Emperor (Nicol & Teall.).

More than one family with such origins rose to prominence; A Greek name being at times a disguise for more Slavic or Turkish roots (Nicol & Teall).

The work of their monasteries too helped preserved classical works for a later era with through their diligent copyists. Monasteries such as this one in Trabzon, the Sumela Monastery:

Sumela Monastery in Trabzon - Taken by Dick & Jane Schmitt

In a monastery such as this, like the libraries, many monks would be working as copyists helping to preserve old and damaged works by painstakingly writing them out anew on a fresh codex. (Ilie 2007)

These monks also served as public educators for many of these monasteries were also teaching monasteries. Such monasteries would provide an equivalent, for the era, of primary school. Much of the class work would have been based on the works of the greats, Homer & Euripedes as an example (Ilie 2007 p. 12.)

It is through this process that the oldest works of a the previous era were preserved through to the modern day. Not all works survived through the challenges and wars of the era but without the efforts of the Byzantine Empire it is certain that there would be far less of them and that library culture would be a very different thing.
'library' 2012. Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, viewed 19 September, 2012
'Byzantine Empire' 2012. Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, viewed 19 September, 2012
These articles are behind a paywall however if you wish to read them you may access them via the Swinburne database listing under 'B'.

Ilie, B 2007, 'Libraries and Book Culture of the Empire', Master's, University of North Carolina
This thesis is likewise accessible online from this link
Byzantine Fact: Both "Byzantine Empire" and "Eastern Roman Empire" are historiographical terms applied in later centuries by historians. During its existence the state was known simply as the Roman Empire or Imperium Romanum or Romania.

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