The Indispensable Service of Byzantine Literature

Frederic Harrison, Rede Lecture (1900):

“The peculiar, indispensable service of Byzantine literature was the  preservation of the language, philology, and archaeology of Greece. It is  impossible to see how our knowledge of ancient literature or civilisation could have been recovered if Constantinople had not nursed through the early Middle Ages the vast accumulations of Greek learning in the schools of Alexandria, Athens, and Asia Minor ; if Photius, Suidas, Eustathius, Tzetzes, and the Scholiasts had not poured out their lexicons, anecdotes, and commentaries ; if the Corpus Scriptorum historiae Byzantinae had never been compiled; if indefatigable copyists had not toiled in multiplying the texts of ancient Greece. Pedantic, dull, blundering as they are too often, they are indispensable. We pick precious truths and knowledge out of their garrulities and stupidities, for they preserve what otherwise would have been lost for ever. It is no paradox that their very merit to us is that they were never either original or brilliant. Their genius, indeed, would have been our loss. Dunces and pedants as they were, they servilely repeated the words of the immortals. Had they not done so, the immortals would have died long ago .”

2 thoughts on “The Indispensable Service of Byzantine Literature

  1. More slander! Byzantines would not be happy!

    Seriously, can you believe that such commentary passed for good scholarship until very recently. I mean, the author is right–we do owe the Byzantines a lot–but so myopic in other ways. Oh, and straight up nasty and racist.

    • Indeed! In fact, these types of screeds have made me reconsider Housman’s rather acerbic style. Many claim that his merciless invective directed at other scholars was in some way “foul play,” but I think that it is simply the logical, extreme development of the fashionable mode of criticism; people simply took offense because the invective was leveled against contemporaries as well as those long dead.

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