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Digging into the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library: Spotlight on “Saints of Ninth- and Tenth-Century Greece”

Posted On May 29, 2019 | 09:12 am | by Nicole Eddy | Permalink
Saints, pirates, and armed invaders in the Byzantine provinces

Who is the strongest Avenger? The question is interesting not so much because of its answer—no Endgame spoilers here!—but because of the discussion it prompts about the strengths and weaknesses inherent in different kinds of heroism and power. If today’s pop culture explores such questions under the guise of space aliens or tech-loving billionaires, the science-fiction veneer is a futuristic packaging for much older debates on the nature of virtue and leadership. Perhaps the question that would have occupied medieval readers of the popular and widespread genre of saints’ biographies would instead have been, who is the strongest saint: a hermit or a bishop?

Saints of Ninth- and Tenth-Century Greece (Harvard University Press, 2019), edited and translated by Anthony Kaldellis of Ohio State University and Ioannis Polemis of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and newly published in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series, gathers together seven texts detailing the lives and miracles of saints living in Greece under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. In this collection we find no single answer to the fundamental questions of virtue and strength—and certainly no knockdown grudge matches between rival spiritual leaders. But read together, as this first English translation introduces them now to a new audience, the texts illustrate the range and breadth in medieval models of holiness and power.

DOML spotlight June 2019

Saint Nicholas the Younger, for example (not to be confused with the Saint Nicholas of several centuries earlier who inspired the modern Santa Claus), started his career as a military leader, a general opposing the invasion of “the bloodthirsty Avars, who were worse than wild animals and ignorant of human nature,” spreading destruction and misery, “dirges, beating of the breast, and wails of despair.” Scholars disagree about who the invading Avars may have been, but in a sense, that not-so-minor historical detail doesn’t matter to the author’s aims: the time is presented as a violent and difficult one, in which Christianity is under attack, both physical and moral, by heathen forces. Nicholas’s opposition to this enemy begins conventionally, with weapons raised against the assault. But although the author is careful to note the saint’s success in killing many Avars, the invading force is finally too numerous to withstand, Nicholas’s companions are killed, and Nicholas himself flees to the wilderness, where he takes up the ascetic life of a hermit in the shelter of a large oak tree. Where the might of arms failed, the power of ascetism prevails, and the devil is wounded by Nicholas’s faithful resolve and forced to bait the Avars into carrying out his will, until the saint’s eventual martyrdom at their hands is recast as a spiritual victory.

Nicholas is praised as a collector of all virtues: “just like a bee, he gathered all the best inside himself, all things that are precious and useful, and placed them in his soul as if it were a beehive, keeping them safe.” But other texts in the collection embrace a different perspective. In one, the author compares someone who fails to share his spiritual gifts with others to a wealthy miser or even to an anthropomorphized and greedy earth, squirreling away its geologic treasures. A saint should lead by example, and how better to achieve that than by rewarding virtue with high ecclesiastical office? The rank of bishop is described as a “lofty mountain peak” from which a righteous leader might cast a bright, guiding light for many, and as carrying with it the opportunity for performing great public good. In a miracle of the bishop Peter of Argos, a young woman seeks his protection from raiding Cretan pirates and the saint rescues her by delivering a sharp verbal rebuke—as well as by the power of God, who punctuates that rebuke by afflicting the pirate captain with a severe fever. Peter’s opposition to the force of arms is nonviolent, but still immediate, confrontational, and above all, public.

Not all power is the same. Where hermits like Nicholas display their strength by renouncing the city and its vices, the bishop saints of ninth- and tenth-century Greece offer direct instruction, and sometimes miraculous censure (or, in the case of one unfortunate sinner struck bald by Saint Athanasios, miraculous tonsure), to their erring congregations. Yet the bishops often lament or resist their elevation to office, envying the life of the hermit and fearing that ambition for civic virtue can come at the cost of personal rectitude. These seven texts, invaluable historical sources for a time period from which few records survive, do much to reveal contemporary tensions about violence, power, and the best way for a good person to lead.

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Nicole Eddy is managing editor of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Photos by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, Postgraduate Digital Media Fellow.