Travel in Mid-Byzantine Hagiography: Literary Peculiarities

My thesis focuses on the motif of travel in mid-Byzantine hagiography, and is particularly related to its literary implementation. For a long time, travel research in hagiography has concentrated on the problem of whether the lives of saints can be considered a reliable historical source of information on travel practices in Byzantium, and if so, to what extent. Such an approach omits one crucial constituent of the texts, i.e. their literary characteristics and value. There is evidently a value in broadening discourse of the research towards literary analysis. Moreover, my approach demonstrates that observations on the diachronic changes in the authors’ manner of describing the travels enable us to evaluate the evolution of literary tastes in this respect within the 8th -12th c.

Travel depictions are widely represented in the saints’ lives of the Middle Byzantine period, and thus there is vast material to explore. My work is based on 37 hagiographic texts, most of which are saints’ vitae, with several translatio taken into consideration as well.

It is traditionally believed that the travels in Byzantine hagiography are basically represented in a sketchy way. Alexander Kazhdan associated this peculiarity with the Byzantine writers’ general endeavor to express the idea of stability, which made them describe the travel not as a process, but as a pair of two static conditions: the moments of departure and of arrival. However, we try to argue that Kazhdan’s statement was not completely true for different stages of the literary process development.

The earliest of my chosen texts, vitae of SS. Theodore of Edessa (BHG 1744) and of Gregory of Agrigentum (BHG 707), describe rather distant journeys, but the hagiographers tend to present merely the main points of the saints’ routes without adding many details on the process of the travel. A few episodes where it is possible to take a closer look at the movement of the heroes are caused by the authors’ need to organise the plot or to mention the supernatural forces of their saints in overcoming various perils on the sea or on the road.

Hagiography flourished in the 9th, 10th and the first half of the 11th centuries, and we inherited a considerable number of texts from those times. On the one hand, the authors continue to use travel accounts for the same purposes as in the earlier vitae, but on the other hand, some of them appear to pay more attention to the travel itself. For example, the vitae of SS. Gregory of Decapolis (BHG 711), Gregentios (BHG 698), Theoktista of Lesbos (BHG 1723), Nicon Metanoite (BHG 1366), Lazaros of Galesion (BHG 979) demonstrate a highly increased volume of the travel episodes, and in many cases they turn into a picturesque ekphrasis. Moreover, we can spot a certain tendency when looking through a number of the travel dangers and difficulties described in later narratives: miracles seem to lose their priority, giving way to more realistic methods of problem solving.

The tendency develops in the 12th c., when the hagiographers enrich their travel narratives with the emotions of the travellers and some features of their personal perception. In this respect, vitae of Cyrillos Phileotes (BHG 468) and Leontios of Jerusalem (BHG 985) have something in common with the travel accounts, which appeared in the Byzantine literature in the 12th c.: the pilgrimage story of Ioannes Phocas, the poem of Constantine Manasses, letters of Nicholas Mesarites and Gregory of Antioch.

Yulia Mantova