Sunday, October 01, 2006

Marie-Hélène Congourdeau: On Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus

Changing Fortunes of the Byzantine Empire
(Image from Wikipedia)

Over at the MideastWeb Middle East Web Log, Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, a scholar on the Byzantine Empire, offers her views on Pope Benedict XVI's quote from the writings of Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. Interestingly, her rendering of the quote partly confirms my own:
Show me that Mohammed brought anything new: you will find nothing, but bad and inhuman, for instance what he states by ordering his faith to be imposed by sword.

I don't know if Congourdeau is translating or quoting a translation, but her quote uses the term "bad" rather than "evil" -- and she'd certainly know what the Greek stated, for she informs us:

I happen to know about Manuel II and to have studied this text.

For those interested in checking sources, she supplies some:

The controversial statement ... is taken from the 7th chapter of a book which is composed of 26 chapters.

This 7th book was edited in 1966 by Th. Khoury in
Sources Chretiennes 115, and, it seems, it is from this edition that Pope took this statement, since he quotes Th. Khoury. The entire Greek text was edited by E. Trapp in 1966 in the Wiener Byzantinische Studien. A revised edition is being done by K. Förstel in the le Corpus islamo-christianum, series graeca. A German translation of chapters 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7 has been published by R. Senoner in 2003 in Wien.

If anyone has a chance to check the Greek, I'd be interested in seeing the original quote.

Congourdeau also tells us some interesting points about this text:

Contrary to many treatises of anti-Muslim polemics, which we find in Western Christendom as well as in the Byzantine Empire, this text is the written record of a discussion that really took place. Manuel presents his Muslim partner in a positive way, as an host respectful and curious to know the religion of his host. The discussion is as cordial as frank, since neither of the two hesitates to expose what he doesn't like in the religion of the other. The relations between both men are not altered by it. This text is one of the first interreligious dialogues, where each people displays his own truth and looks for dialogue without disavowing anything of what he believes.

Nevertheless, the emperor seems to have altered the text in writing down the conversation some years later:

The editor, Th. Khoury, writes in his introduction: "The immoderate expressions, relatively rare, which we can read in the text come mostly from the liberties that Manuel took when finally writing his text". The fact that Bayezid was besieging Constantinople when Manuel was writing can explain the hardening of his language.

Congourdeau implies, but does not explicitly state, that the now infamous quote -- "Mohammed brought ... nothing, but bad and inhuman" -- stems from this later period.

Congourdeau also notes that "[a]t the time of Manuel, when Byzantines objected to the idea of a holy war, they have as a line of sight, in the same time, Muslim Jihad and western crusade ... [especially] the trauma of 4th Crusade and all the expeditions when they saw Christian soldiers with a cross ... handling a sword ... [in] the name of Christ." I don't blame them for thinking this way. The later Crusades were as often directed against the Byzantines as against the Muslims -- and probably hastened the fall of the Christian Byzantine Empire to the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

But who is Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, aside from being a scholar on the Byzantine Empire? She's a member of the Comité Français des Études Byzantines, an association dedicated to scholarship on Byzantium, and you can find her CV and even a photograph by clicking her name on the member list. An even better photograph, as well as one of her articles online, can be found at the website Clio, which appears to be a French organization that organizes conferences, publishes books, and generally informs people about history and the world.

Tall order.

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At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

October / 2006

We are interested in learning more about history blogs and in finding ways to promote them. To aid in this effort, we are circulating a small questionnaire and will make the results available in Tapera (in Spanish) and in Digital History Hacks (in English). If you wish to participate, please return the questionnaire to
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At 10:17 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this article. I read the posting at the MideastWeb site, and followed a few of the links.

What happened to all the reporters who wore out shoe leather just to get to the bottom of a story?

Apparently in 1391 it WAS possible to discuss such topics in a rational and mostly civil way.

At 3:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Denis.

There must be a lot of journalists who simply don't know how to use the internet, for finding information online is often ridiculously easy.

Or perhaps journalists simply have a vested interest in controversy. Provocative sound-bites, prominent people looking bad, riots in the streets -- it all sells papers.

Plus, Islamists want controversy, and they have journalists, too, as we know from some of the photos 'depicting' the recent war in Lebanon.

Jeffery Hodges

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