The final hagiographer: Michael Psellus on Symeon Metaphrastes

Writing lives of the saints was something that everybody did in the Greek empire from 400 to about 1000.  After that people stopped writing new lives, or not in the same way.  But up to that point these lives were written by people of all stations.  The forms of Greek used reflect that ordinary people wrote them.  It was genuinely a popular form of fiction.

During the reign of Constantine VII Porpyrogenitus (d. 959), the emperor ordered the creation of all sorts of compilations.  Whether by coincidence or not, soon afterwards we find the creation of a compilation of earlier saints’ lives, revised and with the style made acceptable.  This compilation takes the form of a menologion (see my prior post for this), and it is ascribed in the manuscripts to a certain Symeon Metaphrastes, or Symeon the Compiler.

This compilation became the standard collection of the lives, and the form of each life that Metaphrastes gave it likewise becomes the basis for the future.  It’s like the King James Bible, or the Vulgate; it marks a conclusion and a break with the past.

Among the saints included was Nicholas of Myra, whose lives we have been translating for a while now.

It really is not that clear who Metaphrastes was, or exactly when he lived.  But around a century later Michael Psellus wrote an encomium on him.  This has recently been edited by Elizabeth A. Fisher in the Teubner series of Psellus in the Orationes Hagiographicae.  But I find that she has also made a translation into English of the Encomium for Symeon Metaphrastes, and that a version of it is even online here and more specifically here (although you may need to search; the links move around).  This is marvellous news!

Leaving aside the florid compliments, let’s extract what Psellus says about what Metaphrastes did, to produce the “final version” of the life of St Nicholas (and others).

3.5.   … Symeon possessed noble birth, had acquired a good name from his family, and reveled in extensive wealth and in the things because of which one might avoid learning. Nevertheless Symeon used the resources gained from worldly good fortune to study philosophy. …

3.6. Symeon … did not adopt a different style of dress, nor compromise in any way his truly noble spirit, nor embarrass his family with any sort of silly novelties, nor offer a model of political subjects only to remodel it, nor otherwise play the part of a disreputable sophist. Instead he employed his hereditary affection for honorable conduct as most useful raw material for accomplishing what is good and straightaway took the excellence derived from his studies as the basis both for true nobility of spirit and for brilliance. For as a special favorite of the emperors he was entrusted with the most honored assignments of all; Symeon received a position close to the imperial throne because of his keen intelligence and, due to his natural aptitude, also held an administrative post in government supervising public affairs.

He initially (275) received an appointment to the imperial chancery, privy to confidential resolutions and working with imperial advisors. When his trustworthy character in these duties made him well known, he undertook responsibilities in external affairs in addition to his duties in the palace, with the result that it was he who conveyed to the emperor messages from outsiders and relayed imperial communications to outsiders as well. He was, so to speak, the administration’s precise communications link.

3.7. … Symeon was himself wholly attentive both to the emperor and to public affairs. … He was able to drive the barbarians farther from the territory belonging to the heirs of the Roman Empire, to prevail against them either through military expeditions or by means of artifice, to bring other countries into subjection, and to adopt a ready stance regarding requirements of the moment for the matter at hand.

… Although he was truly noble in dress, in demeanor, and even in the way he walked, he altered his behavior to fit the situation; because he was charming and agreeable, he immediately attracted everyone with his smile. His helping hand was generous because two attributes, his wealth and his inclination, extended it. His hand was always outstretched and open, and whoever wished drew liberally upon his wealth as if it flowed from a river. Such were the qualities of this great man, and he also took part in activities that typically assist our Christian faith, as was appropriate. …

3.8.  … However, until recently the way they lived on earth, or rather our recounting of their lives, was not recognized as brilliant, although accurate accounts of the [facts] of their martyrdom and of their ascetic practices are indeed preserved in the secret books that the angels will read out for the multitudes at the Restitution [of all things]. [21] Moreover, before [the time of] the remarkable man [Symeon] those who wrote of [the saints’] deeds here on earth by no means approximated their nobility of spirit. Instead, in some cases they gave erroneous reports of their [deeds], while in other cases, because they were incapable of an appropriate presentation, they described their virtue as rude and paltry by failing to demonstrate nobility of thought, [22] or to employ attractive adornments of diction, or to describe accurately either the ferocity of [the saints’] persecutors or their shrewdness in answering when they gave [Christian] witness. [These earlier writers] also presented an adulterated version of the ascetics’ practices by describing their earnest efforts without any artistry and seemingly with whatever [words] came to mind. (278)

3.9. …. some had no patience for reading the annals [of the martyrs] because they were so crudely written, while others considered the accounts objects of derision. Their awkward composition, incoherence of thought, and mediocre style were harsh to the ear and repulsed rather than attracted an audience. Because of the authors who wrote about them, we habitually satirized the marvelous struggles and monumental victories of the servants of Christ.

Although everyone complained loudly about the situation, those who had the ability to replace these writings with better ones lacked the will to do it, and those who had the will lacked the ability—some because of timidity of spirit, others because the enterprise was all engrossing, and one man’s lifetime would not be sufficient for it all.

The marvelous Symeon did not feel the same as those who were stricken by these difficulties. He joined them as far as finding fault with the accounts that were written, then went farther and had the confidence for a daring project—or, rather, he succeeded in an undertaking where no one else had. …

3.10. … the literary accounts which this noble man [Symeon] constructed for the martyrs and the ascetics demonstrate amplification appropriate to discourse and have a two-fold objective—both to inspire imitation of their skillful composition and to encourage imprinting of the self with saintly morality in the best way possible. I, however, might mention a third consideration, not inferior to these other two, but both more to the point and more elevating: namely, that the literary commemoration of the saints is the final chapter of the works that confirm the Gospel message. …

3.12. … He does not alter the facts for the sake of his art, but in each case he interprets the particularity of the facts as they happened (283) and the particularity of the individuals involved. He fixes his attention upon the older works as his models and does not deviate from them in order to avoid the appearance of creating something that is different from his original and to avoid violating it. He completely transforms the type of style without altering the substance of the original, but he corrects what was amiss in its forms of expression; he does not invent the contents but he alters the manner of diction.  …

3.14. People do indeed say that Symeon did not undertake the project as a hobby nor simply set it for himself, except to the extent that he was willing to do it. However, fervent appeals from the emperor moved him to undertake this project as well as appeals from those who valued intelligent discourse.

He had his preparations ready at hand and had a team of considerable size composed both of those who initially took down his dictation stenographically and of those who subsequently transcribed it in full; each group worked in support of the other, one producing an initial text, the other a second draft. After them, the final redactors went over the written texts to compare them against the content intended by Symeon and to correct whatever error might have escaped the notice of those who drafted the texts, because Symeon could not possibly review the same works repeatedly himself due to their great number.

We can draw a number of conclusions from this.

First, the lives of the saints were not considered particularly reputable by the highest literary circles.  The style was such as to provoke satire.  In fact even after Metaphrastes’ work, the lives were not on the same level as the Greek classics.  But at least they were not an embarassment.  The style was improved, the material paraphrased (or metaphrased) to produce something readable.

If I can get a translation made of Metaphrastes’ life of St Nicholas, it will be interesting to see how this reflects the earlier materials.

The differences between Menologion, Menaion, and Synaxarion

There are various medieval lives of St Nicholas of Myra.  The Greek texts were collected by G. Anrich in Hagios Nikolaos, which is still useful today.  One of the sections of this book (section VIII) is devoted to “Synaxarientexte” – texts from various types of synaxarion.  I placed online a translation of this material a few days ago.

But I found myself in difficulty.  Like most people, the word “synaxarion” does not mean anything to me.  I also ran across terms for similar-sounding material, all equally baffling – “menologion”, and “menaion”.  This was rather confusing.  In fact there is a short article on these three terms in the Analecta Bollandiana, by Jacques Noret, although I have no access to it (if you do, I’d be glad of a copy),[1] in which he frankly admits that the Byzantines themselves used the words interchangeably!

What I am interested in are the Lives (=Vitae) of the Saints, and specifically those of St Nicholas of Myra.

Fortunately I have access to the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, which gives a definition for all three terms.  Here is the opening for one, which gives a fairly clear distinction:

Menologion (μηνολόγιον, from μήν, “month”, and λόγος, “catalog”), a collection of VITAE arranged according to the date of each saint’s celebration in the church calendar. Although the terminology is by no means consistent in the sources (J. Noret, AB 86 1968) 21-23), a menologion should be distinguished both from a synaxarion, a collection of simple notices or very short biographies of the saints, and a menaion, which contains liturgical poems and prayers for the saint’s annual celebration. In addition to the vitae, many of considerable length, the menologion often contains a few homilies as well, to be read at the same commemorative service. A. Ehrhard (infra, 1:21) claims that the mention by Theodore of Stoudios of a collection of martyria in 12 deltoi (PG 99:912B) is the first real evidence for a menologion, though it is unclear whether the texts were arranged in any chronological sequence. The earliest surviving menologia manuscripts date from the 9th C. Though various equivalent projects may have been afoot in both the 10th and 11th C. (N.P. Sevcenko, infra 3, 216. 11.16), the late 10th C. collection of nearly 150 texts in ten volumes compiled by Symeon Metaphrastes was to become the standard edition of the menologion; its regular use in monasteries (the texts were read aloud at Orthros) is attested by the 12th C. …

That’s quite clear.  But does it survive contact with the definitions for the other two?

Menaion (μηναῖον, from μήν, “month”), a set of 12 liturgical books, one for each month, containing the variable hymns and other texts (lections, synaxarion notices, kanones) proper to vespers and orthros of each feast of the fixed cycle, that is, those feasts that fall on a fixed date in the church calendar. Although the cycle of feasts itself had been established since the 10th C., …, the first systematic menaia with hymnography for each day of the year appear only in MSS of the 11th-12th C. ..

That’s OK.  Finally:

Synaxarion (συναχάριον), a church calendar of fixed feasts with the appropriate lections indicated for each one, but no further text. The synaxarion is often appended to a Praxapostolos or Evangelion. It is rarely illustrated, but one MS., Vat. gr. 1156 of the 11th C, has an image of a saint for each day from Sept. through Jan. as well as scattered ones thereafter (Lazarev, Storia, fig.205). There also exist “calendar” icons, with portraits of saints and feasts for each day of the year (Soteriou, Eikones, figs. 126-35), that must be based on this type of synaxarion.

The term synaxarion is also used in Byz. Greek for a specific collection of brief notices, mostly hagiographical: the Synaxarion of Constantinople. The Synaxarion of Constantinople was probably formed in the 10th C. (the earliest MSS already include notices on Joseph the Hymnographer and on Patr. Anthony II Kauleas (895-901), and there are Arabic, Georgian, Syriac, and Ethiopic versions. These daily commemorations, which average only about a paragraph in length, stress the martyrdom of the saints and inform us where in the city the commemoration took place. The Menologion of Basil II is, despite its name, an illustrated version of this type of text, as are those icons and frescoes that have images of the martyrdoms of the saints, rather than just their portraits (see Hagiographical Illustration). Some of the frescoes use verses from the metrical calendar of Christopher of Mytilene as captions; these verses had been incorporated into certain recensions of the Synaxarion of Constantinople from the 12th C.

These texts were incorporated into the menaion and the triodion and usually read after the sixth ode of the kanon at orthros. They are not to be confused with the much longer notices, similarly ordered, found in a menologion. …

So there we have it.

  • Synaxarion = a calendar of saints’ feast days, in calendar order, with the bible readings for the day.  The Synaxarion of Constantinople is a collection of one-paragraph saints’ lives in the same order.
  •  Menologion = a collection of long saints’ lives in the same order.
  •  Menaion = a 12-book collection, one per month, of the bible readings, hymns, synaxarion entries, etc, for the feast day of each saint, in calendar order.

Nice to have that clear!

So the St Nicholas stuff in Anrich section VIII is from the synaxarion, and its brevity makes that plain.  The long life of St Nicholas by Symeon Metaphrastes is from the Menologion compiled by Metaphrastes.

All this stuff is unfamiliar to me, but if we must work with hagiographical texts, at least we can get clear on this bit.

  1. [1]Jacques Noret, “Ménologes, synaxaires, ménées. Essai de clarification d’une terminologie”, Analecta Bollandiana 86 (1968) p.21-24.  Brepols Online has first page here.

St Nicholas of Myra in the Greek Synaxarium – now online in English

Christmas is coming, and, as it happens, I have a new translation for you.  This is another piece of the medieval St Nicholas of Myra material, all edited by G. Anrich in Hagios Nikolaos back in 1902.

In the Greek orthodox church, various days are marked as saints’ days, and a short life of the saint is included in the church service for that day.  These materials for each saints’ day are included in a 12-volume collection known as the Menaion, or the Synaxarium.

There are two versions of the Life of St Nicholas in the manuscripts, a longer one and a shorter one (itself in two versions).  Anrich printed them all as section VIII of his book.  These are translated below.

These were translated by Fr Albert Iustinos.  This is the pen-name of a monk on Mount Athos.  I think that he has done a splendid job, and I am looking forward to a translation of the Vita Compilata (Anrich section IX) in due course.  Thank you very much!

As ever, these are public domain.  Do whatever you like with them, personal, educational or commercial.

The tomb of St Nicholas of Myra?

Turkish archaeologists have used ground-penetrating equipment and discovered the shrine of St Nicholas of Myra underneath the church of St Nicholas in Demre, ancient Myra, according to the Daily Telegraph.  The report seems rather sketchy, and the claims likewise.  They are also claiming that the bones of St Nicholas, supposed now to be in Bari, have in fact remained in Demre/Myra, although it is hard to see how any electronic equipment could tell that.  But of course the Turks are hoping for a boost to the tourist trade, and understandably so.

Let us wish them good luck in their excavations!

Church of St Nicholas of Myra in modern Demre, ancient Myra, in Turkey.

Proclus of Constantinople, “Encomium on St Nicholas of Myra”, now online in English

I have another piece for you of the ancient literature about St Nicholas of Myra.  This is an encomium which is found in the manuscripts among the sermons of Proclus, the 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople.  Although it has acquired his name, it is really anonymous.  Bryson Sewell completed a draft of the translation, and Andrew Eastbourne revised it and completed it.  Here it is:

As usual I make these public domain – use them for any purpose, personal, educational or commercial.

It’s translated from the Greek text published by G. Anrich.  Apparently there are quite a number of late encomia which merely retread the earlier material, and this is mostly one of them.  Still useful to have, tho!

UPDATE: Dr. E. has drawn my attention to an editorial error with note 14.  I’ve uploaded new versions of the files.

A challenge for Greek language nerds! What do you make of *this*?!

One of the texts for St Nicholas of Myra is a beast and a monster.  No matter how good your Greek is, it is bafflingly hard.  Part of the problem is that it is written in a poetic style – the editor, Anrich, even marks the cadences with <> marks!  The opening section is highly rhetorical and windy; even the narrative portion, telling the tale of the three virgins for whom Nicholas found dowries, is difficult.

David Miller had a go at it, and has produced the following: but if you reckon yourself a Greek whizz, then why not see if you can work out what’s going on with the text?  David writes:

Anyway, speed of work on this was about twice as slow as on the previous ones, even with leaving seven places where I have had to take a guess from the context at meanings which were out of my reach.  I suggest that, as it’s only for your blog, you could put this bit up, complete with my notes about those seven places, and invite anyone who knows more to contribute their solutions.

Here’s the page images from Anrich’s edition:

And here is David’s final version of the translation, after much discussion in the comments.  Any further comments are very welcome!

David’s first encounter with the text produced the following email, which I reproduce for the benefit of others who may walk this way:

Now, as for Methodius ad Theodorum:

I’ve reached, in rough, halfway through para.2 (“Heimat”) – far enough to try a bit of it out on you, to see if it really is the sort of stuff you want.

Note first that, as the bit of Greek embedded in Anrich’s introduction reveals, it is designed as a poem (ποιημα).  The angle brackets that disfigure the text passim are the cadences, marked by Anrich in accordance with Meyer’s Sentence-end Law (intro. para.2), and therefore, I suggest, nothing whatever to do with us, even if I could reproduce them.

The whole of the first paragraph is the sort of wordy grovelling that you see in the preface of 17th/18th cent. English treatises, designed to flatter the dedicatee;  it expresses the author’s intention to please him by giving up writing encomia, and writing narrative instead.

Here’s the start of para.2:

“O Nicholas, God’s servant, vessel containing the perfume of the [all-holy and lifegiving] Spirit;  flower, shoot and root of the Myrans, and their fragrance, lily-white in pre-eminence, adorned like a violet in public life, red as a rose in truthfulness, greener even than the buds in self-control, and with your head crowned in grey; you have toiled to the uttermost at your work, making light of the body but keeping the spirit tightly strung, bedewed with purity and alive [lit. “foaming”] with zeal ….”  [incidentally we have yet to reach a verb – I stuck in “you have toiled” in place of the participle because I could hold out no longer – and I should probably be putting “thou” for “you”, in an attempt to reach the distant heights of Methodius’ language, which he claimed in par.1 was going to be plain and clear]

It all sounds very, um, Byzantine!