The last Byzantine ecclesiastical historian

There’s nothing quite like having a book on hand in paper format.  Last night, troubled with insomnia, I browsed along my shelves for something gentle to read, and in vain.  But then my hand fell on a cheap modern reprint of Harnack, Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusebius, Teil 1, Halfte 2. 

This is the sort of book I just do not buy.  It’s best consulted in PDF.  But … for some reason I had seen it in PDF form, and had felt the urge to have a copy. 

Basically it’s a patrology.  It’s stuffed full of Harnack’s notes on authors, full of untranslated bits of Greek and Latin and even Syriac.  Readability it has none.  But as a source to mine for untapped materials, it can’t be beaten.  I have it because of the Gospel Problems and Solutions of Eusebius.  Unlike any other source, it lists bunches of manuscript fragments.

But then my attention was drawn to the fact that Harnack says that Nicephorus Callistus (who?) mentions the Quaestiones ad Stephanum.  Who is this guy?

Well, he turns out to be the author of an Ecclesiastical History in 18 books.  In fact he lived in the 14th century, so was at the end of the chain of authors, extending and extending the basic HE of Eusebius.  There seem to be some letters of his extant also.  A web search revealed little more.

His HE is in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, of course.  But is there an English translation?  A search on the name revealed almost nothing since Migne, which is very curious.  I wonder if perchance people have started to spell his name differently, with K’s and ‘os’ instead of C and ‘us’, “to be more accurate”?  Such twiddling is a curse for an obscure author.

I did find an elderly text on Google books, W.F.Hook,  An Ecclesiastical Biography, vol. 7, which had something on him, p.411 here:

Callistus Nicephorus, an ecclesiastical historian, son of Callistus Xanthopulus, flourished in the fourteen century. Born with a taste for letters, at a period when there was no means of pursuing them but in the cloister, he became a monk, and passed his time in prayer and study.

He composed an Ecclesiastical History, in twentythree books, but only eighteen have been preserved, which extend from the birth of our Lord to the death of the Emperor Phocas, in 610, and the summaries of the five others, which include the reigns of Heraclius to Leo the philosopher. Callistus dedicated this work to Andronicus Paleologus the ancient; he had completed it before the age of thirty-six. It is only a compilation of the histories of Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, &c., but it contains fragments of some authors, whose works we no longer possess, and is written in a pleasing manner.

Schurzfleisch has called Nicephorus the Ecclesiastical Thucydides, on account of the beauty of his style; and Vossius calls him the Pliny of Theology, because he ornaments his accounts with so many fabulous details. The only MS. known of this history is at Vienna, in the Imperial Library. There is a Latin version by John Lang. Bale, 1553, fol. A French translation by Jean Gillot, Paris, 1567, fol. The Greek text was printed with the version by Lang, corrected by Fronton du Due. Paris, 1630, 2 vols., fol.

Besides this work, there remain some Verses of his; A Catalogue of the Emperors and Patriarchs of Constantinople ; A Short Abridgment of the Old Testament ; A Catalogue of the Fathers of the Church, &c.

Nicephorus is considered to be one of the principal compilers of the Synaxarius, or Abridgment of the Lives of the Saints; Combefis accuses him of having disfigured them, by inserting fables drawn from legends.— Weiss.

Hmm.  Surely a text worthy of a translation?  Let’s try searching for the barbarous-looking “Nikephoros Kallistos”…

A BBKL article in German hides him under Xanthopulos.


4 thoughts on “The last Byzantine ecclesiastical historian

  1. We come at these authors from very different perspectives 🙂 — because of my lemmatisation work, I know the guy as Xanthopoulos (because I took “Nicolaus Callistus Xanthopulus” on face value), and I know him as “that guy who misspelled all the proper names in all the other Church Historians. (That’s tricky for me, because I have to realise that Gabriel and Grabeli are the same thing, and should be lemmatised as variants of the same lemma.)

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