Review: Saints at the Limits: Seven Byzantine Popular Legends

Stratis Papaioannou, Saints at the Limits: Seven Byzantine Popular Legends (Dumbarton Oaks medieval library 78), Harvard (2023).  ISBN 9780674290792.  $35.  Introduction online hereBuy at here.

The medieval religious folk-stories known as the “Lives of the Saints” are an under-studied form of medieval literature.  The stories themselves often arise from the people, and are expressed in popular language.  They reach us in medieval handwritten copies, like everything else, but these are not literary texts.  The story, rather than the text, is what is important, and so the actual words are freely modified.  Several versions usually exist.  Thankfully we have the index of the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (= BHG; online here), which  assigns numbers to the various texts.  Students often find it difficult to work out how to relate to this material, but the urban legend is perhaps the nearest modern equivalent.

There has been an increase in interest in hagiography in recent years.  Yet even now few of the source texts have been critically edited, and still fewer have been translated into any modern language.  One obstacle to doing so is that most of these texts are shorter than book length.  Each would make an edition and translation suitable for publication as a journal article, and indeed we find that, a century ago, scholars such as François Nau routinely published texts in this way.  If necessary, they split them over multiple issues.  But it is doubtful that a modern journal editor would print such an article.  It would be declined on the grounds that it is “not research.”

Instead the only way to publish such translations is to collect together a number of texts, and publish them in book form, with some kind of connecting link.  Sadly there are no obvious series of translations into which such a book would naturally fall without some wrestling.  What is needed is a series made up of translations of Saints’ Lives, rather like the New City translations of all of Augustine.  But this perhaps must await a renewal of interest in medievalism in the wider public, for otherwise who would buy them?

Thankfully the excellent Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series has produced this volume, and they have kindly sent me a review copy.  The physical book is well made and manufactured, and sold at a very modest price.  It is a true hardback, sewn rather than glued.  There is even a sewn-in book mark, so this is quality indeed.

The volume contains seven texts in Greek, with fluent English translations on facing pages.  These seemingly disparate texts are linked together by the editor in his introduction in a reasonably convincing way.  The introductory discussion may be read on here.  This is very well done, and well-referenced.  The discussion is perhaps a little dense for anyone new to hagiography.  Unfortunately the footnotes have been banished to the end of the introduction, which makes it hard to use them.

What makes this volume truly invaluable is the translations.  As knowledge of ancient languages diminishes, the translations make these texts more accessible than ever.   It seems likely that all these texts will attract more scholarly interest over the next few years.  The texts included, and the BHG number for each, are:

  • 1) Boniphatios of Tarsus (BHG 279-280);
  • 2) Alexios the Man of God (BHG 51n);
  • 3) Markos the Athenian (BHG 1039-1041);
  • 4) Makarios the Roman (BHG 1005);
  • 5) Christopher, the Cynocephalus (BHG 309);
  • 6) George the Great Martyr (BHG 670a), together with the miracles about his slaying the Dragon (BHG 687) and capturing the Demon (BHG 687k);
  • 7) Niketas, son of Maximian (redaction related to BHG 1346d)

All these texts appear in English for the first time.  Each is given with a Greek text and English translation on facing pages, in the format familiar to readers of the Loeb series.  This is really praiseworthy.  The Greek font chosen is very readable, and the reader of the English translation may well find his eye stray across the page to the Greek to see just what English word lies behind this or that wording.  Even someone with little Greek can spell out a word or two, and look it up online; and the format positively encourages such activity.  The text has been well paragraphed, which assists this useful opportunity for those with little Greek of learning more.

Words quoted from the scriptures are placed in italics.  This works well in the English, without the need for obtrusive footnotes.  Curiously it looks a bit strange in the Greek text, however.  At first I wondered if my eyes were having trouble!

The translation given of each text is very readable, which is absolutely right and proper.  At points it drops into colloquialisms, such as the use of “you’re” instead of “you are”.  This is a bit of a shock – we’re all used to formal language -, but it will hardly deter the reader.  The effort involved in producing the first English translation of any text is considerable, and usually underrated except by those who have done it.  This is a fine effort.  Translationese has been avoided, and the result is impressive.  Dr Papaioannou tells us in the preface that he got the translation read by native English speakers.  It is a very difficult task to make a satisfactory translation into any language that is not your mother-tongue, even for those really fluent. So he did wisely, and I hope his statement here will encourage others to do the same.

One oddity about the book, which may mislead the reader, is that the information about the Greek text that has been printed is found, not before the text itself, but instead at the back, on pages 281 f., and the critical notes following that, as endnotes, on p.293 f.  The casual reader of the book is very likely to miss this invaluable material, as I did initially.  This is especially so for a reader interested only in a single text – which will be quite often the case.   I can only presume that this arrangement, adding in the extra material, was an afterthought; but if so, it was a happy one.   The editor first indicates the principles of his edition.  In general he has tried to retrieve an early version of the legend, and print something not otherwise available.  Faced with such a mass of hagiographical material, this seems like the only possible approach for any editor to take.  He then lists the manuscripts and existing editions that he used.  Everything in the bibliography is useful, and it could well have been longer.

The version of the legend of St George translated here (BHG 670a, summary of story at CSLA here) is very similar to the Latin text which I translated elsewhere on this site, and therefore is also likely to be a very early form of the legend.  St George dies four times, at the hands of an increasingly angry but non-existent emperor Dadianus.  Later revisions of the legend tended to correct the name, and reduce the legend to a somewhat more believable form.  The evil magician introduced has the name of Athanasius, which naturally leads the reader to wonder whether the text was produced as a satire by a 5th century Arian.  A useful addition is a translation of two of the miracle stories.  The ones chosen are major ones: St George and the Dragon, and St George and the Demon.

The Passion of Nicetas son of Maximian (a version related to BHG 1346d) – two other Nicetas’ are mentioned in the BHG – references the emperor Dadianus, so shows knowledge of the St George legend. Portions of this are rather comic: the demon Beelzebub appears, and, tortured by the saint, he explains just how he leads the faithful astray and foments arguments.  Later he reappears, encounters Nicetas again, and “when the demon saw the saint staring at him, he said, “Oh dear!  He wants to catch me again!” And vanishes at once.

In this legend, I must mention my one gripe about the book.  Native English readers will wince at the use of the barbarous-looking “Niketas,” rather than the usual Nicetas.  While “Niketas” is bearable, the usage becomes absurd on p.251 where a woman’s name is given as “Iouliane”.  This collection of vowels did make me rub my eyes a bit, until I realised that the name is simply “Juliana”, an ordinary Latin name, given in the text in its Greek version – naturally -, and transliterated rather than translated back.   I am aware that an elitist fad has arisen lately for transliteration rather than translation.  But editors need to resist this trend, in the interests of everybody.  Nobody needs to mentally retranslate words.  Readers need no barriers to understanding.  We need Greek legends made more accessible, rather than filled with strange and uncouth words.

I have nothing special to say about the other texts, although it is wonderful to have them.  The Life of Macarius the Roman (BHG 1005) is a very different text for these two: an imaginary journey into darkest Africa!  The Passion of Boniphatios (or Boniface, in English) is a straightforward story of a dissolute man who is sent to the Greek East to collect some relics of the martyrs for his mistress, but is converted and martyred himself.  The ease of the translation is particularly notable here.

All in all, this is a very valuable volume to have.  If this was the first book on hagiography that a novice reader came to consult, he would most certainly know a great deal more than he did at the beginning, and would have a good solid feel for hagiographical texts.  Recommended.


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