ALEXANDER RIEHLE – Literature, Socieyty and Politics in the Early Palaiologan Period

Literature, Society and Politics in the Early Palaiologan Period. The Letters of Nikephoros Choumnos.
Alexander Riehle (Université de Munich)

In previous scholarship, the rhetorical literature of the Byzantines, and epistolography in particular, has been most commonly regarded as an intellectual game—a pastime of a small, learned élite. However, Byzantine authors, especially in the late period, were deeply involved in the social and political discourse of their time. It is my objective to show that their literary output, specifically their letters, was pivotal to these dialogues. A close reading of the letters from the court of Nikephoros Choumnos (ca. 1260–1327) supports this assertion. The paramount goal of his letters was to establish and maintain social networks, to gain and affirm loyalty, and to advocate private concerns within an extremely fragile social and political environment. By publishing and circulating his letters, Nikephoros aimed to present himself both as a faithful servant of the emperor and as an influential, learned aristocrat.

My paper focuses on Nikephoros’ letter to his daughter Eirene (ep. 167 Boissonade) in order to reveal the significance of his writings to the current social and political concerns. Crucial to my hermeneutic approach is the fact that the stylistic means employed by the author was not merely ornamental. One does not need sift out style in order to understand the meaning of the text, as suggested by Cyril Mango in Byzantine Literature as a Distorting Mirror. Rather, style contains and conveys the message of the text, and therefore must be examined as an integral part of the given literary piece.  In this way it is possible to gain new insights into the highly elaborate genre of Byzantine epistolography.