Saturday, October 09, 2010

Maybe Nobody Does Care about Byzantine Science

Posted by Darin Hayton on 10/09 at 07:24 AM

The annul Byzantine Studies Conference is taking place this weekend at the University of Pennsylvania. This should be a great opportunity to hear some of the field’s best scholars as well as the younger, rising scholars. While most of them are perhaps not household names, many are incredibly accomplished and learned. Given that the Byzantine Empire lasted for a millennium and, as Leonidas Pittos reminded us yesterday, never lost contact with the learning from Greek antiquity, it seems reasonable to expect that there might be a panel on Byzantine science.1 Sadly, there is no panel on Byzantine science. Indeed, there is only one paper that deals science: Anne-Laurence Caudano’s “Controversies and scientific activities of the Byzantine clergy in the reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143‐1180).” According to the abstract, Caudano will concentrate on two letters that reveal monastic opinions about astrology and largely condemn the practice.

The 2010 Byzantine Studies Conference will happen largely without science.

It seems rather telling that Byzantinists themselves have little or nothing to say about Byzantine science. This silence further supports the marginalization of Byzantine science common in standard histories of science. Surely in a 1000 years there was some interesting science (including astrology, geomancy, magic, medicine, numerology, etc.)—Paul Magdalino, Maria Mavroudi, Ann Tihon, Henry Maguire, and John Duffy (who chairs Sunday morning’s panel) have all written on such topics. The lack of papers on Byzantine science cannot be explained simply by disciplinary divisions—no historians of science. This year’s History of Science Society annual meeting has only one paper on Byzantine science: Caudano’s “‘You Asked Me, Princess, how Thunder and Lightning Happen’: Byzantine Science and Learning in the 11th and 12th Centuries” (the HSS conference program is available here). I am not yet convinced that Byzantine science deserves to be marginalized as it is (see this post).

Caudano will be speaking Sunday morning in the early session (9:00‐11:30): “Middle Byzantine Literary Culture” in Cohen Hall, Auditorium G17. If you are in the area turn up and show some support for Byzantine science (or at least Byzantine astrology).

1Leonidas Pittos gave the opening paper in a panel on “Byzantium and the Renaissance.” Most of the panel dealt with Byzantine topics viewed from within; Manfred Kraus explicitly linked Byzantium to the Latin West in his paper “A Popular Byzantine Textbook Goes West: Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata and its Latin Translations.” Regrettably, I was unable to stay for Kraus’s paper.

Tags: byzantine science, byzantium