The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Maria Conterno on oral tradition

For grins I googled >Maria Conterno again. Her book seems to be out now; but it's still in Italian and it's not in the library, so I can't read it. Fortunately I see that her recent summary ”Storytelling” and ”History writing” in Seventh-Century Near East is out in public.

The core question is how the contemporary accounts of seventh-century events got into the ninth-century chronicles. We know that for the Muslims, this was done by oral-transmission. For Conterno, this happened also on the Christian side of those events. The phenomenon affects two of my projects: "Amorium", currently in The Arabs and Their Qur'an; and "Caesarea" currently on my site.

I hadn't quite got my head around Conterno when last I fixed up The Arabs. I did take her into account for "Caesarea". I think it's worth my while to support what I'd done for "Amorium"...

I didn't approach either relevant anecdote as oral-tradition. So little is known about this whole era that I demand that theses be testable. I don't consider vague "oral-tradition" to be any more testable than is "the dog ate my sources". I approached the anecdota as propaganda. Propaganda is a testable genre of oral-tradition, at least in my opinion. It's like apocalyptic - it makes sense in a fairly specific time and place, and will make less sense later - unless reworked (we'll get to that). Everyone agrees that apocalyptic is a sub-genre of propaganda. So I asked - to what degree are these anecdotes of use to anyone? ... and - most of all - in what form would they take?

A propagandum of the mid 660s can travel along until the 690s, and then gets "codified". A historian of the 720s will then take on the conventional-wisdom, one way or the other. In the case of Amorium, the Greeks defeated the Arabs and kicked them out, under the rulership of Constantine IV in AD 668-9. A first propagandum would celebrate the victory: as we see in the various small victories which the last part of the Maronite Chronicle describes (a written text, by the way...). Constantine then - clearly, after the MC - undid the Maronitism / Monotheletism of his ancestors. An anti-Monothelete would then cast his reign - and the first years of Justinian II - as a correction of the errors from Heraclius to his own day. Justinian II then kind of screwed up, and his successors (one of whom was Justinian II again) didn't do too well, and yet another Monothelete was king for awhile - but then came Leo the Isaurian. Here was a third opportunity for a Whig Historian; and this is where Afinogenov and Treadgold have located their respective Leonian historians.

By this point we also have Theophanes and Nikephoros to triangulate the exact words of their shared source(s); so it becomes more difficult to dismiss the Leonian historian(s) - whom the ninth century historians could not have consulted directly - as authors of a written text. Also a propagandist working for the king's court will affect a longer span of historical memory. Such a one working for Constantine IV, Justinian II or Leo will be an anti-monothelete still worried about a resurgence of the heresy; he will have every motive to craft a history of monotheletism and its evils. And oh yeah: if it's over that long a span, then the history is best written down if only to keep the story straight. So: Afinogenov's "history of Justinian and Leo" might JUST be short enough for oral-transmission; but as for Treadgold's "Trajan the Patrician", which incorporated this and more back to the reign of Heraclius the Maronite, almost a century earlier - this text must have been put down into a book.

Conterno, I think, has been revolutionary as a critic of historians. I am not so sure - in what I have read - that she has yet contributed enough as a historian herself.

posted by Zimri on 18:20 | link | 0 comments

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