Byzantine Education and Literacy
“David and Goliath”. Public Domain.
The Medieval Ages is a misunderstood period in History, with stereotypes such as filth, illiteracy, and dark ages, dragging its name through centuries worth of uninformed mud. This narrow perspective is clouded in many ways; notably the evidence for numerous renaissances and countless literary pieces created during the Medieval Ages. Furthermore, places such as China and the Islamic World were at their respective apexes of learning and culture. As a matter of fact, Europe itself was far from the immense cultural backwater as is portrayed by modern views. Although the subcontinent had yet to reach its educational breakthroughs during the Renaissance, the Medieval Age saw new cultural heights in many places. From the Carolingian Renaissance in France and Germany to the Renaissance of the 12th century, Europe had numerous heights during the Medieval Period. However, the most prominent and consistent of these educational springs was that of the Byzantine Empire, or more accurately, the Eastern Roman Empire.
The cultural juggernaut of the Romans lasted into the Medieval Ages through its survival in the East. As a result, the institutions of the Ancient Romans not only survived but evolved in the East, while its counterparts in the West slowly fell into decadence during the 6th to 8th Centuries.
The Eastern Romans had improved the education system and practices from the Ancient Roman Empire of old, as learning became more accessible and more Ancient texts were studied. A part of the successes seen was the influence of Christianity, as the religion promoted taking care of the weaker members of society.
As a result, churches and numerous charities were widespread throughout the empire. Furthermore, the Emperors would often sponsor the education of orphans whose fathers served in the Imperial Army.
All children who had lost their parents and were afflicted by the grievous ills of orphanhood were committed to the care of relatives and to others who, he knew, were respectable people, as well as to the abbots of the holy monasteries, with instructions to treat them not as slaves but as free children, to see that they had a thorough education and to teach them the sacred scriptures. Some he introduced into the orphanage which he had personally funded, making it a school rather for those who wanted to learn. (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad. Book XIV, pg 452.)
The Imperial Princess and first female historian, Anna Komnene, described the emphasis her father, Emperor Alexios placed on education. To further his virtue, Anna described the construction of the Orphanage which was said to be a Second City inside the grand capital of Constantinople that was catered to the needs of the poor and disabled.
You might see a Latin being trained over there, or a Scythian learning Greek; or a Roman handling Greek texts; or an illiterate Greek discovering how to speak his own language correctly. (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad. Book XIV, pg 454.)
The Great Works
With the efforts of the empire to widespread education throughout the domain, Eastern Rome had a potential literacy rate of up to 30%. Although this statistic is laughable by modern standards, it was far more impressive than Western Europe, and could easily rival the larger empires of the East during their Golden Ages.
The Alexiad. By Sailko — Own work, CC BY 3.0.
With this article pulling quotes from The Alexiad, it is appropriate to discuss the famous work of Anna Komnene. Compared with the straightforward, and often unambitious literature of her contemporaries, Anna Komnene managed to string together the influences of Homer’s Epics and Herodotus’s Histories, crafting a new genre, Epic History.
Admittedly, The Alexiad is one of the few pieces of Byzantine Literature that could stand amongst the Ancient Greek texts of Plato and Homer, as the rest were stripped down works on chronology. However, the literature and education of the empire had huge cultural impacts on the World, with the revival of Ancient Greek studies having a particular impact on the future Renaissance.
By the 11th Century, the Empire had stabilized after centuries of external strife. As a result, efforts were put into promoting education and literature, resulting in the Macedonian Renaissance, which saw the revival of Ancient Greek studies. Scholars such as Michael Psellos promoted the study and integration of Greek philosophies into Roman-Christian society.
Michael Psellos. By Unknown/Άγνωστος — Codex 234, f. 245a, Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery/ Κώδ. 234, φ. 254α, Άγιον Όρος, Μονή Παντοκράτορος, Public Domain.
These ideas reshape and revitalized Roman society, and by 1453, the year of doom for the empire, the last emperor proclaimed:
Present your shield, swords, arrows, and spears to them, imagining that you are a hunting party after wild boars, so that the impious may learn that they are dealing not with dumb animals but with their lords and masters, the descendants of the Greeks and the Romans.
Byzantine literature and education remains an overshadowed example of the heights and advancements made by Medieval Europe. From its impressive literacy rates to the impacts the Hellenistic Revivalists of the later empire had on the Renaissance, the Eastern Romans were a staple of culture and literature.