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  • Review: A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities August 30, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    A cabinet of byzantine curiosities

    Anthony Kaldellis, A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from History’s Most Orthodox Empire (OUP 2017)

    Between about 1880 and 1960 British and American publishers occasionally brought out curiosity books in small print runs by capable people. These books were on delightful but inconsequential subjects: the eccentricities of Chinese court etiquette; descriptions of giraffes by non-Africans; mysterious passages in Shakespeare… They were also written in beautiful English by men and women who would have rather cut off their hands with a paper knife than use words like ‘impact’ (as a verb), ‘socio-economic’, toward (in titles), vocality etc etc Beach’s copies of these treasures smell vaguely of tea biscuits and pipe smoke. They belonged to a world in which people wishing to entertain themselves sat down in armchairs and  read in daylight in houses where there was no television and where the radio was restricted to the servants’ quarters: outside red squirrels gamboled in the garden; and men with shotguns chased poachers. It is not that, post 1960, these books stopped being published. It is just that it ceased to be fashionable for very intelligent folk to ‘waste’ their time on such trivia and, all too often, the field was ceded to enthusiastic amateurs who – forgive… – didn’t understand and couldn’t write.  Such drolleries, such intellectual facetiousness, such rollicking acts of sophism had become games from a happier but altogether vanished world of which perhaps crosswords alone have survived. They now – like Arabian unicorns and New England mermaids – only very rarely come out to play.

    This brings us to the marvelous A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities.

    The author of A Cabinet is one Anthony Kaldellis. Beach has decided not to look into Mr or Dr Kaldellis’ online profiles because he likes to think of him as a survivor from Europe’s fin de siècle (c. 1900 not c. 2000) upper middle classes who had a little too much time on his hands; and who in a world war would have been drafted into espionage or code breaking. (You know the sort). AK has brought together a series of, to quote the subtitle, ‘strange tales and surprising facts from history’s most orthodox empire’ and somehow convinced Oxford University Press to publish them (Beach is still working that one out). The book is really just a series of Byzantine gobbets broken down into sections: war (wounds, weapons, spies…), saints (stylites, extremists; holy fools…) etc. The skill in history by gobbet is: (i) write well (subject, verb, object, preferably in that order); (ii) present well (give context, but without insulting the reader); and crucially (iii) choose well. AK has got these three down, but Beach particularly wants to pay tribute to ‘choose well’. Many of the gobbets are, at first glance, gentle rather than hilarious, but they bring, particularly eaten ten or twelve at a time, immense satisfaction. Consider this gem. Beach read it once and frowned, then read it twice and smiled. He is now quoting it to his children.

    The Vandal king Geizeric (d. 477) conquered North Africa, sacked Rome in 455, and terrorized the Mediterranean with his pirate fleet. One time when he was setting sail from Carthage, his pilot asked him where they were going. Geizeric replied, ‘Clearly against people with whom God is angry.’ (Procopius)

    Also did you know that one of the earliest passages of Alan to survive is an obscene joke about a woman, a priest and sexual intercourse?

    There are almost 250 pages of this fabulous nonsense.

    Not every civilization invites the gobbet treatment, of course. Try writing 60,000 words in this style about the Franks or the Anglo-Saxons and you’d quickly run into a wall of boredom. Civilizations probably need an absurdly high estimation of themselves and enough freedom in the ranks to act crazily: the Byzantines along with the Vikings and the medieval and early modern Gaels qualify. Beach fears that ‘the West’ c. 2010 would not make good gobbet material, but that is what you get from living in a safe space.

    Lots of good reading this summer. A Cabinet was not the most educational, the most profound or the most impressive read, but, God, it was the most enjoyable.

    Other good books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com