One question people sometimes ask is how the intellectual/cultural/scientific output of the Byzantine Empire compared to Western Europe and/or Italy, its most advanced major region for most of the medieval period.
How do we answer this? Quantify! Quantify! Quantify! In this post, I will attempt to provide a short “cliometrics”-based answer.
Manuscript Production in Western Europe
Buringh, Eltjo, and Jan Luiten Van Zanden. 2009. “Charting the ‘Rise of the West’: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries.” The Journal of Economic History.
In Western Europe, there were ~10K manuscripts produced in 6-7C, 40K in 8C, ~200K in 9-11C, 800K in 12C, 1.8M in 13C, 2.7M in 14C, and 5M in 15C.
(Just around the time of the fall of Constantinople, Gutenberg invented his press, and things really took off. There were 12.5M books printed in 1454-1500, expanding to more than 0.2B in 16C, 0.5B in 17C, and 1.0B in 18C.)
What is the length of the average medieval manuscript? (10K words? Might be more, after all, some manuscripts were huge, e.g. the complete Summa Theologica has about one million words. Though I assume those were split off into several manuscripts. But I don’t know, I’m not a medievalist). And what percentage were originals? Probably a small one – <1%?. The article notes that the average print run in the earliest days of the printing press was 100 books, increasing to 700 by 1500. The earliest printers were heavily influenced by their scribal traditions, so let’s assume that the standard “print run” of any one unique manuscript was 25 (after all, the great boon of printing is that it collapses the price of copying, while producing the original is if anything more laborious than with a manuscript).
Now obviously a lot of the following will depend of the accuracy of these assumptions, but even if you were to make them very generous, it is still hard to make out the Byzantine Empire to be an intellectual powerhouse much after the medieval Renaissance.
Manuscript Production in the Byzantine Empire
Nick Nicholas answers:
While there are 105 million words in the TLG, most of them are Byzantine. I did a count of the words in the corpus in Lerna VIc: A correction of word form counts in 2009; because there is not massive growth in the number of known ancient texts, the counts still apply.
If we define ancient Greece as up to the fourth century AD, and we exclude Christian works and technical works (so just literature, as opposed to writing), it’s 16 million words. If a novel is around 100,000 words, that corresponds to 160 books; so yes, someone could potentially read it. If we cut it down to strictly Ancient times (down to the fourth century BC), it’s 5 million words.
So that’s 90 million words.
Using the above assumptions for Western Europe, that translates into 90 million total words / 10,000 words per manuscript = 9,000 unique manuscripts over the millennial history of the Byzantine Empire.
9,000 * 25 copies = 225,000 over one thousand years. Let’s say 25,000 during a typical century.
Broadly speaking, the Byzantine Empire’s core population was around 10 million from 7C to the Crusader sacking of Constantinople, or ~10% that of Western Europe and about equal to that of Italy. Unfortunately, its socio-demographic collapse happened at just the time when Western Europe began to experience a surge in intellectual production that continues to this day. Indeed, for most of its history, the Byzantine Empire was in unremitting decline (even as Europe gained on practically all dimensions). Assuming those two factors would cancel each other out, let’s make the further assumption that Byzantine manuscript production was basically flat throughout its existence.
Intellectual Output in Western Europe vs. The Byzantine Empire
Consequently, we have the following picture:
- Byzantine intellectual production > all of the rest of Europe during 6-7C – the very darkest depths of the Dark Ages – with Western Europe as a whole decisively overtaking it as early as 9C.
- Remaining one of the key intellectual centers during 9C-11C (e.g. France dominated leapt ahead during the 8C Carolingian Renaissance). But it still kept pace in per capita terms with the major regions of Western Europe.
- Byzantines falling by the wayside from around 12C. Note that Italy’s production had increased to 95K by 12C, 253K by 13C, and 879K by 14C.
This broad sketch estimate seems intuitively correct, though it would be nice if someone could provide better (real) estimates for average medieval manuscript length, average manuscript “copying run”, and century by century data for the Byzantine Empire (as Van Zanden et al. did for Western Europe).
Consider the following:
1. Yes, there were some real Greek innovations. The Empire was militarily strained throughout its history, so a lot of its aggregate mind power must have went into the military sphere (e.g. Greek fire! still unsure how to exactly replicate it today. Byzantine military theory was also probably the world’s most advanced at the time). Though much less famous than Anna Comnena, Michael Psellos was arguably a precursor to Leonardo da Vinci.
2. However, it had no real science as in the Arab (or rather, Arabized) regions of the Middle East, no technological dominance as in Song China, no 12th century medieval Renaissance that spawned the West European university system and the Paris law school, the Oxford Calculators, and eventually, the most famous Renaissance.
3. The Byzantine Empire was indelibly cut off from these exciting European developments for reasons stretching back to the bifurcation of the Roman Empire.
Here is a telling extract about this from Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church:
The cultural unity lingered on, but in a greatly attenuated form. In both east and west, people of learning still lived within the classical tradition which the Church had taken over and made its own; but as time went on they began to interpret this tradition in increasingly divergent ways. Matters were made more difficult by problems of language. The days when educated people were bilingual were over. By the year 450 there were very few in western Europe who could read Greek, and after 600, although Byzantium still called itself the Roman Empire, it was rare for a Byzantine to speak Latin, the language of the Romans. Photius, the greatest scholar in ninth-century Constantinople, could not read Latin; and in 864 a ‘Roman’ Emperor at Byzantium, Michael III, even called the language in which Virgil once wrote ‘a barbarian and Scythic tongue’. If Greeks wished to read Latin works or vice versa, they could do so only in translation, and usually they did not trouble to do even that: Psellus, an eminent Greek savant of the eleventh century, had so sketchy a knowledge of Latin literature that he confused Caesar with Cicero. Because they no longer drew upon the same sources nor read the same books, Greek east and Latin west drifted more and more apart.
We can essentially consider Western Christendom world to have been one intellectual world, where the cognitive elites spoke and wrote in Latin. Multiple nodes comparable in demographic scope to the Byzantine Empire bouncing ideas off each other, while the latter’s scholars did not even have the language skills to participate.
Consequently, it is logical that Western superiority in intellectual output must have emerged rather early, and the above rough calculations would seem to confirm that.