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Papal Involvement in the Spread of Greek Culture to the Medieval Latin West

Réka Forrai, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, Fellow 2010/11

The aim of my project was to investigate the Papacy's role in spreading Greek culture to the Latin West from the 7th to the 13th centuries, from the reign of Gregory the Great to Boniface VIII. Specifically, I was looking at the cultural policies of the medieval papacy and their effect on the formation of Greek textual canons in the West. Rome's crucial role as mediator between East and West throughout the Middle Ages and beyond has been often noted. But so far no systematic study has been made of the papacy's share in this mediation.

Dumbarton Oaks is one of the rare libraries where the history of medieval east-west relations is thoroughly documented. Moreover, during the current academic year, Dumbarton Oaks hosted a number of fellows working on the subject of Byzantine-Western political and cultural interactions. This combination of a rich research material and a likeminded academic community provided me with ideal research conditions. It was during a previous Summer Fellowship at this institute that I laid down the foundations of this project, and now I had the chance to investigate in depth some methodological and theoretical concepts. I was primarily concerned with two related themes: censorship and the creation of canons.

The medieval papacy took an active role in filtering both pagan science and eastern religiosity, whether the Aristotelian canon, ancient medical corpora, ecclesiastical historiography, hagiography or theological documents. Texts were used strategically to build a cultural identity: appropriation of items of the Greek legacy via translation is governed by a rivalry with Byzantium. Claiming the role of mediator between Latin and Greek culture reflects also an anxiety for cultural control over Latin literary production. Translations served as spiritual weapons not only against the East, but also in competition with Western politico-cultural entities, such as the royal courts of Europe.

Translation is a strategic site from which institutions can control the impact of other cultures on their own, and implicitly shape the cultural identity of their community. The canonization of a body of texts limits contact between cultures to the segment desired by the regularizing institution. Unsurprisingly, the earliest occurrences of papal censorship concern translations. As Greek culture was perceived as both authoritative and threatening at the same time, patronage as a way of control was of primary interest for the papacy.

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