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Playfulness and Wit in Byzantine Letter Writing (Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries)

Floris Bernard, Universiteit Gent, Holland, Fellow 2012–2013

During my fellowship, I explored the elusive phenomenon of humor in Byzantium. I first sought to establish the cultural and moral framework of humor and laughter. Asteiotes—or urbanity, a notion encompassing wit and playfulness—was an important social ideal for the intellectual elite. I then examined the various functions of humor in social networks that were established and maintained by letters. I read an extensive number of letters, limited at first to those with clearly marked humorous or witty passages. This allowed me to better understand the elaborate, and sometimes deliberately intractable, conventions and codes that govern communication in letters. The phenomenon of derision, both playful and serious, proved to be an important feature in this, as were allusions and riddles.

The commentary of John Tzetzes (twelfth century) on his own letters was a crucial text for understanding the Byzantines’ own perspective on their letters. Realizing that humor is inextricably wound up with the question of audience, I spent most of my second term investigating the reception and circulation of letters among contemporary audiences. The tension between intimacy and public character attracted my attention as a fruitful way to analyze the sociological dimension of Byzantine letters.