The upcoming BSC has turned my mind to matters Byzantine, and so it was a happy coincidence that I came across a new volume of Byzantine history before I left for Toronto. Princeton University Press describes Judith Herrin's new Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire in some fairly surprising terms:
She argues that Byzantium's crucial role as the eastern defender of Christendom against Muslim expansion during the early Middle Ages made Europe--and the modern Western world--possible.
This is all absolutely right, but still it is a little surprising (more on that in a moment). It's interesting that I came across this, by way of an Economist advance review of the book, because I had just been thinking earlier today of the far greater military and strategic significance of the Byzantine victories of 678 and 718 compared with the much better known Battle of Poitiers of 732. No offense to Charles Martel, who was a great defender of Christendom (and whose image adorns our "masthead"), but had Constantine IV and Leo III failed to hold Constantinople the ability of the Caliphate to project power across the Mediterranean and up through the Balkans would have been tremendous. Medieval Christendom as it came to exist would have never come into existence, and our civilisation as we know it would not have existed. Three cheers for Greek fire, obviously, and the Syrian Christian who invented it.
I say it is surprising that the book description frames the issue this way, because in certain Byzantinist circles it has come to be seen as old-fashioned and undesirable to emphasise Byzantium as the bulwark against Islam and protector of European civilisation. This interpretation of Byzantium-as-saviour is enshrined in the magisterial work of Ostrogorsky, and so is not going to disappear for a long time, but there has been a strange, if somewhat understandable, move in Byzantine studies to define Byzantium as its own separate civilisation--since medievalists initially were not concerned to include it as part of "the West"--and so to keep it apart from European history proper. The impulse to do this comes from two sources: the first are the Orthodox apologists who would like to keep Byzantium unsullied from both traces of heresy and later secularism of the West whose origins they locate in the medieval western world, and the other comes from the Byzantinists who are willing to admire Byzantium, but who want to admire it because it is unlike medieval Europe, or at least western Europe. Even Sir Steven Runciman, whose works were probably among the earliest and most eloquent arguments on behalf of the superior civilisation of the Byzantines, was effectively separating Byzantium from western Europe in his admiration for the former.
In my view, the drive to try to separate or distinguish sharply between Byzantium and the west is mistaken. Until at least 1204, the two undoubtedly formed two parts of the same civilisation, and just as in some important ways we today share Europe's fate as part of the same civilisation so, too, did western Europe share Byzantium's. When the Eastern Empire was gone, it was western Europe that had to bear the burden that Byzantium had carried for centuries before. Different cultures there were, as one would expect, but there was still a single Christian civilisation to which all their heirs still belong to one degree or another.