On the pleasure of killing a flea

9 Aug 2023

Praise for a humble bug inspired Przemysław Marciniak to take a closer look at insects in Byzantine literature. The expert in Byzantine studies is currently guesting as a professor at the MZAW.

Scholar Michael Psellos (left) | © Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Przemysław Marciniak knows a thing or two about animals in the literature of the Byzantine Empire, which shaped the eastern Mediterranean for more than 1,000 years into the 15th century. The philologist is Professor of Byzantine Literature at Uniwersytet Śląski w Katowicach (the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland), where this topic is the focus of one of the projects he leads. Discovering texts in praise of bugs put his research on a new trail.

“The texts are so interesting that I asked myself: What do we know about insects in Byzantium?” In his capacity as guest professor at the Münchner Zentrum für Antike Welten (Munich Center for the Ancient World; MZAW) Marciniak has devoted his energies to this question over the past two semesters. Perhaps the most challenging aspect was that the available texts were penned by scholars and said little about insects in the everyday life of people in the Byzantine Empire. In the given context, insects are referenced mainly in parables. For example, the one praising the bug (along with two others about the flea and the louse) originated from a kind of lesson in rhetoric given by the scholar Michael Psellos, who wanted to show his pupils that, with sufficient linguistic dexterity, it is possible to praise anything – even a bug.

The Byzantine Empire in literary texts

From this we can infer that bugs were disliked as much then as they are today. That said, the modern view of insects can present an obstacle to exploring their role in Byzantium. “I try to remove the modern filter,” Marciniak explains. “Whether or not that is genuinely possible I don’t know. We can understand the grammar of the texts, but the mentality was different back then. We need to know that the Byzantines asked completely different questions and had a different worldview to our own.”

Today, the culture and life of the Byzantine Empire can be studied mostly through the mirror of literary texts. “We have texts about rhetoric, for example, or about saints, prayers, poems and novels. It may be that this slightly distorts our perspective,” Marciniak admits. “However, I am convinced that we can go deeper and at least attempt to understand what the Byzantines thought about nature, animals and, fnally, insects.”

Few visual representations of animals

What makes his research more difficult is that Byzantine literature has no zoological texts such as those we know from Ancient Greece, the ones penned by Aristotle. “This, I believe, is the biggest difference between Byzantium and Ancient Greece or Egypt: The former had virtually no interest in insects as biological creatures. Insects were moslty vehicles of metaphorical meanings. They were used to level criticism at someone, for example, or to praise someone. But there are practically no instances where insects were seen as interesting for their own sake.”

Some literary passages do reveal the associations and emotions evoked in inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire by certain animals and insects. The dung beetle, for instance, was a popular choice when it came to criticizing someone. “There is also one passage that describes the pleasure of killing a flea.” Fifteenth-century historian Dukas speaks of the “pleasurable sensation” when one squashes a flea (based on a German translation by D. R. Reinsch). Byzantine literature also includes the occasional surprising twist: The cicadas that in Ancient Greece were a byword for beautiful singing are used here as a symbol of Christianity. “One author – Asterios of Cappadocia – compared people who were baptized with cicadas, saying that they devoured the words of God as cicadas consume the dew.”

As graphic as some of these images are, there are few visual representations of animals and insects from the Byzantine period. And although many possible literary sources have been lost, this comes as a surprise to Marciniak: “Compared to Western European culture, it is very interesting that there are almost no pictures, which means that they had no interest in the physical side of animals and insects. But – and it is an important ‘but’ – this does not mean they were not interested in nature.”

In his research, Marciniak uses the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a database containing a huge volume of literature preserved from the Byzantine period. It is available online and has a keyword search function. “There are some things we can’t understand today,” Marciniak says, recalling one passage that talks about a children’s game mentioned for the first time by the Greek playwright Aristophanes. “Aristophanes spoke of a game involving a beetle. The Byzantine author wanted to understand what exactly the children did, but what he described was anatomically impossible.” These are precisely the kind of small puzzles that spur Marciniak on: “I am interested to know what the relationship between animals and humans was like and how knowledge and science have evolved since ancient times.”

About Professor Marciniak

Przemysław Marciniak is Professor of Byzantine Literature at the Institute of Literary Studies at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. He guested as a professor at the Munich Center for the Ancient World in the winter 2022/23 semester and the summer 2023 semester. Marciniak’s first research visit to LMU came in 2004, immediately after he had earned his doctorate. In 2018, the Humboldt Foundation awarded him with a Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Prize, which he used for a further stay at LMU’s Chair of Byzantine Studies.

Münchner Zentrum für Antike Welten: Munich Center for the Ancient World; MZAW

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