The Bullarium Cyprium and the History of Medieval Cyprus

Over the last 15 years Christopher Schabel’s name has become synonymous with the history of Medieval Cyprus.  (How’s that for the first line of a book review?)  Last year, was a banner year for Schabel, in particular, in that it saw the publication of the Bullarium Cyprium, a massive two volume edition of Papal letters dealing with Cyprus from 1196-1314, and a volume in Variorum Collected Studies Series, Greeks, Latins, and the Church in Early Frankish Cyprus, that brought together his most important article-length contributions to the history of Cyprus (some in relatively obscure periodicals) in one place.  I’ve been asked to review the Bullarium Cyprium which is a pretty intimidating task considering that the author claimed to have spent eight months of 100 hour weeks (p. X), and the work spans over 1000 pages.

So, I am going to try to start getting my review ideas together in a blog, first, and then wrangle them into a formal review at some point later.

1. The Trilogy.  The Bullarium Cyprium represents the third work in a trilogy of important edited texts for the history of Cyprus produced by C. Schabel over his remarkable career. The first to appear was the Schabel and Coureas edited edition of the Cartulary of the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom of Nicosia which were a series of documents (as the title suggests) concerning ecclesiastical power of the archbishop of Cyprus with a particular emphasis on economic and spiritual matters.  The second volume is the is the Synodicum Nicosiense which he published with some other documents that, like the Cartulary, documented the legal affairs of the Latin Church on Cyprus. The Bullarium Cyprium is the third part to this trilogy. It collects and edits the Papal letters concerning the church and politics of Cyprus. In some cases these overlap with texts in the Synodicum and have clear parallels with positions outlined in the Cartulary.

While Schabel is clear that these texts do not make up a comprehensive collection, there were undoubtedly Papal letters that do not appear in the Papal register and the collection of documents from the island is famously incomplete, it seems probable that he has now produced a representative collection of documents relevant for the study of the Latin church on the island.  Considering the incredibly fragmentary state of the archive of surviving documents from Medieval Cyprus, these three collections provides a most nourishing variety of stone soup.

2. Latins, Greeks, and Foreigners (then and now). Schabel’s introduction to the Synodicum Nicosiense could serve as an introduction to the entire trilogy of edited texts.  He points out here that history of “foreign” rule (itself a problematic concept) as well as the very recent legacy of colonialism on the island, has deeply influenced the way in which scholars have read the history of Latin and Greek relations on the island.  For example, despite its persistence in scholarly literature, the Greek church was never deemed heretical or schismatic by the Papacy or the Latin church (p. 38-41). Efforts to oversimplify the relationship between the two churches (and the communities whom these churches served) in opposition to each other and to represent the Latin church as an intolerant colonial power, occludes more sensitive and subtle readings of these documents.

By introducing new editions and translations of the texts of the Latin church in Cyprus, Schabel has invited scholars to re-engage with the primary source texts and re-consider both the historical context for the interaction between the Latin Church and the Greek and non-Greek/non-Latin community on the island, and the utility of the dominant theoretical models used to understand these relationships.  If we can historicize the work of many earlier scholars who sought to condemn or to defend one or the other party in the relationship between the various communities on the island, we can certainly see how Cyprus today presents itself with a new model for understanding the historical relations between the groups.  Schabel wrote his introduction to the Synodicum Nicosiense against the backdrop of a cancelled Papal visit to the island in 2001. Just this past summer, the Pope visited the island of Cyprus both as a spiritual leader and as a political partner in the European Union. These new political realities do not change the troubled past of the island, but certainly suggest some new interpretative frameworks for understanding the kind of complex politics that can emerge from moments of cross-cultural interaction. While new editions of these important texts will not necessary force scholars to revisit long held positions, they do provide a timely invitation to return to the documents and reconsider the complexities of the past.

3. Text. Two volumes of almost 600 letters and 1000 pages is a difficult document to grasp. Even with good indexes and a disciplined format, the Bullarium Cyprium confronts the reader (and reviewer) with a monumental body of text, and when combined with the cross-references to the Synodicum and the Cartulary the complexity of the body of primary sources for the church in Medieval Cyprus becomes even more significant. These are the kinds of works that push the limits of the codex as a tool to interface primary sources.  A digital version of all of these works would introduce a new level of functionality to our reading of these sources and allow for their expansion and modification when new material becomes available.

This is to take nothing away from Christopher Schabel’s massive contribution to the foundation of Medieval Cypriot history, but to consider how these texts can be more valuable and accessible in the continued effort to understand this important period in the history of the Medieval World.

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