«COURTESY OF RAINER BECK 18 february 1910. 25 may 1999 PROCEEDINGS OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY VOL. 154, NO. 4, DECEMBER 2010 biographical ...»
COURTESY OF RAINER BECK
18 february 1910. 25 may 1999
PROCEEDINGS OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY VOL. 154, NO. 4, DECEMBER 2010
O N 25 MAY 1999, Hans-Georg Beck, the Nestor of Byzantine
studies in Germany and the longtime publisher of the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, died unexpectedly in his ninetieth year.
He was born on 18 February 1910 in Schneizlreuth in the Berchtesgaden region of Bavaria, but spent his childhood in Gmund on the Tegernsee before joining the boarding school of the humanistic Gymnasium at Scheyern (north of Munich), in 1920. From Scheyern, he transferred in 1925 to the Gymnasium at Kloster Ettal, where he graduated in 1929. Always remaining true to his close ties with the Bavarian homeland, he never betrayed his Alpine dialect if his counterpart in a conversation was likewise conversant in it.
In 1930 he entered the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich to study philosophy, Catholic theology, Byzantine studies, and classical philology. Very early in his studies, he went to Rome (1930–31) to immerse himself in scholastic philosophy. It was there that he fell into “an enthusiastic friendship” with François Masai, and where he, while attending Easter service at an Eastern Orthodox church, decided to devote himself to Byzantine studies. Among the professors who left the deepest impression on him in Munich were Kurt Huber (who later became a leading figure in the resistance group “Die Weiße Rose”), Eduard Schwartz, Rudolf Pfeiffer, and Franz Dölger. Martin Grabmann directed his dissertation in theology, and it was to him that he paid tribute in the preface to his last book in 1993 (Vom Umgang mit Ketzern / Among the Heretics).
The years between his doctoral dissertation in 1936 and his Habilitation in 1949 were among the most difficult in Hans-Georg Beck’s life.
They had so profound an effect on him that he hardly ever spoke of them, though they left an indelible trace on his opinion of human nature. He catalogued private libraries, until he could at last resume his research at the University of Munich and complete his Habilitation at the Faculty of Philosophy, not an easy task for a theologian. Since— much like nowadays—the position of a Privatdozent was not remunerated very well, life got easier only after he received a paid position as university lecturer and eventually became a professor in 1956. As general secretary, Beck organized the XIth International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Munich in 1958. His academic career began in earnest in 1959, when he was named the successor to Franz Dölger in Byzantine studies and modern Greek philology at the University of Munich,
a university lecturer, he thus served as a representative of his peer group in the Faculty of Philosophy, and also served that faculty as dean in 1962–63. Important tasks awaited him also outside the university: he served as vice president of the humanities division of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (1965–68) and as a member of the federal government’s Scientific Council in 1968. However, he resigned from these positions when he realized that they detracted too much from his work, and did not bring the benefits he had hoped for. Instead, he devoted his energies to establishing a German study center in Venice at the end of the 1960s, a task made easier by his many and varied contacts. He eventually served as the center’s president from 1970 to 1984.
Recognition for his public services is evident in the awarding of the Bundesverdienstkreuz in 1981 and the Bayerische Maximilianorden für Wissenschaft und Kunst in 1988.
On the other hand, Hans-Georg Beck was greatly honored to serve the scholarly community at home and abroad and participate in its advancement. In 1962 he became a member of the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, where he oversaw the Kommission zur Herausgabe des Corpus der griechischen Urkunden and the Patristische Kommission. He was elected a corresponding member of the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften in 1966, xenos hetairos (foreign member) of the Athenian Academy in 1975, a member of the British and Belgian academies in 1977, and in 1988 a foreign member of the American Philosophical Society.
In a scholarly oeuvre that extends from 1925 to 1993 it is difficult to single out any one theme. Beck’s greatness as a scholar lay in his capacity to understand Byzantium as an overall phenomenon, for which printed sources and their interpretation served as his basis. However, he did not concentrate his energies on editing texts; neither was he noted for the study of art and archaeological objects. Instead, theology and church history formed the foundation of his studies, and, while illuminated rather critically in his later decades, can be considered a leitmotif in his work, stretching from his first article in 1935 on Aquinas’s concepts, written when he was still a student, via his 1937 dissertation (published in Rome) on prophecy in the theological writings of Byzantium (“Vorhersehung und Vorherbestimmung in der theologischen Literatur der Byzantiner”), to his last monograph in 1993 on heretics.
The synopsis of Byzantine theology written by Albert Ehrhard and added to the second edition of Krumbacher’s literary history of Byzantium (1897), quickly proved too restrictive. After Ehrhard’s death (1940) he assumed the responsibility of writing an independent history of Byzantine theology, but could not devote his attention to this work until 1951. Beck’s first major publication (of more than eight 456 biographical memoirs hundred pages), a history of Byzantine theology (Kirche und theologische Literatur im byzantinischen Reich), appeared in 1958, making his name known throughout the world. The book is still considered the standard reference work on the subject. Beck later returned to problems in theology and church history, though they were no longer central to his interests. The Geschichte der orthodoxen Kirche im byzantinischen Reich was published in 1980, comprising various revised chapters about Byzantium from the Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte (1962–73). In a study from 1967 he first investigated the political norms of the Byzantine mission. He later tackled even controversial subjects in his writings on the reliability of icons (Von der Fragwürdigkeit der Ikone, 1975) and Byzantine conceptions of the afterlife (Die Byzantiner und ihr Jenseits, 1979). Beck’s sharp eye for marginal religious (and social) groups is once again apparent in the monograph by the then eighty-three-year-old scholar, Vom Umgang mit Ketzern. Der Glaube der kleinen Leute und die Macht der Theologen.
Another area of interest to Hans-Georg Beck was social history. Inspired by research in the field of medieval studies, he pointed out the similarities and great differences between East and West in terms of the social groups that supported the interests of the state (Byzantinisches Gefolgschaftswesen, 1965). At around the same time, he elaborated these thoughts further in his treatment of the complicated mechanism that governed the electing of the emperor (Senat und Volk von Konstantinopel, 1966). In his Untersuchungen zur Sozialgeschichte Konstantinopels (Social History of Constantinople, 1965) he addressed issues that were, back then, almost exclusively treated by scholars in socialist countries. His path took him further, to questions of the creation of state power, and of Byzantine theories of the state. Even now, a quarter of a century later, these studies can still be considered fundamental contributions to the field of Byzantine studies.
No less fundamental was Hans-Georg Beck’s research on Byzantine literature. In his Habilitationsschrift (1949) on Theodoros Metochites, which was published in 1951 with the subtitle Die Krise des byzantinischen Weltbildes im 14. Jahrhundert (Crisis of the Byzantine World Image in the Fourteenth Century), he gave expression to his conviction that literature is tightly bound with cultural and social developments.
Herbert Hunger described it in his review (Byzantinische Zeitschrift 46 : 123–27) as “ein Buch sui generis, das in der heutigen byzantinischen Literatur kaum seinesgleichen hat,” and was convinced that it will undoubtedly enter “die Annalen der Nachkriegsbyzantinistik” as a major achievement, a prediction that stands justified half a century later. Beck subsequently translated the advice of Kekaumenos hans-georg beck 457 as Vademecum des byzantinischen Aristokraten (Manual for a Byzantine Aristocrat, 1964), making this most interesting text available to a wider public. For Beck, literature was always a social phenomenon, and he wanted to know who read the works, how many manuscripts were circulated, and so forth, questions to which only provisional answers can be given. His Überlieferungsgeschichte der byzantinischen Literatur (History of the Transmission of Byzantine Literature, 1961) in the general collection Die Textüberlieferung der antiken Literatur und der Bibel (translated in 1967 into Serbian) remains unsurpassed in its essentials. There is also much to gain from Leserkreis der byzantinischen Volksliteratur (1975). These titles preceded or accompanied in 1971 the Geschichte der byzantinischen Volksliteratur (History of Byzantine Popular Literature), which appeared in the Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft series and replaced the corresponding extract in Krumbacher’s literary history of Byzantium (1897). Byzantine literature is generally considered from the vantage point of the period that reads it.
Beck, however, was also interested in the question, how the Byzantine reader understood it (Das literarische Schaffen der Byzantiner, 1974), though he acknowledged (as in his subtitle, Wege zu seinem Verständnis) the difficulty of finding the right pitch.
How strongly literature is connected to social mentality and forms of taboo, is shown in one of his last major publications, Byzantinisches Erotikon, which was first presented to a small academic circle for discussion in 1984, and then enlarged for a wider publication in 1986.
Hans-Georg Beck was an eminent stylist, with a sharp power of observation. He could interpret for a broad audience without striking a banal or false tone. In the various chapters of Das byzantinische Jahrtausend (The Byzantine Millennium, 1978, 1982, which appeared in Italian in 1981), he gave a brilliant synopsis and splendid account of Byzantine civilization. Because he knew how difficult it is to understand Byzantine texts, he thought it was especially important to translate a great variety of them; the results are published in his Byzantinisches Lesebuch (Byzantine Reader, 1982) and in the hundred pages of his appendix of translated heretical sources in Vom Umgang mit Ketzern (1993).
Besides his own extensive academic oeuvre, Hans-Georg Beck also made notable contributions in his capacity as editor-in-chief of both the Byzantinische Zeitschrift and the Byzantinische Archiv between 1964 and 1977. No one can even count the number of bibliographic notices he composed. At a time when doctoral students were generally left to publish their dissertations on their own, he founded the series Miscellanea Byzantina Monacensia to give them that opportunity, though it was 458 biographical memoirs not restricted only to doctoral theses. Twenty-two titles had appeared by the time Beck retired from his teaching duties, and he continued to oversee the series as emeritus. Clearly the project was close to his heart, for Beck himself printed his annotated translation of the autobiography of Hieronymus Wolf in the series in 1984.