- De Constantinople à Athènes: Louis Petit et les Bollandistes. Correspondance d'un archevêque savant (1902-1926)
The enigmatic figure of Louis Petit (1868-1927), the French Assumptionist priest who served as archbishop of Athens from 1912 to 1926, has been the subject of a number of studies in recent years. In 1997 the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome sponsored a colloquium dedicated to his life and work; the acts were published in 2002. One paper was by Bernard Joassart, S.J., on the correspondence between Petit and members of the Bollandist Society in Brussels, the prestigious institute for the study of hagiography founded by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century. The great majority of his correspondence was with Hippolyte Delehaye, S.J., the Bollandist president from 1912 until his death in 1941. In the present volume, Joassart has edited and published these letters and offers a more in-depth analysis of their contents.
Petit was born in France in 1868 and joined the Assumptionists in 1885. Without finishing his formal studies, Petit was named superior of his community's new foundation in Kadiköy (ancient Chalcedon, across the Bosphorus from Constantinople) in 1895. Under his direction the foundation would become an important center of research, publishing the influential review Échos de l'Orient beginning in 1897. In the meantime, Petit had taught himself the skills needed to undertake serious research in various aspects of Byzantine studies and published an increasing number of articles and books in the field. [End Page 839]
It was the Bollandist publication of an edition of the Synaxarion of the Church of Constantinople in 1902 that occasioned the first contact between Petit and the Belgian Jesuits. He wrote for a copy, asking if he could delay payment as well. The Bollandists were understanding of his financial situation and sent him a copy on credit, beginning a correspondence that would last throughout the final twenty-five years of Petit's life.
Altogether seventy letters have survived. Joassart has edited and painstakingly annotated all of them, carefully identifying the people and publications mentioned and providing historical details where needed. In the missives it is Petit who comes across as the more interesting personality. He writes quite openly about his disappointments and frustrations, and reveals an inquisitive mind with very broad interests and a voracious appetite for new publications in what was then the quickly expanding field of Byzantine studies. By contrast, Delehaye is more austere, writing more briefly, much less often, and never veering away from strictly scholarly matters.
The letters in this volume show that Petit's devotion to scholarly activity did not lessen after he was appointed archbishop of Athens in 1912. His correspondence with Delehaye continued unabated, and he was constantly asking for books, planning new publications, obtaining manuscripts, etc. Although Pope Pius XI's decision to ask for Petit's resignation in 1926 was attributed to a lack of pastoral skills and an overzealous promotion of French interests in Greece, one must wonder if another reason was the extent to which Petit was distracted by his scholarly activity. In his letter to the Bollandist president in July 1921, for example, Petit wrote that he had just returned to Athens after spending "six or seven weeks" on Mount Athos; a great wealth of Byzantine manuscripts were held in its monastic libraries. No doubt the Roman authorities noticed such lengthy absences from his diocese.
Joassart and the Bollandist Society have rendered a great service in publishing this correspondence, for it provides us with a remarkable window into the beginnings of the revival of Byzantine studies at the turn of the last century.