Late Antique and Early Medieval discussions in Mainz

Reading time: 7 mins

The University of Mainz and the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz hosted on the weekend of the 19-21 of May the Workshop of the Graduate Exchange in Late Antique, Byzantine and Medieval History. I had the chance to participate for the first time and as it was a splendid occasion that prompted many interesting discussions and insights I wanted to share a few thoughts about the event. You can check out the complete program here

The workshop, now on its 7th edition, initially involved students from Oxford, Princeton and Vienna, with Mainz and Berlin joining soon after. It gives a chance for the graduate students to share their research in an international environment and get feedback and input from colleagues often working in different epochs and with different methods. This year the topics ranged from Syriac manuscripts to Anglo-Saxon garnets.

The workshop was expertly organised and prepared, thanks to the efforts of Doktorandennetzwerk Byzanz at Uni Mainz, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz and of course the Team of Arbeitsbereichs Byzantinistik at Uni Mainz.

It is of course impossible to comment on all presentations in detail (and there were twenty in total), but I would like nevertheless to offer a few words on that excellent collection of papers, with, of course, some Britain and Anglo-Saxon thoughts to boot. The comparative perspective of the presentations during the conference was one of the chief advantages of the meeting.

Salvatore Liccardo from Vienna opened the conference with a report on his work about Late Antique catalogues. His work focuses on the ways of naming the “barbarians” in the Late Antique period. Approaching that from the perspective of lists and catalogues (which he correlates with other written sources) gives a fascinating insight into how the authors of those lists mentally structured their world. Spotting a separate British section in one of the lists satisfied my Britain-oriented curiosity. This portion of the list included the Caledonians, Picts and Scoti, with Saxons still on the Continent.

Listening to James Wakeley from Oxford talking about re-evaluating Futuh al-Sham – a narrative about the conquest of Syria, which got sidelined in previous scholarship, made me think of struggles with re-evaluating problematic narrative sources in the British context. But even without the insular context it is clear, that we need more research into “conquest narratives” as such and the agendas of their authors.

Speaking of re-evaluating, Matthew Kinloch re-evaluated the whole way in which we look at some medieval chronicle authors on the example of George Akropolites. There was a lovely discussion after his paper, including a topic close to my heart – what should we put first when writing history, the “what happened” or “what the authors of history thought about what happened”. Matthew’s approach shows very nicely that both of those needs stand in the balance and actually you cannot have one without the other – I will be taking that point with me to the next ISAS conference when discussing the problems of post-colonial approach to Anglo-Saxon authors.

In the session concerned with cults and missions we had two presentations: Katharina Reihl spoke on the translation of Thecla’s cult from East to West and the possible impact it; David Barritt advanced his theory on the strenghtening of the papal position through the impact of the conversion of Central Europe, showing an interesting and quite far-reaching hypothesis of the Papacy gaining legal strenght from an “alliance” with Poland, Hungary and Bohemia.

One of our own Berlin people, Till Stüber, incriminated some bishops in Post-Roman Gaul. I have been following his work closely and I think we could really use some of his categories and approaches to the deposing processes in the 7th century in England. Especially contrasting them to the whole Wilfrid episode (who, as we remember, went to Gaul to get consecrated – quite an interesting parallel plane here).

In the same session Aikaterine Koroli re-evaluated the taxation documents from Late Antique Egypt, showing how important it is to come back to the manuscripts and to correlate even the most excelent editions with them. Additionally she has shown how much importance should be given to a precise, in-line commentary. And Anna Kladova talked about the reception of the canons pertaining to the bishop elections in the mid-Byzantine period.

In the urbanism session David Gyllenhaal from Princeton has shown us a fascinating urban world of Melitene in the time of the “Syriac Renaissance”, underlining the conflicts in this medieval space and relationships between different ethinc groups. It is always hard to write about what one does, but let us just say that on this occasion I made some remarks about the definition of urbanity in the sub-Roman and early Anglo-Saxon period (which is an important element of my work on what did they really think when they wrote “city”). Got some great feedback (especially on the Byzantine stuff, St John the Almsgiver, given the presence of so many Byzantinists in the room and some really good parallels on upkeep of infrastructure) that I will definitely incorporate in the chapter I am writing right now.

Patrick Merschner from Vienna talked about the biblical characterisation of Pelayo in the Asturian foundation myth. Such characterisation can of course have rich Anglo-Saxon parallels. Theofili Kampianaki’s work on envisaging the Roman past from the perspective of John Zonaras’s chronicle could serve as a very good parallel platform to the Rome-England memory axis in the Anglo-Saxon times. Of course the processes of re-using Roman past in our little corner were different (including for example a much lesser focus on political intricacies) it is always good to explore analogies. Next, Skyler Anderson commented on the way the attitude towards Judeo-Christian knowledge has changed in the islamic legal tradition.

There was one more Anglo-Saxon paper on the day, on garnets in Anglo-Saxon England, and excuse my pun, this was a gem. Alexandra Hilgner takes part in the garnet research project of Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz and thanks to the spectrometry they are doing on garnet finds they got some pretty exciting discoveries. The connection between the Merovingian gift exchange with Kent and garnet imports to Anglo-Saxon England is just one of them. I am eagerly awaiting the publication of the full results – they might really help us understand the balance of power between Merovingians and Kent and the way fashions got created in England in the Early Middle Ages not to speak of my personal favourite – long and short distance trade routes that could be responsible for that influx. Inspiring stuff.

Miriam Salzmann has shown how complicated a development of an elite can be on the example of Cyprus from 12th to 15th century. This little insular world, with its mixture of ethnicities, religions and communities was very difficult indeed to navigate socially.

Attitude towards writing in Early Medieval Bulgaria, Mirela Ivanova’s topic, offers a glimpse into a world at the beginning of its literacy in the vernacular. This “thinking about writing” as she put it, made me think of a possibility of a new, comparative monograph centring on this very topic that would span the whole of “Early Medieval periphery”. That would be a feat and a useful one to boot – one of the grand narratives that I believe, we could really make use of.

Again a member of our Berlin contingent, Jasmin Damerius, talked about the attitudes towards images in Walahfrid Strabo’s poetry. That presentation resonated very well with our colleagues working on Byzantine iconoclastic controversy and spurred a discussion on the reception of that controversy in the West. Maria Goiana then talked about the hymnography of Theodore the Stoudite and the ways of its reception and use.

The last session of the conference had two papers on monasticism. Stephanos Chasapoglou taked about patterns of trade (which of course immediately caught my attention) in the 11th century Aegean. Joe Glynias has shed some light on the Syriac community at Mount Synai through Syriac manuscript production.

The rich output presented during the conference, that really made me think that we should more often talk across disciplines and more importantly across geographical compartments, for it makes us think of completely new perspectives. The discussions both during the sessions and after them were really fascinating. Our professors and supervisors provided great feedback - the ability to draw from such wide ranging expertise during one event is really unique.

Next year: Berlin!

Written on May 21, 2017