The Future of a More Public Byzantium

I had a lovely weekend in Boston at the Mary Jaharis Center at Hellenic College Holy Cross and quite enjoyed a range of graduate student papers on Byzantine related topics. The program, hospitality, and conversations with colleagues was first class, and it provided a window into the next generation of Byzantine studies professionals as well as some frank conversations about how Byzantine studies can engage a wider audience.

As per usual, I’ll offer a few observations:

1. Byzantium and the Margins. While the papers presented at the conference were not necessary representative of all the work being done by graduate students in Byzantine studies in the U.S. right now, it does allow us to observe some “trending topics” in Byzantine studies. In particular, I was impressed by the work being done around the margins of the “traditional” Byzantine world. While there were a handful of papers on theology and liturgy, for example, the conference saw little attention to the canonical texts or buildings of the Byzantine capital and a greater interest in geographic and conceptual edges of the traditional Byzantine world.

For example, there were papers on Genovese settlements in the Black Sea, on the art of the Red Monastery in Egypt, on Danishmend and Frankish coinage with Byzantine iconography, on attitudes toward iconoclasm in Arab lands, and attitudes toward the Jews in Byzantium. A paper that began with an image of Theodore Metochites at the church of the Chora in Istanbul, soon departed for Italy and Serbia to understand the headwear of Byzantine elites. What all these papers indicated to me is that the next generation of Byzantine scholars will be less fixated on defining and articulating what is essentially Byzantine and more focused on considering Byzantium in a relational way and locate Byzantine culture and society at the intersection of various currents of interaction and various distinct, but related communities. While this is not a new trend in the study of Byzantium (and reflects larger trends in the study of the premodern Mediterranean), it was remarkable to see how deeply this notion of Byzantium has permeated graduate student research.   

2. Byzantine Data. I was also interested to see how many of the papers drew either explicitly or implicitly on databases. I began to wonder where the great gaggle of data being produced by graduate students as the basis for their arguments goes after they defend (and publish) their dissertations. I got to thinking about a data clearing house for Byzantine related datasets that could support a wide range of research. I began to worry that these bespoke datasets could molder on a hard drive for years after a research project is done, and, at the same time, think about how these databases could provide important complements to ongoing or future research. I wonder how frequently we re-invent the wheel when we don’t share our data and whether making dissertation datasets available would encourage scholars to produce collaborative datasets to the benefit of the larger Byzantine Studies project.

I have to admit that I’m as guilty of this as anyone because my dissertation dataset had lingered relatively untouched on my laptop for years (although to be fair, my dissertation has been available as a free download since 2004!). Perhaps that’s what got me thinking about how these valuable troves of data could expand what Byzantine Studies has to offer the larger community of scholars.

3. Digital Centers and Byzantine Studies. One of the points that Jim Skedros brought up during our lunchtime panel is that there is no single outlet serving to make Byzantine Studies accessible to the general public. Instead, our field relies on personal blogs and a diverse set of institutions like Dumbarton Oaks, the Metropolitan Museum, BSANA and the Mary Jaharis Center to provide support for the study of Byzantium rather than a central institution like the Archaeological Institute of America or even the American Schools of Oriental Research. Considering the small number of scholars working in this field and its trans and interdisciplinary nature, it is particularly difficult that our energies and output are scattered over so many disparate institutions.

I wonder whether one of the institutions committed to the health of Byzantine studies should convene a conference that discusses ways to open the field of Byzantine studies to the wider academic and popular world. The goals of such a gathering would be to establish guidelines and support for a Byzantine outreach page with a dedicated (if not full time) editor, regularly updated content, and a system for driving traffic, dissemination in various (print?) formats, and archiving. These efforts require institutional support and “by in” even if it does not extend to any substantial financial investment. Having a single destination for outreach within academia and beyond would benefit the various stakeholders and perhaps even create a place for scholarly communication on various Byzantine issues and forge a stronger sense of community between various institutions.  

4. Theory and Practice. Finally, I detected a certain aversion to theorizing Byzantine studies both from the students in the panel and the participants in the lunchtime roundtable. I think our aversion to theory contributes to the struggle to connect the world of Byzantine scholarship to the larger project of the humanities or even Mediterranean history. Theoretical terms for whatever their benefit in interpreting and analyzing evidence from the past, provides a venue for engaging scholars working with similar approaches in other periods and fields.

Engaging the popular media and the general public will also require some theoretical savvy on the part of scholars of Byzantium. As the Middle East is going through a particularly dynamic and unsettled period, Byzantinists must be particularly sensitive to any effort to lend a historical perspective to events in this region without awareness of Orientalism, post colonial perspectives, and various models for articulating past perspectives to present events. The graduate students and panelists surely have the knowledge and understanding to make Byzantium relevant to a wider audience, but showing their framework more explicitly will make Byzantium a more active participant in producing useful pasts.

5. The Chapel. Finally, no post on Byzantium would be complete with a photo of a church. In this case, it is the chapel on the Hellenic Holy Cross campus that is modeled (loosely) after the church of the Holy Apostles in the Athenian Agora. According to Kostis Kourelis, the church was designed by Stuart Thompson who had quite a few other high-profile commissions in both Greece and America.

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