A conversation with Amy Kaufman and Paul Sturtevant about their book The Devil's Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past (University of Toronto Press 2020). Extremists groups such as white supremacists and ISIS use the Middle Ages to advocate for specific racial, religious, or gender orders, and promote violence as a means for attaining them. We talk about the contours and goals of these groups, their conflicted views of modernity and the Middle Ages, how Byzantium does or does not fit into this picture, and generally go off on many tangents. Also check out their complementary conversation with Danièle Cybulskie on The Medieval Podcast.
33. The study of ethnic identities in Byzantium and beyond (Listener Questions II), with Brian Swain
This conversation with Brian Swain (Kennesaw State University) takes on listener questions about Byzantine identities. We start with the history of scholarly discussions of identity, especially ethnicity, comparing the study of barbarian (i.e., Germanic) ethnic groups with those in the Byzantine empire. How do groups change their identities? How are new identities born and old ones lost? How did the ancient Greeks become Romans and when did that become an ethnic identity? Where does genealogy and biology fit into all this? What happened to the Romans of the west? What did the Byzantines call their state and language? What does modern Romania have to do with Byzantine Romanía? And more!
32. Anastasius the Librarian, the greatest enemy of Byzantium you probably haven’t heard of, with Réka Forrai
Meet Anastasius the Librarian, one of the most fascinating controversialists of the ninth century. A native of Rome, scholar of Greek, and (probably) anti-pope for all of three days, he was no friend of Byzantium. He disliked and mistrusted "the Greeks" and argued that they were not Romans as they thought. His arguments have held sway in the west ever since. My guest is Réka Forrai (University of Southern Denmark), an expert on Anastasius' writings and thought; see especially her fascinating study ‘The Sacred Nectar of the Deceitful Greeks: Perceptions of Greekness in Ninth Century Rome,’ in A. Speer and P. Steinkrüger, eds., Knotenpunkt Byzanz: Wissensformen und kulturelle Wechselbeziehungen (Berlin 2012) 71-84.
China and Byzantium both saw themselves as civilizations menaced by "barbarians," and periodically established empires that ruled over them. In this episode, Ying Zhang (Ohio State, an expert on Ming China) moderates a discussion between myself and Shao-yun Yang (Denison University), author of The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China (University of Washington Press, 2019). How do imperial societies talk about barbarian or ethnic groups? How might we identify those groups, when they are used so often in the rhetorical construction of Chinese / Roman "orthodox" identities? Can our two fields find a common language in which to discuss these questions? My heartfelt gratitude to Shao-yun and Ying: you have been wonderful guides for your fascinating fields.
Where and how does one experience Byzantium in modern Greece today? This conversation with Dimitris Krallis (Simon Fraser University: see episode 10) ranges widely, from statues and streets to politics and Church politics in particular, drawing on our own experiences and training as Byzantinists. There is a lot more that we could say about this fascinating topic, but we explore various domains where Byzantium is alive or long gone, or where it shambles on in zombie form.
Hagia Sophia is back in the news. To understand what is happening, we need to know the complex history of this building as a church, mosque, and museum, and the many parties that have sought to claim it. In this episode, Bob Ousterhout (University of Pennsylvania) illuminates this rich history, with a focus on the last century and a half, the current political forces, and the priority to preserve the history of the monument for all who wish to study and experience it. He is the author of the magisterial survey Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands (Oxford 2019), and an article on the topic at hand: 'From Hagia Sophia to Ayasofya: Architecture and the Persistence of Memory,' İstanbul Araştırmaları Yıllığı 2 (2013) 1-8, which is available here. [Sidenote: you may want to check out my recent podcast interviews on The Medieval Podcast and the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Podcast.]
A conversation with Tia Kolbaba (Rutgers University) about how we decide what questions need to be studied, how we identify blind-spots and misconceptions, reframe a problem, and navigate the shallows and the deep in order to bring a project to conclusion. Are there politics within a field that shape these decisions, sensitive areas that we need to avoid, or responsibilities toward non-academic communities?
A conversation with Jonathan Shea (Dumbarton Oaks) about Byzantine lead seals, of which we have some 70,000, and about the work and careers of Byzantine civilian bureaucrats. Seals are the hidden treasury of research on Byzantium: so small and yet, in large numbers, they allow us to do so much, and they bring us closer to the individuals who used them. The conversation is based on his recent book Politics and Government in Byzantium: The Rise and Fall of the Bureaucrats (Bloomsbury 2020).
How did the Byzantines read Homer? How did classical studies work in Byzantium? A conversation with Baukje van den Berg (Central European University) on where, why, and how the Byzantines approached the Iliad and the Odyssey; what scholarly tools they had and developed for that purpose; and on one of the great Homerists of all time, Eustathios of Thessalonike. The conversation is based on Baukje's forthcoming book, Homer and Rhetoric in Byzantium: Eustathios of Thessalonike on the Composition of the Iliad (Oxford University Press).
A conversation with Christian Laes (University of Manchester) on how to study disability in Byzantium. What might count as a disability in a Byzantine context? What social consequences did it have? How was it represented in texts? How did people try to cope with their disabilities? The conversation is based on a number of his publications, including 'Power, Infirmity, and "Disability": Five Case-Stories on Byzantine Emperors and their Impairments,' Byzantinoslavica 77 (2019) 211-229; and 'How does one do the history of disability in antiquity? One thousand years of case-studies,' Medicina nei Secoli 23 (2011) 915-946.