The 1481 edition of Dante’s La Comedia contained engraved illustrations from designs by Sandro Botticelli. No more than 19 illustrations are printed directly onto the page in any of the surviving copies, and in many of the 156 copies known to exist around the world, the number of illustrations is far lower, some appearing misplaced or upside down or supplemented by later images. Each copy has developed its own unique history and provenance as the books have spread across Europe and beyond in the 540 years since they were first printed.
The event includes short talks on Botticelli’s illustrations (Professor Gervase Rosser, University of Oxford), on surviving copies (Professor Cristina Dondi, University of Oxford and Secretary of CERL) and on the context of the book’s production (Dr. Tabitha Tuckett, UCL).
Showing rare books online
2021 marks the 540th anniversary of the edition’s publication and the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. To celebrate, we hope to display copies from Italy, the U.S.A. and the U.K. and to hear the books’ stories from their current keepers. This online event aims to give the audience visual access to copies that couldn’t otherwise be brought together physically at one time.
Participating libraries include:
Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, UK (co-organiser)
University College London, UK (co-organiser)
Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Italy
The Morgan Library, New York, USA
The British Library, UK
John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, UK
Trinity College, Cambridge, UK
(More libraries will be added as they are confirmed.)
The event is organised by Dr Tabitha Tuckett, Rare-Books Librarian, University College London, Professor Cristina Dondi, Professor of Early European Book Heritage, University of Oxford and Secretary of the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL), and Dr Alexandra Franklin, Co-ordinator, Centre for the Study of the Book, Bodleian Libraries.
The event will be presented in English. Automated captions will be available . The event will be recorded.
By Caroline Batten Mary Boyle and Alexandra Vukovich
Looking to apply for a PhD in a medieval research area? We’ve got your back! This month, OMS held a workshop for students on Oxford’s MSt programme in Medieval Studies, and now we’re making those insights available more widely. We’ll give you our three top tips first, and then answer some Frequently Asked Questions underneath.
The advice below is specifically for applying to PhDs in the UK. You’ll find that American and European PhD programs are often very different from UK ones. Whereas in the UK your degree is research only, in American PhD programs you spend two years doing coursework before you begin your dissertation, and the whole process takes longer (5-7 years, as opposed to 3-4 years in the UK). Different countries in Europe offer different PhD structures: some are research-only, some are project-specific, others involve significant coursework and training. Be sure to research the different PhD programs available to you in different places, to help you decide what kind of program might be best for you.
With your research proposal, you’re selling both yourself and your project, so you want both to be as eye-catching as possible. You need to tell your readers why your project is exciting; what gap in the discipline it’s filling; and why you’re the right person to do it. But being bold is also about approaching the people you think can help you – ask as many people as possible to read over and comment on your application, because that will make it much stronger. This point also stands for approaching potential supervisors.
One straightforward way to sell yourself and your project is to make it clear that you know what you’re doing – even if you don’t actually feel like you do. So make sure that you’re telling your reader exactly what you’re planning to study (define your corpus); how you’re going to structure your project; and what you’re hoping to find out, even including some potential conclusions.
Develop the topic in dialogue!
At an early stage, approach people whose research you find interesting and talk about your topic with them. Your choice of supervisor is probably the most important decision that you’re making at this point. Your supervisor, or supervisors, don’t necessarily need to work on exactly what you’re working on, but they do need to be a person or people with whom you can imagine having a long-term working relationship. They need to be someone with whom you can have an honest conversation, and from whom you can accept constructive criticism.
If only early career offices looked like this. London, British Library, Add MS 11850.
Should I do a PhD/DPhil?
A doctorate is a hugely rewarding experience, giving you the time to fully devote yourself to research and learn how to be a scholar. It is, of course, a necessity for a career in academia, but can also prepare you for work in museums, libraries, archives, the rare books trade, publishing, a variety of cultural institutions, the foreign service, translation and interpreting, (and the list goes on!) as the skills you will gain are important for all kinds of work. But the unvarnished truth is that PhDs are intensive and demanding. You must be, or become, comfortable working independently, planning your own time and meeting the deadlines you set. You must spend many hours a week working on one singular project, requiring intense focus and commitment. For some people this sounds like heaven; for others it would make them miserable. You should do a PhD if you’re certain that you want to spend the next several years working very hard on one research project.
What if I’m sure I want to do a doctorate, but I don’t have a project?
A doctorate is 3+ years of intensive work, so you need to be sure you’re working on something you find compelling. If nothing has suggested itself to you yet, you could brainstorm about topics you’ve studied so far, and see if anything suggests itself. Ask yourself if any of your secondary reading has left you with unanswered questions. But it might also be that you need to finish your Master’s before the idea will suggest itself, and taking time out of academia might actually help focus your creativity.
Equally, you are not bound to your project once you begin, and you can make changes. If you feel you definitely want to do a doctorate and want to get started, talk with people who know your work, and they may be able to help you to work up a project. For some people, it is better to wait and apply when you are sure. For others, it is better to get the application in, and make your final decision later.
How do I identify the right institution?
The right institution for you will have several key features:
The institution will offer specific resources, support, and mentoring to its postgraduate students. Your chosen department will also have resources particular to its needs and yours (seminars, specific research clusters or groups, access to manuscripts, digital resources, strong libraries, etc).
The institution will have a strong and supportive community (large or small!) in your chosen field, so that you have colleagues with whom to collaborate, commiserate, and share ideas.
Most importantly, the right institution for you is the institution at which your chosen supervisor works. As noted above, your supervisor will make a huge contribution to your PhD experience. Any institution can be the right institution if you’re working with a person or people who offer you support, aid, encouragement, and thoughtful, critical feedback.
Which department/faculty should I approach?
This may be a question you are asking yourself if you’re doing an interdisciplinary Master’s. Ask yourself where you feel more at home: where does your methodology or topic fit best? Look at statistics for places and funding. Most importantly, talk to people who know your work, and especially your potential supervisor. Finally, remember that many institutions will allow you to have two supervisors in different disciplines. Being in one department/faculty doesn’t bind you to that department/faculty in the long-term and your research may well lead you to a different field later.
Do I need to approach supervisors before sending in an application?
Ideally, yes! It is not required for a PhD application that you have a supervisor in mind, and many applications are successful without a future supervisor listed. But your proposal will be stronger with feedback from a potential supervisor, and their support within the institution will be useful. It is always a good idea to talk to potential supervisors, to exchange ideas about your project and to learn about the different forms of support that their department/faculty might be able to offer. Another good reason to approach supervisors before applying is that, based on your proposal, they may be able to direct it to targeted funding (e.g., part of an ongoing project or a large grant) for your doctoral studies.
How do I approach potential supervisors?
Shoot them an email! It can feel hard at the moment to get in touch with someone you don’t know well, as you don’t just bump into people at seminars. But academics understand that you have to look around for potential supervisors at a variety of institutions, and they welcome enquiries from talented young researchers with interesting projects. They’ll be excited to hear from you! They may even be able to direct you to relevant projects with funded doctoral places attached. You may want to talk to your current course convenor and/or your tutors who may be able to guide you about whom to contact based on your interests.
When should I start work on my application?
Now! Get your initial thoughts down on paper, and you can start editing and discussing from there. An application is very much a work in progress, so jot down your ideas, along with any source material and bibliography that looks promising. It will be easier to put together a project once you have all of the component parts in place.
How long should my first draft be?
Aim for a few hundred words shorter than the word limit at this stage, to leave plenty of room for revisions.
How many drafts should I do?
As many as you need, but be realistic about when it’s time to stop! Remember: this is only a proposal and no one expects you to have all the answers. Your research questions and how you plan to explore them (source material, approaches, auxiliary tools) are much more important than speculative conclusions, at such an early stage.
Where can I find out about funding?
You should join subject-specific mailing lists (such as those you’ll find on Jiscmail or H-Net). There is also a PhD-specific section on jobs.ac.uk. Have a chat with your potential supervisor or with current doctoral students, who might be able to tell you about lesser-known scholarships or funded places on existing projects, like this project, which funded fifteen doctoral places over three years (all students have now started). Use this tool to find funding opportunities at Oxford specifically.
Looking for an exciting new retelling of the stories of the dashing and anarchic medieval folk hero Reynard the Fox? Look no further. OMS is honored to share with you the opening chapters of Anne Louise Avery’s new rendition of Caxton’s 1481 English translation of these Middle Dutch tales, now available from The Bodleian Library press.
Over the course of its 1500-year history, the late Roman building known as the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) has served as the setting for many ceremonies, religious, political, and more often than not, a combination of the two. On July 24, 2020 Hagia Sophia served as a political theatre for a symbolic re-conquest of the building via its reversion to a functioning mosque. For those who saw this ceremony as a form of erasure of the Byzantine past, it was quite the opposite. The polyvalence of the Roman building, synthesizing a Roman basilica, Byzantine church, Latin cathedral, Ottoman mosque, and museum, is evident in the fact that it has served as a template for religious architecture that the Ottomans and, more recently, Turkey have exported internationally. Furthermore, Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine past was key in the (re)-staging of the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, which combined the narrative of the city’s capture with the Turkish government’s current political project.
There have been many excellent articles written on the politics of the reversion, including this useful series in the Berkeley Forum, and the post-reversion months saw a number of international discussions of the issue. I have written elsewhere against essentializing Hagia Sophia’s reversion to a mosque, which can be viewed in terms of global conservative tendencies, but must also be viewed in terms of Turkey’s national and regional politics. After all, the foundation of the Ayasofya müzesi/Hagia Sophia Museum in 1934 has been re-framed, by the Turkish government, as an act of self-colonization, a nod to secular western sensibilities of that time. That the reversion of Hagia Sophia was designed to boost Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s programme of de-secularization, a stridently anti-secularist and anti-Kemalist political programme, should now be clear. However, following a series of interlinked crises, the fanfare around the recent reversion of several Byzantine monuments has failed to resuscitate the regime’s initial popularity, and has further contributed to the growing political and economic power of the country’s religious authority, the Diyanet.
Although the reversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque drew the world’s attention this past June, it is neither the first nor most recent Byzantine-era building to have been reverted by the Turkish government. Already in 2011, the decision was taken to revert the Iznik Hagia Sophia—the site of the 787 CE Church council, convened to address the first Iconoclast Controversy—to a mosque. This move was followed by the reversion of the Trabzon Hagia Sophia in 2013. Following the opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque in June, there was speculation as to whether the decision taken to revert the Chora Museum would be acted on. It came as a surprise when it was decided that the building, which had recently undergone a full restoration of its late Byzantine mosaics, would again become a functioning mosque. The impetus for expressions of concern about what might happen to the middle and late Byzantine mosaics and frescoes housed in these buildings, revolved around whether and how these would be covered during prayer times and beyond. For example, for the July 24 prayer, the apse mosaic depicting the Mother of God with the Christ child was loosely covered with white cloths held in place with ropes and pulleys, which still remain in place. Various solutions have been trialled for the Trabzon Hagia Sophia, including an opaque screen and a large light fixture that brightens or obscures the Byzantine frescoes located in the main prayer space. As for the Chora, it appears that a system of automatic, retractable screens has been installed to cover the mosaics.
The main controversy surrounding the mosaics was centred around the orientalist trope of ‘Islamic iconoclasm’—in reality, aniconism, with moments of iconoclasm mirroring those that shook the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. However, the line of argument positing these reversions as a ‘return to’ a previous, aniconic state, elides the long and varied history of these monuments as Ottoman mosques. Over the course of the 600-year history of the Ottoman Empire, during which the abovementioned buildings functioned as mosques, their Byzantine iconographic programmes remained on (at least) partial display. After the Chora was converted to a mosque in the early 16th century, many of its mosaics remained visible for at least a century following the conversion. Some mosaics, including the cycle of the Holy Virgin, remained visible throughout the Ottoman period. This is why the building was informally known as the ‘Mosaic Mosque’. Historians, including Cyril Mango, Nevra Necipoğlu, Çiğdem Kafescioğlu, have pointed to the fact that travel accounts (those of Guillaume-Joseph Grelot in the 17th century and Cornelius Loos in the early 18th century) from the Ottoman period describe, quite accurately, Byzantine mosaics and frescoes in Hagia Sophia. Therefore, some figural art, including the (now-covered) apse mosaic of the Mother of God, was on display for much of the Ottoman period and only covered later in the 18th or early 19th century. Following the 1847 restoration of Hagia Sophia—during which many mosaics were uncovered then re-covered—the official re-opening ceremony, held on July 13, 1849 in the presence of Sultan Abdülmecid, was accompanied by the publication of two books: by Gaspare Fossati (1852) and Wilhelm Salzenberg (1854). Both books depicted the building in its Ottoman context with the re-covered mosaics displayed. Following the foundation of the Hagia Sophia Museum in 1934, the plaster from the 1847 restoration was removed, and the restoration work undertaken (between 1934 and 1953) revealed that the mosaics were still intact.
Recent events call attention to the reality that now, as in 1847, heritage management is a top-down matter. For now, the partial or full obscuring of figural art in these buildings aside, their integrity has not been seriously compromised, unlike the total destruction of sites like that of Sur in Diyarbakir or the flooding of Hasankeyf, actions which dispossessed and displaced numerous people. I have argued elsewhere that heritage management is best undertaken democratically. Employing a top-down institutional rationale to heritage only reinforces the gap, in terms of time, expert knowledge, and value, that exists between the administrators (whether the local ministry of culture and tourism or UNESCO) of cultural heritage and the wider population. Furthermore, the criteria for conservation often privilege a valuation based on the metrics of age, state of conservation, and monumentality to ascribe meaning to designate cultural heritage sites. Oftentimes, this sort of valuation overlooks the varying sites of memory, unofficial and overlapping, that make a site valuable to a given community. At times, this layering, later stripped away by modern archaeology, is what conserved ancient structures; for example, the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli or Old Palmyra. The stripping away of layers often occurs because monuments are political instruments, a sort of museum-ified regalia of the state (and nation), functioning as proof of its legitimacy. However, layered monuments like Hagia Sophia resist linear narratives. When viewed diachronically, such monuments can be a powerful didactic tool for a complex social and political history, one that can easily counterbalance the tunnel vision of modern cultural politics.
Welcome to what is probably a very different Trinity Term to what we all expected, but here we are. There are many people trying to keep seminars and reading groups going online. OMS is going to try and keep you informed about what is happening to the best of our ability. So, while I’ve listed some things below, there will be more happening over the term and we will let you know in the Monday morning emails. So do keep an eye on them if you can. Also, as this is a group effort, please send information about any other events you know happening to OxMedStud@gmail.com.
Before going into what’s happening, there are a couple of notes. First, Tobias Capwell’s talk has been postponed, but not postponed like a Ryanair refund (i.e., cancelled); instead, Tobias will be giving his talk online (platform to be confirmed) on Monday 8th of June. Second, for a few of the events and reading groups you may need you to join the Oxford Medieval Studies Microsoft Teams, and you can do this by searching for its name or our ID which is: h8jk577.
The Monday evening Medieval History Seminar is keeping things going this term. While they are not meeting this week, I wanted to give everyone notice. Weeks 2, 3, 7, and 8 will be normal seminar papers, where the papers are made available in advance via Teams and the speakers will lead an online discussion starting at 5pm. The first talk will take place next Monday (4th May) when John Arnold will be speaking about ‘Confraternities in Southern France: collective enthusiasm or sedition and politics?’. More information about how to join the discussion will be distributed.
In weeks 4, 5, and 6, instead of these seminars, there will be an online graduate research colloquium. To contribute to this please send an abstract (200 words max) either individually or in groups to email@example.com by 1st May.
The Early Slavonic Seminar will be held at 5pm on Tuesday (28th) via Zoom. This week Vadym Aristov will be speaking about the ‘First Church of St Sophia in Kyiv’. You can register for the event here.
This Thursday (30th) at 4pm, our very own Henrike Lähnemann will be taking part in a webinar organised by The Institution of Conservation (ICON) on the topic of ‘Recycled Parchment: Manuscript Fragments in Medieval Dresses’. This will take place via Zoom and you can register here.
Instead of the English Research Seminar this term, there will be a series of Middle English Work in Progress sessions from weeks 1-4. This week, Marion Turner and Rebecca Menmuir will be discussing aspects of Chaucer. The sessions will take place via the OMS Teams and you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to be added or for more information.
The Late Antique and Byzantine Seminar will host 5 talks this term, the first starting next week, when I will send more information.
From 1st week, the Anglo-Norman Reading Group will be meeting on Friday in odd weeks from 5pm until 6.30pm. This term they will be working through Marie de France’s Fables. If you’d like to join please send an e-mail to email@example.com.
The Old English Reading Group will be meeting on Thursdays during odd weeks this term at 5.30pm. This term they will be looking at Ælfrics Homilies. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or join the Chat Channel on the Oxford Medieval Studies Teams.
The Medieval Book Club will be meeting on Tuesdays between 3.30-4.30pm and this term will focus on the theme of ‘Travel’. You can join the club by joining them in their Chat Channel on Oxford Medieval Studies Teams. For more information see email@example.com
The Old Norse Reading Group has combined with a Graduate Forum and will continue to meet this term via a Chat Chanel in Oxford Medieval Studies Teams. They will meet every Monday at 5.30pm starting today. Odd weeks will be the Graduate Forum and even weeks will be the reading group. For more information get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org
Call for Papers
The Society for the Study of Languages and Literatures will be holding their conference ‘Dark Archives: A Conference on the Medieval Unread & Unreadable’ online (via Zoom) from the 8th-10th September. Discussion will be live, but the talks will be pre-recorded. If you would like to propose a paper or practical workshop, please submit an abstract of no more than 500 words by 31st July to Dr Stephen Pink at email@example.com.
The Medium Aevum Essay prize is still accepting submissions from postgraduates and those with a higher degree. Prizes include possible publication in Medium Aevum, £500, and books! For more information and to apply see here.
Unfortunately, the Medieval Mystery Cycle could not take place, but we did get a hint of what it would have been like in a filmed version of the Mary Magdalen play. You can find out more here.
The Medieval Booklet is a rather dynamic document at the moment, and will be updated, as will the calendar on TORCH, when we receive word about events. You can access both here.
As mentioned before, we would love to feature blog posts about medieval events, initiatives or resources, e.g. we have been promised a blog post about the project to read daily Dante sonnets (look for the hashtag #Covidcanzoniere on twitter). TORCH is doing its best to promote all online activities and we are happy to tweet out from https://twitter.com/OxMedStud.
“I got 99 research problems, and questions of identity impinge on all of them in one way or another” – many medievalists, probably.
Medievalists have been pondering identity for a long time, arguably since long before we were even called ‘medievalists’ and were simply labelled ‘antiquarians’ – just think of seventeenth-century arguments about Saxon freedoms versus Norman yokes. Lots of work – good and bad – has been done on medieval identity. Any scholar working in the field of medieval studies could point you to an article or book which takes a subtle and nuanced approach to issues of identity and belonging. Equally, I’d be willing to bet that nearly every medievalist has worried, at some time or another, about nakedly political attempts to claim the middle ages as the origin point for modern nativist mythologies about (white) identity and ethnicity. In March, medievalists of Oxford were asked whether we should be thinking about identity and identities in a more complicated and critical way – and, what’s more, talking to other medievalists about our collective approach to these topics. At a workshop on intersectionality, organised and led by Amanda Power and Robin Whelan, we were challenged to think about identities, experiences and labels as overlapping and, indeed, intersecting.
Identity is not one thing or another: it might be rather like a game of 3D chess, with different levels and different engagements being played out. The social systems of the past are complex things with many moving parts. This may seem an obvious point: of course identity is not a static, singular thing. But it is easy to overlook if we, as researchers, pursue and cling onto, a particular kind of identity as the explanatory key to a whole community, kingdom, or historical problem.
This is where, as many speakers over the course of the day suggested, medieval studies needs to speak to, and borrow from, other disciplines. ‘Intersectionality’ is not our coining – and we are still more likely to meet it in the context of sociology or critical theory, applied to modern societies, than in medieval studies. The term itself might need some reframing and repositioning before we can apply it to the medieval world. This was a point made by Bernard Gowers in his paper on ‘Systacts and Literati’: how do we go about constructing and theorising the right type of language to describe medieval groups? Medievalists, as ever, need to worry about how we fit modern terms to past societies. But along with the worry, might we also have an advantage? Almut Suerbaum peered into a number of religious texts by German religious authors in her paper ‘Virgin Mothers, Lowly Queens’. In these texts which describe personal encounters with God, female authors put on and take off a number of different identities in a single piece. A speaker setting forth multiple identities might not seem so strange to a medieval reader. Here we had the paradox of medieval texts dealing with identity in a more complex and sophisticated way than modern medieval scholars might be doing.
My own contribution to the day attempted to think through the life of a Muslim town, in Lucera, southern Italy, in the thirteenth century. Removed from Sicily and established in a formerly Christian town, this group of Muslims was initially permitted to retain their religious practices so long as they paid taxes. But in the early years of the fourteenth-century, Charles II of Naples dissolved the ‘Muslim colony’ (a potentially problematic label) in an extremely violent process, and its Muslim inhabitants were sold into slavery. The story of Lucera fits well into established historiographical explanations about the hardening of religious identities of thirteenth century, and the story of a slow shift from ‘tolerance’ of non-Christians at the start of the period to their persecution at the hands of Christian authorities by the end of the century. But this big overarching narrative might not be very helpful in thinking through the dynamics of local or individual experience.
In attempting to describe the lives of the inhabitants of Lucera, if we begin and end with the term ‘Muslim’, we’ll not get very far. One might even suggest we do the Muslims of Lucera something of a historical injustice by painting their experience in such broad strokes. Though not an exact parallel, to talk about a ‘Christian’ town in southern Italy wouldn’t tell us very much about the experiences of its inhabitants. That label/category of ‘Muslim colony’ needs more adding to it: not least in terms of the dimensions of local experience. Not every facet of life in Lucera was connected to religious practice, and we need to think about the existence of the town beyond its mosque – in terms of its urban geography, its public and private spaces, and how they were built and experienced. Much of this research is still at the stage of a thought experiment: to what extent can we capture the experience of a group of individuals deported from Sicily to Puglia, southern Italy, in the early thirteenth century? What sources can we look at to tell us about their relationship to the land, to the town, and to other communities in Italy?
But the point of the day – and the point of trying to be ‘intersectional’ medievalists – was not solely about getting to know our medieval subjects better and finding better words to describe their experiences. Intersectionality is a term coined with an inherently political purpose. It underscores the question of how we draw the boundaries of medieval studies, of who we include and who we exclude – and who gets to do that including or excluding. The watchword for the day was a phrase used by the organisers which came up repeatedly in discussion: we should be making ourselves “usefully uncomfortable”. There is value in worrying about our choices of subject and case study, and value in challenging ourselves to justify those selections. With this in mind, we might possibly avoid the lure of only studying the people who look, or seem to look, like us. We might avoid the trap of writing a medieval Europe that looks just like the academy, as presently constituted. We might also hope that one day both our image of medieval Europe and the face of the academy might look a little more diverse. If this is the beginning of a shift in the discipline, it can only be welcomed as a good thing. I, for one, hope to remain usefully uncomfortable for a long time to come.
In February 2017, medievalists from across the disciplines and across the world gathered at St Hilda’s College for a conference on the study of the medieval bible. The conference, generously sponsored by TORCH and Oxford Medieval Studies, focused on the work of the medievalist Beryl Smalley (1905-84), whose research and writing remain fundamental for scholars working across the fields of theology, politics and history.
Beryl Smalley pioneered the study of the ‘literal’ exegesis of the medieval bible, radically altering the way in which medievalists approach questions of scriptural exegesis and biblical commentary. Her most famous work, and the book from which the conference took its name – The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (1941) – is a text which almost all students in medieval studies will have come across. It remains a rich source of inspiration, and entire PhD projects are still to be found by chasing up its footnotes. It seemed particularly appropriate to be discussing Beryl Smalley’s legacy at the college (St Hilda’s) where she had studied as an undergraduate, and later worked as tutor and vice-principal. Moreover, as we were reminded in the opening session, the need to make the case for the depth and relevance of medieval theological thought is as urgent now as it ever has been. There is still a tendency to consider medieval philosophy as a matter of ‘Aquinas or nothing’. Oxford itself could still be doing better in the way it invites its undergraduates to engage with medieval theologians (the university’s flagship paper on political thought, ‘Theories of the State’, jumps from Aristotle to Hobbes with nothing in between).
The conference began with two fascinating papers which set the tone for the day. Professor Lesley Smith (who had been supervised by Beryl Smalley during her DPhil) spoke on the topic of ‘William of Auvergne and the Missing Bible’. Professor Smith’s paper brought up some of the challenges of writing medieval biography and attempting to engage with medieval theologians. She asked how medievalists can navigate their subjects when separated not just by cultural and temporal distance, but also by complex layers of textual allusions and typologies.
Professor Smith also highlighted how the connection between contemporary concerns and medieval research shaped Beryl Smalley’s own writing, particularly in her choice of topic. Working on the Christian Hebraist Andrew of St Victor in the 1930s, Smalley was engaging both with the medieval world and with her contemporaries. Her decision to focus on how much Christian medieval scholars owed to their Jewish counterparts was a deliberately challenge to prevailing political narratives.
The second paper in this session, from Dr Eyal Poleg of QMUL, entitled ‘Exegesis, Mediation and Materiality’, was an invitation for medievalists to think more broadly and more carefully about the way in which we encounter theological texts, and, in turn, the circumstances in which their medieval readers encountered with them. Exegesis should not be taken in isolation or conceived of as a discrete process, Dr Poleg emphasised: it was intimately connected to the liturgy, and medievalists of all stripes benefit from thinking about the experiential aspects of contact with medieval theology.
Dr Poleg’s advice – not to miss the devotional wood for the exegetical trees – set the tone for a meditative and stimulating day. The themes he raised were returned to during the rest of the conference, including a discussion of questions of ‘genre’ and classification; and how modern scholars order the relationship between medieval texts versus how their medieval readers did so.
To pick out just a few examples of those discussions: Dr Julie Barrau’s (Cambridge) paper on ‘Patristic compendia as exegetes’ toolboxes’ took us down to the building-blocks of medieval theological commentaries. Elisa Monaco (Zurich) brought us to the other end of the scale, with a consideration of how even the most complex of texts (namely Dante’s Commedia) might be read as a work of theological instruction. Dr Ayelet Even-Ezra (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) invited us to think about diagrammatic representations: the relationship between how a text is ordered and how divisiones were visualised in medieval manuscripts in series of complex tree diagrams. The day also offer new light on familiar figures, with David Runciman (Cambridge) examining a series of sermons attributed to the twelfth-century bishop Gilbert Foliot, and making the case for the ‘theological’ sides of a figure better known for his entanglements in political controversies.
All contributors drew attention to the need to think about how medieval texts are put together, and how the technical details of composition and organisation might speak to a ‘bigger picture’ concerning the place and purpose of exegesis in the Middle Ages. Appropriately, for a conference focused around the idea of ‘new developments’ in medieval exegesis, the day concluded with a look to the future, with Dr Toby Burrows (University of Western Australia) providing a comprehensive tour of the world of digitisation projects of medieval manuscripts.
The conference offered an insight into new research in medieval biblical scholarship and a tantalising glimpse into a number of projects which will be coming to publication within the next few years. One only hopes that Beryl Smalley would have thought the day a fitting tribute.
This term the Anglo-Norman Reading Group has been working on extracts from Beneit of St Albans’ Vie de Thomas Becket. This text, written c. 1184, was the topic of one of the chapters of my doctoral thesis, and I am now preparing a translation of it for publication.
The Vie de Thomas Becket is one of only three insular French Becket lives, and it has received very little scholarly attention despite being a biography of one of the most popular saints in the Middle Ages. The most surprising thing about the text, however, is its unique narrative stance: it is both pro-Thomas and pro-Henry II, despite widespread belief that Henry was indirectly responsible for Becket’s death and his own admission of guilt.
This required a certain amount of narrative gymnastics on Beneit’s part, resulting in him placing the blame largely on other figures in the story, such as bishops and members of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy who opposed Thomas as archbishop, whilst highlighting the close friendship and affection between Thomas and Henry. The narrator works the audience into his strategy of promotion, insisting on their own love and respect for their king and encouraging them to pray to St Thomas on his behalf. The text reveals how narratives of St Thomas were co-opted both by Henry II himself and by authors in response to this, and Beneit takes the opportunity to remind his audience of his own monastery, insisting on the importance of St Albans and its abbot in Becket’s story.
The group has been extremely well attended this term, and is made up of postgraduate students, university staff members, and independent scholars living in Oxford. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to share the text with all members of our group this term, and I have gained invaluable assistance and insight from fortnightly discussions.