Another Gathering of Byzantinists in Birmingham

My reporting backlog now reaches 30th May 2015, which was a very full day in Birmingham occasioned by the 16th Annual Postgraduate Symposium of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, with the title Fragmentation: the Eastern Mediterranean in Conflict and Cohesion. I have dithered before about whether I report on what is essentially a postgraduate event, but it’s a postgraduate event with a keynote by an established scholar and people come to it from all over the world, so it’s really as high-level as such things get and the people participating in it are all working at their highest level. So, I shall blog it, but as the backlog is so long and time is so short I shall try to be brief and hope it still does the participants due credit. I should stress, though, that looking through my notes for this, the number of times I have said to myself, “Oh! I met so-and-so then?” or even, “Oh? I ran that? I have no memory of this at all” has been much higher than it really should be for anyone of even my advanced age. I was clearly just getting by at this point in my life on not enough sleep, and while things have come back to me as I write this, we are basically reliant on my notes for what I’m reporting, which may be wrong or inadequate. So if you were there, I invite corrections!

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü, in the erstwhile Seljuk Sultanate of Konya

We began with the keynote address, which was by Professor Scott Redford and entitled “84 Mongols Walk into a Caravanserai…”. This promising start was occasioned by a document, signed indeed by eighty-four Mongols, mostly local officials of various grades, at the caravanserai of Yüksekligi, to witness the act of one Nur ad-Din ibn Tayā as he established a church. The document is dated to the Year of the Monkey and has a gloss in Mongol. With this example of how cultures were mixing in the thirteenth century in what is now Western Turkey, Professor Redford then picked out a number of other ways in which we can, if we choose, find links between Greek, Turkish and yes, even Mongol cultures of patronage and power in this area. For example, Nur ad-Din had also built a caravanserai at Kesik Köprü, which is still up as you can see above, on the route between Constantinople and the local Sultanate of Konya, and stands near a bridge which went up at about the same time and only fell down in 1990, but contained an inscription set up by the Sultan of Konya when he was actually in rebellion against his masters in Baghdad, and so closer to the Greeks than the Turks in some ways.

The bridge at Kesik Köprü

The bridge at Kesik Köprü, as it has been restored I think

I was personally less convinced by some of the art-historical links which Professor Redford drew, but the widespread use of a symbol called the ‘elibelinde’, seen below, in Constantinople (and indeed more once it became Istanbul), various locations in the Seljuk sultanates and indeed yet another local caravanserai, did speak loudly of a cultural identity that crossed and blurred political boundaries that were in any case more fluid below the top, state, level than we sometimes remember when doing history in outline. So this was good, and full of much better illustrations than I have been able to use here.

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

After this we were down into the postgraduate sessions. I had volunteered to chair one of these, so my choice about what to go to was made for me, but in fact this put me into my first ever contact with two future colleagues so unbeknownst to me it worked well. Also, the papers were interesting. They were these:

  • James Hill, “Missing the Opportune Moment: John V Palaiologos and the spectre of union”
  • Nafsika Vassilopolou, “Royal Marriages of the Palaeologi (1258-1453): appraising a political practice”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Should We Abstain? Marital Equality in Byzantine Canon Law”
  • All these papers were about one or other sort of union, really. James was looking at the agreement of Emperor John V to re-reunify the Eastern and Western Christian churches, an agreement that in the end collapsed not just because of its deep unpopularity in the eastern Empire (where it doesn’t even seem to have been made public as a plan) but also and perhaps mainly because the popes simply couldn’t deliver the troops that were John’s asking price, despite their best diplomatic efforts with Genoa and Venice. Ms Vassilopolou’s paper made it seem odder that the eastern emperors had such trouble enjoining union of the Churches on their people, because when it came to marrying off princesses there was pretty much no theological objection which they could not overrule: consanguinity, juvenility, differing religions or sects of Christianity… What is less clear is what most of the eighty-eight political marriages the Palaeologan emperors arranged actually got them: alliance, sometimes, especially with the Mongols who seem to have received the most consistently high-status brides, territory sometimes, but it usually cost a lot in terms of land, money and human capital as well, and Ms Vassilopolou thought that the main motivation was to remain on the international stage as a player, not an extra, which as we know in the UK is a strategy that can make you do some very stupid things. Lastly Maroula went looking for gender equality in Byzantine canon law, hoping to find it at the most fundamental point: who got to choose when to abstain from sex? The trouble here is that most of the law deals with churchmen, who by reason of needing to perform holy office weekly and being supposed to abstain before and after were much more often confronted by this question, so that kind of comes pre-gendered. It was quite surprising to me how much thought the Byzantine canonists had put into this question, but I suppose it did keep coming up (if you’ll forgive the phrase). The paper is now out in print, anyway, so you can read it yourself if you like!1

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

That took us to lunch, and then after that, the programme tells me, I was dashing back to the Barber Institute to give a coin handling session, “Coins of Byzantium and its Neighbours in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts”. I have literally no memory of this, although I remember correspondence about it, but it’s in the programme and I have a handout from it in my notes, so I guess it happened! I was apparently basically showcasing the Byzantine collection, from beginning to end, or at least, as close to the end as I thought we could get, a solidus of Constantine I to a half-stavraton of John VIII. (I later discovered two coins of Constantine XI in the collection which the Curator for whom I was standing in had acquired but never accessioned; they are there, if you want to see them.)

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

The route between the two took us via Justinian I’s reforms, Heraclius’s mighty beard, the strange mixture that is Arab-Byzantine money, Komnenian concavity and the various daughter coinages of Byzantium; I picked Trebizond, Venice and Hisn Kayfa, all of which tells you that I was finally beginning to get my head round what this collection had to offer and what, had circumstances been otherwise, I might have done with it. But with the alternative path laid out before me already, it was still really nice to be able to show off some of its shiny and curious components. Then, it was back up the road to where the papers were.

  • Yannis Stamos, “Kazantzakis’s Representations of the Greek Civil War: the divided vision of socio-political fragmentation”
  • Mike Saxby, “Arms in Exile: an analysis of military iconography on coins of the Byzantine successor states”
  • Carl Dixon, “From Armenia to Bulgaria? The Transmission of Heterodoxy in Peter of Sicily’s History of the Paulicians
  • The first of these was the only paper on the programme representing the Centre’s Modern Greek component, a study of two novels by the 1940s Cretan writer Niko Kazantzakis, Christ Recrucified and The Fratricides, arguing, I think, that Kazantzakis was trying to find an ethic that might heal his riven country in the form of a grass-roots socialism well infused with Christian charity, a community religious mutual help ethic; the paper overran and had to be cut short, so what the conclusion was to have been I have no idea. Mike, who was one of the vital sources of institutional memory when I took over at the Barber, went into the messy period after 1204 when Byzantine rulers-in-exile set up in Nicæa, Thessaloniki and Epiros, all of whom struck coin which generally diversified from the fairly standardised Constantinopolitan money of the previous period. Mike noted that although all tried out images of armed rulers and saints to different degrees, Thessaloniki had Saint Demetrius with a sword on more than half of its coin types, which as he said could be down to the six-hundred-year tradition there of the saint as the city’s military protector but could also just be down to the fact that Thessaloniki was most exposed to war, mostly with the Bulgarians who also by now claimed Saint Demetrius as a protecting saint. Several kinds of politics vie for expression in the coins, therefore. Lastly Mr Dixon took us into the history of a disputed text about the dualist Byzantine heretics known as Paulicians.2 The History in question purports to be from the 870s and to be a warning to the Byzantine administration that the group plans to mount a mission to convert, or subvert, the Bulgarians, but this cannot easily be; the situation it foresees had in part come about by the eleventh century, but the themes of the early tenth century, when the movement seems newly to have been observed, place it in Armenia, and it was only moved to the Balkans by Emperor John I in the late 970s. The text is thus very hard to date, and while Mr Dixon didn’t want to rule out that it was just a forgery given how little knowledge it seems to have about the settlement at Tephrike where it is set, he certainly felt that any evidence that it existed and was being used in the early tenth century, as has tended to be assumed from the text’s own claims, needed reexamination. Discussion suggested a few ways this might be done, but none of them were easy, so it’s quite the mission Mr Dixon had ahead of him.

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, showing St Demetrios with sceptre and shield, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

Then tea and then back into the sessions for the last round of papers, which took me back to the early Middle Ages where, really, my interests are.

  • Anna Kelley, “Rethinking Cotton Use and Cultivation in Late Antique Egypt”
  • Catherine Keane, “More than a Church: the archaeology of the economic reality of Christian structures in the late antique Mediterranean”
  • Maria Vrij, “The Anomaly’s Anomaly: the curious case of gold coin production at Syracuse under Justinian II”
  • Anna laid out for us a peculiar picture of cotton use and cultivation before the seventh century, in which it was far from unknown but for most people hard to get, and found only in certain areas; there was cotton growing on the Red Sea coast in the fourth century, for example, and in the Western Desert over the Nile, but not at points between. The current suggestion of a source seems to be Nubia but even there it’s hard to show cotton being grown for export, rather than just for local use. There’s a network here yet to be pieced together, which is roughly where Anna’s research comes in of course! Ms Keane was at a similarly early stage, and her basic question was about the relocation of economic production in Northern Africa, of oil, wine and so on, out of Roman rural industrialised complexes into cities and then, increasingly, localising out to the then-fairly-new churches. The focus of production seems therefore to be following the focus of public space, which is something that, like cotton, looks like there is more to be found out. although Ms Keane’s paper was full of citations indicating that the process has started.3 Lastly, Maria, my right hand at the Barber at this point and now my replacement there, was asking why, when Emperor Justinian II famously (to readers here at least) put a portrait of Christ on his gold coinage, the mint at Syracuse didn’t follow suit. Syracuse was rarely exactly on the Constantinopolitan model when it came to minting but this seems sufficiently outright a refusal of imperial authority as to need explanation, which might be offered in terms of a Western resistance to images of the divine, and one which was followed after Justinian’s death in all quarters, indeed. The discussion here circled somewhat around who this message might be for, the world of Islam or the coin-using public, and who they might be, all of which, sadly, the coins don’t really tell us.

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia, one of the sites under discussion in Ms Keane’s paper

The final part of the symposium was a closing address by Professor Redford, who somewhat unconventionally started by asking the organisers why they’d picked this theme. With that answered he pointed out gaps and strengths in the programme and its adherence to the theme but reassured everyone that the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies was still showing a flag for the value of study clusters like it, and the day closed with pretty much everyone much satisfied by how things had gone.

1. M. Perisanidi, “Should we Abstain? Spousal Equality in Twelfth-century Byzantine Canon Law” in Gender and History Vol. 28 (Oxford 2016), pp. 422–443.

2. Again, memory failure; I own this text, at least in translation… You can find it in Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton (edd./transl.), Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World, c. 650-c. 1450: selected sources (Manchester 1998), pp. 65-91.

3. For example, Anna Leone, Changing Townscapes in North Africa From Late Antiquity to the Arab Conquest (Bari 2007) and Aïcha Ben-Abed-Ben Khader, Michel Fixot, Michel Bonifay & Sylvestre Roucole, Sidi Jdidi I : La basilique sud, Collection de l’École française de Rome 339 (Rome 2004).

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