Funding the study of medieval islands

It is by now long custom that I start my posts here with an apology for delay, and on bad days also some kind of explanation for it. Today I’ll keep that to, “I think the problem is establishing ownership of my weekends”, and muse on it in a footnote, but at the top I should just get on with it, I think.1 At the moment there are four kinds of post I want to be putting up here: firstly ones in the declared Chronicle series where I just tell you what was happening in my academic life in the period under discussion, secondly posts stubbed long ago during those actual periods which I should finish and get up here, thirdly posts arising from those Chronicle posts where there were just things that needed more explanation, and fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, out-of-sequence announcements of my various and brilliant successes! Only you may also remember that I have got backlogged even with those

So, this post is one of the self-publicity ones, and I’ll follow it with one of the stubbed relics, all of which is largely because I’m not enjoying the prospect of writing up the International Numismatic Congress in a single post. But why am I apologising? Surely the whole point of blogging is to make yourself more famous, right? So look, here’s something I’m proud of: in April 2017 I got given about £5,000 to fund a collaboration with a colleague in Turkey on a project called ‘Not the Final Frontier’: the World of Medieval Islands.

Dr Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University

Dr Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University, looking very cheerful for reasons that are about to be explained!

The backstory to this is quite happenstance, which is so often the best way for things like this to happen. Dr Luca Zavagno is a historian of the late antique Mediterranean who had at the time of writing lately been given a permanent job at Bilkent University, at Ankara in Turkey, but his Ph.D. is from Birmingham’s Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, in association with which I had worked between 2014 and 2015. We also have important people in common, and I can’t actually remember right now how we met, but Birmingham seems likely to explain it somehow or other. Luca, with a ridiculous amount of publication already behind him, was then (and is now) writing a book about how scholars have misunderstood the active rôle played by Mediterranean island communities in the Byzantine Empire after the emergence of Islam, and how we need to put them back on the map, as a kind of third space next to the Anatolian plateau and Ægean seaboard that have otherwise been determined as its major zones.2 And because Luca is a cautious scholar, he decided he needed help getting this right. That was precondition one.

The Newton Fund logo

Precondition no. 2

Precondition two was the existence of Newton Mobility Grants. These are run together by the British Academy, the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, and are fundamentally about establishing links from the academy in Britain with scholars further afield than our usual spheres of collaboration. At the momemt, they’re focused particularly upon China, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey. You can see where this is going…

So it was Luca’s idea really, but we put in together for a three-part extravaganza, in which first of all Luca would come to Leeds and meet people there and run a graduate seminar, then to Birkbeck in London where our most important mutual friend, Rebecca Darley, is based, for similar activities, at each stage honing Luca’s project agenda and identifying its key areas of importance and difficulty, and finally ending up with a workshop for us all in Ankara. It was surprisingly easy to get, though I’m not going to say that without making all due obeisance to Rebecca and to the Leeds Humanities Research Institute for making the application better and easier, respectively, without whom I doubt we would have been as successful. But nonetheless, successful we were, and actually that was already so long ago that we have now done all the activities we promised. Indeed, you can see some of the details on our dedicated website, which is all the work of Luca and his excellent intern Harun and for which I can take no credit.

So, how did it all go? Well, Leeds went OK; we wound up doing it at such short notice that attendance at the events, especially the graduate seminar, was not what it could have been, but it did what was needed, which was to get Luca project feedback from many different levels and interest people here in his project. Learning from this, the London events were constructed more ambitiously and were more about Luca leading other people through his learning, and I wasn’t there but understand they went excellently. Somehow, however, none of this had cost as much as we’d expected. Once I had convinced Luca that this was actually a bad thing, due to the weird perversity of UK grant economics, he stepped up with a will and the Ankara workshop suddenly inflated from being just a project meeting to being a small but fully-fledged international conference! I will talk about that in its due season, but the programme details are visible here.

Now in theory it could have ended there, as we’d really done all that we promised, but we were so pleased by how the conference had gone that Luca was determined to do something with it, and the obvious thing to do with a seven-paper conference seemed to be a themed journal issue that we co-edited. And that is what we’re doing! Now, this is a publication in process, and I am always superstitiously worried about talking about those until they come out—what if they get rejected after I’ve told you all about them?—but we have had two of the eventual six articles accepted already, so probably something is going to happen. Mine isn’t yet one of them, though, so I still won’t tell you what or where, just that as you can tell the timing for that to all have happened so soon was really quite tight, and I had to put aside or postpone a number of other important things to get it done on time. It is also my first time co-editing a journal, and managing the peer review has been a weird experience, though doubtless very useful. For anyone other than Luca I might not have put myself through all this; but as it is, gods willing, it’s an extra article and co-written intro that may be out next year that I wouldn’t otherwise have, on stuff I’d never otherwise have looked at, all because Luca thought we could do some good trying to get money to make his book better. I’m rather proud of it all. See how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

1. What do I mean? Well, in the great work crisis of 2016-17, I was basically working every weekend to stay afloat, just on the stuff that needed to happen next week, let alone research. At that point blogging was a long way out of the realm of possibility, but when things got easier, as they now are, it was still hard to see where it fitted. There was still, and likely always will be, more to be done than would fit in any reasonable time, but I’d begun to realise the importance of taking time off as well. (Yes, I was late to that party, I know.) The trouble since then has been finding where blogging can fit. It’s not that I think my bosses would get angry at my blogging on work time, but I certainly don’t think they’d see it as a core task. As it is, I have a work triage list: blogging sits at no. 10 on it and so far, in the entire history of my employment at Leeds, I have not made it below no. 9, and in an ordinary week even out of term won’t usually see no. 7. So it has to be done outside work time, but I struggle to allocate that, and usually succeed only by going out or doing something entirely non-academic. If I’m in and have a computer up, I’m probably working. Today, I made a deliberate decision to blog instead of whatever my other tasks might be, but that’s what it has taken. The problem is that blogging is no longer a habit for me, and there isn’t really room for it to recover that status. I will work it out, but I’m not there yet. Saying to myself, ‘it’s Saturday and nothing’s in crisis; today they don’t own me’, is a start, however.

2. Key texts here might be Telemachos Lounghis, Byzantium in the Eastern Mediterranean: Safeguarding East Roman Identity (407–1204) (Nicosia 2010); Filippo Burgarella, “Bisanzio e le Isole” in Paola Corrias (ed.), Forme e caratteri della presenza bizantina nel Mediterraneo occidentale: la Sardegna (secoli VI-XI) (Cagliari 2012), pp. 33‒42; Dominique Valérien, “The Medieval Mediterranean” in Peregrine Horden and Sharon Kinoshita (edd.), A Companion to Mediterranean History (Chichester 2014), pp. 77‒90; and most of all, Elizabeth Malamut, Les îles de l’Empire byzantin, VIIIe‒XIIe siècles, 2 vols (Paris 1988). For the two zones of Byzantium see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400‒800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 29‒37, though the idea didn’t start with Chris. Luca’s own answers begin to be set out in Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600–800): An Island in Transition (London: Routledge, 2017) and Luca Zavagno, “Islands: not the Last Frontier: Insular Model in Early Medieval Byzantine Mediterranean, c. 650-c. 850″, in Giuseppe D’Angelo and Jorge Martins Ribeiro (edd.), Borders and Conflicts in the Mediterranean Basin, Mediterranean, Knowledge, Culture and Heritage 2 (Fisciano 2016), pp. 37‒50, and more is coming, evident not least in the fact that I have stolen all these references from draft versions of it!


2 responses to “Funding the study of medieval islands

  1. I saw an archaeology show on the telly recently that argued that Orkney was disproportionately culturally important in the Neolithic British Isles. So even islands can have important islands. Lesser fleas, etc.

  2. Yes, the Ness of Brodgar site! I wrote about it in passing here when it first came up and was being called a ‘Neolithic cathedral’. Only one example of a very very dense archæology in those islands (see also Skara Brae and Brough of Birsay to name but two), but one of the biggest things going anywhere in the Atlantic world at that time, it seems…

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