The slow approach to the present in my blogging has led us into the first lockdown in 2020, and now all the way through to July, at which point, after having had to cancel the physical version for the first time in its history, the International Medieval Congress at Leeds went virtual in a kind of scratch version so that something, at least, should happen. The team put in huge efforts to make it happen, and I should have felt guilty and taken part perhaps, but I just couldn’t face it, and when the call for replacement papers went out, I just let it go by. We were still dealing with backlogged assessments and all manner of daily crises, all of which we were trying to manage through screens rather than with the kind of empathic, direct, person-to-person dealings which actually help people, and I was exhausted and felt that I could not give even a partial virtual IMC the effort it needed. In fact, any time at all not spent talking into a screen was by then precious like gold… So I ducked out, of that. But it is harder to say no to friends, and in the end better not to, and that’s what this post is about.
You see, from quite early on in the pandemic my friend and colleague Luca Zavagno had been running a seminar series called Byzantium at Ankara in collaboration with another Byzantinist at another Ankara university, Dr Sercan Yandim. This had also now gone virtual, obviously, and Luca and Sercan, faced with putting together a quite different program from the one they might have intended, felt that at least they could embrace the possibilities of this format and get in a rather wider range of speakers. Each seminar thus became a multi-speaker event with a theme, and Luca took the chance with one of them, on 24th July, to kind of get the band back together, meaning the group of us who had produced an issue of al-Masāq with him the previous year, to reflect on the issue and its import under the title of Crisis and Migrations across the Mediterranean Frontier.1
So how we did this was that several of us met up on Zoom first of all. This may have been the first time I used Zoom in academic form; Leeds had been working in Blackboard Collaborate and Teams.2 It was also the first contact I’d had with our co-author Nikolas Bakirtzis except by e-mail, and putting a face to the name attached to the text we’d published was a little strange, though very welcome; how did I not already know this man? And was this actually adding anything except speed, given that we still hadn’t actually met? There was a lot of this unreality going on, I guess, especially I was tuning into Turkey from our library at home and Nikos from Cyprus, and so on. We’re all used to this now, but in July 2020 these things were still weird, as was by then the fact that I was in an online format where I wasn’t the only one using a camera; my students had almost all not done so, making teaching them seem very much like singing in the bathroom and about as useful. So this was all a bit different. Anyway, we did a half-hour of scratch planning which identified roughly what each of us would cover, then we went away and wrote our bits as far as we needed to, and then on the day we tuned in and found, firstly, that Luca had added the phrase ‘A Dark Age After All?’ to our title, and secondly, that we had an audience, one as international or more than the presenting panel. And this too seems normal now but wasn’t then; the idea that suddenly everybody’s seminars were open to everyone, and that people who could never normally be expected to turn up because of how far it was now might, was all a bit eye-opening back then.
Anyway, the way it went is perhaps best represented in the way I did for the one-and-only Political Cultures Seminar back at real physical Leeds earlier in the year, as a summary for each of the speakers and then some account of the discussion. And if I do that, it went like this:
- Luca Zavagno argued, as he had by this time been doing for a while, that its islands were always the key to the Mediterranean’s connectivity despite their individual isolation, and that he was now starting to see some of Byzantium’s landward provinces as another sort of island, given that after the fifth century all of its provinces north of Egypt and west of the Bosphorus were joined together only by sea. And this got me thinking, indeed, and set us up with the basic premise of our journal issue, and thus gave me the floor.
- I thus took this lead and linked our work to the age-old Pirenne Thesis, which, when it was new, argued that Roman economic unity in the Mediterranean long outlasted the unified Roman government, and was instead eventually broken up by Islam establishing a new division across the Middle Sea.3 I suggested that, while at the very turn of the millennium we’d been pretty sure Pirenne was wrong, since then there had been something of a reversal and, while whether writers blame Islam for it or not has more to do with their politics than the evidence, we are beginning to return to the idea that the fifth to seventh centuries were a period of great disruption in the Mediterranean.4 I used Matthew Harpster’s exemplary study of shipwrecks and their cargoes which we’d put in the journal issue to showcase the kind of new gathering of evidence which was making people think this.5 (Obviously, it would be difficult for disruption in the fifth and sixth Christian centuries to be caused by a religion which was first preached in the seventh, so I didn’t really address that point any further.) So having set the perspective for our issue I then explained very quickly what had actually been in it, that each of the authors who was present would speak, and then off we went!
- Now, actually, we didn’t go off as planned, because that had already taken up time and Luca thought the others who hadn’t spoken yet should go first, which I agreed with, and so Nikos went next, by saying that one way to look at Mediterranean mobility and connectivity which we hadn’t actually used was the close study of monasteries, whose human inmates often came from afar (and whose texts or inscriptions often tell us this), but whose surviving remains and architecture also testify to such contacts. And he encouraged people to look into this with him going forward.
- Then lastly Rebecca Darley explained that the fifth to seventh centuries were also a time of disruption and breakdown of communications in the Indian Ocean, with communities often surviving very well but without the interchange and contacts that had previously provided for them. She also pointed out, however, that the scales of the two seas were very different: as we spoke, indeed, Sokotra, subject of her article, was in rebellion against the Yemeni government to which it notionally belongs, and the sheer difficulty of getting there (as well as the state of Yemen and the world) meant that just then that was sticking; but nowhere in the Mediterranean could hope to go separate now, and probably couldn’t in our period of concern either, because of just being too easily reachable by their controlling powers.
Now, at this remove I can’t tell you why, but my notes stop there. I don’t know if we’d used up all the time; I recall questions, but apparently I didn’t record any. So in terms of reproducing the conference experience online, I still had some way to go perhaps – and this was about as much academic engagement with a scholarly community as I’d had for maybe six months at this stage, so I can’t rule out that I just sat back and reeled a bit. But it was still quite important, as a reminder that we had done good things, that the relationships which made those things possible continued despite the world situation, were perhaps even enabled in new ways because of how we were dealing with that situation, and that somehow or other there were still things to find out and people with whom it might be fun to do that finding. It was a step out of panic and back towards a community of scholarship, and even at this remove I’m thankful to Luca for getting me to do it and set out on that quite important journey.
1. May I still remind you of that fine issue’s contents? Well, why not, eh? They were:
- Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett & Rebecca Darley, “Editorial” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands, Vol. 31.2 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.
- Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System’, ibid. pp. 140-157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375
- Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea”, ibid. pp. 158-170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748
- Nikolas Bakirtzis and Xenophon Moniaros, “Mastic Production in Medieval Chios: Economic Flows and Transitions in an Insular Setting”, ibid. pp. 171-195, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596647
- Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared”, ibid. pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101
- Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223-241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.
2. I still think Collaborate the best of these, to be honest, because of how conveniently laid out and relatively intuitive all its tools are, but there seems no doubt that it started out marginally less stable and rather hoggier of bandwidth than the other two and then didn’t catch up when the competition improved. Teams at this point was still no more than a meetings tool, and it has never really made it as a virtual classroom as far as I’m concerned; Zoom has taken the lead for good reasons, therefore, but it’s still an ever-moving limited awkward program. If Blackboard had any sense they’d have got Collaborate out there as a stand-alone install…
3. Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trans. by Bernard Miall (London 1939).
4. For example, compare Gene W. Heck, Muhammad, Charlemagne, and the Arab Roots of Capitalism (Berlin 2006), DOI: 10.1515/9783110202830 with Emmet Scott, Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy (Nashville TN 2011). A quick glance at either will show that these books are not, primarily, about the late antique world. On why this is still happening, see with profit Bonnie Effros, “The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Thesis” in Speculum Vol. 92 (Cambridge MA 2017), pp. 184–208, DOI: 10.1086/689473.
5. Harpster, “Sicily”.