Byzantium and the Middle Ages — Bosom Buddies or Uneasy Allies?, BSANA sponsored session, International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, May 14–17, 2015
Organizer: Richard Barrett, Indiana University
What is the right relationship of Byzantine studies as a discipline to the study of the Middle Ages? Is it a related, but parallel, field? A sub-discipline? Something else entirely? What is the best way for the relationship of Byzantine studies to medieval studies to be understood so that productive collaboration is maximized? What is the right scale for interaction – on an individual basis? Is a large conference like Kalamazoo big enough for Byzantium? This roundtable will involve a selection of scholars, including Byzantinists and non-Byzantinist medievalists, who will discuss the challenges and opportunities presented when the disciplines interact.
Byzantine studies makes for a somewhat awkward fit in settings generically intended for "medievalists". There are a number of factors that feed into this; first and foremost, perhaps, is a conception of the "Middle Ages" that privileges Latin and French subjects, particularly those that fall into the rather narrow window of time generally referred to as "high medieval". This means also that Byzantinists tend to face something of a language gap; while Byzantine studies requires a knowledge of Latin, Greek can be somewhat obscure for Western medievalists, and other languages that can factor into a discussion of Byzantine subjects - such as Syriac or Arabic - are even more so. This barrier of languages and sources can tend to isolate Byzantine subjects from Western medievalists. The result can be a ghettoization of Byzantine issues, placing them off to the side in medieval survey courses and textbooks. To the extent that the Byzantine world is talked about in those contexts, they are informed by biased Western sources such as Liutprand of Cremona, resulting in an Orientalizing overemphasis on the perceived differences between the "Byzantine east" and the "Latin west". The discourse emphasizes supposed cultural discontinuities - aesthetics, politics, art, religion, and so on - and discusses them as misunderstood, abstract distortions rather than as concrete realities. Byzantium, then, becomes something “byzantine” in the worst sense – an overly-complicated construct that is described variously as “mysterious”, “spiritual”, “mystical”, a gaudy red-headed stepchild of Western history cloaked in a cloud of incense rather than a fully-qualified subject of interest in its own right. This proposed roundtable, then, seeks to engage Byzantinists and Western medieval specialists together in a forward-looking discussion of how these fields may properly interact and collaborate.
We are looking for panel participants from a variety of disciplines and perspectives; please contact session organizer Richard Barrett to express your interest.