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to the First NWO Internationalization Workshop, Oud Poelgeest

Bas ter Haar Romeny


We have set the first steps in a journey: this is just the first of a series of four workshops. A number of things struck me.

It seems we are pleading, not only for a “long Late Antiquity”, but also a broad one. Faustina Doufikar-Aerts quoted Dimitri Gutas’s wish for the walls between Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and Middle Iranian Studies to disappear. But it started of course already in Dame Averil Cameron’s magisterial survey which with which we opened this conference.

Cameron often defends, against “text-only” scholars, the importance of material culture, but she now also directed herself against those who, coming from a post-Marxist historical materialism background, tend to over-privilege the material and see discourse and culture as being dependent on structure. Here Cameron pleaded also to take theology seriously. She sees a tendency to disregard its importance and claims, but also a tendency to simply see patristics as cultural studies. I myself, having been trained as a theologian, do not see a problem in considering theology as part of culture. The way we study religion is with a combination of tools and methods which have their homes in philology, historiography, and social sciences. A religious text does not require a set of tools different from the set we need for a chronicle. But it is of course true that not a few historians and students of literature have difficulties with religious texts as they are in a way, it seems, alien to what they themselves find reasonable, beautiful, or simply interesting.

When in my own project on the identity formation of the Syriac Orthodox I announced that in addition to historiography and art we would look at biblical interpretation, it was that part that needed to be defended against criticism. All the more interesting was David Taylor’s conclusion that it was actually in sixth-century exegetical texts that we see for the first time among the Miaphysites not just criticism of the emperor as a person, but also of the whole institution.

The point is, indeed, that we should take an effort to take these theological texts seriously, even if they do not appeal to us, as theology was an extremely influential part of culture at the time. The point Cameron is making is that we should try not to privilege one thing over the other, but to remove the borders between text and material, and to see the connections between economy, culture, religion. A study of Late Antiquity without material culture is as incomplete as a study of Late Antiquity without religion.

The broad approach thus advocated also has a possible disadvantage, of course. The phenomenon which initially made Hagit Amirav propose these workshops was the development from original biblical commentaries by one known author to collections or catenae, and the fact that in historiography comparable processes would seem to have been taking place. Now, in this first conference, we see a much larger list of changes, some starting before the arrival of Islam.

We have seen that the spread of use of the vernacular for literary purposed already started in the fifth century. Wout van Bekkum and Nicholas De Lange pointed to new forms of literature, such as the piyyut. Neuwirth contributed a paper on the writing of the Quran, and also development of a new script. Amirav discussed the form of the letter in Justinian’s lawgiving. The fact that a form could be used in a different way than usual in a genre we already see earlier in the various question & answer collections. In Villey’s paper we have seen that classical astronomical and scientific knowledge was passed on and reworked, and that even here we see renewal:  observations are joined by Aristotelian logic. Debié introduced us to what was happening in Syriac historiography, where the innovations of Eusebius of Caesarea were developed and renewed further. In terms of material culture we had to miss Mat Immerzeel’s paper because of illness, but Tineke Rooijakkers was able to show us a clear development in Late Antique dress. Today we had a worthy finale with the papers by Faustina Doufikar-Aerts and Mariella Menchelli on the Mirror for princes. It will be interesting to see in the following workshops whether and how all these developments are connected.