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Project Summary


Beyond the Fathers: In Search of New Authorities. Mapping and Analysing Christian Intellectual and Artistic Activities under Early Byzantine and Islamic Rules (5th-8th centuries)

True to its title, this NWO Internationalization project aims at extending the study of Christian literature, while stretching the period of our investigation beyond the Patristic era (2nd-5th centuries), to the transitory 6th century, and well into the period of early Islamic rule in the Levant.

We would like to explain the constant search for new authorities and for new ways of literary and artistic expression in the period just before and after the advent of Islam.

By presenting the relevant questions and problems in play, we hope to shed light not only on ‘continuity’ but also on equally strong patterns of inventiveness and diversion from traditional concepts which were necessitated by the disappearance of some, though not all, consensual sources of authority.

Questions and aim

When looking at the actual literary and artistic output of the period in question, comparing it with the periods which preceded it, we come to appreciate its unique features—compilation, codification, condensation, and transformation of classical genres. In the light of such literary impetus, albeit one that does not always conform to modern tastes, we may ask, whether we can at all speak of any notion of decline, as is often argued by modern scholars. We would rather think of a shift in the prevalent cultural and religious patterns, which, in turn, needs to be explained in socio-historical terms, or more precisely, in terms of the disappearance of old authorities and the formation of new ones as a result of the marked political changes of the time.

In this context the following preliminary observations need to be made and put to the test: that the literary and artistic output originating from this period is considerable; that it bears a different, but not necessarily derogated, character; that it represents a continuation of the literary and cultural vogues which characterized the Levant under Christian and early Islamic rule between the fifth and the eighth centuries; that any investigation into the questions in hand must be carried out while giving equal attention to “Byzantine Late Antiquity” and to “Early Islam”.

All this contributes to our main aim, which is to trace the historical, social, and mental factors—to be summarized as the disappearance of old authorities and the search for new ones—which may have contributed to the emergence of one genre at the expense of another and to the intensifying literary and artistic activity which benefited directly from the invention of new modes of expression.

Planned activities and deliverables

The project, to a large extent funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), is based at VU University Amsterdam and is carried out in cooperation with four partner institutions: Oxford University, Central European University in Budapest, Humboldt University in Berlin, and their respective representatives. The project’s activities will include four round table meetings, which will take place between December 2012 and February 2016. The project’s site will include podcasts of lectures and discussions. Further, the subsequent proceedings will be published in the series Late Antique History and Religion (Peeters Publishers, Leuven).