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Workshop III: Preliminary Conclusions


István Perczell (CEU)

The idea of the workshop grew out from discussions conducted with the two keynote lecturers of the conference, Roger Scott and Robert Hoyland, in 2009/2010 when we spent many months together at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Later, when I was working for a chronological guide on medieval narrative sources, the Chronicon edited by János M. Bak and Ivan Jurković, I realised that there is no comprehensive volume on historiography in the Christian East. These ideas further materialised during a course on Byzantine and Eastern Christian narrative sources, with Roger Scott and Sebastian Brock as guest lecturers, resulting in lively debates with these two extraordinary scholars and the students. As a result, the idea of a conference on Christian historiography at the geographic, linguistic and disciplinary borders emerged as an absolute must and it fell in its place organically in the “Beyond the Fathers” project so generously and far-sightedly administered by Hagit Amirav. It is a particular blessing that we were able to organize the conference to be held just after the CEU Natalie Zemon Davies Lectures, delivered in 2014 by Dame Averil Cameron, whose ideas had inspired the entire “Beyond the Fathers” project. So we also benefited of her presence and of her interventions.

Here are some of the ideas that triggered the conference and were taking flesh through it.

History as a science has been defined by nineteenth-century historians, such as Leopold von Ranke and Theodor Mommsen. As these German historians were inspired by Thucydides and Tacitus, for a long time historians, and Byzantinists especially, adhered to the tendency to give precedence among our sources to a small set of high-bred historiography, produced in Constantinopolitan court circles in high-style Atticizing Greek language, relating political history, war, diplomacy and court life, written in a generic imitation of the classical historians. This literature is transmitted in a small number of manuscripts. Often, it is highly ideological and its handling of the sources is far from Mommsen’s requirements.

However, the bulk of historical narrative that exerted real influence in its own time and is transmitted in a great number of manuscripts is distributed between other than Thucydidian/Tacitian genres and belong mainly to chronography, ecclesiastic history and saints’ lives (hagiography). Also, polemical and legendary literature, apocrypha and revelations served as additional narrative genres. Greek was far from having a unique position and our information derived from the Greek historiographic literature is to be constantly checked against what is there in Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Latin – the list could be continued. However, much recent development toward the opening of perspectives notwithstanding, Eastern Christian narrative sources tend to be treated in a nationalistic framework, with the innuendo that Syriac sources are there for the history of the peoples of Syriac culture, Armenian for the history of the Armenians, Georgian for the history of Georgia etc. and, concomitantly, nationalistic stereotypes loom large over our studies.

Our conference has brought together specialists working on narrative sources written in all these languages from a multiplicity of innovative approaches. These approaches we tried to structure through the four main themes, Deconstructing Stereotypes, Genres and Methods, Quellenforschung and the Social and Ideological Context. It has turned out that “borderline history” in the multiple meanings of this polyvalent expression, is the order of the day and tends to subvert old convictions. For me personally the main conclusion to be drawn is that the combination of all the methods, approaches and competencies displayed at our conference shows strong convergences. A unified and novel history, created through collective effort, is perhaps not an impossible dream.