Today marks the release of the latest volume of Medieval Worlds – the excellent, open-access journal launched in 2015 by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The journal’s mission is to provide a forum for ‘comparative, interdisciplinary and transcultural studies of the Middle Ages’, and ‘to overcome disciplinary boundaries, regional limits and national research traditions in Medieval Studies’. It is the kind of project that highlights how medieval studies has evolved – I think undoubtedly for the better – since the crisis of the nationalist and confessional polemics in the mid-twentieth century. And I think it is only more valuable given the desire of many people to head in the other direction, to reject curiosity and understanding of cultures other than those that already feel familiar.
My own interest in overcoming ‘regional limits’ has always been central to my work. Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World (2009) was all about the effects of people travelling far from home, and their efforts to build new cultures drawing on their experiences. (This was not always a positive or welcome process, of course). The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages (2014) was concerned with how the same ideas could have very different effects in different places, depending on who was using them.
But even to start contemplating global histories and large-scale comparative histories is hard. Getting the time, space, and money to bring specialists together can be tricky. The Visions of Community project at Vienna has been a great example where that has happened, and that kind of environment means you get books like Johannes Preiser-Kapeller’s Jenseits von Rom und Karl dem Grossen (2018), which offers a great taster of developments across Afro-Eurasia during the period 300-800. (I hope there will be an English version for teaching one day. Who knows…). Not everybody has the right connections or training just to decide one day to play along – especially with all the other pressures on researchers to produce. But it is worth giving it a go.
In that context, you can kind of tell in my Early Medieval Hagiography (2018) that I wanted to do more to be less Eurocentric, but that limts on time and space and (to be honest) knowledge meant I could only get so far. At the same time, the purpose of the book was take the usual centreground for studies of early medieval Latin hagiography and to point outwards. You cannot always do everything.
In the spirit of trying to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, I have an article in that new volume of Medieval Worlds that compares ‘collected biographies’ in the sixth century in Christian and Buddhist contexts. Peter Brown, when he reflected on the ‘parting of ways’ between eastern and western Christendom, made great capital out of comparing the figures that could be found in the stories of Gregory of Tours and John of Ephesus. Beyond one essay by Samuel Lieu in 1984, there has been little interest in extending the story to look further east. This is a shame, one feels, as Lieu had a good point: the works of Huijiao (and there are other writers) actually provide good material for comparing holy people in the Byzantine Empire and in China. At the same time, it is maybe too easy simply to compare the kinds of stories these writers told. What were the authors trying to achieve? How did stories circulate? How did they relate to each other? What was the competition like? We have to understand the structures – intellectual and practical – that led to stories being produced, before we dive in and try to understand the stories.
That is a big project, potentially. For now, these are my modest early thoughts on some of the issues involved: