Towards a Critical Historiography of Byzantine Studies

The webinar, “Towards a Critical Historiography of Byzantine Studies,” originated both in a tendency (a steadily growing interest within Byzantine Studies in the history of the field) and in an event (the protests against the murder of Black Americans by police forces in the United States in the summer of 2020). The latter was the proximate and urgent cause of a statement by the Governing Board of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America in support of the protesters under the banner of Black Lives Matter. The board simultaneously announced two new initiatives: a fund in support of Byzantinists of Color, and a scholarly project to Decolonize Byzantine Studies. Both initiatives were deemed essential to lend substance to the statement, the scholarly project in particular to undergird our recognition and denunciation of the fact that “our own field of study has been deployed to justify false narratives of white supremacy and western civilization.”

The announcement of the scholarly project included an invitation for interested colleagues to contact the BSANA board. Almost immediately, the New Critical Approaches to the Byzantine World Network, hosted at the Oxford Center for Research for the Humanities, reached out and expressed interest in collaborating.

The first meeting between members of board and network revealed a shared recognition of the need for a critical history of the field, and an agreement that such a history must engage with the historical entanglements between Byzantine Studies and European colonialism. It was agreed that a collaborative webinar, centered on discussion and based on a small group of set readings, would serve as a useful starting point in addressing this question, and a first step ‘toward’ a critical historiography of our field.

We accordingly agreed on a small group of set readings from within the field – both standard accounts and more idiosyncratic, personal reflections – and two critical historiographies of neighboring disciplines (modern Greek and southeast European studies). We then announced our intention to hold a webinar that would: first, consider the role that European colonialism plays within existing histories of Byzantine studies; and, second, use the work done in neighboring disciplines to help develop a more critical approach to our own.

In our call for participants, we requested that those interested in joining offer as a “buy-in” a bibliographic recommendation by an author not included within the set readings. This was by far our best decision, as the great majority of registered participants did indeed share references, which we subsequently compiled into a bibliography, now available online.

On the one hand, this bibliography demonstrates that we are far from the first to inquire into the relationships between Byzantine Studies and European colonialism. Note, for example, two contributions published last year, one by Panagiotis Agapitos and the other by George Demacopoulos. Agapitos studies in detail not only Franz Dölger’s extractive mission to occupied Athos, 1941, but also its relation to Dölger’s influential “view of the Byzantine empire as a fully developed system of a national population under a constitutionally organized state.” Demacopoulos studies a much older group of texts about Byzantium, those produced by Latin Christian authors in the context of another extractive colonlialist enterprise, the Fourth Crusade. He employs post-colonial critique to understand the enduring concepts of Christian difference embedded therein.

On the other hand, the bibliography reveals that this is still a fragmented (more optimistically, a nascent) discourse. None of the texts recommended cite or refer to any substantial portion of the others: it was clear, in short, that this was not the intellectual production of a self-conscious field of critical historiography, but rather an undercurrent of locally occasioned critical reflections. One of the primary goals of the webinar, accordingly, was to encourage conversations between as many different contributors as possible, and to allow all participants a space to express their own perspective on our central question, in the hopes of encouraging greater cross-fertilization among scholarly traditions, sub-specialties, and personal perspectives. The response was encouraging also in its interdisciplinarity. Participants and their suggested readings tackled issues ranging from heritage to historiography, and from the North Caucasus to North Africa.

In advertising our webinar, we envisaged a small conversation among no more than thirty people. The open call for applicants was expected to source no more than twenty of those. But we were overwhelmed by the positive response and interest in having this conversation about Byzantine Studies: around fifty participants signed up to the event.

In light of this, it would have been impossible to achieve the goals of our webinar in one big Zoom meeting. Instead, network members Sophie Moore and Alexandra Vukovich contributed their technical and pedagogical expertise and labor to design and implement a three-part program of small group discussions. In the end, roughly forty participants joined the call, each of whom was assigned to two distinct breakout rooms of ca. eight-ten participants each: the first (over one hour) for discussion of the readings, and the second (ca. thirty minutes) for an aspirational discussion of future directions. All-too-brief full-group meetings of ca. ten minutes filled the interstices. The meeting in total lasted two and a half hours. A potential time-zone catastrophe was narrowly averted thanks to the keen intervention of a participant.

The discussions were cordial and collaborative. This was due first of all to the good will of the participants, second of all to the format of the discussions, itself based on a previous conference co-organized by network member Nik Matheou. Participants were invited to speak in a randomly determined order for ca. two minutes each (facilitators in each room kept time). All rooms made multiple rounds, so that conversations were able to gain momentum, even as individual voices were granted a roughly equal share of airtime.

Not all participants were convinced by the premise. Various interlocutors – both those who wrote under separate cover and those who joined the live conversation – expressed skepticism regarding the underlying question, posed in the call for participants as “Is Byzantine Studies a colonialist discipline”? The most common objections were two, here unfairly stripped of nuance and reduced to a few words. First: Byzantium is so marginalized and orientalised that Byzantine Studies cannot possibly be colonialist. Second: colonialism is not the problem, nationalism is.

We will address these objections in a future publication, but as they were discussed in detail and in various breakout rooms already during the webinar, it seems reasonable to offer two preliminary responses, with the caveat that we speak not on behalf of all or even a majority of participants, rather for ourselves. To the first: marginalized fields of study can be conducted in a colonialist manner. One need look no further than the histories of study of e.g. Sanskrit or Arabic literature. To the second: while nationalism can be a tool of decolonization, it has often in practice replicated and collaborated with colonialist structures and enterprises. Nationalism and its emergence in Europe are therefore inseparable from the history of empire and colony, as demonstrated in the set readings by Hamilakis and Mishkova.

The question should thus be rephrased, as no discipline is colonialist or decolonial in its entirety at all times. The appropriate question might be rather, “What does a colonialist practice of Byzantine Studies look like, what alternative models are available, and which have yet to be conceived?”

We step back down from our soap box. It is unfortunately impossible to summarize the conversations held over the course of two hours in ten different breakout rooms made up of a wonderfully diverse and engaged group of colleagues. We offer here instead an impressionistic sampling of some striking observations and questions that made their way into our notebooks. As they appear here unavoidably without context, we give them without attribution and with apologies to their authors, whom we very much hope will pursue them at greater length in future. We hope that they will convey at least a general sense of the breadth and dynamism of the conversation.

- Byzantine Studies labors under the “colonial overshadow” of Classics, which obscures its medieval character.

- Byzantium’s textual production, which is often our only source for the nomadic, non-literate peoples on its borders, has normalized an imperial perspective as the default in Byzantine studies – we look out onto others through the position of the empire

- Colonialist Byzantine Studies presents as a more coherent discourse than the many, conflicting, nationalist versions of the same.

- How far do the skills required to undertake the study of Byzantium (e.g. knowledge of Greek) produce an academic class sourced from the elite? 

- Standard histories of Byzantine Studies regularly situate the origin of the discipline in sixteenth-century France, but consider it solely as a “court” phenomenon, not in the context of the colonial French Empire.

- Archaeological digs in Turkey and the Balkans are still often structured around a foreign (Western) European lead and a local working class – a legacy of colonial archaeology

- Is there an (are there multiple) indigenous Byzantine Studies?

- How do we balance critical self-reflection with our desire to maintain our scholarly authority, in particular to intervene in public debate?

There was no proper conclusion, just the end of time. It remains for us only to express our deep gratitude to all co-conveners, facilitators, participants, and interlocutors. The next steps are the readers’.

Benjamin Anderson
Mirela Ivanova
Byzantine Studies Association of North America