The biennial „Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity“ is the largest conference for the history of Late Antiquity in North America. This year’s meeting, the eleventh of its kind, took place...
It is always important to think about the foundations before a project gets started.
I think this holds true for the categories upon which we want to build our database. Perhaps the topic of Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity appears to be straightforward. Who was exiled, where did they come from, where did they go. Obviously, this is not what we’re trying to do in the next couple of years.
It is clear that our methodological approach towards Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity is informed by recent trends of network theory. In this context, much has been made out of sociological theories. Drawing on these theories, scholars are trying to apply interdisciplinary approaches to historical network analysis. Alluding to popular culture, historical network analysis is thus often compared to the Facebook of the Middle Ages, of Victorian Britain or of whatever period we are talking about. Scholars have therefore developed a wealth of categories in order to give a nuanced view of what network theory can contribute to our historical knowledge.
However, our source basis for antiquity and late antiquity is a very different one compared to more recent periods. While in most cases, the evidence and known information are scant, there are other examples, such as the exile and pertinent correspondence of John Chrysostom or the many exile cases of 355/6 (surrounding the condemnation of Athanasius), where we have a plethora of extant information. In consequence, we need to be clear that in many cases many of the available categories are void.
Another problem is the obvious problem of source bias that is inherent to, say, Christian polemical texts. Can we really believe an ancient Christian author claiming that his dogmatic adversary is an obsessive-compulsive thief of church property and a promiscuous, covert practitioner of paganistic orgies? On the other hand, prosopographical study requires us to be accurate in relation to the accounts given by our sources. While we therefore think it is best practice to account for who said what in which context, we are nevertheless aware of the bias that is inherent to ancient, particularly to religious, texts – but are likewise happy to leave it to others to draw these conclusions.
Once the database is up and running, I’d be curious to find out if our chosen system does justice to the problems that we have so far encountered in applying network theory to the study of late antiquity.