Term has finished, so over the last month I’ve been jetting around Europe, repaying visits to some dear late antique colleagues who came to our January workshop in Sheffield, to have a further look at their fantastic digital projects.
First stop, Warsaw. This is the home of the Presbyters in the Late Antique West project, led by the brilliant Robert Wisniewski, also part of Oxford’s Cult of Saints project. Robert had invited me to take part in a meeting to discuss and test the presbyter project’s database; a similar format of workshop that we had tried for Clerical Exile in January 2015 and 2016 and found extremely productive.
Before we settled down to work, however, we were treated with a fantastic, three-hour-long walking tour of Warsaw. For a German, or at least this German, a visit to Warsaw can be a haunting experience. Our sure-footed guide, Stanislaw Adamiak, took care, however, that we understood Warsaw as a city of resilience. I was mightily impressed by the beautiful restored old town, glinting in the sunshine as if emerged from an 18th century painting, as well as by the newly opened Jewish Museum that puts as much emphasis on the memory of century-long Polish tolerance for Judaism as it does on the horrors that followed. It did all leave me with hope in humanity.
And here is my favourite site: Columns on the Palace of Justice with quotes from Justinian’s Digest! (on the right the principle of self-defense: vim vi repellere licet; ‘it is permitted to repel force with force’ D 43.26.27)
Then we got to work. Why late antique presbyters? asked Robert in his introductory talk. Well, he argued, when you think about it, they do need a bit more attention than historians have given them so far. They were the main ‘workforce’ of the late antique Church, closer to the ‘ordinary’ Christians than other high clerics, such as bishops and deacons, more present in the countryside, and more numerous, too (in Rome, for example, there may have been 75 presbyters at the end of the fifth century, and only seven deacons). Yet, they seem to be less visible in the historical record than these other clerics, being eclipsed by the ubiquitous bishops, and at times deacons, who in many Christian centres presented the recruitment pool for bishops. The objective of the late antique presbyter project is therefore to establish the place of presbyters in the Church of the late antique West, but also their role in society, and, if possible, their mentality: was there a particular ‘late antique presbyter identity’?
The project sponsors two PhD projects, by Marta Szada, who works on the role of presbyters in conversion in the post-Roman kingdoms, and by Jerzy Szafranowski, who works on presbyters in late antique/early medieval monasteries. Both, together with Stanislaw, are responsible for data entry into the project database. But before we were allowed to work with the database itself, Robert and his team wanted to hear from the workshop participants what interests we have in presbyters, within our respective research fields. And so I was treated to a broad vista of current research on the late antique Church. From this emerged, for example, an uneven distribution of presbyters’ visibility in the sources. From Isabelle Mossong I learned that there are 284 inscriptions from late antique Italy that mention presbyters, and that ‘presbyter’ is the second most mentioned clerical office in Italian inscriptions of this period; by contrast, Juliette Day explained that there is little mention of presbyters in late antique liturgical documents and hagiography (for example, in Paulinus’ Life of Ambrose, there is only one presbyter mentioned, and he’s heterodox!). I heard from Jakub Urbanik, Przemysław Nehring and Philippe Blaudeau about the diverse activities of presbyters in late antique society: from acting on behalf of others in economic transactions, to managing church property (an activity I had so far associated with deacons), to visiting church councils and emperors. Philippe Blaudeau also wondered whether a focus on the West only could really give justice to the more global role of presbyters in Church politics; this is a question I had myself when I contributed to the discussion with a look at data on presbyters arising from the clerical exile project: Among those clerics exiled in late antiquity, presbyters present the third largest groups (behind bishops and ‘unknowns’; n/a refers to people forced to become clerics only during exile), and they also appear frequently as companions, correspondents or successors in post:
It is, of course, the effects of this mobility, often between East and West, that the Clerical Exile project is interested in. Crucially, as I describe here regarding the role of a presbyter in the recall of Arius (a presbyter himself!), contemporary commentators on exile seem to have known about and to some extent feared the power of mobile presbyters.
Fortified by Claire Sotinel’s observation that it’s perhaps less contemporary sources, but modern historians who overlook presbyters, being, as they are, obsessed with the ‘episcopal model’ of the late antique Church, we proceeded to the discussion of the presbyter database itself, beautifully designed by the project’s IT officer Ernest Frankowski.
Let me just say: late antique historians are going to be in for a treat when this database goes online. It covers everything and more about individual presbyters (social origins, languages spoken, family life or even hairstyles!), but crucially the database is not just a prosopographical one. It also draws on texts idealising the role of presbyters (e.g. church canons), so eventually may well help us to understand the relationship between norms and agency of presbyters.
Thanks to Robert and his cheerful team for a great workshop that also left me with lots of new ideas for our own database and fabulous hospitality! Here they are (from left to right in the front: Marta, Jerzy, Robert and Stanislaw; in the background: the incomparable Ewa Wipszycka and Ernest Frankowski):
I returned to Sheffield briefly to do my marking and then was off again, this time to Alcalá de Henares, to catch up with Margarita (Marga) Vallejo Girvés.
Readers of our blog will know that Marga and her team in Alcalá are conducting a very similar project to ours, assembling a digital database on exile in late antiquity. Their focus is slightly different, as their data also concerns lay exile and they are very much interested in the legal aspect of the phenomenon (they also simultaneously maintain a database on late Roman law), while our project of course concentrates on the social and cultural impact of exile. The Alcalá database will also probably not go online, as its main objective is to support the research of Marga’s three PhD students Jaime de Miguel, Aitor Fernández and Noelia Vicent who all work on different aspects of late antique exile: investigating the relationships between paganism and clerical exile, the use of exile in diplomatic relations between East and West, and the legal conditions of exile, in particular with respect to locations. Despite this difference in focus, however, we already noticed back in January in Sheffield the striking similarities of data categories between our two databases; a consequence, I think, also of the fact that I have been a long-standing admirer of Marga’s work and it is hence no surprise that her thinking about late antique exile has profoundly influenced my own. As proof, here’s a page from the bibliography of my recent book Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity, nearly hijacked by Marga’s publications:
The purpose of my meeting with Marga and her students was to discuss an issue that vexes everyone involved in Digital Humanities. As historians we are keenly aware of the contradictions, nuances and complexities within any primary sources, and of course, many of us make the very analysis of these eccentricities the object of our studies. Yet, when it comes to digital analysis, I don’t think we have yet found the ‘common visual literacy for representing uncertainty in maps, social networks, or other visualizations’, as is called for so well in this blogpost by Ryan Horne, of the Big Ancient Mediterranean Project. What we are struggling with in the clerical exile project right now are ways of ‘tagging’ the data that we have extracted from our sources. At the beginning of our project, we have made the strategic decision to be as detailed as possible with our data, as it gives us an understanding about the uniqueness of each exile case and, more importantly, how it was reported. What we now face are long lists of extremely comprehensive information which are, precisely due to this specifity, difficult to access in a quantitative manner. Take, for example, our list of offenses late antique clerics were accused of and exiled for or escaped prosecution of (the image only shows the top of the list we are building up):
We are currently in the process of finding meta-categories that will bundle some of these data together, allowing both for quantitative analysis and the visualisation as charts and graphs, while at the same time allowing retrieval of the underlying particular evidence. Marga and her team have already taken this step (partly because they are dealing with a smaller body of data, as they are not, like us, collecting data on exiles’ social relationships). We hence spent an enjoyable and productive afternoon checking the possibilities of comparing our approaches, aligning the ‘tags’ we are using and sharing our data. Many thanks to Marga and her team!
But, again, there was also time for a bit of sightseeing (and a beer on a terrazza at 33° C). While I was painfully aware of the history of Warsaw, I knew next to nothing about Alcalá before my visit. Marga has been a fabulous guide to her city, which, I learned, used to be a Roman foundation (Complutum) with a bishop attested from the fifth century, is home to hundreds and hundreds of storks and has the second oldest university in Spain (after Salamanca), which in the seventeenth century modelled its organisation on the Oxford college system, complete with introducing a court-yard based architecture. Most importantly, it is the birth place of both Catherine of Aragon and Michel de Cervantes whose house is right behind me and Sancho Panza here:
Since I have returned from this epic journey across Europe, and in fact, since I have started writing this blog post, the British people have voted to leave the European Union. All of a sudden, the world feels smaller, less connected and (let’s be honest) less sunny. My memories of these visits are already turning to nostalgia, even though I know that, of course, great research collaborations like ours will continue to exist, as they have existed even before the European Union came into being (minus the cheap airflights, though). For example, Marga and her students will be joining us in Halle in September for our next clerical exile workshop (on which more soon). As my own vice-chancellor says, now is the time for the international research community to keep even closer together. Still, politics do have an impact, if not on the strength and depth of the research community itself, then for sure on the ways it can be organised. Research meetings always create new ideas and networks and in this case, both in Warsaw and in Alcalá, there was much excitement around the possibilities of combining our efforts and, in particular, on finding ways how to integrate the iconic prosopographies of the pre-digital era (Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Prosopographie chrétienne du Bas-Émpire) and the new technologies we are developing. We started dreaming big dreams of pan-European late antique digital platforms. But these need funding, European funding. While academics from British Universities will of course continue to be involved in and invited to these discussions, we may not anymore be able to sit at the ‘top table’, as it were. On a side note, when I was in Warsaw, I realised that the majority of the room would have conducted the conversations in French, if I hadn’t been there. At the time, it struck me as a rare experience. Now, I feel it was prophetic.