How to identify (and to cure) an error in the database

Following our advisory board workshop and the valuable feedback we received from the participants, we have recently been able to finalise the database, thanks to the successful work by our project’s Digital Humanities Developer, Matthew Groves.

As one can expect, there were numerous considerations that surfaced only once the database was at a stage where I have been able to create the first prosopographical entries. Thus, the HTML-based designer system allows different methods of entering data, such as a multiple-choice format, a multiple-entry one, a free text option as well as the possibility to choose from, and add to, several lists. This naturally leads to further questions, such as of how to define the differences between unknown and n/a (say, if it’s a special category that is applicable to few cases only, and there really is no information extant in the sources to answer that question at all). How to deal with a data entry system that requires one to enter a numerical time-span, when all we can really say is that at some unknown moment in time someone writes a letter addressed to someone else. All this is completely independent from the difficulties in the interpretation of the sources. The combination of these considerations naturally required different review sessions.

In this context, a hilarious obstacle occurred that for several days delayed completion of the database. While entering more and more data for a given exile case, at one point a message popped up and kept on preventing the data from being updated to the system: ‘An error has occurred during the creation of item “Eusebius of Vercelli”’. After extensive investigation, we found that the message came up every single time when I tried to update the field ‘Religious affiliation’, with its associated content (‘Nicaean’), and that this had caused the database to reject the new data as erroneous. It can’t be that the database is heretical, can it?

At any rate, we are scheduled to explore the possibilities of visualising the early database content soon and are therefore convinced that at this stage there is want for further clarification and assurance that we are still on the right way.

First Advisory Board Workshop, Sheffield 8-10 January 2015

[this post was written by our Co-I Dr Jakob Engberg, Aarhus University]


January 8-10 we had the First Advisory Board Workshop in Sheffield. The workshop was attended by Hanns Christof Brennecke, John Drinkwater, Jill Harries, Uta Heil, Katie Hemer, Simon Loseby, Harry Mawdsley, Elisabeth O’Connell, Hannah Probert and the project team (Julia Hillner, Harry Mawdsley, Dirk Rohmann, Jörg Ulrich and myself, Jakob Engberg).

The main purpose of the workshop was twofold. Firstly to test a pilot version of the clerical exile database with a view to identifying where it needs improvement and secondly to give the advisory board, the project team and other invited scholars the chance to discuss how the database may benefit (and be designed to benefit) different research interests. The seminar was divided in four sessions.

In the first session Julia Hillner, Jörg Ulrich and I presented the project aims: To arrive at a better understanding of exile in terms of the reality and conditions of exile itself and its consequences. The three of us come to the research from three angles, Julia Hillner from the perspective of legal history, Jörg Ulrich from the perspective of the significance of exile for the dissemination of theological ideas and the development of dogma, I from a ‘cultural’ perspective, where the reactions on exile is in focus. In addition Dirk Rohmann presented the pilot version of the database and its potential for the making of tables, network graphs and maps. Finally Julia Hillner discussed the possibilities and some methodological pitfalls in the application of Social Network Analysis on material from antiquity in general and our material in particular.

In the second and third sessions chaired by Uta Heil and Simon Loseby we were offered four presentations. Firstly Hanns-Christof Brennecke discussed the role of synods in sending clerics in exile and in recalling them. Secondly Jill Harries discussed John Chrysostom’s letters to Olympias as sources for the experience of the actual travel into exile and how such travels were rhetorically exploited. Thirdly Elisabeth O’Connell presented the case of non-Chalcedonian bishops living in the Theban necropolis in the 6-7th centuries and raised the question of how self-styled and voluntary ‘exile’ relate to exile as a penalty and exile as flight from persecution. Fourthly Harry Mawdsley presented how his PhD-work on Exile in the Post-Roman World is progressing and how he has so far been able to catalogue, categorize and order some of the interesting cases he has been analyzing so far.

In the fourth and final session Dirk Rohmann presented his work on how to collect data on clerical exile. This was followed with a very useful group-work on a number of sources selected by Dirk Rohmann and Julia Hillner. The sources had been divided in genres and they were chosen so as to represent some of the tough questions confronting Dirk Rohmann in his work with the design and entry of the database. The participants were able to provide many useful comments for the future work.

In conclusion the workshop fulfilled its purpose and on top of it established and furthered academic connections between the participants. Dinners were excellent with an English meal the first evening and an Indian the second. All academic and social interaction in and outside the seminar room was conducted in an engaged and friendly atmosphere.

Vienna trip

New Blog written by Harry Mawdsley:


On the 11th of December, the project’s Sheffield contingent – Julia, Dirk and I – travelled to Vienna for the “Linking the Mediterranean” international workshop. The theme of the workshop, as implied by its title, was regional and trans-regional interactions during late-antiquity 300-800 AD. Given the persistent academic debates concerning the impact of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, there was much scope for discussion. And so, eagerly anticipating the conference papers, we arrived at Manchester Airport (very!) early that morning.

After a relatively straightforward journey, notwithstanding our slight confusion when navigating the Viennese transport system, we reached at the hotel by the afternoon. This gave us a few hours to do a spot of sightseeing before the evening’s keynote speech. It was my first time in the city and I was impressed – the architecture was ornate, grandiose and, above all, imperial.

We arrived at the academy building at around five o’clock. Professor Bryan Ward-Perkins opened proceedings by introducing his current research; a major five year project that will investigate the origins and development of the cult of the saints. Like our Clerical Exile project, it will produce a searchable database freely available online.

On Friday morning we were feeling more rested and ready for a long day of a discussion. A wide variety of topics were addressed by the speakers, the full programme can be found here; The followers of our project’s twitter feed were provided with a running commentary as I dutifully tweeted from the audience. In the second session Julia herself presented on the relationship between exile and monastic confinement during the fifth and sixth centuries. Far from indicating shrinking political horizons, Julia instead argued that the growth of monastic confinement represented a new method of social control. These issues will receive fuller treatment in her forthcoming book – Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity – but it was great to hear Julia give the first paper linked with the project.

The papers continued on Saturday, including one from our Sheffield colleague Dr Katie Hemer who works within the Department of Archaeology. Using stable isotope analysis to examine the remains from an early medieval cemetery, Katie had found surprising evidence for population movement from the Southern Mediterranean to Western Britain. This brought out one of the central themes of the workshop; rather than a collection of static, parochial societies, the post-Roman west was a highly inter-connected world in which goods, ideas and individuals moved across large distances and political borders. Of course, this is something that I hope to demonstrate in my own research on exile in the barbarian successor states.

By the afternoon the conference had concluded; our gracious host, Dr Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, then gave us a highly informative tour of the city. There was even time to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where we marvelled at the impressive late-antique collections as well as at the (surely exaggerated?) prognathism of the Habsburg portrait busts.

After a final night in the hotel we were ready to depart. During the journey home I reflected on the last few days. It was the first conference that I had attended, and before arriving I felt slightly intimidated at the prospect of meeting so many distinguished academics. However, these feelings were soon overcome due to the friendly atmosphere, and the genuine interest showed by fellow attendees in my own research. The conference itself was highly stimulating, with the speakers approaching the issue of connectivity from a variety of disciplines and approaches. This made the experience truly worthwhile, and I returned to Sheffield with a renewed enthusiasm for our own project. For that I owe thanks to everyone who made the event possible, in particular its organiser Dr David Natal.

Developing a database

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.

When to begin?

The question of when to begin can be read in several ways, for example: when to begin this blog?

The use of so-called ‘social media’ to broadcast research is now fairly widespread within the academic community. The promise of blogging, tweeting, instagramming and the like to reach as wide an audience as possible has also become a standard fixture in academic funding applications, including the one that led to the existence of this project. Nonetheless, although I have blogged before, I am still anxious about the immediacy of this form of presenting and the much larger circle of potential readers, which both demand a rethink of writing style. It involves a lot of soul searching.

Yet, I have learned once again that the benefits far outweigh the doubts and taking up the challenge is worth the while: the response to the launch of our project website and its communication via twitter has already generated new collaborations, for example for our planned workshop on late antique clerical exile at the Oxford Patristics Conference. What a result! Furthermore, with academic projects like this one, where the end products (books, articles, databases) are usually promised for the distant future, every possibility to allow for early insights into research findings – and also their potential relevance beyond the particular academic field or even beyond academia – must be welcomed.

A perhaps more vexing way to read the question is: when to begin this project? This is of course not meant in the practical sense (since we are already truly underway), but in the specific, historiographical sense of dating: how best to define the historical framework for an analysis of late antique clerical exile?

Now, our start date, as specified in our project title, is the year 325 AD. I had thought that was a safe and obvious date: surely everyone working on late antiquity would recognise it as the year in which the council of Nicaea – the subject of our lovely header image – was held and would immediately understand? Yet, I was recently invited to reflect again by a discussion I had with the incomparably perceptive Olivier Hekster. Everyone who is familiar with Olivier’s work – and everyone interested in the second, third and fourth centuries should be familiar with Olivier’s work – knows that he is not one for lazy periodisations. He reminded me that Christian clerics had been exiled by public authorities long before 325 as it had been a method of Roman persecutions of Christians throughout the third century with some potential repercussions on how later Christians thought and wrote about exile in a post-persecution context. The story of Cyprian of Carthage, exiled possibly following the Valerian edict of 257 and one of the most influential writers of the Latin west, is of course a case in point.

If anything, this conversation showed me once again how transparent we need to be as historians in our motivations to single out certain dates as iconic and as ushering in profound change. Yet, I do think that 325 as a start date holds, beyond my grumbling defence against Olivier’s points at the time that ‘one has to start somewhere’. Nicaea certainly marked a beginning of collaboration between emperors and church councils in settling inner-Christian conflict, and in developing a way to enforce Christian council condemnations of wrong belief through a public penalty of exile. But it is also true that we need to take into account continuities and be honest about a certain arbitrariness of dating. I am delighted to report that my co-investigator Jörg Ulrich has already spotted the gap in our project and has begun to investigate the context of third-century clerical exile as reported by Eusebius of Caesarea. Perhaps as a team we also need to have a conversation, as our research associate Dirk Rohmann suggested to me, whether we want to push back our database start date to 311, the year of Galerius’ edict of toleration. Toleration of Christianity certainly made it much more possible for Christians to bring their internal conflicts to the attention of emperors. For example, the condemnation of the Donatists at the synod of Arles in 314, followed up by Constantine’s anti-Donatist edicts, was a direct result of this and may have already led to the imposition of an imperial penalty of exile on Donatist clergy in North Africa nearly a decade before 325.

What I have learned from all this is that there should always be room for revision, however well defined a project seems to be. Given the large and diverse group of collaborators we have I suspect there will be many more challenges to ‘perceived truths’ to come, which is, of course, the whole point of the exercise.

And I do not even want to think about how to define our end date, ‘c. 600’ – but this is for another blog.


Welcome to our blog ‘The Migration of Faith: Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity’!

Late antique clerical exiles and their companions seem to have been everywhere in the late Roman empire, travelling, talking to people, writing letters, and often causing havoc, as such influencing a wide range of cultural, political, religious and legal developments in this period. We think therefore that in our project there will be something of interest for everyone fascinated by late antiquity! Continue reading