The DYNAMIC MIDDLE AGES I (Moscow, 2012): FEEDBACK
The School of the Dynamic Middle Ages was an excellent opportunity to meet a wide range of students who are also just starting their careers in medieval history and to see what questions are being asked of the Middle Ages around the world. It was also an opportunity to consider the questions and issues that our field still needs to address. It was an intellectually enriching experience that prompted me to engage with research far from my own field of experience, and to place my work within a comparative context. This process extended my intellectual and spatial map of the Middle Ages. I am interested in the interaction between space, ideas, and politics, and these sessions encouraged me to think about how this entanglement affects not only history, but also the questions that historians are asking of the past. These sessions created an opportunity for us to remind each other of the political nature of our work, and to interrogate the politics of our interests and approaches to certain topics, for example ‘ethnicity’. I came to realise that while categories such as ethnicity have been constructed for political purposes, and their rigidity should be challenged through greater understanding of transcultural dynamics, this constructivist approach does not simply dissolve the politics and history of these problematic concepts. Consequently, we must find new methods which are able to negotiate critical perspectives whilst more fully engaging with problematic phenomena.
Prof. Martial Staub:
It is difficult not to impose a narrative on Moscow, a city that evokes empires (past and present), Byzantium, Europe and Asia, and many more. The dynamic Middle Ages, to which the doctoral school was devoted, was less in danger of being trapped in these stories than of replacing them with a more fashionable version of history, but still one that would be told on people’s behalf. Yet Moscow is also the stage, or rather the main protagonist, of Bulgakov’s subtle satire The Master and Margarita: in a word, a city that resists any temptation to be ‘redeemed’ by a good story.
Moscow, then, withstood our attempts to liquefy the Middle Ages to make it but one side, or the prehistory, of what Zygmunt Bauman has called ‘liquid modernity’. Networks, global history, migrations, they all showed their immense potential when it comes to revisiting the Middle Ages, but the dynamic of the debates arose from the interaction between historians of Western and Southern Europe, Byzantium and Russia and from the dialogue that took place between historians of each of these disciplines, especially, albeit not exclusively, between Eastern and Western scholars and students. Never was the plural ‘Middle Ages’ (in English) more adequate than in the seemingly unlimited range of perspectives and approaches that characterised the discussions. It was as if these many facets, although they would at times seem irreconcilable in detail, matched the splendour of the Muscovite autumn. Energy had, it would appear, been unleashed by papers that looked beyond national histories and categories, unveiling a history that had lain hidden before us just to be discovered by widening the scope of our attention to people and phenomena once neglected. This revealed a period of multiple, at times conflicting, often kitted identities, ambiguous yet assertive values, simultaneously centralised and decentralised institutions, etc.
Hardly recognisable was Byzantium on having been stripped of the clichés of a debased Roman imperium. The migrants to Italy, the mercenaries from Rus’, the nomads beyond the frontiers, the translators from Arabic and the exiles on the shores of the Pontus, they all drew a vivid picture of a multifaceted culture that was able, for most of her history, to respond creatively to the multiple stimuli of a complex and fast changing environment. Western and Southern Europe seemed as unsettled as it gets once the perspective moved away from assumed centres of power to communication networks at royal courts in Gaul and West as well as East Francia, trading connexions across the Mediterranean and Asia, the social dynamics of preaching and learning, international relations, ritualised violence and global chivalry, fictions of the body and the “other”, science and perceptions of the “other” and of nature, and to peripheries soon to be centres or not. And how refreshing were views on Eastern Europe that spelled out less the oddity of changing statehood than the limits of statist historiography in grasping the rich fabric of political and cultural models. Masternarratives were eschewed as surely as Bulgakov’s carnival once rebooted Goethe’s Faust and subverted Stalinist propaganda.
“There was much else, but one cannot remember everything.”
The doctoral school in medieval studies that has just taken place in Moscow was distinguished by both the broad variety of issues that were tackled and the variety and profoundness of the theoretical standpoints that were articulated by the participants. As each country has its own “sets” of metanarratives and the ways of creation of historical narratives, this school gave its participants an opportunity to compare how German, English, and Russian historians “construct” their research objects, as well as to identify the directions of analysis that are currently popular with researches embarking on their careers (for instance, cultural transfers, history of migrations).
It is worth noting that most researchers now choose not to proceed “ad fontes” but to analyse their sources through the prism of one or several contemporary theories, depending on the plotline they investigate. These theories, which form the ground of different research works, do not belong to the same level: such creators of “general models” as N. Luhmann, J.-F. Lyotard, J. Derrida, L. Wittgenstein and also such contributors to the ‘philosophy of history’ as R. Koselleck, P. Nora, O.G. Oexle, M. Borgolte were repeatedly referred to at the school. There was no impression that these names were simply “labels” that had to be mentioned – it was rather that the models created by these scholars were the theoretical perspectives that determined the research approaches of the school’s participants. Thus, in the run of three days, gradually emerged the circle of “contemporary patterns” for explanation of different aspects of the Middle Ages that are relevant for European scholars at present, in 2012.
One of the key issues at the school concerned the limits of application of contemporary theories to the medieval realities, along with a more particular question of correspondences among the scopes of the meaning of the similar medieval and contemporary terms. This is exactly why the question of distinct definitions of every polysemantic contemporary term, not so typical for Russian scholarship, entered almost every discussion. But it was the polysemy of the initial terms at the foundation of the presented papers that fostered new approaches to the research objects themselves; these approaches included the revelation of new aspects of problems, of new interconnections in the studied phenomena, as well as offering alternative approaches to the research objects in relation to the ones that had been chosen by the speaker. Hence the repeatedly occurring question how these approaches could be combined in one research project (or, if this is at all possible).
I also find it valuable that the very possibility of utilising these or those theories, oppositions, and specific ideas in certain papers were repeatedly questioned during the discussions. I would like to stress that the search for new meanings and the attempts to create syntheses on new principles encouraged the participants to resort to the “new” terms that have been coined in the last decade and have not yet become widely spread, such as “glocal”, or “translocalism”. The papers presented at the school also offered new perspectives on the phenomenon of “citizenship” in the medieval context and on the phenomenon of the “medieval ritual”; they also called for a more discerning use of such traditional oppositions as “center vs. periphery” and “global vs. local”. However, the “deconstructions” and “(re)constructions” in the works of a great deal of speakers also posed an important question, “Where to stop the deconstruction?”
As a general result, the discussions made it possible to tackle issues of the development of contemporary historiography, despite that the participants` papers were dedicated to particular problems of history. Throughout the three days, the rules were implicitly established that are indispensible to “contemporary” research of history, in Russia as well: this is first of all the necessity to approach critically the basic theoretical assumptions of a given research project and also the necessity to involve as broad a range of available sources of different types as possible.
Considering that multiplicity of research perspectives is so typical for contemporary social sciences, and “teams” dealing with different countries, problems, and periods select different, not always coinciding, “groups” of perspectives and methods out of this “multiplicity”, I would especially praise the school organizers’ lucky idea that the contributors were to review the works that drastically differed in methodology, topics, geography and chronology from their own. It is also worth noting that many papers were not exclusively dedicated to the “central”, most studied European countries: the European “periphery” was during the school no more “peripheral”, as the research dedicated to Portugal, Lithuania, Poland and even Ukraine played a duly important role. Many of the presented papers were also distinguished by rather broad chronological scopes, which gave more opportunity to track the dynamic elements.
As the upshot of these three days, the Middle Ages turned out to be dynamic not only because a 1,000-year period should have been a priori dynamic in many ways and at different levels, but also, it seems, because the contemporary researchers have made it their intention to discern and emphasize this dynamicity – for the dynamicity of the Middle Ages as well as the “Middle Ages” themselves are indeed a construction that is being (re)shaped by modern historians.
Prof. Gerrit Jasper Schenk:
when writing this letter, I am still filled with enthusiasm: the training school ‘The Dynamic Middle Ages‘ in Moscow was an intellectual benefit for me and obviously also for all the other participants. One rarely experiences such an intense discussion held at the highest level with an enormous variety of medieval topics and problems! The theme of the training school was well chosen because it is just the often neglected dynamics of the medieval millenium which allows for the discussion of innovative and fruitful dissertations. It was thus guaranteed that some of the most inspired European junior researchers were brought into a productive dialogue.
The fact that ‘Europe‘ is considered to mean more than just Western Europe does not only distinguish the training school in Moscow from similar conferences elsewhere but is the necessary prerequisite for a better understanding of the European dynamics up to the present. It was enlightening to see how the participants from Western and Eastern Europe benefited from each other in terms of theme and methodology. What I liked a lot, was the conception of the ‘mixture’, i.e. the mutual presentation, comments on and the evaluation of research projects by the young researchers followed by thorough discussions of the plenum. However, I would like to suggest a reduction of the number of participants (to about 14 to 16) so that additional time for exchange and discussion is being gained. I also advise to replace the evening lectures by methodology workshops or small seminars on recent research debates so that the lecturers can address the issues of the participants and also deal with essential and comprehensive problems.
In addition, I would like to emphasize the plurality of topics and methods, which in fact broadened my horizon. This is the only way to understand the continent as being connected and no longer as divided. It is not only a scientific necessity that Western European researches know the role of Byzantine, the Rus of Kiev or Lithuania better and that Eastern European medievalists are familiar with the transatlantic scope of discourse. This is why I suggest a continuation of the training school on a maybe two- or three-year basis.
Finally, I want to thank you for the perfect organization and the outstanding assistance of the training school. Moscow thus proved to be the ideal place of the school not only for scientific reasons but also as far as the administrative infrastructure and the fruitful cooperation of DHI, Goethe-Institute Moscow, the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow and Humboldt-University Berlin are concerned. The Gerda Henkel Stiftung of course deserves our gratitude for the financial support of the session.
Thank you very much again and best regards
Prof. Dr. Gerrit Jasper Schenk
A perfectly organized scientific event, during which I have established very good contacts and acquired very useful experience for my future academic career.
The open framework of “The Dynamic Middle Ages” left enough space to incorporate a great variety of topics, research fields and methodologies. Yet, it was at the same time concise enough to provide a common basis for fruitful discussions and to avoid arbitrariness. I have the impression that the combination of established academics and junior researchers entering a dialogue on eye level in open and lively discussions turned out to be profitable for both sides. These possibilities to formal and informal exchange of opinions were certainly not only for me enriching. Besides, I greatly enjoyed hearing and exchanging new opinions on “old” topics. Sources, literary traditions, narratives are our daily bread but I found it most stimulating in what ways new questions are asked today and I also met “old friends” like ritual, ethnicity, the Franciscans, in new design.
I enjoyed the school of "The Dynamic Middle Ages" because of its professional character as well as because of its 'informal' interacting among the participants; 'Professional character' - because the standards for the application, the submitted projects and the discussions were high and, further, the way the school was organized, as well as the way of presenting our projects, the time management and the great diversity of subject chosen to be presented and reviewed. It was 'informal' because we all were researchers in somehow the same level – PhD or post-doc – which helped to lose shyness and to actively participate. It was a perfect stage to learn to ask critically, discuss and defend the own work.
The formate to review others' projects rather than presenting the own work was very successful, I feel. The discussions were fruitful and I enjoyed to read a big variety of different researches. The atmosphere among the people was very relaxed and kind, but, nevertheless, the discussions were helpful for rethinking the own project. I felt everybody was interested and one could feel the willingness to learn from each other. Of course, the differences between the different cultures, mainly the Western-European and the Russian-Slavic, were another interesting point: How do they work? How do we work? What is their way of thinking, asking and solving questions? What can we learn from them?
The organization before, during and even after the training school was – I would say – perfect; it gave me a very good feeling before coming to Moscow.
Last, I want to thank the Board of Advisors, the organizers, all the kind Russian students who helped us so nicely with everything and, of course, the sponsors. I see it as a privilege that we had the chance to come to Moscow for such a purpose, such a useful purpose! Thank you very much! "Weiter so!"
This conference was a great opportunity for me to leave for a time the world of Old Russian Chronicles and to dip into theoretical and methodological discussion. It was very helpful to look at my project from different points of view and to discover some weak places that needed to be improved. Also I have gathered a collection of very useful advices and already have carried out some of them.
Another point is that I realized how different the medieval societies could be and got an experience about places and times very far from the object of my work. The same could be said about the methodology.
And I would like to thank organizers once more for the really great work. I could only imagine how difficult it was, especially if we will take into account the situation around humanities in Russia.
The conference offered an exceptionally friendly and inspiring atmosphere that enabled an uncomplicated exchange of ideas between English, German and Russian doctoral students. Moreover, it gave a rare chance to approach a number of senior scientists, working in various fields of medieval studies. Both the communication with Ph.D. students and with professors proved to be indeed fruitful and incentive.
In addition, the conference gave me a very useful opportunity to defend my own project, to answer a lot of complex questions as well as to pose questions to many Ph.D. projects on quite different topics and finally to practice reviewing of another research.
I would like to note especially a well-managed organisation and an informal, personal treatment by the coordinators of the conference.
An important enterprise that surely must be continued.
Prof. Dr. Annette Kehnel:
thank you so much for the wonderful experience of the Autumn School “Dynamic Middle Ages” in October 2012.
This project successfully initiated an inspirational dialogue between doctoral candidates from Western and Eastern Europe. Rarely have I participated in an academic conference where presentations and discussions were so open-minded and eager to learn as was the case with this exchange of doctoral candidates in Moscow. The cooperation between the participants was due to the excellent organization and preparations we owe to you and Mr. Borgolte, but without any doubt as well to the fine cooperation with the colleagues in Moscow, with the the DHI Moscow, the Goethe Institute, the Institute for Comparative History of Europe at the Humboldt University Berlin and the Higer School of Economics, Moscow.
It was my first visit as a German Professor in Moscow and right from the beginning I felt comfortable thanks to the absolutely reliable support and organization. It is such a good experience to get on a taxi with two students of Mainz and Heidelberg right at the airport of Moscow and find out that both of them understand and speak Russian quite well, one because he was born in Bulgaria, the other because he studied Slavistics and that both students had a very rich international past. As a whole the vibrant internationality shown in the doctoral students’ biographies was highly surprising.
It was a great pleasure to feel the unifying strength of science, especially of Medieval History connecting Tomsk with Birmingham, Odessa with Munich, Budapest with Mainz and Verona with Moscow.
For future projects – and I do hope there will be future projects – I can definitely recommend the formate you suggested. The change of places from the German Historical Institute to the backroom of the wonderful bookshop was great. Next time I would like to see your University from inside. Also – if you allow – I would recommend to unpack the programm, or let's say, to open it up for more communication in between. Secondly it seems to me very important to enforce the idea of such a conference as a ‚lieu d’echange’ by e.g. introducing units in smaller working groups as well as workshops or classes. Also a visit to the wonderful museums, maybe even classes held their besides selected objects, might be a good idea.
I can only thank you again. And I do hope, that the fine network that thus came into being at the universitas magistrorum et studiorum will be continued in the future. On my part I would like to say that for Mannheim the contacts were already very productive and that invitations are delivered. Christoph Mauntel presented his work in a Mannheim workshop on “Violence” in October, I also recommended Stefania Montemezzo to my colleague in economic history, who invited her to join his research seminar in march, and Caroline Döring will present her work in a workshop with our Humboldt Research Fellow Nora Berend in December. It would be great to maintain the network of collaboration started, and I am personally very interested in establishing and supporting this “Dynamic” of the exchange with you and your colleagues in Moscow.
Prof. Dr. Annette Kehnel
I want to once again thank you and all the organisers for such a fantastic and unforgettable week in Moscow. The Dynamic Middle Ages school was organised very well, everything ran smoothly and I felt well taken care of. This was a short but intensive time in Moscow, an experience which gave me plenty to bring back. On my way back, my suitcase was not full of souvenirs (well, there were some) but it was packed with new ideas, inspiration, memories and connections to be maintained, nourished and developed. I appreciate the input and care that all the organisers had put in the programme and the high levels of attention that the work of each student received. It was also an important platform to meet students from different countries and, above all, to deepen my knowledge of scholarship that has been done in Russia. After returning, the first thing I did was to sign up for two intensive Russian courses – which will enable me to access academic literature in Russian soon and to make it more visible for the English –language scholarship. I look forward to further cooperation and exchanges of ideas – and, of course, to see you all very soon!
Paul Predatsch, Philipp Winterhager, Tagungsbericht The Dynamic Middle Ages. International PhD and post-doctoral training school. 02.10.2012-05.10.2012, Moskau, in: H-Soz-u-Kult, 14.12.2012.
Account of The Dynamic Middle Ages in the newsletter SCHEDULA, Neues aus den MONUMENTA GERMANIAE HISTORICA
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