It has been a great few years for Medieval Studies in the Midlands. First we had the discovery of the remains of Richard III by the University of Leicester, then the celebrated Birmingham Qu’ran manuscript at the University of Birmingham, as well as an Anglo-Saxon cure for MSRA at the University at Nottingham.
Aside from these headline grabbing events, one of the great things about being a postgraduate in the Midlands in the last few years is the increasing collaboration among universities in the region and the possibilities that have arisen from this.
As a Byzantinist, it’s fairly understandable that I’ve spent a good amount of my time over the past two years travelling to Birmingham, which is hallowed ground for Byzantine Studies – and indeed the study of the Eastern Mediterranean more generally. Although I’ve spent a good amount of my time consulting obscure texts at the university library, the main reason for spending so much time at Birmingham has been to attend the seminar series for the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. I’ve been attending these since the first year of my PhD and have found it an excellent way to broaden my understanding of my subject area and to meet other people working in my field.
I knew from attending last year that the seminar series was popular, which isn’t surprising given that it’s been going for forty years! But this year’s seminars have been better attended than ever before. I’ve learned to get myself to the Whitting Room as early as I can, since of the five seminars I attended last term, there was a lack of chairs in at least four (and if my memory isn’t faulty, the fifth as well). This seems to be largely a consequence of the strength of the departmental community at Birmingham, as well as the quality of speakers the Centre attracts. The topics have ranged from the seventh century to the thirteenth, from textiles, numismatics, histories, literature and just about everything in between. Needless to say, a lot of this falls well outside my own area of expertise, but I find that it’s important to make an effort to expose myself to new ideas. As a historian who works overwhelmingly with textual sources, I certainly find it thought provoking to see an archaeologist or an art historian approach things from an entirely different perspective, or even tell me what I’m doing wrong from time to time!
To this end, I’ve often found seminars I know little about to be the most thought-provoking. My knowledge tends to get a little hazy when we get to the twelfth century, but I found Michael Angold’s paper on Nicholas Mesarites fascinating, largely because I was grappling with the same issues he spoke about, namely innovation and exceptionality, at exactly that time. Likewise the talks by Michael Jeffreys and Margaret Mullett both referred to works outside my own period, but their observations on genre, audience and form related to several works that I’m working on myself. This made me consider whether or not the categories that I (and others) have used are a little too rigid. Anthony Kaldellis’ paper on the 10th and 11th centuries was probably the one I picked out as having the most immediate importance to my research. In terms of scope, I certainly couldn’t complain: he demolished the conventional picture of landholding in eastern Asia Minor and demonstrated just what a watershed the Seljuk invasion of Asia Minor was, as well as rehabilitating the previously maligned emperor Constantine IX. Finally, Jonathan Shepard’s paper on the extent of trade networks between Byzantium, Britain and beyond proved especially provocative to me given how sceptical most intellectual historians seem to be about external influences nowadays.
After the seminar, a short trip across the centre of campus takes us to the Staff House for post-seminar drinks and chat. A consequence of having such a department with such a long-standing tradition is that the postgraduate community here is large, proficient and very welcoming. I’ve found that getting to know staff members and fellow PhD students has been one of the most rewarding products of attending the series. My only real regret so far is that I haven’t been able to keep abreast of their research as much as I’d like, given that I’m only in Birmingham every fortnight or so. All this comes down to the pressures on time that every PhD student is forced to contend with, but I would certainly encourage new PhD students to take any opportunity to attend events outside the confines of their own university or department. In the short term it can prove difficult to reconcile with your other commitments, especially if there is a lot of travelling involved, but I find that, in the long term, the effort is certainly worth it.
Carl Dixon is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Nottingham, funded by the Midlands3Cities consortium. His research focuses on the Greek sources of the Paulician heresy.