Monday, 01. April 2019, 14:36

VISCOM Final Conference: Adventures in Comparison. The Global Middle Ages

Jasid Abdulkader, Sophie Gruber, Lena Kornprobst and Natalie C. Sandner

April 1, 2019 | Jasid Abdulkader, Sophie Gruber, Lena Kornprobst, Natalie C. Sandner | HI Research Blog |

Vienna, 21–22 February 2019,
Conference Report

On February 21 and 22, 2019 the Special Research Programme Visions of Community: Comparative Approaches to Ethnicity, Region and Empire in Christianity, Islam and Buddhism (400-1600 CE) held its final conference in Vienna. The goal of the conference was to summarise VISCOM’s results as well as to discuss potential future trajectories to continue comparative approaches with representatives of other interdisciplinary projects.

Project leaders and researchers of the five subprojects making up VISCOM presented the “VISCOM Experience”. Walter POHL, project speaker, and Andre GINGRICH, deputy speaker, highlighted the main motivations, goals, and approaches in their introduction: a starting point was provided by the implications of the “Global Turn in Medieval Studies” for methodology, raising questions such as how to avoid eurocentrism and how to adequately plan comparative activity when looking at the Middle Ages from a global perspective. The research was thus also about finding better research questions. Comparison of such diverse contexts, as dealt with in VISCOM, was a bottom-up process, bringing together individual source-studies in “Transversal Working Groups”. A cross-cultural comparison of definitions necessitated a pragmatic approach, using low-threshold concepts to ensure a basic conceptual agreement on operationalization while maintaining theoretical diversity. The goal was thus to historicise (or ‘anthropologise’) concepts and to develop mid-range comparisons of similarities and differences.

Christina LUTTER and Károly GODA presented their experiences in comparative and interdisciplinary research into late medieval urban communities in Central Europe. This project linked linguistic, visual, and material representations of belonging to the variety of practices of identification and togetherness and related the main categories of VISCOM – religion, ethnicity, and empire – to key categories applicable at mid-range levels, framed as “court”, “city” and “cloister”. Citing examples from his research on processions in relation to other parts of VISCOM, GODA showed how communities were built not through objects but through both inclusive and exclusive action.

Fabian KÜMMELER presented new insights from late medieval Venetian Dalmatia enabled by VISCOM and the collaboration between the projects on Yemen and Central Europe. Revisiting older, static models of communitarian belonging, this project’s micro-historic approach discovered an Adriatic model of negotiation, showing that communitarian boundaries were less rigid than previously thought. While religion and ethnicity were not important categories in such homogeneous societies, statehood and legal culture crucially defined the basic constitutional framework, but still left spaces for intense interactions across such boundaries, as KÜMMELER showed by giving the example of herders on Korčula.

Andre GINGRICH reported on the task of re-writing of Islamic Yemen’s “medieval” history after eight years of VISCOM activities by focusing on two strands: tribal and interethnic studies. GINGRICH also stressed that ethnicity must be viewed as a dynamic relationship instead of a static quality and clarified the concept of tribes in the Middle East. Odile KOMMER showed two cases from her research: Northern and Southern Arabian tribal relations and South Arabia and its Persian minorities. In her presentation, she focused on group-related terms and ethnonyms in Arabic (qabīla, ‘ashīra) and stressed the role of genealogy as a sign of legitimacy in this politically semi-autonomous region. The Othering of non-Arabs, in this case Persians, was done by specific terms (al-furs, al-‘ajam), which were however used differently according to different narrative traditions. The value and relevance of their comparative work on “South Arabia” proved that ethnicity was not a product of modernity and showed that intercultural identities and inter-ethnic relations keep changing.

Walter POHL and Reinier LANGELAAR displayed the experiences and results from their research on the concepts of identity and ethnicity, taking European Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism as examples. POHL concentrated on Early Medieval Europe in a global context and presented definitions of social identity and ethnicity, criticising debates about the (constructed) ethnicity of historical groups by stressing that territorial, political and religious aspects also have to be considered. In this context, he also looked at the role of the Bible in Europe, pointing to a dynamic relation between religion and ethnic groups. LANGELAAR looked at migration myths and autochthonous origins in 12th century Tibet and Buddhism; here again genealogy and ethnic origin stories were essential for identity. Having compared Tibetan Buddhist and European Christian ethnic identities they concluded that comparison should not start with generalizing questions: there is no “big question”, but rather several specific ones that together lead to a result.

Birgit KELLNER and Rutger KRAMER presented the working group on “Spiritual Communities”, stressing that meaningful comparison between specialized religious communities needs a “mid-level, hands-on approach”. By highlighting the functions of a given community within their surroundings and by narrowing the source-corpus to narrative sources, comparison on the methodological level was made possible. KELLNER then introduced her on-going follow-up project on scholasticism in a global comparative context, which adopts the lens of “community” and seeks a more embedded conception of scholastic activities with focus on social practices and networks.

The remainder of the first day was dedicated to “comparing comparative experiences”. First, Monica JUNEJA presented the Heidelberg Cluster of Excellence on Asia and Europe in a Global Context, which studies the dynamics of cultural exchanges, or “transculturation”, between Asia and Europe. Rather than comparison, the cluster’s goal was to develop new tools to understand past developments of culture, to question the purity of culture and the nexus between nation and culture, in contrast to globalization studies, which usually follow economic changes.

Next, Jeroen DUINDAM introduced the project on Eurasian Empires: Integration Processes and Identity Formations, whose aim was not to compare Asia and Europe, but rather specific topics such as rulers and representation. Focusing on the project’s problems rather than on its results, DUINDAM noted that the integration of individual research into the common scheme turned out to be difficult, especially for PhD students. He thus stressed that a profound knowledge of one’s own field is paramount for any comparison, a point taken up continuously throughout the conference.

Finally, Ana RODRÍGUEZ and Eduardo MANZANO talked about PIMIC, Power and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom, a project involving both research institutions and private companies. Based on case studies, PIMIC studied the differences in institutional shaping between Islam and (both Western and Byzantine) Christendom. RODRÍGUEZ emphasised the importance of research training at the doctoral and post-doctoral level in such large comparative projects. MANZANO concluded the first day by presenting his future project at the University of St Andrews, Identifying the Blocks that Build Global History in the Middle Ages, which similarly studies power and institutions in medieval Christendom, the Islamic world, India and China, and whose aim is to bring together specialists and to help situate their research within a wider framework.

Opening the second day, Naomi STANDEN reported on her experiences with the research network Defining the Global Middle Ages. She stressed the need to resist euro-centrism, to find a relationship between localities and the “global world” and to work and study together with other historians and scholars in other disciplines, while taking in as many perspectives as possible in order to connect European Medieval Studies to India, Africa, China, and the Islamic World, which have their own respective historiographies and methods. Her results show that there is not one Middle Ages, but many, even without reaching a consensus concerning periodization. Dividing by topics and regions, rather than ‘civilisations’, was found to be a better way of proceeding.

John TOLAN then presented his experience within the project on the Legal Status of Religious Minorities in the Euro-Mediterranean World (RELMIN) between the 5th and the 15th century. He questioned the definitions of “religion” or “law” and concluded that the concepts of “laws” or a “law code” were foreign to certain legal traditions, citing the Islamic “Fatwa”. Regarding comparison, he concluded that it is necessary to understand the language and historiography of the cultures being compared, or to work closely with those who can, in order to avoid being stuck in one perspective. TOLAN also presented his new project EuQu (European Quran), which is a history of the Quran in non-Muslim Europe. TOLAN explained that it is important to describe clearly to the public the content of the project, which is the use of the Quran for different purposes in Christian Europe between the first Latin translation of 1142 and the first wave of Orientalists in the 1850s.

The second afternoon of the conference was dedicated to methodological and contextual problems in “global comparison”. Chris WICKHAM started his paper by reflecting on models of comparison: it is important to pin down differences in a constructive way, which means that clear models are crucial for successful comparison. However, difficulties can arise due to different languages and historiographies.

Leslie BRUBAKER talked about her experiences in her project on Global Byzantium, a term that proved to be unhelpful and caused irritation, given that the project dealt not only with Byzantine studies in a comparative context but also embraced the Islamic and Asian sphere.

Robert MOORE, who also gave a talk at our first conference, stressed that VISCOM asked fundamental questions: in particular, the element of (social) history is a very important one and a direct bridge to the dynamics of present-day conflicts. He emphasised the obligations of scholars to give their results to a larger world: researchers need to simplify and use narratives to make their syntheses understandable for the general public.

Conrad LEYSER started the panel discussion with an introductory statement in which he reflected on comparative methods by problematizing excessively pragmatic approaches, which run the risk of over-simplifying matters.

VISCOM Juniors Dan MAHONEY, Gerda HEYDEMANN, Veronika WIESER, and Kateřina HORNÍČKOVÀ addressed the difficulty of coping with comparative issues as part of a large team while simultaneously trying to proceed with one’s individual research; especially for PhD students, comparative cooperation was often demanding too much. Nevertheless, all agreed that the interdisciplinary exchange and teamwork in different “Transversal Working Groups” proved to be very beneficial for the quality of their own research, broadening their horizons in a way that university curricula usually do not allow.

The first to give senior views on large projects in the Global Middle Ages was TOLAN, who stressed the importance of such big projects for making the humanities more visible. He also, however, pointed to the difficulty of convincing funding bodies that the humanities need both time and flexibility to be creative and to produce good results, even if this means producing fewer results. A similar point was made by RODRÍGUEZ and MANZANO, who noted that it is difficult to write project applications with the precision funding institutions ask for, given that the main advantage of comparisons is that they lead to surprising results and to new and better questions. Another difficulty was raised by JUNEJA, namely that of making projects sustainable and independent of third-party funding once the initial funding has ended. STANDEN concluded that researchers have to be careful not to constrain themselves by only addressing topics that are fashionable or morally accepted in order to get funding. She called for more active diversification and globalisation of research teams and stressed that dissent is crucial to get new ideas and to show the public how to debate and live with different answers in a civilized manner.

The final panel was dedicated to the paths to be taken after VISCOM. The five project leaders, Andre GINGRICH, Brigit KELLNER, Christina LUTTER, Oliver SCHMITT, and Walter POHL, agreed that strong disciplinary foundations are crucial for interdisciplinary work and that cooperation could be continued in new projects but also by connecting institutions through platforms such as the newly established project Global Eurasia – Comparison and Connectivity at the Academy of Sciences. By strengthening existing and establishing new institutions – such as the research unit for Balkan Studies founded in 2017 at the Academy, which houses three follow-up projects to VISCOM – a more sustainable research environment can be created, especially for junior researchers. This would also improve training of PhDs and junior researchers, the importance of which was stressed continuously throughout the conference. In his concluding statement, POHL stated that VISCOM has shown that by engaging in thorough methodological reflection and upholding high standards within each discipline and the humanities in general, comparison is still a fruitful approach that enables new insights and is not incompatible with “trending” themes, such as connectivity.