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Interview with Visiting Scholar John Magee

John Magee, Professor of Classics and Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, and Director of the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies, visited Dumbarton Oaks in the last week of term and gave a scintillating paper on Calcidius. He generously spent some of his short time with us drinking tea and talking to Margaret Mullett, Director of Byzantine Studies, about scholarship, research centers and (often) the end of administration.

Margaret Mullett: John, how would you introduce yourself?

John Magee: Although my research interests extend into the twelfth century, they are primarily focused on Greek philosophy and its late Roman reception. I continue to work on a critical edition of Boethius’ Peri Hermeneias commentaries, and am entering into the last stages of work on a translation of Calcidius’ Latin Timaeus for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series. Calcidius is the main focus right now, and he is the happy connection that led to my wonderful week at Dumbarton Oaks. It is definitely a challenge to get his strange, rebarbative Latin into readable English, but I am very much looking forward now to seeing the translation safely into the series.

You are not a Byzantinist, but why on earth would a non-Byzantinist want to talk to Byzantinists?

It is true, I am not a Byzantinist, but to some extent I regard the question as containing its own answer. In my own case, the questions of affinity and interest raise two considerations. On the one hand, in focusing as I do on the fifth and sixth centuries, through the Gothic wars but primarily before the decisive split between East and West, it is only natural to be looking to (e.g.) Constantinople and the exiled Roman aristocrats who proved so important to later developments in early medieval Europe. I feel fairly certain, for example, that certain Byzantine translations of Boethius originated in copies that must have been brought to Constantinople by Cassiodorus, where new editions were made by people associated with the circle of Priscian. In that sense, any disciplinary-based East/West split seems a bit artificial for someone like me. On the other, I often wish I could more readily consult Byzantinists on matters concerning East/West connections during the medieval period proper. For example, a recent doctoral supervision had me struggling with Eriugena’s translation of the Ps.-Dionysius, which in turn brought into play some complex evidence concerning the dedication copy of the Greek sent to Charles the Bald, John of Scythopolis, and Anastasius Bibliothecarius. I felt very limited in my perspective and would have appreciated the expertise of a skilled Byzantinist.

Not all Byzantinists are skilled in issues of Ps.Dionysios, it has to be said, though he has attracted a following in recent years. And I hope you found some Byzantinists here who could help. What are your impressions of Dumbarton Oaks?

I used to work in the library during the late 1980s but had never actually stayed at Dumbarton Oaks. A week's visit, especially for someone whose research has had, as mine has, to compete with some fairly heavy administrative demands, and for someone who had never experienced the new library but who is accustomed to the privileges associated with being able to work in the Pontifical Institute Library in Toronto--well, I know of no other way of describing it than to say that it was heaven. The library was like mother’s milk to me, a research-intensive, non-circulating collection: big enough to capture what you need, small enough to become familiar with in very short order. Beyond that, however, was the feeling of a quasi-monastic retreat. Even a week there, speaking with the Fellows and using the library, was incredibly restorative. And although you might think that the gardens and greenery were mere icing on the cake, I realized that the connection between nature and research can be a kind of necessity (I was fortunate enough to be there just when things were coming into bloom). Finally, there was the extraordinary generosity of the staff, to a person.

You’re on the cusp of a great career change. Can you talk a little about your greatest achievements at Toronto?

One of those I am most proud of is in fact relevant to these comments. When I took over as Director in 2008, one of my goals was to create a Distinguished Visiting Scholars program to be co-sponsored by the Centre for Medieval Studies and Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. I had already invited John Marenbon (Trinity, Cambridge), and we launched it with his stay in the fall of 2009, which was a great success although it ran on fumes--one of the experiences that in fact taught me how much even a little bit of money can do. We have just completed our third year, and funding is now in place to secure its future; it is not enough to buy out salaries at home institutions for a term, but where schedules dovetail we are at least in a position to offer a decent honorarium and time and resources to help scholars concentrate on their research for three months. So being on the receiving end of something of the sort was a really enjoyable, and unanticipated, irony for me. Our program is still coming into shape, but I would like to think that we will eventually attract some Byzantinists whose research reaches westward.

What are the big issues now in medieval studies; how great are the threats to the subject? What are the great opportunities?

One of the threats to the subject comes from within, in that it may be impossible to define what “medieval studies” actually consists of. Where is the canon to hold us together? We may feel it especially acutely in Toronto because of our twin traditions, one stemming from the Pontifical Institute, with its history of some very focused conceptions of “basic training,” and the other from the Centre, which eo ipso has tended to favor a more free-flowing conception of the “field.” In the end, Bernard of Chartres (John of Salisbury) seems to me to have summed the fundamental concern up well, back in the twelfth century: medievalists, qua medievalists, are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. By that, I mean to say that interdisciplinary centers and institutes cannot afford to turn their backs on their more traditional disciplinary counterparts--the departments of English, History, Classics, Art History, etc.--although they can, if properly structured, extend the vision just a little further. Opportunities abound, in my opinion, so long as the interdisciplinary enterprise has real intellectual substance.

That interdisciplinary balance should work as well for Byzantinists, though there are fewer Byzantinists than western medievalists dotted in departments of English, History etc. But what do you think Byzantinists and western medievalists have in common?

As far as I can tell, they at least potentially have a great deal in common. To return briefly to the previous point, the Humanities generally feel under threat, of course, but when you stop to consider the gap separating Medieval and Byzantine studies from the gaps separating either one from, say, modern East Asian or African studies, then it seems strange--at least, to me--that we should ever fail to appreciate the common ground.

John, thank you very much, and we all wish you well with the research leave ahead of you. Do please come back to Dumbarton Oaks!

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