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On Mysticism and Materiality

Visiting Scholar Racha Kirakosian Examines the Fabric of Medieval Mysticism

Posted on May 17, 2017 11:15 AM by Bailey Trela |
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On Mysticism and Materiality

Between March 15 and April 12, 2017, Dumbarton Oaks hosted Professor Racha Kirakosian as a Director’s Visiting Scholar. Kirakosian holds a joint appointment in the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department and the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard, and also serves on the Committee on Medieval Studies.

Kirakosian’s publications include studies of medieval German mysticism, female sanctity, and medieval law. She has written on the life and works of the female mystic Christina of Hane—her revised critical edition and analytic study of Christina’s Life will soon be published by De Gruyter—and is currently working on the late medieval reception of St. Gertrude of Helfta. At Dumbarton Oaks, Kirakosian pursued her research into the interplay between material culture and mysticism, delivering a talk on the material phenomena underpinning the life of Gertrude of Helfta.


Q&A with Racha Kirakosian

Part of your work is concerned with rethinking prejudices about female mysticism and female sanctity in the middle ages, so I wanted to ask you: What are some of these common prejudices that pervade the culture at that time, and that might be present in scholarship as well?

For a long time, so-called “female mysticism” was associated with what was deemed “practical” mysticism—“practical” because it contrasted with scholasticism, which was more traditionally “male.” Part of this classification stemmed from the notion that women were more engaged in a bodily experience of the divine, that their bodies were the medium of the divine encounter. This is one of the huge prejudices in the field, and one that you still encounter. It led, of course, to research that is focused on the body—what’s called “somatic mysticism.”

The thing is, though, you obviously find somatic mysticism in male authors and with male mystics, and of course you also have female mystics and visionaries who are highly intellectual. So these binaries of Latin-male-scholastic and vernacular-female-practical don’t hold when you actually look at the sources. And then, manuscript evidence is often so complex that you can’t even begin to think of the author’s gender or how this interacts with the subject’s gender—do we have a male author writing about a female mystic, or vice versa? What I try to do in my research is to work with the material as much as possible, so I follow the approach of material philology, which means you try to look at each manuscript as an individual piece of full-value evidence.


When did you begin working with Christina of Hane?

Well, the short version is that I settled on Christina after looking at the texts that I could work on. There’s an anthology that describes some of these texts, written in the 1990s by Kurt Ruh, an expert in the field, that talks about Christina of Hane. It basically says that the text bears many surprises, but is also kind of boring. I found this contradictory statement intriguing and challenging. In the four-page description written by this scholar, he claims that the theologically more interesting part of Christina’s life must have been written by a man, because surely a woman wouldn’t have known of such theology. And I just thought, “Wow. What a statement,” because that reading is so bound up with the stereotypes of nearly nineteenth-century scholarship: the reason so many texts associated with women weren’t actually studied is because they were considered low.

Here at Dumbarton Oaks, I was talking with one of the junior fellows in Byzantine Studies, Mihail Mitrea, about gendered writing and reading in the Middle Ages and how there’s an awareness, at that time, of a certain female and a certain male style. He was saying that in the eastern tradition—in Byzantium—women authors would only quote the Bible. That was their universe, whereas men would quote scholars and the classical literature and so on. So there’s an awareness, already, of a sort of gendered writing. But I’m not sure if this analysis actually holds up. When I think about my next book, on Gertrude of Helfta, and I see how erudite the nuns were—well, yes, of course they did not quote Aristotle, of course they quote what they have access to, and of course that will be the Church fathers and the Scriptures. But it will also be, for instance, Bernard of Clairvaux.

I think questions of gender can be very fruitful, but they can also cause damage if they’re projected onto the material, that is, if they don’t naturally arise from it. Gendered reading has been productive and good. But if readings are taken too far, if they aren’t questioned enough, they can sometimes begin to unfairly dominate a subject. You begin to think, “Really? Is that what female mysticism is all about?”


The narrative of Christina of Hane is often described as having a very erratic structure composed of discrete sections. You’ve also said that the language itself is very difficult—would you mind explaining what that means on the page?

There are these three, what Ruh called “blocks,” in the text. In the beginning, the text is structured as a hagiography, so it starts as the life of a saint, and then it moves into dialogues, in which you hear mainly one voice (in the text, God’s voice), and Christina, the bride, is mute most of the time. Then, in the end, you’ve got something that’s nearly a theological treatise. So there are structural difficulties with the text, and that was one of the reasons it got sort of sidelined. There was the assumption that a scribe had compiled sources in a bad way, so to speak, that they failed to smooth out the text, that they didn’t know how to put it all together. But that puts authorial intention into play, in the sense that, well, there were different sources going around, it might have been impossible for a scribe to put it all together. What I’m interested in looking at is the text’s effect as it is. I don’t want to judge the text, but I do want to see what it’s doing—and if you work like that, then it’s actually quite fascinating how the text develops, because the sections aren’t as clear-cut as you might think.

The beginning section takes you through a personal account of Christina’s life, where the hagiographical tone lets you know what to expect. Then the text moves into the dialogue section, where, in a way, the reader is constantly being addressed. God addresses Christina, with “you.” When the reader actually performs this, there’s a curious effect—you as the reader are totally engaged in the relationship between God and the soul, you are immersed. Finally, in the last section, you hear Christina’s voice, and she’s elaborating on highly theological questions—the Trinity, the birth of the Son, how time collapses between history and liturgical repetition, the birth of the soul.

The typical judgment has been that the text itself is a fragment, because it ends on something like, “the soul that is able to see God is dead of all sins, and it has no name, just as God has no name, it is dead in itself, etc.” Now, this “etc.” is fascinating: it’s an open ending, which I think pairs well with this idea of emulation that is present at the end of the text. Christina is speaking of herself as the soul, so in a way there’s a distance between the narrator, Christina, and her soul—which, in the process of reading, also becomes every reader. So just thinking of the effects, I find this ending strategically strong.


What have you been working on while at Dumbarton Oaks?

I’ve been working on a few aspects of my second book, which deals with the late medieval German reception of Gertrude the Great, a thirteenth-century mystic. I have moved on since my last book, but I still want to follow this idea of material philology, so, for instance, the talk I recently gave on textiles helped me to wrap my head around a chapter I’m currently working on, and how to structure it around textual evidence. I think it’s mesmerizing how some of the visions in the German text become nearly palpable in their material imagery. One of my chapters will look at dissemination—how the material filtered down from the Latin to the German, what sort of passages are transmitted, which manuscripts they appear in, and so on.

I was recently giving a talk at Yale as part of their Medieval Studies Lectures series, focusing on one of my chapters, which centers around the idea of what I call the “Ontology of the Book”—that is, how the book comes into being on a very material level on the one hand, and, on the other, how in later vernacular text versions the book idea is transposed to a more virtual level where the text production enters the mystical program. There are also going to be other chapters, one of which links the passion and the imitation of Christ’s passion to textuality—Gertrude's revelations are really rich in this regard.


You’re really working with two types, or levels, of materiality: the book itself, the physical manuscript, and then, within the narratives, the material descriptions—the layering of a dress, for instance. How do you relate the two? How do you think about their interactions?

The first thing is that there are manuscripts. That’s really the point of departure, because it’s the material evidence that we’ve got. We don’t have the dresses, we don’t have the jewels that are mentioned in the text, but we do have the manuscripts. So for the book I’m writing now, the first three chapters are concerned with the actual, physically transmitted books, i.e., manuscripts that have come down to us. The next chapter will look at money and prayers, because in Gertrude of Helfta there’s this connection—prayers are treated as a currency. They are something to pay your debts with, to pay another’s debts with. You can pay them into an account; they can accumulate interest. The vocabularies of money and banking allow us to think of something that’s ordinarily highly immaterial—words, prayers, devotion—as something incredibly material. And when you read this you realize, that’s how it made sense for them; that’s how they understood, and grasped, these immaterial values.

The last chapter will focus on textiles, and will deal with the description of the dresses and other fabrics in Gertrude of Helfta, of course, which I dwelled on in my talk. But I’ll also link back to this idea of words transforming into another value—for example, how praying is like weaving. My hope is that in the book’s conclusion I can actually link text and textile, and the fabricating of the text, and how words create texture.


I was wondering if you could talk about your style of reading these texts, and how you go about entering them. It seems to me to be a highly literary approach, with a large emphasis on literary detail.

Believe it or not, I try to avoid using the term “literature.” I prefer to say “texts,” because so much damage has been done by deeming certain things “literature,” or talking about “literary studies.” This is something that goes back to nineteenth-century academic politics, when everything that entered the canon did so because it was considered aesthetically fine enough. It became “literature,” and everything else was sort of tossed out, and given to other disciplines. And that’s exactly how many of the texts that I work on ended up nowhere. The term “literature” often automatically ascribes an aesthetic value to texts—I talk about textual studies, or textual analysis, instead. Similarly, the term “metaphor” can be less useful than misleading. In a way, it presumes that behind the image is a higher meaning, and that’s what we should be focused on, whereas when you look at many medieval mystical texts, you realize it’s really about the image, the material image itself. In my work, I’m trying to move away from a Cartesian mindset that places matter behind meaning. The texts I work with transcend this division anyway.

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Director’s Visiting Scholar Racha Kirakosian

Posted on Mar 22, 2017 01:15 PM by Lain Wilson |
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We are delighted to announce that Racha Kirakosian will be at Dumbarton Oaks as a Director’s Visiting Scholar for the period of March 15 to April 12, 2017.

Kirakosian holds a joint appointment in the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department and the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard, serving also on the Committee on Medieval Studies. She studied German Philology and History in Göttingen (MA) and History of Art and Digital Humanities at the École nationale des Chartes in Paris (MA). She received her DPhil from the University of Oxford, where she was a Marie Curie Research Fellow from 2010 to 2013.

Before coming to Harvard, Kirakosian worked as a Lecturer at the Medieval and Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford, and held a position as Lecturer at Somerville College, Oxford. She also covered for the Director of Studies for German at Oriel College, Oxford. She enjoyed scholarships from, among others, the European Commission, the Conseil régional d’Île-de-France, the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, and the German History Society.

Her publications include studies on medieval German mysticism, female sanctity, and medieval law. Her forthcoming book deals with the biography of a thirteenth-century Premonstratensian nun. The next book project explores material culture and mysticism.


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Beth Meyer Joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a Visiting Scholar

Posted on Nov 01, 2016 10:00 AM by Press |
Beth Meyer Joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a Visiting Scholar

We are pleased to welcome Beth Meyer, who will be joining Dumbarton Oaks as a visiting scholar from November 1 to November 30, 2016.

Professor Meyer is widely recognized for her theoretical writings about the intersection of modern conceptions and experiences of nature, environmental ethics, and contemporary landscape design. Her recent publications include “Sustaining Beauty. The Performance of Appearance,” “Slow Landscape. A New Erotics of Sustainability,” “Grafting, Splicing, Hybridizing: Strange Beauties of the Australian Garden,” and “Beyond Sustaining Beauty: Musings on a Manifesto.” During a 2016–17 sabbatical, she is completing a book manuscript, The Margins of Modernity. Theories and Practices of Landscape Architecture.

In 2015, Meyer founded the UVA Center for Cultural Landscapes, a transdisciplinary initiative. Since Meyer’s graduate studies in landscape architecture and historic preservation, she has been fascinated by the thick description of landscapes—places replete with cultural memories and biophysical processes. This perspective has afforded her opportunities to research, interpret, plan, and design significant cultural landscapes such as the UVA Academical Village (EDAW 1980s), Bryant Park in NYC (Laurie Olin 1980s), the Wellesley College campus outside of Boston (MVVA 1990s), the St. Louis Gateway Arch Grounds, a modernist memorial landscape designed by Saarinen and Kiley (MVVA 2000s), and the White House Kitchen Garden (NPS 2016).

Meyer is a registered landscape architect who has worked for EDAW, Hanna/Olin, and Michael Vergason. She taught at Cornell University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design before joining the UVA faculty, in 1993, where she teaches design studios and theory courses. She has served as the dean of the School of Architecture as well as the chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture. Meyer currently holds a Presidential appointment to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a seven-member design review board responsible for the monumental core and significant public spaces of Washington, D.C.

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Visiting Scholar Peter Brown

Professor Brown discusses his impressions of Dumbarton Oaks and the transformation of late antique and Byzantine studies over the last four decades.

Posted on Dec 13, 2013 04:59 PM by Lain Wilson |
Visiting Scholar Peter Brown

Peter Brown, Rollins Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University, visited Dumbarton Oaks in November with his wife Betsy, who, while she was with us, was looking for patristic origins of Puritan spirituality. Peter worked in the library, and engaged in discussions with fellows and staff. In our discussion we asked him about his current work, the writing up of two lecture series he gave in the year after his retirement as the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton. Both develop his work on wealth, published as Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (Princeton, 2012). The Page-Barbour and James W. Richard Lectures at UVA were entitled “‘Treasure in Heaven’: Wealth, Labor and the ‘Poor Among the Saints.’ Christian Giving from Paul to Pachomios,” and the lectures for the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna were entitled “For the Ransom of the Soul: Wealth, Death, and Afterlife from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages.” In addition to discussions about his current projects, we also wanted to hear how he first came to Dumbarton Oaks and what his reactions were on returning this fall, as well as his views on the subject of Byzantine Studies and how it has been reconceived since Peter first came to Dumbarton Oaks, nearly forty years ago.

Peter Brown: In one way, my impression of Dumbarton Oaks has never changed. It has always been one of continuous, unbroken gratitude, as solid as the yearly return of gold to the trees in the garden.

I first made contact with Dumbarton Oaks in 1976, through Professor Liz Kennan, while I gave a seminar in the newly founded Center for Early Christian Humanism—as it was then called—at the Catholic University of America. At this seminar, I gave the first version of my book, The Cult of the Saints. There was no part of this book that was not enriched by reading in your library—and enriched beyond my dreams when it came to matters pertaining to the Byzantine and Eastern Christian world. It was my first glimpse of the very top of the world as far as scholarship in my own field was concerned. And it has remained this for me, as my subsequent visits have proved to me on every occasion.

The library has always been like a dream. Previously, it was a somewhat surreal dream made up of delightfully incongruous mixtures—of Louis Quinze boudoirs filled with copies of Pauly-Wissowa. One felt like a bee surrounded by honey stored in innumerable little cells. Now, the dream is quite futuristic. I have never seen such long shelves. They give a message that is very much part of Dumbarton Oaks. Here is God’s plenty. At the touch of one green button (and after a wait of five beeps!) an entire tract of history, an entire discipline, an entire region swings open. It is all there.

But what really lingers in my mind from that time was the museum. It rendered visible to me all that was most fascinating and enchanting about late antiquity as I then thought of it. Objects which, in photographs and in learned monographs, seemed somehow frozen, took on new life for me as I viewed them, for the first time, face to face in the quiet of the museum. The Hestia Polyolbos, the Seasons Sarcophagus, the choice pieces of late classical ivory work and silverware: these radiated an almost remissive beauty which dissolved the somewhat tired categories of sacred and profane, pagan and Christian, classical, post-classical, and Byzantine. This was the living world of late antiquity come true.

I now realize that what I thrilled to instinctively at the time, when looking at the works of art in your museum, was a visual manifestation of the aspirations of an entire generation of Byzantine scholars. To trace the continuity of Byzantium with the classical past, and to study the transmutation of this classical heritage into a distinctive religious civilization that, for centuries, had joined Europe to the Middle East and the Mediterranean to the wide spaces of Eurasia as far as Novgorod, the Caucasus, and the Silk Road, was the inspiration and the joy of the great scholars of that age. In Byzantium, a legacy from the ancient past had been preserved, transmuted, and elaborated for over a millennium, leaving its imprint on peoples and on regions of which the ancients themselves had barely dreamed. Dumbarton Oaks was the place where unparalleled resources of scholarship and a unique atmosphere of patient learning was brought to bear on the study of a precious legacy and its mutations.

Among the great Byzantine scholars whom I had absorbed by the time of my first visit to Dumbarton Oaks, no one had understood this better than Norman Baynes:

“The defense of a way of life. Yes, really that essay must be written. It would even have its relevance for us today.”Norman Baynes, The Hellenistic Civilization and East Rome (Oxford University Press, 1946) in Byzantine Studies and Other Essays  (London: University of London Athlone Press, 1960), 1-23, at 23.

In postwar Europe and America, the theme of the survival of a way of life rooted in the classical world, as it took on its novel, Byzantine form—often in the face of bitter defeats and recurrent crises—had a sharp taste to it that made the quiet beauty of the objects in the museum seem all the more poignant to us.

How has this changed? In many ways, not at all. The books are still there. The skills are still needed.    The artifacts continue to demand care and interpretation. If anything, it is we who have changed. We, in Europe and America, find ourselves in a wider world than we had dreamed of, even forty years ago. And Byzantium has changed with us. We have come to see Byzantium less as a treasure house and more as a crossroads. For a student of late antiquity, the mutation of the classical legacy in Byzantium has come to be seen as one of a wider constellation of mutations of the ancient heritage. These mutations stretch from the medieval Latin West, through the cultures of the eastern provinces, to Iran and to the very roots of the civilization of what would become (always more gradually than we think) the world of Arabophone Islam.

This new outreach is possible because entire linguistic zones and cultures are no longer seen as alien to a Byzantine core. Rather, the intervisibility of the regions has come to be stressed. This is shown in the ever-widening horizons of the study of late antiquity (many aspects of which have come to demand, as never before, knowledge of Oriental Christian languages and, eventually, of Arabic) and (at the end of the story) in the intensive, revisionist study of the transformation of the legacy of Byzantium in Ottoman Turkey, quite as much as in the Orthodox countries of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Instead of an embattled world, we are faced with a constellation of regions and cultures that we now see as fellow-participants with Byzantium in the vast experiment in civilized living that makes the study of the pre-modern Mediterranean and the Middle East both exciting and necessary for our understanding of these regions in our own times. If for different reasons, the study of Byzantium has become no less relevant than it was for Norman Baynes at the beginning of the postwar period.

What was perhaps most rewarding of all, for me in this last week, was to make contact with so many young scholars from different lands. For many of them an “open” Byzantium can now be taken as a matter of course. This is shown by their enthusiasm not only for Greek but also for oriental languages, such as Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, and Arabic. For others, our understanding of the long and exquisite debate of Byzantium with its own classical past is heightened by greater awareness of the parallel cultural modes of Byzantium’s neighbors both to the west and to the east. Furthermore, the new interest in material culture widens our inner image of Byzantium itself. It reveals a mighty imperial system coming to grips with the tenacious, “vernacular” traditions of its varied regions.

What struck me most was the basic coherence of the historical culture of these young scholars. We now live in an academic oikoumene of far greater diversity, but also of far greater intervisibility, than we had done in the 1970s. The results of the academic integration of the varied countries of Europe are now showing to best effect in our fellows. Whether from America, Europe, or elsewhere, we have the pick of a remarkable generation produced by a very different system from that to which we were accustomed in the 1970s.

But there is a risk in this new academic culture. The system which now prevails, especially in Europe, puts a high premium on collaborative effort. Even when young scholars are not attached to specific teams in pursuit of specific projects, they are subjected to a discipline of constant interchange through the expansion—one might say the explosion—of conferences and workshops. And it is here, I think, that Dumbarton Oaks can do most to contribute to the young scholars who have emerged from this new system. It gives them something that they do not always have. It gives them leisure and prolonged access to an unparalleled collection of material, so as to develop a voice of their own. Lonely hours in those long stacks, and the ease of interchange in an institution long dedicated to the unhurried pursuit of truth,  is what they need most to develop that voice. We give them this unstintingly at a crucial moment in their careers.

And so, with voices of their own, nurtured in the rare hesychia of Dumbarton Oaks, they can speak to us all of a world that is quite as exciting, as widening to the mind and, for that reason, as relevant to our own times, as it ever was in the days of Norman Baynes and of those who first made possible the Byzantine Center.

The book that first brought Peter to Dumbarton Oaks, The Cult of the Saints, is being reprinted by Chicago University Press, and, while he was with us, Peter was writing a 7,500-word preface to bring the four lectures up to date.

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An Interview with Panagiotis Agapitos, Visiting Scholar

Posted on Jul 06, 2012 09:53 AM by lisaw |
An Interview with Panagiotis Agapitos, Visiting Scholar

Margaret Mullett

Panagiotis Agapitos is Professor of Byzantine literature and culture at the University of Cyprus. In addition to being a highly respected Byzantinist and philologist, he is also a best-selling novelist. Dumbarton Oaks was pleased to welcome Professor Agapitos as a Visiting Scholar in Byzantine Studies in April of 2012. The following is an interview conducted by Margaret Mullett, Director of Byzantine Studies.

Panagioti, it has been great having you here this month. Can you tell us a little about the project you’ve been working on and what has been special about doing the work in DO?

Well, it has been a great stay and I have very much enjoyed the company of the fellows, a really young group, but also it has been great to spend time with colleagues, and old and new friends. I have been working on a little book on histories of Byzantine literature on the way to writing one myself. I’ve also been looking at periodization of Byzantine literature: it sounds rather precious but it is in fact a useful methodological tool. I have been exploring the attitudes to Byzantine literature of one of the founders of our field, Karl Krumbacher (1856–1909) who wrote a Handbook to Byzantine Literature 120 years ago. I discovered that the DO library was amazingly helpful: I wasn’t expecting it to have almost all the old material, but it does, including an offprint of 1895 which allowed me to reevaluate Krumbacher and his developing views. For example, we always think of him as believing that Byzantine literature started in the fourth century with the emperor Constantine, as the second edition (1897) of his Handbook does—but in fact in his first edition (1891) he thought that Byzantine literature should start in the seventh century with arguments very similar to the ones used today to mark the end of Late Antiquity, but he was forced to start in the sixth century where the classical volume in the series ended. I’ve also discovered that Krumbacher in 1905 proposed how Byzantine literature should look, in a chapter within a popularizing book with no footnotes, but in his most mature synthetic moment.

It is surprising, isn’t it, that Krumbacher’s vision is more attractive to us than that of many who followed him?

Yes, indeed. I’ve also been looking at Franz Dölger (1891–1968), who we wouldn’t automatically think of as a student of Byzantine literature, largely because we think of him more as a student of Byzantine diplomatics, but his PhD research after the First World War was on Theodore Meliteneiotes’ poem Eis ten sophrosynen [On Chastity]. He never integrated his interest in literature with his social and economic concerns--he never developed a theory of Byzantine literature as a socio-cultural product of its time: rather he saw it as a field where endless imitation, variation and repetition went on, and only in vernacular literature was there anything original. This is a very different view from ours today, but also from Krumbacher’s. Dölger’s approach reflected an ideology close to that of Nazi Germany in which texts that failed to conform to his hieratic model, perfectly organized in a ceremonial system, were regarded as dissidents to a perfect regime. His views were hugely influential in that he wrote the overview of Byzantine literature for the Cambridge Medieval History IV.ii (published in 1967), and also provided the foundation for the Greek philology curriculum during the junta through a student of his who acted as consultant to the regime. Even now Greek university education reflects a tripartite division into 1. Introduction to Byzantine philology, 2. Byzantine poetry, 3. Byzantine prose—and this is exactly the structure of Dölger’s chapter in Cambridge Medieval History IV.ii.

Here at DO when we think of histories of Byzantine literature we think of Alexander Kazhdan, who grew up in a very different political system…

Yes, but he made the leap from his early work as an economic historian to look at Byzantium as having a literature like any other literature, and he reacted strongly against Dölger’s overschematic and rigid categorization. He suddenly began in the very late 1960s to work on literary texts with his first article on Niketas Eugenianos, and in subsequent essays and finally in the two volumes of his History of Byzantine Literature he tried to liberate the texts, their authors, and their social setting from Dölger’s categories. He was one of the first scholars really to think of Byzantine literature as a literature in its own right, not a tissue of classical quotations and evidence for lost tragedies, or the means of transferring ancient Greece to the Renaissance, or a powerful influence on Slavonic literature or a stage in the transfer of the folk tale from east to west and west to east.

His was the way of the future, surely?

Yes, indeed. The way we looked at the field twenty-five years ago has moved it dramatically away from Dölger, and a younger generation has done fantastic work and established firm theoretical foundations. You might think that postmodernism has crushed any idea of history of literature, but in fact this has not proved a problem for Byzantine literature, given that it never had a history of its own to start with.

Another issue of course is the training of students capable of reading this literature, and this is an area where you have been able to make a wonderful contribution in Cyprus.

We started there by building our own syllabus, not by adopting the Greek system, and we created a more modern program of study: students take six courses in Byzantine literature over three historical periods (early, middle, and late), which gives them the opportunity to read a large number of texts and this creates confidence in them for understanding the texts.

You’ve talked by implication about your Munich training, and now explicitly about your four-person department and its exciting activities, but not about your training at Harvard.

Well, Harvard was very important to me, a real transformation from my German-speaking education in Athens and Munich, a chance to put it into perspective. And from the cradle of Byzantine studies (and modern Greek studies) I was now involved in a department where there were other Hellenists and specialists in Vergil and Seneca and comparative languages like Sanskrit and Old Norse. And the exposure to the methods of classical philology opened up a dawning awareness that Byzantine philology demands different methods. Finally, for the first time I was exposed to the theory of literature through scholars in comparative literature, which led me to change my dissertation topic from metrics and Byzantine music to narratology. I was fortunate to be there while Ihor Ševčenko was in his prime, and also to have been at Harvard when Margaret Alexiou, famous for her classical training and for her father George Thomson, arrived in January 1986. I took her first course on death in Byzantine literature and was astonished to hear an intelligent educated scholar freely interpreting Byzantine texts as literature. Meg finally took over the supervision of my dissertation.

This might have been seen as a defection from Byzantium, since she was Professor of Modern Greek literature, and the vernacular literature of the late medieval period is disputed ground. Was it?

Well Meg was not that kind of Neohellenist: she wanted to see those texts both in a Byzantine context and from the viewpoint of modern Greek literature, but she never tried to capture them for modern Greek. She believed in the ‘continuity’ of Greek literature where others were anxious to push the origins of modern Greek literature as far back as possible. This arose from the early nineteenth-century concern for nation states and national literatures and a desire to find an equivalent to Old French and Mittelhochdeutsch: without that equivalent modern Greek literature appeared to be impoverished. What these scholars didn’t immediately realize was that vernacular literature was not "popular" but high-level aristocratic poetry, produced under the very highest patronage, steeped in the most sophisticated of rhetoric. A Neohellenist will look at the twelfth century and see only the so-called epic of Digenis Akritis and the vernacular experiments (Ptochoprodromos, Glykas, Spaneas); a Byzantinist will see these texts in the context of everything that was written in the period. Literature like art is an open space, not a territory marked out by fortresses. And this is true at the other end of our subject—the relationship of classics or Late Antiquity with Byzantine studies is just as fraught with battles for territorial control.

You said that Byzantine philology demands different methods: how does this work through in the editing of texts?

Traditionally Byzantine texts have been made to look like ancient Greek texts; they have datives and infinitives and were edited as ancient Greek with fully normalized spelling, accentuation, and punctuation according to the German school or the French school. Byzantinists have the advantage over classicists in that we have manuscripts written in the time of the authors, which means that we can reflect contemporary practice in our editing, not the unchanging mimesis of older philologists. We no longer think that manuscripts of vernacular texts are full of scribal errors which need to be corrected (normalized) by the editor: we know now that a scribe with a nice professional hand would copy two texts, one learned with "good," educated spelling, the other vernacular spelled chaotically. The chaos reflects the experimental state of a language and literature which was written without being taught in school. We need to see how the text is structured, how it can be understood, how it uses language before we can decide whether or not to "correct" it. We can learn a great deal from architects restoring monuments: our ideas of preservation now are very different from those of the nineteenth century.

Panagioti, as well as a highly respected Byzantinist and philologist you are also a best-selling novelist. How does each activity feed into the other?

I originally thought it was straightforward. Why shouldn’t a Byzantinist set a murder mystery in Byzantium? For forty years now Ellis Peters has enabled Cadfael to solve medieval mysteries, not to speak of Umberto Eco and William of Baskerville. But I admit I was wrong. It is neither unlaborious nor simple. The process of writing narrative in three dimensions drives us beyond scholarship. Ninth-century shoes may not have come down to us, but we need to represent shoes in the narrative. So I decided to take the process seriously, to be self-conscious about it, to control my own laboratory. So I ask where are the limits, and instead of creating a Philip Marlowe in Constantinople or a body in a library, I ask instead what did the Byzantines perceive as crimes in society, and I go to the legal handbooks of the ninth century to find out. This has the result of allowing me to portray a whole society not just one individual crime. This has taught me not to assume that everything happened in Constantinople: Byzantium was an empire of many cities and languages and also frontiers, and my hero experiences all this diversity. It has also helped me see that when we look at Byzantium we cannot rely on a single specialism: literary scholars must know history and art and architecture, and it is very clear that that is the way Byzantine Studies is practiced here at DO with a great concern for interdisciplinarity, and an openness to surrounding fields. Something else I gained is that writing narrative has given me a broader perspective on the history of Byzantine literature: the author is not down on the plain or on the beach but he climbs a mountain, and the distant view from the height offers clarity. And crime fiction offers its own delights of postmodernity. Intertextuality is to be expected; authors are now competing to complete Conan Doyle, or to offer Oscar Wilde as a detective; readers love that sort of game because they knowingly participate in it. Texts exist because other texts exist, and this is no surprise to the learned reader of Byzantine literary texts where mimesis creates a metalanguage which will drive dynamic response, nor is it a surprise to the avid listener to saints’ lives in monastery, church or home expecting the topoi of a narrative genre and rejoicing on finding them. All kinds of narrative constantly recur; all literature is always true. Texts are not individual masterpieces but part of a linguistic system of production and use. We should forget the concept of a masterpiece, which in the classical world has been so much promoted by processes of selection, edition, education and loss; we should concentrate on the whole of what we have and begin to understand and appreciate the processes of production and reception in Byzantium.

Panagioti, thank you. Please come back and see us soon.

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An Interview with Allen Grieco, Visiting Scholar

An Interview with Allen Grieco, Visiting Scholar

Michael Lee

Allen Grieco (PhD École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) is Lila Acheson Wallace Assistant Director of Gardens and Grounds & Scholarly Programs as well as Senior Research Associate in History at Villa I Tatti (The Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies). In April 2012 he was Visiting Scholar in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

Dr. Grieco has published extensively on the cultural history of food in Italy from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries and co-edited several collective volumes, amongst which are Food Excesses and Constraints in Europe, special issue of Food & History (2006), Dalla vite al vino. Fonti e problemi della vitivinicultura italiana nel medioevo (Bologna, 1994), and Le Monde végétal (XIIe–XVIIe siècles): savoirs et usages sociaux (Vincennes, 1993). Currently co-editor-in-chief of Food & History (Turnhout, Brepols), he is also in charge of a bibliographic project on the history of food in Europe funded by the Mellon Foundation and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. He has taught at Harvard, Florence, and Bologna, and has created an English-language graduate program at the Università delle Scienze Gastronomiche, Pollenzo (Italy).

Q. Dr. Grieco, you have come to Dumbarton Oaks to conduct research on the gardens of Cecil Pinsent (1884–1963). How have your responsibilities as director of the gardens at Villa I Tatti led you to pursue this project?

I have been at I Tatti for 23 years, where I spend about half my time overseeing the gardens and grounds. These include not only the gardens proper (7 acres) but also a surrounding agricultural landscape of about 66 acres that includes olives and vines. Careful management requires making historically-informed decisions regarding maintenance and restoration in order to ensure that the original character of the landscape is respected, even as it is allowed to evolve. So from both a practical and a scholarly point of view, it is essential to understand the history of the site as it was designed through the collaboration of the patrons with their landscape architect and architect.

The villa was acquired by Bernard and Mary Berenson in 1901 and bequeathed to Harvard University in 1960. An existing farmhouse was redesigned by the architect Geoffrey Scott as the Berenson residence, and Bernard Berenson’s friend and associate Cecil Pinsent began work on the gardens in 1909. Construction progressed through several phases, was interrupted by World War I, and then completed in 1919–25.

Over the years I have been able to piece together through various sources the general evolution of the gardens. My initial interest in Pinsent’s work grew out of this practical need to understand the history of I Tatti, but it has expanded to include Pinsent’s career as a whole. I am particularly interested in how I Tatti, his first major garden, fits into his larger body of work.

Q. Prior to your arrival at Dumbarton Oaks, what have you have you been able to learn by consulting primary materials such as plans and letters in the holdings of the Berenson Library at I Tatti?

The holdings at I Tatti have provided insights into certain phases of gardens’ construction, with glimpses of Pinsent’s conversations with the Berensons, particularly with Mary, through correspondence, as well as some preserved building permits that help document construction. There is also a collection of historical photographs that show the state of the gardens, as well as the larger site, during the various phases of construction. However, we are at a great disadvantage in reconstructing this history because Pinsent burned the vast majority of his papers and drawings before he died.

Q. With so many gaps in the primary materials related to Pinsent’s work, what are you hoping to find in the Dumbarton Oaks library?

My research at Dumbarton Oaks focuses not so much on Pinsent’s work at I Tatti, but rather on the contextualization of his design approach within the broader world of landscape architecture during the early twentieth century. For this purpose, the library’s holdings have been especially helpful because of their depth—not only in early twentieth-century monographs on garden design but also in garden and design periodicals of that period. It is this broader view that I have had difficulty constructing elsewhere and that the time here at Dumbarton Oaks has been so useful in addressing.

Q. What is the potential scholarly significance of the project?

I plan to publish this research as a series of articles on the gardens of I Tatti, or perhaps as a monograph on Pinsent’s work as a whole. As significant as Pinsent was in his time, and especially given his prolific output, it is curious that he has been largely ignored by scholars. He began to attract some notice in the 1980s, and there have been a few articles and one conference on him since that time, but much of the discussion has been anecdotal rather than analytic and interpretive. I am hoping to draw attention to Pinsent’s qualities as a designer, and to reassess his significance for early twentieth-century landscape architecture.

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