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Paul Magdalino

Oral History Interview with Paul Magdalino undertaken via Zoom by Anna Stavrakopoulou and Audrey Pettner on July 14, 2020. At Dumbarton Oaks, Paul Magdalino was a Junior Fellow (1974–1975), a Fellow (1993–1994, 2014–2015), a Visiting Scholar (2006–2007, 2016–2017), and a Senior Fellow of Byzantine Studies (2001–2007).

Audrey Pettner: All right, we’ll go ahead and get started. We’re here today with Paul Magdalino, who has been a visiting scholar, a fellow, and a junior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. The first question we’d love to ask you is, when was the first time you had heard of Dumbarton Oaks? What were your initial impressions of the institution?

Paul Magdalino: The first time I heard of Dumbarton Oaks, I suppose, was when I was an undergraduate, and I had to use Dumbarton Oaks publications. Then when I was a graduate student, I became more familiar with the reputation of the institution that published these books. My own supervisor, my own professor, Donald Nicol, published one of his books with Dumbarton Oaks on the family of Kantakouzenos. I think that’s how I first heard about it. Then as my graduate career progressed, I met people who’d been there, then just at a crucial moment in my postgraduate career, when I was actually teaching in Athens for a year. I decided that I had to get out of that school teaching job in Athens, so I applied for the fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: Was it in 1974, when you had the junior fellowship?

PM: That’s right. I originally applied on a regular fellowship, but because there was a problem with getting my PhD, that was downgraded to a junior fellowship, that’s how I came here.

AS: Who were some Byzantinists you interacted with the most during your Junior Fellowship in ’74? Then, in your later appointments as a fellow and visiting scholar in the ’90s and 2000s, who were the people you interacted with, if you have any recollection, Paul?

PM: Well, I’ll just add a bit more precision that following my junior fellowship year, Ruth Macrides, my wife at the time, herself was given the junior fellowship for a year, after which I had a year’s fellowship, a Mellon fellowship, jointly between Dumbarton Oaks and Catholic University. A fellowship in early Christian humanism that was, that would effectively allow both of us to be at Dumbarton Oaks for a third year. I had three years of contact with Byzantinists—visiting scholars, fellows, local scholars—at Dumbarton Oaks for three years, from 1974 to 1977.

AS: Who did you coincide with back then in the ’70s? Let’s start from the ’70s.

PM: Okay. Well, the permanent fixtures, as it were, were local Byzantinists. John Duffy was one of them, Denis Sullivan—those are the names that immediately come to mind who were associated with Dumbarton Oaks. Then, of course, there was the Harvard faculty, Ihor Ševčenko, [Ernst] Kitzinger, I didn’t see much of him though, but I saw more of Ševčenko. Then, among the top level visiting Byzantinists were those who came for the symposia. That’s when I met [Gilbert] Dagron for the first time. That’s when I met Beck for the first time.

Then, people who were residing there for longer were Nicolas Oikonomides and Elizabeth Zachariadou, who were there for long periods, he was there of course, running the seals project at the time for several months. In fact, he was there for the whole of the academic year, ’75 to ’76. I really saw a lot of them. Evangelos Chrysos was there for a time in the third year. It’s where I first met [Anthony] Bryer as well, even though he’s a British Byzantinist, I first properly got to know him in Dumbarton Oaks.

AS: And Ioli Kalavrezou, I believe coincided with you two years, isn’t it back then in the ’70s?

PM: Exactly. She had a fellowship, which was renewed for a year, we arrived as fellows together. In fact, we remained for two years. There are many more that I can talk about, but I actually want to move on.

AP: Sure. Dumbarton Oaks is of course, an interesting blend of three different disciplines. I'm wondering how you would characterize the interactions among the fellows of the three different fields at Dumbarton Oaks? Did you guys get a chance to initiate dialogue or scholarly exchange?

PM: Yes, I can’t say that I shared many purely academic conversations with people in the other programs, but we certainly interacted socially a great deal, and also with the staff in the other departments.

AS: Were you doing that more with the Pre-Columbianists, or more with the Garden and Landscape people? What is your recollection?

PM: Actually, with the directors of both parts, I had quite frequent contact. They were both called Betty, Betty Benson and Betty MacDougall. Socially, they were very hospitable and in fact asked us to their houses. They invited all the fellows. Betty Benson lived very close, a couple of blocks down from Dumbarton Oaks. Yes, we had sherry parties on Wednesday evening at five o’clock in the Founders’ Room. That’s where a lot of socializing was done.

AS: Over sherry?

PM: Yes.

AS: At a given stage in your relationship with DO since you have had a very long relationship with the institution, how did your experience differ from that of the previous stage or stages?

PM: You mean how did the later stages differ from the previous stages?

AS: Yes, exactly.

PM: Well, if we can fast forward to the end, obviously, by then I was becoming something of a big name in the field, so the way I interacted with people was perhaps a bit different, the way they perceive me. Otherwise, I would say that it was more relaxed in the 1970s.

AS: Okay.

PM: Of course, it was also more genteel, there was more remaining from the days of Mrs. Bliss, and more people remaining from those days and from Georgetown society.

AS: Then later, you said, yes, you were an established scholar, of course your interaction was different with younger people and the other colleagues?

PM: Yes. Although I would say that the regular fellowship that I had in 1994 was more like a continuation of the previous experience than what came later, but that was also because, of course, the library was still in the old building.

AS: Yes. In the ’90s, it was still in the old building.

PM: In fact, it was when I was a senior fellow between 2001 and 2007 that the move occurred.

AS: Yes.

AP: In what ways did you make use of Dumbarton Oaks resources? You of course, mentioned the library, but I’m thinking also of the coin collection and the incredible museum. How did you find that these collections uniquely contributed to your research?

PM: I have to say that I wasn’t an object person or a material culture person at the time when I started my research, except in the sense that I was very much into historical geography and archaeological evidence for Thessaly, which is what I was working on at the time. On the other hand, being at Dumbarton Oaks, you can’t help being exposed to art history and art historians. Without particularly wanting to, I absorbed quite a bit and got to familiarize myself with the important objects and traditions of Byzantine art history. Having people like Ioli Kalavrezou as colleagues made a difference.

There was something of a slight standoffishness between historians and art historians at the time, especially in the older generation. I remember Father Francis Dvornik, who referred to art historians as picture-book people. He was not keen to see too many of them among the fellows.

The resources at Dumbarton Oaks, it was essentially the library. I didn’t have reason to use the coin collection. I worked a bit with the seals collection, because in my second year when I had no fellowship, I actually made a little bit of pocket money by helping to catalog the seals with Nicolas Oikonomides. Otherwise, yes, it was the library, it was simply being able to spend the whole day up till very late in the evening then in the stacks, which were all easily accessible, and to browse, I think that is my permanent memory of Dumbarton Oaks. It’s what has stayed with me and it’s what really transformed me as a scholar—simply being able to go and check any reference. Then when you had looked it up, you would see the book to the right, and the book to the left, and you looked at those too.

AS: So, you were a visiting professor at Harvard in ’95, when your first appointment as a fellow at DO in ’94. How does the relationship between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks, as well as between Dumbarton Oaks and other Washington cultural institutions, like the National Gallery, affect the studies of you and your fellow scholars at DO? On the one hand, Harvard, on the other hand, the other institutions, the big institutions in DC?

PM: When I was a junior fellow, I had hardly any contact with Harvard, the only reason I did was because Ruth’s family lived in Boston, we went up there and so I went over to Harvard a couple of times. Actually, I didn’t have much interaction with other institutions in Washington, not even Catholic University at the time. Although, of course, I’d correct that, my third year was between Catholic University and DO, so I actually ended up spending quite a bit of time there. I did give a talk at the Smithsonian, but that was via an outside contact in my second year.

AS: You had both a relationship with DO and Harvard, since you also went to Harvard and taught at Harvard.

PM: Yes. I was teaching at Harvard because I was one of the people who filled in for Angeliki Laiou while she was director of Dumbarton Oaks, so it was very natural to interact between the two. When I was at Harvard, she invited me to come and give a public lecture. That was when Henry Maguire was director of studies.

AS: There’s still a constant interaction of course between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks.

PM: Of course, yes.

AS: We have Audrey, who is a rising senior at Harvard and she’s working as an intern, for instance. At all levels, there is a constant interaction still.

PM: I think there’s probably much more now than there was then, in that sense. People actively working at Harvard or studying at Harvard coming and participating in Dumbarton Oaks. I think there was less of that in former decades.

AP: Well, as a scholar who’s worked at several international universities, I was wondering how you would describe or categorize the role of Dumbarton Oaks in the international context. Maybe how it’s changed over the years, how Dumbarton Oaks as a center for Byzantine studies in the international context may differ from the role it plays, specifically in America?

PM: Most of the time I’ve been associated with Dumbarton Oaks, there’s always been a strong emphasis on serving the field of Byzantine studies in America, and in the local community, and contact with universities in Washington and in Maryland. Of course, I think it was in the ’80s, certainly through the ’90s, and into the first decade of the present century that we had DO-sponsored teaching appointments, joint teaching appointments with other universities.

I think even UCLA at one point was one of them—at the time when Ioli was appointed there, there was some DO sponsorship involved. I may be wrong there, but certainly, there was the link with University of Madison at Wisconsin. There were others with the University of Maryland, I think later. The outreach to Byzantine studies in the rest of the US has been a constant theme. The sheer wealth of the library, and the freedom to spend 24/7 doing research is something that is pretty well unique.

I think that there’s nowhere really in Europe that you could be so immersed in the research environment as you were at Dumbarton Oaks. European scholars who came as fellows or as associates working with the museum and the coin and seal collection appreciated Dumbarton Oaks simply for the ability to get things done more efficiently and in less stressful surroundings, I think, than in most European universities, that probably goes for universities in the States as well. The conditions in Dumbarton Oaks are like nowhere else.

The Byzantine Center at Dumbarton Oaks always maintained European as well as American links. I think that they were particularly strong when Angeliki Laiou was director, because she was very much in touch, of course, with the European Byzantinists. It was under her that two French Byzantinists were among the senior fellows. Actually, the year that I replaced her at Harvard, she was teaching at the Sorbonne, she was replacing Michel Kaplan. I would say that was the high point of interaction with Europe, but of course, the participation of European fellows has never really changed. It’s always been a constant.

AS: Yes. Do you think that this opening to Europeans has to do with Laiou? You said that it’s a constant theme, but do you think that she made an extra effort to open up the institution internationally?

PM: Yes, I do, but particularly to France.

AS: France, yes. You have been at DO under the directorship of Tyler, of Laiou, of Keenan, and Jan Ziolkowski?

PM: Yes.

AS: What was each director’s leadership like? How would you characterize their effect on Dumbarton Oaks? What kind of impact did they have on the field of Byzantine studies in America? That’s a big question, many directors, but you can answer it as you like.

PM: Well, one thing that changed was just after I left Dumbarton Oaks for the first time, was that the administrative link with Harvard grew much stronger, with the appointment of Giles Constable, then with a succession of Harvard professors being directors. I think that was probably the truest of the last three directors—Laiou, Keenan, and Ziolkowski. I think that, regarding Byzantine Studies, another factor has been the existence or nonexistence of a director of Byzantine Studies. There was one when I first came in the ’70s, William Loerke, then the post was abolished under Giles Constable and under Thomson. It was Laiou, who revived it with Henry Maguire, who was then succeeded by Alice-Mary Talbot.

In the ’70s, the directorship was a fairly low-key presence, that of William Tyler. That was very different from the last three. Of course, it did make a difference that Laiou was herself a Byzantinist, that meant a lot of direct intervention in the Byzantine Center.

My experience has really been colored by the presence of the directors of studies since the reappointment of Henry Maguire as director of studies. As for my experience of the present regime, I didn’t have any before I came back as a fellow in 2015. The presence and the directing influence of Margaret Mullett was very strong. I think that that is what really colored my most recent experience of Dumbarton Oaks.

AS: Before I was going to ask you, because I’ve heard this by other Byzantinists that they feel that the best time, the peak for Byzantinists was the Laiou time, because of her hands-on relationship with Byzantine studies. It seems that you would agree with that.

PM: Yes, yes, yes.

AP: Have you attended many symposia or conferences at Dumbarton Oaks? If so, are there any which stand out in your memory for any particular reason?

PM: Well, I spoke at two, three, four, I don’t know. Because I was a fellow, one naturally attends the symposium. I did for the first three symposia that were held during my three years here in the ’70s, I went to them. There was one on Byzantine cities [“Urban Societies in the Mediterranean World,” 1976], which was memorable. So was the one on Monte Cassino was, with Herbert Bloch, in 1975. It introduced me to something of which I knew nothing.

Then, actually the first time that I came back to Dumbarton Oaks after my fellowship, was to the International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Washington in 1986. That was mainly at Georgetown University, but some sessions of communications were held that Dumbarton Oaks. After that, I came back as a speaker at the symposium in 1992 which was on law and society. That is one that stands out. Angeliki Laiou co-organized it with Dieter Simon. The 1994 one on court culture, at which I also spoke, was quite memorable too. That was organized by Henry Maguire.

Then I spoke at the symposium on Constantinople in 1998, organized by Henry Maguire and Bob Ousterhout. That resulted in the publication of several important papers in the 2000 issue of DOP. Then, there was the symposium that I co-organized with Robert Nelson on the “Old Testament and Byzantium.” That of course was the exceptional year when the symposium moved out of DO. It could not be held in the Music Room in Dumbarton Oaks, so it was actually held at the Sackler Museum, in December [2006].

AS: Do you remember why that was the case for it, with this specific symposium?

PM: Well, it was when the move to the new library was taking place. For some reason, the Music Room had to be off-limits. I think it was because it was difficult to manage the symposium in the rest of the building at that time. I can’t remember very clearly.

AS: Yes, you were telling us about the symposia and colloquia and if any one of them stands out in your memory.

PM: The ones that I participated in do stand out, for obvious reasons. I haven’t been to many. Apart from my first three years, when I attended as a fellow, all the symposia that I’ve been to were those where I was speaking or actually organizing. When I was a fellow in 2015, I spoke at the symposium on “The Holy Apostles.” In 2017, when I came as a visiting scholar, I codirected the symposium with Dimiter Angelov.

AS: What are you most grateful about in terms of your time at DO? You told us of course, if I understood correctly, the library on the one hand and the interaction with the other scholars, the directors of study, were very important. Are there any other things you're most grateful about?

PM: It was the opportunity to do research and to grow as a Byzantinist.

AS: You were saying before, you mentioned very quickly that you had access to the library 24/7 you said, was that the case back when you were a fellow?

PM: I think that we could stay until midnight, although I may be confusing that with what I heard from an older generation of scholars. It was probably more like 10 p.m. I don’t think we ever actually stayed past nine, but that was not something that I was used to in libraries anywhere else. It was actually just the fact of living so close. Being able to go home and pick up something at Safeway, on the way up to the fellows’ apartments, which at the time were at 2702 Wisconsin Avenue. I simply have a memory of unlimited time in the library.

No need really to be involved with much else that was going on outside. I really didn’t take advantage of being in Washington at the time. I saw much more of Washington when I was here in 2015, than in any previous stay.

AP: Do you think that Dumbarton Oaks has an academic duty or that it’s in the best interests of DO to launch public outreach initiatives, particularly in regards to its role promoting the study of Byzantine history?

PM: As far as I know, it did all it could in terms of outreach. You can extend the experience. I don’t think there’s any room for actually doing more than has been done in the past.

AS: We keep this tradition that was created by Margaret Mullett, which was Teaching Day, when we invite students from the area to attend the lectures by our fellows and visiting scholars et cetera, which the only year we missed it was this year because of the pandemic, but we keep this tradition alive. It’s very successful actually, as far as I am concerned. So, you feel it’s doing plenty already for Byzantine history or Byzantinists in the area, in Dumbarton Oaks.

PM: As far as I know. Certainly, as you just indicated, Margaret Mullet did not fall behind anyone else in ensuring that that was done. No, I think that the most important role at Dumbarton Oaks remains in being a sanctuary for the subject worldwide. As a place where Byzantinists from all over the world can come and make great progress on their work and form relationships, which in my experience are lasting relationships. I kept up with the Byzantinists I met here as a fellow for a long time. After my supervisor, my most important mentor was Nikos Oikonomides. I should add Alexander Kazhdan as well. Both of course I got to know here.

AS: You kept a lasting relationship with them and you were constantly exchanging views and sharing your work and getting feedback, was that how it worked?

PM: Yes.

AS: I guess you were the same for them. I mean, you were also a precious interlocutor for them, I guess?

PM: Well, I don’t know how precious a junior person is to a senior person. I felt very junior. Except with Kazhdan and Oikonomides, I simply felt I was a young scholar wet behind the ears.

AS: What projects or fields of study would you like to see the Byzantine Studies program support or emphasize in the coming years, either through exhibitions, symposia, conferences, or the appointment of fellows—which of course the appointment of fellows depend on the applicants and the selection of the senior fellows. What would you like to see emphasized in the coming years? What is your wish list in a sense?

PM: I think where Dumbarton Oaks could perhaps be most effective is in continuing to support archaeological projects—

AS: Which we do with the project grants, yes, but right now again, these were interrupted because of COVID, but the project grants are still there.

PM: Dumbarton Oaks to help with the publication of archaeological projects. It can help with coordinating the resources and the databases. Archaeology is the only really expanding field of evidence in the subject. I think that other places are just as good for coordinating textual research. The microfilm collection at Dumbarton Oaks is obviously not as important as it was when I started off, although it is important to maintain a good collection of digitized manuscripts. . . I think it’s probably in the field of material evidence that Dumbarton Oaks can be most useful, through a combination of supporting archaeological work and constructing databases.

AP: I have one more question for you. In a post COVID-19 world, and one that’s already far more digital and it’s getting more digital as time goes on, how do you envision Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks changing and becoming useful for the scholars and for the public?

PM: If we’re talking about a world where COVID-19 is permanently with us so that person-to-person contact of the kind we grew up with is never going to be possible again. I would say the future is not at all obvious. How to organize library and conference and lecture space? Collections can be managed without too much personal interaction between people, but the rest of it, I don’t know. I think that the problem for Dumbarton Oaks is the problem that faces all institutes of higher learning. Can we work towards more digitization of resources? That’s probably the thing that could change for the better almost immediately.

AS: Do you see any value in virtual events?

PM: Instinctively I don’t particularly like them, but I’m getting used to them, like this conversation. Yes, why not? I think if you just go down the virtual roads, then you impact all sectors of not only the academic world, but also of society. You shrink the travel business, the hospitality business, everything. I don’t know whether that’s good for society, including academic society in the long run. It really is part of a bigger global and societal problem. How do we start scaling down the way modern civilization works?

AS: Virtual gives more opportunities, because you can access a much wider audience. As opposed to having a group of people in a specific space at Dumbarton Oaks, you can have lots of people from Australia, to California, to wherever.

PM: Yes.

AS: That might be good, as well. Beyond the negative aspects of what you just said, the shrinking of the economy that COVID has created, there might be some value to that, the wide audience that you can reach.

PM: Yes, every institution is going to have to explore possibilities. I would just say that at Dumbarton Oaks, so much of its appeal, and so much of its impact depends on its unique physical space. We’ll have to find a way to keep that going, to keep it active and used.

AS: Next year is going to be a virtual year, because just about every academic institution in the United States is going to go virtual next year. Exactly because of the uncertainty and all of the dangers that big gatherings and big crowds cause, or even not big crowds, we will have virtual fellows for the first time ever. I am sure that after that, once society resumes its activities, I think we’ll go back to having lunches at the Refectory, walks in the garden and all of that, hopefully.

AP: Do you have any particular memory or story that you think should be part of our institutional memory as well?

PM: Well, my most vivid memories are of things that I did against the rules when I was a junior fellow. Well, one evening when Ruth and I and Michael Hendy, all went and skinny dipped in the pool after dark. That’s the sort of thing you don’t forget. Otherwise, it is the individuals, it’s the people that you really get to know at Dumbarton Oaks in ways that are rare in “normal” academic situations.

I come back to Nikos, but also Angeliki Laiou—I met her there for the first time—and Father Dvornik. I’m very grateful that I met him here during the last year of his life, still occupying his office in the main building. Encounters like this set you up for a career in Byzantine studies. Close contact with budding Byzantinists of your own age, as well. Particular memories? It’s a blur and a series of flashes when I think back now, except when I put names to people and to incidents.

AS: Did you start any collaborations at Dumbarton Oaks, books or volumes or things with other people that came to fruition after your time there? We asked you about your fellowship, but did you start common projects actually that you continued after you left Dumbarton Oaks?

PM: Well, my first collaborative project was with Rob Nelson on a piece we did on the emperor in Byzantine art of the 12th century. That was for about five years after leaving DO. When I looked for an art historian to work with, then naturally I thought of somebody I had met at Dumbarton Oaks. That’s the way it works. My whole Istanbul experience, in a way, goes back to having been a fellow at the same time as Nevra Necipoğlu in 1994. She was organizing a symposium in Istanbul in the fall of that year, which never took place because that’s when Refah came to power in the municipal elections in Istanbul.

But regarding joint projects, there’s a volume she and I edited together on Byzantine trade not too long ago. I can trace that back to our association at Dumbarton Oaks, which also sowed the seed of my decision to end my teaching career in Turkey, at Koç University. My other collaboration that took shape at Dumbarton Oaks was again with Robert Nelson. We were both senior fellows, we did the symposium in 2006 together on the Old Testament.

Otherwise, I’ve never been much of a team worker. I’ve researched and worked as an individual, but insofar as I’ve collaborated, I think that Dumbarton Oaks has really been central in my career, in particular.

AS: To your whole career, listening to you today, it seems that there were many threads that were woven into your early career.

PM: Yes.

AS: Beyond collaborations, I mean, in general, and the paths you took. This is wonderful. Paul, do you feel that you want to share something? Did we miss something? We asked you all kinds of questions, feel free to share something from the heart, if we did not ask the question that you would have liked.

PM: Not that I can think of. I’m just aware of having such a big pool of memories that I am not quite sure that I pulled out the right fish for you.

AS: You did, you pulled out lots of fish, very interesting things you shared. Yes, absolutely.

PM: Thank you.

AS: Thank you.

PM: It was good to revisit those memories.