Departmental Research Projects

Political Culture in Three Spheres: Byzantium, Islam and the West, c. 700 – c. 1450

The project, coordinated by Catherine Holmes and Jonathan Shepard at Oxford, Jo van Steenbergen at Ghent, and Björn Weiler at Aberystwyth, brings together experts on medieval Western, Islamic and Byzantine history to explore commonalities and differences in the structures and beliefs of political action among the societies of the medieval Mediterranean. Key questions considered are to what extent different cultural, but also social, economic, and geographical conditions may have filled shared concepts (authority, piety, peacemaking etc.) with different meanings; to what extent actions and norms used as interpretative categories by modern historians (ritual, ideology etc.) meant different things in each of the three spheres; but also, to what extent both a shared heritage (the Roman Empire of Late Antiquity) and a long tradition of mutual contact and exchange led to borrowings, the adoption, but also the rejection, by one culture of practices found in another.

Since 2005, the project has organised thematic sessions at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds (Underage rulers [2005], Counsel & Advice [2006], Towns [2007], Religion & Orthodoxy [2009], Travel and Exploration [2010], The material dimension of power [2011]), as well as a series of more specialised workshops (Aberystwyth 2008, Oxford 2009, York 2010). These will result in two volumes, currently in preparation, respectively on the framework of politics (the practices, norms, and context of political action, but also the sources for and historiography of political culture in Islamic, Byzantine, and western medieval history), and the framework of exchange (perception and uses, the means, mechanisms, and framework, of cultural and political exchange).

The project has been conceived as a means of facilitating exchange, as a sounding board for ideas. Some of the workshops have thus resulted in further events (a colloquium on ideology at Cambridge in 2010, and a conference on ritual and ceremonial at the University of Cyprus in 2011, with proceedings to be published in 2012). Plans for further, more specialised, investigations within this broadly comparative framework are underway, and will duly be announced on this web page.