Monthly Archives: April 2015

Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity XI

The biennial „Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity“ is the largest conference for the history of Late Antiquity in North America. This year’s meeting, the eleventh of its kind, took place at the University of Iowa at Iowa City, IA. Iowa City is perhaps a fairly unusual place to host a big conference, but the University of Iowa frequently attracts visitors from around the world. The city is located in the middle of crop fields, which Iowa is best known for and has the typical size of an American college town. As a college town, it includes a town centre close to the campus (which covers most of the city) and a massive American football stadium – perhaps the most obvious building in town. To give some practical travel advice, the nearest international airport in Cedar Rapids does not always indicate the gate number either on a screen or through public announcement, but you can ask the captain to verify that your plane is about to take off, in case you are not a local or otherwise unaware of the specific gate assignment routine (while this is meant to be funny, I do admit I got nervous this time considering that I had two immediate connection flights).

Iowa City has also been awarded the UNESCO city of literature status as the second city of this kind after Melbourne, Australia, and along with Edinburgh, Scotland. This is largely due to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a university program in creative writing that has the nation’s largest number of Pulitzer prize-winning alumni, as well as to other literary events that often take place in the local book shop. The university has a number of representative buildings, as it has acquired the former governmental area, after the city ceased to be the capital of the state of Iowa, including the Old Capitol building, where one of the conference’s keynote lectures took place.

Presenters often arrived from international destinations, including South America, Canada, the UK and Europe, Asia and Australia. The theme of this year’s conference was the transformation of poverty, philanthropy, and healthcare in Late Antiquity. Recurring themes included snake-metaphors, Epiphanius’ Panarion (besides obviously important authors such as Augustine and Ambrose) and infestation by worms as divine punishment. While many papers stressed the role of the Christian church in providing welfare and healthcare to the poor, others argued that voluntary poverty was used a literary topos in the sources as wealthy Christians regarded their property indifferently rather than renouncing it altogether. Ramsay MacMullen’s interesting keynote talk, for example, suggested that Christian medical practitioners in Late Antiquity did often exorcise demons rather than cure diseases according to the ancient state of the medical art (a topic that I have addressed from a different angle in my talk as well). As always, the conference offered a plethora of interesting questions to apply to the history of Christian medicine, and beyond, for example, in the fields of Christian theology, late antique material culture and social history. I am therefore grateful that the Learned Society Fund awarded me a travel grant.

A Stone in a Pond?

One of the aims of our project is to move the focus away from top-down imperial or ecclesiastical motivations and justifications of imposing exile on dissident clerics in late antiquity, and also, to some extent, from clerics’ own strategies of (often literary) representation and constructions of the ‘suffering self’ in exile. Instead, we are interested in the many people whose life was touched by exile, building on the assumption that forced physical movement of some individuals did not only affect those individuals, but changed their community of origin, their new community, and perhaps many others along the way. Late antique clerical exile, we believe, may have had a ‘ripple-down’ effect, like a stone thrown into a pond, which could potentially be felt over years to come and in some unexpected (though in hindsight perhaps logical) places.

One way to help prove this hypothesis is to systematically collect information on an exile’s social contacts. We have built our database to aid us to do this and have just finished our first ‘test run’. Having entered data pertaining to the events that ensued after the council of Milan confirmed the condemnation of Athanasius of Alexandria in 355, leading to the exile of a number of Western and Egyptian clerics, we feel that we are on the right way. In this scenario alone we have already counted around forty actual cases of exiled clerics, but also circa seventy other individuals or groups in one way or another in touch with these clerics, and around two-hundred incidents of relationships between all these agents.

We are, however, within our team still debating what we should do with these data and what they really can show. The term ‘network’ – much in vogue these days in historical analysis – immediately springs to mind, of course, to describe an exile’s relationships. Yet, to fully understand whether any networks actually existed, how they operated, and what their effects, or indeed power, might have been, we need more precise analytical approaches. Social network analysis (SNA) or historical network analysis (HNA) is, again, fashionable these days, and has also already been applied for some years to the field of late antiquity and religious conflicts in this period (for example in A. M. Schor, Theodoret’s People: Social Networks and Religious Conflict in Late Roman Syria, Berkeley, 2011).

SNA – based on the assumption that the behaviour of individuals is influenced not only by external events, nor just by identity ‘attributes’ (such as gender, ethnicity and age), but by the organisation and patterns of their social relationships – might be helpful to our project in various ways [I make no claim to the originality regarding any thoughts on SNA. Reading that has informed my reasoning can be found at the bottom of this blog post]. For example, it might help to answer the question whether and how the imposition of exile aided the spread of beliefs which had originally been intended to be eradicated through the imposition of the penalty. Were exiles brokers of information in this context? Or, it could help to understand circumstances that aided the recall of exiles. What role, if any, did the strength or weakness of an exile’s social ties play in negotiating a successful petition for recall? To go about answering such questions through SNA in a meaningful way, it is not enough to just show that an exile had social relationships. Much attention needs to be paid to their quality – whether they were ‘role-based’, such as those created by kinship or membership in the same religious community, ‘sentiment-based’, such as those generated through friendship or animosity, or ‘behaviour-based’, such as those produced by the exchange of goods. Each one of these would have created a different kind of network, or cluster within a network, with a different scope for action, as would have the intensity, direction, temporality and distance of relationships. SNA is of course also famous for its ability to visualise data in new and unusual ways, as we have tried to do in this (fairly rudimentary) graph, developed in the early stages of our project with the help of Johannes Preiser-Kapeller of the Austrian Academy in Vienna, who also provided me with much of the reading mentioned below (although I have to admit,the ability to read a network graph is an art in itself and I am still learning myself…).

Yet, there are a number of issues with social network analysis that might make its application problematic, at least to a project such as ours. To begin with, we have to decide whether we adopt it on a theoretical or ‘just’ on a methodological level, as an analytical tool among others. The former risks, perhaps, over-emphasizing the power of networks or indeed individual willingness towards conscious network building, at the expense of other factors that might influence behaviour such as, crucially, events or individual agency. For example, where the recall from exile during late antiquity is concerned, the evidence might show that a change of emperor and accompanying amnesties (such as Julian’s edict in 362) played a much bigger role in ending clerical exile. Still, SNA can, of course, also provide empirical evidence to debunk the ‘myth of the network’.

Equally problematic are the limits provided by our evidence base to successfully apply SNA, a model drawn from the social sciences, to the past. This does partly concern the tendentious nature of our sources, an issue we also generally struggle with in the construction of our database. Whether sources are contemporary or written long after the event, where the religious conflicts of late antiquity are concerned, we can expect a reasonable amount of (at least) streamlining narratives to suit particular agendas. Yet, it can be argued that subjectiveness is true of all historical sources, and indeed of data collected by social scientists as well. This is why sound SNA approaches tend to draw not only on so-called ‘realist’ approaches (where individuals are asked to identify their social relationships, something that historians often clearly cannot do), but also confront these with ‘reputational approaches’ (where other informants are asked about the quality of other people’s relationships) and on ‘affilitation’ approaches (where archival documents, such as membership lists are consulted). Historians are trained in critical analytical skills, in confirming hypothesis through investigating a range of evidence, which have to be applied to sources mined for social network data as well – and we always have to keep in mind that a neat table, graph or map, or any product of quantitative history, is based on much selection, interpretation, assumption and, to some extent, simplificaton of reality. In addition, SNA can only ever be a starting point for new questions and debates, but cannot replace qualitative analysis, and is to be used ‘humbly’, as my colleague Kate Davison so aptly put it to me recently.

A more vexing issue is, I would say, the question around so-called ‘network-boundaries’. Theoretically, there are virtually no limits to unearthing series of connections between individuals, and we could, if we wanted to, take clerical exile as a platform to write the entire prosopography of the late Roman world (following the famous six-degrees-of-separation theory). Perhaps, to answer some of our questions, we would have to. For example, within the ‘legal strand’ of the project, I am very interested in understanding how the behaviour and the community-building of exiled clerics influenced the development of laws on heresy and religious dissent. For example, was the increasing harshness of such laws that can be detected under some emperors, such as Theodosius, Honorius and Justinian, due to the continued activities and agitation by clerics in exile? Here, it would be useful to investigate the flow and brokering of information between the centre and the periphery of the empire. Whether we would be able to do this, however, relies of course, firstly, on the quality of our data. In our case, and that is true for all HNA, the boundaries of networks are first and foremost created by our sources: our evidence is simply too fragmented to retrace all social relationships in existence at the time. But we also have decided that, within the database, we will record social relationships as a series of ‘ego-networks’, i.e. as relationships of a certain exiled cleric, and the social ties between his contacts, mentioned in sources pertaining to this particular case of exile. If an emperor making a law about heresy was not directly among these contacts we would not record him. The reason for this is perhaps more pragmatic than intellectual, although this case-by-case approach reduces the level of interpretation somewhat – for example whether some relationships actually existed. And of course, nothing can stop the members of our ‘project team’ from building more extensive ‘global’ network models tailored to our own research projects within or across project ‘strands’ (or from ‘snow-balling’ as SNA pros call it). Where the database and their online end-users are concerned, however, it is important to make these ‘network-boundaries’ clear from the outset.

What our database can however do, and is doing already, is showing that clerical exile was a phenomenon that affected not just the elite male players historians so often focus on (Athanasius of Alexandria perhaps being the prime example). The removal of a troublesome bishop often meant that whole groups of people were uprooted, physically or mentally, including more humble clerics or, indeed, women. Putting a much needed spot-light on these is already an achievement. More on them here.

Reading:

  • F. Everton, Disrupting Dark Networks (CUP 2012)
  • C. Kadushin, Understanding Social Networks (OUP, 2012)
  • C. Lemercier, ‘Formale Methoden der Netzwerkanalyse in den Geschichtswissenschaften: Warum und Wie?’ ÖZG 23 (2012), 16-41.
  • J. Preiser-Kapeller ‘Letters and Network Analysis’, forthcoming in A. Riehle (ed.) Companion to Byzantine Epistolography (Brill, 2015)
  • J. Scott, Social Network Analysis, 3rd edn. (Sage, 2013)

And for an inspiring HNA project see ‘Mapping the Republic of Letters’ (Stanford).