Ellen Muehlberger introduces the forum on Late Antiquity and the New Humanities
The five essays in this forum developed from remarks in a panel organized by Heidi Marx-Wolf (University of Manitoba) at the May 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo titled “Late Antiquity and the New Humanities.” The panel reflected on the field of “late antiquity” as a whole: we gauged the changes in scholarship on late antiquity in the context of the shifts taking place in the humanities overall. What new questions were scholars asking, and what new questions could they answer?
We advertised widely the call for panelists, and we certainly got a wide range of responses. The essays you read here assess “late antiquity” from such divergent viewpoints that it is hard to characterize them as a group. Catherine Chin’s fantastical essay speaks of the effects of style on the representation of the past, and then tries out some of the best tools available in her retelling of a well-known historical event. Mira Balberg astutely places her finger on a problem that has troubled the study of late antiquity as well as the study of the middle ages, namely, that these fields almost by definition exclude Jewish materials. She then calls scholars to go beyond the easy first step (identifying late ancient Jewish texts that are familiar because they are similar to other late ancient materials) and to let the truly different texts change what we think of when we speak of “late antiquity.” Anthony Kaldellis describes the distinct emphasis that scholars of late antiquity place on concepts like identity and cultural negotiation, then asks his readers to consider what may be lost by such a methodology. Philip Rousseau speaks of the twists and turns, over the last several decades, in the organization and self-understanding of the field of “late antiquity” and points to an emerging paradigm that might replace it: the study of the first millennium. My own essay describes a structural limitation in the field of late antiquity, especially in research on early Christianity, namely, our reliance on the author as a category of analysis and organization.
Together, these essays are less solutions to problems or manifestos than they are reflections, gathered thoughts drawn from the experiences of five very different scholars of late antiquity. They are based in a specific time and place — the Kalamazoo panel, where a lively discussion with the audience followed — but we welcome additional reflections from other scholars of late antiquity, on the questions we raise here or on others. With the field nearing fifty years old, it is time to consider, and perhaps reconsider, our purpose and direction.
Catherine M. Chin, “Pro nobis fabula narratur: Late Antiquity as Art and Fantasy”
What might such non-argumentative production look like? Here I would like to move into a different mode, with an example of what I think is somatically and intellectually engaged storytelling that does not rely on stereotypical academic argumentation. The story I will tell is famous: Ambrose, Symmachus, and the altar of Victory. I am interested in how words can suggest the density of aesthetic, somatic, and temporal experience that the story of the altar evokes. This is how such a story might be told.
Mira Balberg, “Late Ancient Judaism: Beyond Border Lines”
The integration of late ancient Jewish literature into our library, then, forces us to rethink some of the fundamental categories and distinctions — of language, authorship, and genre — through which we approach the period of late antiquity and its texts. This in itself is a worthwhile and desired development: as more and more scholars now contend, these categories and distinctions need to be rethought, challenged, and expanded — not only to include materials beyond the Greek-Roman canon but also to include a plethora of uncategorized materials that defy clear pigeon-holing (literary, religious, doctrinal or other), like magical texts, apocalyptic visions, dedicatory inscriptions, collections of sayings, etc.
Anthony Kaldellis, “Late Antiquity Dissolves”
The field, I claimed above, was defined as much by methodology as by time and place, and I will explain that claim below. But the methodology goes hand-in-hand with a set of topics too. The study of the later Roman Empire used to be dominated by the reconstruction of political events and institutions on the one hand and the disembodied (“view from nowhere”) study of theology on the other. With the making of late antiquity, this dead-end combination gave way to a set of more theoretically challenging “soft” topics such as holiness, authorship, gender, sexuality, group identity, worship, social relations, and private life. These were taken to be constructed and changing social forms that were — to use the field’s favorite terms of art — “negotiated” through “discourse,” and mostly Christian discourse at that.
Philip Rousseau, “Can ‘Late Antiquity’ Be Saved?”
I confess I’ve sometimes wondered whether we shouldn’t abandon the term “late antiquity.” I’m equally ready to admit it can’t be a serious suggestion. There does remain, even so, a confusing doubt in my mind as to what “late antiquity” really means. I agree with my colleagues who suggest it may have something to do with differing senses of period. Medieval and Byzantine historians, and even Islamicists, have been at times disturbed by an apparent late antique encroachment upon their supposed territory; and the situation has been exacerbated more recently by a growing attachment to the “early’” Middle Ages, “early” Byzantium and “early” Islam, the earliness of which is often difficult to limit or define.
Ellen Muehlberger, “On Authors, Fathers, and Holy Men”
What this long-term, informal archival process has given us is a collection, not of evidence, but of authors. That is, our archive represents to us a selection of the fraction of the people from the past who happened to be in a social position to produce texts and to have their names permanently associated with what they produced. Practically speaking, we are already lacking any way to understand an overwhelming amount of late ancient Christianity: the ideas, motivations, habits, creative products, and innovations of those who were not authors are just not available to us.