Twenty Years in Medieval Studies: Recent Developments and Departmental Contribution


The present character of the Department of Medieval Studies developed organically from its original interdisciplinary mission and now covers a vast field: geographically (beginning with Western, Central and South-Eastern Europe via Byzantium to the East as far as the Caliphate, the Caucasus and even Southern India), and thematically (archaeology, art history, history, late antique studies, legal history, literature, the recently introduced Ottoman studies, Patristics, philosophy, theology, urban and environmental history and so forth). Historical periods studied by the department extend from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance to the Ottoman Empire, comprising more than 1500 years. Our concerns include written culture, rituals and symbolic representations as well as the ways in which people in the past used and were affected by material culture with respect to architectural space, objects and animals as expressions and tools of socio-economic, political and religious identities. In addition, the department has an interest in modern concerns related to the Middle Ages, from heritage management issues to the survival of “medievalism” serving modern problems of legitimacy. Whereas other universities tend to offer these disciplines separately, awarding degrees from across respective schools, faculties and departments, we are unique in combining all of these disciplines within one department, reflecting our multi-disciplinary mission.

The most interesting developments of the last twenty years in the discipline

Since Medieval Studies is a complex blend of various traditional disciplines, it has followed a variety of interesting advances in all these fields. Roughly speaking, the integration of traditional disciplines followed four main general turns:

a)            The spatial turn—attention focused on spaces as socially produced and socially productive entities, with input from such studies as human geography, sociology, architecture, political economy. Through a rigorous comparative methodology, national and regional enquiries have opened to a more innovative, global approach to the Middle Ages.

b)            The cultural turn—attention focused on culturally defined causes and effects in social, institutional and economic, as well as spiritual and intellectual history.

c)            The post-colonial turn (in the late 1990s and early 2000s)—with the long-standing research focus departing from the center, the elite, the dominating powers, and restoring the status of the dominated, the subjugated, marginalized, peripheral actors of history (including women and suppressed classes of a racial, linguistic, religious, sexual nature). This “bottom-up” approach has re-evaluated the seemingly inferior and minority subjects relating to the western Middle Ages as well as Byzantium. 

d)            The environmental turn (first decade of the 21st century)—attention focused on the intersections of the natural sciences and the humanities, putting such issues as climate, vegetation, natural and built environment, and landscape into historical perspective.

In addition to these “turns,” the demand for a multi-disciplinary approach has become dominant in a combined, complex and contextual analysis of newly constituted research objects, such as body, image, ritual, memory, heritage, cult, exchange and intertextuality. These results have been reframed in the renewed and restructured fields of traditional medievalist scholarship (for example, biography, political history, urban studies, cultural history, hagiography, sermon studies, and church history). Overall, an increasing philological and methodological sophistication has taken place within research approaches, together with an increasing incidence of convergence with other historical disciplines, including Islamic studies (in terms of connections made between studies of Late Antiquity and the emergence of Islam and the early period of its history).

Furthermore, a number of new thematic fields have joined the geographic and chronological range traditionally encompassed by Medieval Studies, making our comparative historic enquiry more global and comprehensive:

  • A notable shift toward an interest in late antique and Byzantine studies has occurred. The notion of Late Antiquity has expanded and now encompasses a time span from the 300s into the 800s. It includes the late Roman, Western European, Byzantine, Sassanid, and Islamic worlds. This revised view has produced a wholly new understanding of the Middle Ages as an historical period and a thorough reassessment of its relationship with its Classical heritage—which, in turn, requires a re-evaluation of our own attitude to the same Classical heritage. Preference is given to the observation of longue durée transformations in every walk of human life, from administration to religion. By rejecting a priori value judgments on historical actors and/or periods, this approach permits us to study the past on its own terms and to discover the resilience of structural units in human thought and human institutions.
  • As for Byzantine studies, the most serious change of paradigm seems to be that it is no longer perceived as an inferior appendix to Classical (Greek and Roman) cultures. It has become a respectable and respected entity in its own right. This trend is most visible within the field of literary studies, where the term “Byzantine Greek” is no longer employed in a pejorative sense. Byzantine rhetoric is now being read, and increasingly appreciated, as a literature in its own right. Another exciting addition to our understanding of Byzantine literary history is a turn toward the material conditions of producing and circulating these texts, that is, manuscript studies, resulting in the discovery of the importance of such concepts as scholia and marginalia.
  • Byzantine studies has also opened up toward Byzantium's oriental neighbors. The ever-closer connection between Byzantine, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and Arabic studies is now an important area of research.
  • In Patristics, along with a reconsideration of the social, historical and doctrinal background of the early Christian spiritual traditions, there is growing pressure to discard the traditional idea of early monks as uneducated rustics and to re-evaluate the role that the philosophical theories of Origen and the Alexandrian school played in the formation of Christian doctrine in general and monasticism in particular.
  • A persisting problem appears in new guise as the strategies of the Christian church towards the Roman Empire are analysed as a public political institution in adopting and changing the institutions of Rome. There are interesting new attempts to explain with the help of new analytic methods of social sciences what lay behind the reasons for its universal success.
  • The emergence of proper historical and social-scientific studies of the prehistory of modern and contemporary Islamic movements has resulted in a scholarship that is neither polemical nor apologetic.
  • In art history, the influence of the so-called “new art history” has persisted, with a continuing interest in how images are used. Different aspects of visual culture are under discussion, with special emphasis on political, anthropological and hermeneutical methodologies.
  • The history of late antique and early medieval philosophy is affected by a wealth of recently edited and published texts that have transformed our vision of the thought of the period. The Abbasid philosophical translation movement and the reconstruction of the Arab Plotinus and Proclus are viewed now from a new perspective. Syriac has been identified as the intermediary between Greek and Arabic. The political and institutional aspects of philosophy and theology are re-appreciated, with an increased awareness for the political consequences of theology.
  •  Syriac studies has emerged as a new field. Extensive recent work on the Syriac literary heritage has shown that this culture was almost as influential as the Greek and Latin heritage. It is no longer possible to study late antique, eastern medieval or Arabic studies without considering the Syriac sources.
  • Over the last two decades, the field of Ottoman history has witnessed a steady shift from a predominantly socio-economic history based on materials from the centralized imperial Ottoman archives to social and cultural history with a diversified source base, including narratives and material culture (especially architecture) of various provenances. This shift has given rise to a much more nuanced picture of Ottoman society, well beyond dynastic and state politics. What has emerged is the image of a flexible polity geared to constant negotiation with various social and religious groups living within it, open to experimentation within an Islamic social and legal framework—key traits that ensured its 700-year-long survival.
  • The traditional understanding of Renaissance studies on the border between medieval and early modern studies—if a chronological division of historical eras is followed—has substantially changed over the last few decades. Now Renaissance is understood as a complex cultural program rather than a period at the end of the Middle Ages. Moreover, a series of studies has shifted the analysis to the influence of other cultures on Renaissance art, literature and thought, and has promoted the study of interactions and transactions involving a number of disciplines.
  • Finally, a new field of study has emerged reflecting on the use and political exploitation of medieval heritage in the 19th and 20th century Europe, the recurrent waves of “medievalism,” which were, and still are, also prevalent in post-communist Eastern Europe (but also elsewhere). This new research field of medievalism has opened up interesting issues of historiography, cultural memory-formation and political symbolology.

In addition to these substantive and methodological developments, technical and organizational issues have also brought about significant change.

  • Informatics revolutionized Medieval Studies by offering new accessibility to research resources. A large quantity of hitherto narrowly accessible archival manuscript sources have been digitized and searchable databases of large publication series as well as visual databases have been created. This has lead to a database-related approach to historical problems in fields like social and economic history, demography, but also textual studies, palaeography, iconography, and even philosophy and theology. The availability of library catalogues, and other databases on the internet improved the conditions of medievalist research in many respects. Among the other fields represented in the Department of Medieval Studies, the digital revolution has also greatly affected Ottoman Studies, bringing the research literally from the level of card catalogues accessible only in Turkey to online, word-searchable, state-of-art catalogues in the space of only ten years. Cataloguing of the Ottoman archives and manuscript collections has been followed by their digitization, making the field of Ottoman Studies, nearly overnight, one of the technically most supported and fastest expanding fields of research.
  • The opening up of huge and hitherto largely unknown historical materials, heritage, and holdings of medieval East-Central Europe (and other countries of the former Soviet Union) for international scholarship will contribute substantially to a broader spectrum of longue durée studies.
  • FIDEM (Fédération Internationale des Instituts d'Études Médiévales), an unprecedented international network for stimulating and framing international cooperation in this field, was created in 1993. Following the American model of West Michigan University, annual International Medieval Congresses in Leeds were started in 1994. The Co-operative for the Advancement of Research through a Medieval European Network (CARMEN), a new international federation of Medieval Studies institutions was created in 2007.
  • Cultural heritage has emerged as a policy and management area.


The most important contributions to the field by our department or by its faculty members

Contributions by our department have been manifold:

  • The Department of Medieval Studies at CEU is one of the few places in Europe where the integrated approach of the various sub-disciplines has been realized within the framework of the above-mentioned “turns,” both in teaching and in research. Our main contribution has been to demonstrate, through a series of innovative theses and dissertations, the applicability of new research trends to various fields. For example, the integrated, multi-disciplinary work of Gábor Klaniczay inspired a new hagiographical center created by our alumni in Croatia.
  • The department has exemplified and promoted “best teaching practices” in the field. The interdisciplinary constitution of Medieval Studies at CEU followed European and American models, and on this basis, has created the largest and most influential international center of this kind in Eastern Europe, playing a crucial role in the methodological innovation of medieval studies for this region and beyond.
  • The success of the department is demonstrated through the publication record and placement of our PhD and MA students (more than 50, and 300 respectively), and through the publications, research projects and the prestigious international roles played by our faculty. These initiatives include: archaeology-based research into historical heritage (Jozsef Laszlovszky), a reconstituted East European cooperation for Byzantine Studies (Niels Gaul), a new network for patristic research exploring new sources of Eastern Christianity (Istvan Perczel, Volker Menze), a new approach to hagiography and sermons studies based on anthropological and textual studies and relying on broad international teamwork of scholars and institutions (Gabor Klaniczay), and political symbolism and the theology of medieval rulership and political theory (Janos Bak, Daniel Ziemann).
  • The department offers a unique possibility to its students in terms of international connections. Leading academics, among others, Robert Bartlett (St Andrews), Giles Constable (Princeton), Nancy van Deusen (Claremont), Patrick Geary (Los Angeles), Johannes Hahn (Münster), Richard Kieckhefer (Chicago), Miri Rubin (London) come to us to lecture or to participate in PhD committees, and they remain in contact with our faculty members and alumni. Visiting professors from recent years include Nicole Beriou (Paris), Aleks Pluskowski (Reading), Felicitas Schmieder (Hagen), Yossef Schwartz (Tel Aviv) and Francis Thomson (Brussels). Another format for inviting distinguished lecturers is the Natalie Zemon Davis lecture series in history, to celebrate the oeuvre of one of the most renowned historians of the Early Modern period, who served on CEU’s Board of Trustees for several years.
  • Our students come from many different educational backgrounds, representing a variety of academic paradigms. CEU's emphasis on teaching and on Anglo-American-based styles of academic expression provide students with extra tools of communication both in academic writing and in oral presentations, taught by academics who are native speakers of English (Judith Rasson, Alice Choyke).
  • Faculty members of the department have made many contributions to the field. Istvan Perczel (with a DFG German grant) initiated the collection, digital preservation and gradual publication of the Syriac manuscripts found in India. Anna Somfai’s NKTH-funded project “Visual Thinking and Diagrammatic Images in Medieval Manuscripts” introduces new approaches to manuscript studies. Examples of publications by faculty include the third edition of Aziz Al-Azmeh’s Islams and Modernities (2009), a contribution to a new understanding of fundamental issues concerning modern Islam. His book, History of Allah: Islam in Late Antiquity, will be published next year by Princeton University Press. The Historic Towns Atlases project coordinated by Katalin Szende is a Europe-wide enterprise, with the involvement of faculty and students. Istvan Perczel has drawn important conclusions concerning Pseudo-Dionysian works as a literary corpus produced and used by the Origenists. Gyorgy Gereby has finished co-directing a large project on political theology (NKTH grant).
  • The Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies (heir to the Center for Hellenic Traditions (CHT), initiated by Istvan Perczel and Gyorgy Gereby) was established in 2004, initially to help reinforce a new understanding of Late Antiquity that broadens the idea of late antique Mediterranean civilization toward that of a pre-modern Eurasian oikumene. Under the energetic and inspiring directorate of Niels Gaul, the CHT—and now the CEMS, co-directed by Niels Gaul and Volker Menze— has been instrumental in re-establishing and renewing Byzantine studies in Hungary and across the wider region. The Centre also reaches out to the Caucasus and is currently running a HESP project to create a new direction of Byzantino-Caucasian studies, with wide-ranging participation from the Caucasian countries.
  • The department is an important actor and pioneer in the field of creating digitized resources. Gerhard Jaritz brought his expertise on the Kleio image database system incorporating panel paintings from Central Europe. The Medieval Animal Database (MAD) is run by Alice Choyke and Gerhard Jaritz. We are involved with the International Medieval Bibliography and the Italian Medioevo Latino project as well and also participate in the effort to digitize Eastern Christian manuscripts in Eastern Europe and Asia, in cooperation with the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and Tubingen University (Istvan Perczel).
  • The rich local visual material of East-Central European countries was basically inaccessible prior to the 1990s to the international scholarly community. Therefore, the Department of Medieval Studies launched in 1993 a research project, “Visual Resources of Medieval East-Central Europe” and has published a catalogue of local photographic archives (Guide to Visual Resources of Medieval East-Central Europe, 2001). We have also started to systematically document local visual materials such as book illumination, frescoes and panel paintings, using modern digital techniques. Artwork studied in this project under the leadership of Bela Zsolt Szakacs includes the Hungarian Angevin Legendary (the English translation of a monograph on this precious manuscript is under preparation) as well as medieval fresco cycles. New, non-traditional methodologies of iconography have been adopted during this research. A rich collection of international comparative material is now available in the department’s Visual Information Centre.
  • The CEU-ELTE Medieval Library has been valued since its joint establishment with ELTE in 1993 by our students, faculty and many visiting scholars as a most important contribution to the field (curator: Balazs Nagy). The continuous intellectual input of the faculty has turned it into the fastest growing medieval library in Hungary, and one of the best in East-Central Europe.
  • The Department was an important actor in the constitution of international networks, as in 1995 in Spoleto at the constitution of FIDEM, and in 1995 at the first IMC congress in Leeds. For our students these networks as well as the Kalamazoo congress represent important steps in becoming part of the international community of medievalists. In 2007, the new European association of medieval studies institutions, CARMEN, was founded at CEU with our active cooperation. Since 2009, its president has been Gerhard Jaritz.
  • The department has played a pioneering role in the introduction of Late Antiquity as a new discipline into university curriculum in post-communist East-Central Europe, along with the establishment of Patristics and religion as scholarly disciplines. (Gyorgy Gereby, Volker Menze, Istvan Perczel, Marianne Saghy). Cristian Gaspar is studying new areas, such as gender issues in Late Antique Christianity.
  • Endre Gyorgy Szonyi has contributed to research on various aspects of Renaissance occult literature and theosophy.
  • The Ravenna archeological project (Jozsef Laszlovszky, Bela Zsolt Szakacs) represents a new interpretation of historical, archaeological, art historical, archival and religious materials and documentation.
  • By introducing Ottoman Studies to the curriculum (together with the Department of History), the great Ottomanist scholarly tradition of the region will become even more internationalized (Tijana Krstic). A particularly important new development in Ottoman Studies over the last decade, informed by the strengthening of Islamist movements both in Turkey and around the world, has been the interest in varieties of Islam in the Ottoman Empire and its successor states. These studies have challenged the traditional narrative about an unchanging, state-supported Islam in the Ottoman Empire and demonstrated that the development of a Sunni orthodoxy in the Ottoman Empire was a historical development closely intertwined with the evolution of Ottoman imperial ideology. Studies on Ottoman Islam promise to shed light on the relationship between the early modern and modern Islamic discourses of reform, and provide an important historical context for current events in former Ottoman territories in the Middle East, Southeast Europe and beyond.
  • The post-communist “uses and abuses of the Middle Ages” was brought to international attention through several research projects organized by our department in cooperation with the Open Society Archives (for instance, the exhibition “Contagious Middle Ages,”) and the Collegium Budapest (Gabor Klaniczay).


The most interesting emerging/new developments in the discipline


1) Medieval studies does not (and should not) develop according to an academic fashion oriented toward reformulating the field every decade. The trends that have emerged and evolved in the past two decades continue to be attractive, and offer us potential for teaching and research.

2) Among these trends, developing and institutionalizing the subfield of cultural heritage studies should be emphasized. This field has emerged in response to a global demand and integrates several other special competencies of ours, increasing the attractiveness of Medieval Studies at CEU.

3) Apart from the trend in the policy-related use of academic results, one experiences an even stronger integration of a broad range of disciplines from the natural and social sciences into the research of the Middle Ages. Archaeology and environmental history, or even heritage management, work together with physical sciences, while medieval history profits from the development of social sciences. Other positive examples include cultural heritage management and research into ethnic and religious coexistence. The recently held summer university course, “Lived Space in Past and Present,” demonstrated the need to integrate the results of studies of medieval (in this case, especially urban) space into the modern understanding and use of these spaces.

4) Overall, within the fields indicated above, there is increasing emphasis on comparative studies. One interesting aspect is the creation of integrated studies on the Eurasian pre-modern oikumene. We are in the first stages of this work, and the challenges open numerous new vistas for future research. 

5) The expanding and increasingly accessible databases help in the utilization of new digital technologies. We are acquiring an incredible amount of new sources, which we have not even started to exploit. The ready availability of complex data will certainly revolutionize many aspects of medieval studies and will also necessitate new forms of research.

6) An emerging but still marginal field combines classical text-oriented philological studies with anthropology and fieldwork, giving a new dimension of longue durée to historical studies. Several important issues include the democratization of classical culture and the integration of newcomers to this culture: women, non-Romans, and various religious denominations.

Religion as power and as a source of legitimacy and social cohesion, concomitant to the problem of the public and the private in religion, has turned into an increasingly important area that is going to be addressed by the establishment of a History of Religions Program at CEU, in cooperation with the History, Sociology, and Philosophy departments).