Sabbatical Report (Ch. 1 and 2)

This post originally appeared on the University of Nevada’s NSights Blog here on 6/27/2017:

Ch. 1: May 2017: How many medievalists…

Every year in early May, as universities and colleges around the country are in the final phases of their spring semesters, 3000 medievalists descend on the campus of Western Michigan University for the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Unlike other large gatherings of medievalists, the ICMS is an egalitarian affair, with accommodation in small and Spartan rooms available in the dorm, and with presentations mixing together undergraduates in panels with distinguished emeriti, and welcoming to those studying in fields of archaeology, art, history, literature, religion, language and everything in between.   This breadth can be seen in the contributions of UNR faculty to the program this year: Jaime Leaños (WLL) gave a presentation on “Medievalism: Mio Cid’s Golden Age as the Cradle for Cervantes’s Decrepit Present” in a panel on Medievalism and Don Quixote, while Angela Bennet (English) offered “Spatializing Information and Informatizing Space” in a session on Geoinformatics.

As I arrived this year to the 52nd annual conference, I felt both excitement and relief. Excitement in seeing old friends and colleagues, hearing papers on topics that I know well and on subjects I was completely ignorant (but intrigued), and in presenting a short paper on a new topic, the survival of pagan practices in one of the last capitals of the western Roman Empire, the Italian city of Ravenna. Relief in that after a year of planning, the two panels I co-organized would finally take place.

Although planning panels consisting of 3-4 presenters and a presider seems like a relatively simple task, they never turn out to be. The process began in the spring of 2016: in a long e-mail discussion with two of my colleagues, Sam Cohen at Sonoma State and Laurent Cases, a post-doc at Penn State, we decided it would be great to revisit the topic of a seminar we took as young graduate students in the summer of 2007 at Central European University, The Birth of Medieval Europe: Interactions of Power Zones and their Cultures in Late Antique and Early Medieval Italy.   We reached out to scholars, and over the course of three months during the summer of 2016 we put together the proposals we received into cohesive panels dealing with issues relating to power and society in late antique Italy, covering the period from roughly 400-800, and including studies on ranging from Roman imperial, Ostrogothic family, and Frankish royal politics to issues in conceptualizing history, taking oaths, and with my own project, maintaining pagan practices in a Christian city.  These sessions took on a more urgent tone given their inspiration, both celebrating and supporting the Central European University during its continuing battle to maintain independence and academic freedom against laws passed by the Hungarian government.

With our panels set for Friday morning and afternoon, I had all Thursday to sample papers outside what I normally research, from medieval French poetry to Anglo-Norman tyrants.   Waking up early on Friday, I reread my paper over coffee and waited for our panels Power and Society in Late Antique Italy I and II, to begin. The panel was held in a small common room in one of the dormitories that many of the ICMS attendees stay; as the clock approached 10, I was struck the room had become full! The papers flew by, and in the dinner we shared at the end of the night, new plans for future collaboration on “marginal voices” began to take shape.

Sam Cohen Presentation
Panel co-organizer Sam Cohen presenting on the problem of exile in the late Roman world

After another full day of sessions (another three on Late Antiquity, on one of which I presided), we left Kalamazoo thinking about plans for 2019, and I flew directly to Germany… Next stop, the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum in Mainz!

Ch. 2: June 2017: The Volbach-Fellowship

The Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum (RGZM) was founded in 1852 in Mainz, Germany, a relatively large city on the Rhine River near Frankfurt. Consisting of both a museum and a research institute, the RGZM contains a magnificent collection of original and replica object from the pre-Roman to early-medieval periods from across the Mediterranean, as well as one of the best libraries for archaeology and cultural studies of those same periods. One of the highlights are exact mosaic copies of the imperial portraits of the Byzantine emperor and empress Justianian (ruled 527-565 AD) and wife Theodora (d. 548), the originals of which are in the church of San Vitale in the small coastal Italian city of Ravenna. It is impossible to get as close to the originals as it is to view these amazing replicas.

Replicas of a sarcophagus and the two mosaic panels from Ravenna

I had a chance to spend a month getting to reacquaint myself with these and other objects through May and June, as I had the privilege of being the Wolfgang Fritz Volbach fellow sponsored by a joint research group between RGZM and the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, the “Leibniz-WissenschaftsCampus: Byzantium between orient and occident.” This gave me the opportunity to spend an uninterrupted month in the library working on my own research projects, and to present a paper within the museum on the topic of “Greek and Byzantine Identities in Italy, 600-1000 AD.”

Library of the RGZM

While in Mainz, I spent most of my time in the library of the RGZM. The library provided access to some of the essential volumes for my work. Here, with a dedicated desk in the middle of a library and a key that allowed me access 24 hours a day, an opportunity I used a number of times to continue work long after many of the institute staff left (although I was seldom the only one working late).   Most of this time was spent looking at early medieval considering what linguistically, political, or cultural identity looked like in Italy, and following up on individual case studies. Although I came up with no firm conclusions, during my presentation on June 7, I spoke about a range of examples, from a monument set up by a man named Theodorus who called himself “grecus” (greek) in the year 600 in Rome to the writing of an Italian bishop, Liutprand, who enjoyed inserting Greek anecdotes into his Latin histories.

Presenting on “Greekness” in Medieval Italy

At the end of my month, and I left deeply impressed and indebted to the collegiality of the researchers at the RGZM and the Leibniz-WissenschaftsCampus, and excited about the possibilities to work their again. But I am equally excited about my next stop in the medieval Tuscan town of Poppi, Italy, where I will be doing research on the rise of noble Italian families…

Sabbatical Report (Ch. 5)

This is number 5 in a series of blog posts I am doing about the goings on during a sabbatical year.  The original was published on the University of Nevada’s NSights Blog here:


Since September, I have been a visiting scholar and guest of the history department at the University of Padova. Founded in 1222, it is one of the oldest universities in Europe, in a city with a rich history dating back to the Roman republic (for reference, UNR was founded in 1874, while Harvard was founded in 1636). The city, also known as Padua in English, and is also famous as the setting of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Living in Padova has offered stark differences from my normal routines in Reno, while working here has presented abundant new academic opportunities.

Padova itself is surrounded by a double set of medieval walls and is crossed by a series of canals, effectively making the center of town an island (one which is for the most part car-free). On my daily walk to my office (everyone either walks or bikes), I first pass a medieval tower that was turned into an astronomical observatory, “La Specola”, in the 18th century but commonly known as the “torre di Galileo” after the famous scholar who taught at the university at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century.

La Specola, the canal, and porticoed sidewalks in Padova

I cross one of the major canals and move mostly under the porticos of fifteenth and sixteenth century buildings that hang over the majority of the narrow sidewalks. I pass building which have reused architectural fragments from the Roman city lying beneath the streets, and churches with amazing fourteenth century frescos. (Although the Cappella degli Scrovegni is perhaps the most famous in the city, painted in 1305 by Giotto, my favorite has been that those in baptistery completed two generations later by Giusto de’Menabuoi in 1375). The culture of coffee is strong in Padova, as in most places in Italy, and my research is fueled each day by at least two small, strong espressos (known simply as “cafè”) and a new discovery for me, the “macciatone” – which is like a cappuccino but with less steamed milk. The city is littered with small bars, pastry shops, and cafes where the throngs of students are repowered, so access to coffee is too easy.   For meals, almost every day the two main piazzas are transformed into markets where fresh fruits and vegetables are sold, and in the street level of the Palazzo della Ragione (the “Palace of Reason” that served as the medieval city hall), stalls sell meats, cheeses, and other local specialties.

While the city is fascinating, I spend the majority of my time in my office in the history department (did I mention that it is in a late medieval Palazzo?) or in one of the many libraries of the university. Like many medieval universities, the campus of the University of Padova is spread across the entire city, with certain buildings sometimes housing multiple departments, or single departments taking up many buildings. I feel this most acutely when using the libraries. While UNR has four libraries on campus, the Knowledge Center (which also houses the Basque Library), DelaMare, and the Savitt Medical Library, there are (at least?) 39 individual university libraries (with their own buildings and organizational systems) that form nine major libraries at the University of Padova. On any given day, I find myself using the closest library to my office in the history department (the Biblioteca del Dipartmento di Storia), but often find literary sources and texts in the “Biblioteca Interdepartimentale Tito Livio.” Some of my research involves theoretical models taken from social science, so to consult some books I have to walk across town to use the “Emeroteca del Polo di Scienze Sociali – ‘Ca’ Borin’.” In addition to these and others of the 39 university libraries there are other specialized public library – many for religious history – as will as the state archives of the city, which include note only the records of the medieval town, but the archives of documents and manuscripts from many of the city’s monasteries (many which were dissolved or suppressed in the early 19th century by Napoleon).

So why go from library to library and building to building? To find the books I need to prepare for workshops! In addition to working on two major research projects, the subject of the next blog post, I have become involved in the every day academic life of the university. This has been the work of my generous host and sponsor, Prof. Cristina La Rocca, who has arranged for me to meet with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers whose interests intersect with my own, invited me to the granting of honorary degrees in some of the university’s oldest buildings, and organized workshops directly related to my research.

Most recent of these was a “book presentation” and bilingual workshop on the history and development of urban elites in medieval Italy. In the morning, Irene Barbiera, a medieval historian and demographer who works at the University of Padova’s department of statistical science, and I gave short introductions to and directed an hours worth of questions on a new book, L’Aristocrazia Toscana: Sette secoli (VI-XII) (or, The Tuscan Aristocracy: Seven Centuries (6th-12th) by Maria Elena Cortese.

Ned Schoolman, Maria Elena Cortese, and Irene Barbiera listen to a question from Cristina La Rocca (Photo. Giorgia Vocino)

This book, a synthetic study of the elites from a single region in historical, documentary, and archaeological sources, provided a rich ground for later discussion in the afternoon with three presentations: I spoke on the elite of Ravenna, James Norrie (Oxford) spoke on Milan, and Stefano Gasparri (Venice) on the Venetian elite.

Workshops like these are regular features of my academic life at UNR, which regularly hosts internationally recognized scholars for workshops, seminars, and conferences. For me, Padova allows the continuation of an active engagement in topics both close to my own interests and far from them, as I focus on winding down one book project and beginning another, the topics of the chapter.

Sabbatical Report (Ch. 4)

This is the fourth chapter in a series of blog posts I am doing for NSights, perspectives and conversations at the University of Nevada, Reno.  The original was posted on 10/19 here:


I prepared this fourth installment on what professors do during their sabbaticals at the Palazzo Falconieri, home of the Hungarian Academy (the national cultural institute) in Rome.

As noted in my earlier posts, a sabbatical provides the time to explore new projects, to take measure of current research directions and collaborations, and to mark the completion of others.

Although I have been living in the northern Italian city of Padova for the last month, where I am currently a visiting professor at the University there, I was in Rome the first few days of October at a conference The Saints of Rome: Diffusion And Reception from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, sponsored by both the Hungarian and Croatian hagiography societies, and held in the seventeenth century Palazzo Falconieri. The building itself was one of the highlights, and we were allowed to visit the upper story loggia designed by Borromini followed the second day of fantastic presentations by scholars from Italy, Hungary, Croatia, and across Europe.

At the conference, I had two roles: First, I presented on an aspect of my research engaged with history and religious culture of the city of Ravenna, a late antique capital of Italy and rival of Rome. My focus was on the inclusion of specifically Roman saints into the religious fabric of early medieval Ravenna over a seven hundred year period (a task made possible by surviving manuscripts and church decorations).

The conference, however, also served as a book launch for a volume I co-edited with Marianne Saghy of Central European University: Pagans and Christians in the Late Roman Empire. New Evidence, New Approaches (4th-8th centuries).

The editors with the presenters of the volume: Rita Lizzi Testa (University of Perugia, far left), Ned Schoolman, Marianne Saghy (Central European University) and Trpimir Vedriš (University of Zagreb, far right).
The editors with the presenters of the volume: Rita Lizzi Testa (University of Perugia, far left), Ned Schoolman, Marianne Saghy (Central European University) and Trpimir Vedriš (University of Zagreb, far right).

Its formal presentation at the conference, with lectures by Rita Lizzi Testa (University of Perugia) and Trpimir Vedriš (University of Zagreb) and publication (made possible in part with the support of UNR’s Office of Research and Innovation) mark the culmination of a process that began in 2013. That year, I presented at a conference hosted by CEU in Budapest on that very topic, and was asked to help serve as editor as the revised papers began to be returned. In my role, I read, commented, and edited some of the papers, and helped to secure peer-reviewers for further in-depth comments on all (even my own submission on Late Roman lamps).

Yet the conference on the Saints of Rome was actually the second time I was in the city for an academic meeting while on sabbatical. In June, I held a very different position as coordinator for a two-day workshop on the intersections between history, art history, archaeology, geology, and paleoecology in medieval Italy held at John Cabot University (with the amazing help of Lila Yawn, their medieval art historian): Interpreting the Human and Environmental History of Medieval Italy: Sources, Methods, and Potential/ Interpretazione della storia umana e ambientale d’Italia medievale: Fonti, metodi e potenzialità. For me personally, this workshop checked the box of “exploring new projects” as my presentation, “From Ravenna to Rieti: Describing Landscape in Medieval Italian Charters,” was my first to engage in the environmental and ecological aspects of the period I study. But it was also a moment to take measure of the growing collaboration with an expert on forestry and a geographer: Gianluca Piovesan of the University of Viterbo and Scott Mensing from UNR’s own geography department.

University of Nevada, Reno Geography Professor Scott Mensing discusses landscape change at a conference in Rome.
University of Nevada, Reno Geography Professor Scott Mensing discusses landscape chang

Scott and Gianluca helped to select and invite the other speakers of our workshop, and in addition to presenting their own approaches to interpreting local environmental changes in medieval Italy, we spent the second day of the workshop discussing the future directions of our collaborations. At its conclusion, we had enlarged our global network and clarified the next phases of our research. 

As I look at my calendar for the next few months while on sabbatical, I see a number of other workshops, conferences, and lectures, in Turku (Finland), Oxford (England), Tübingen (Germany) and right here in Padova, all of which will present new opportunities to share various aspects of my research.   And like the two in Rome, they will also mark conclusions and beginnings.

In the next installment, being on sabbatical at the University of Padova…