EPIDENTITY at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds 2022

Written by Paweł Nowakowski on Sunday, August 1, 2021

Together with Yuliya Minets (Jacksonville State University, Al) and Mirela Ivanova (University of Sheffield), we submitted a proposal for three sessions at the

Leeds International Medieval Congress, 4–7 July 2022

The sessions are bound under one shared title Languages as Barriers, Languages as Bridges: Intra- and Inter-Lingual Negotiations across Ethnical, Political, Religious, Social, Cultural, and Gender Boundaries in the Late Antique and Medieval Mediterranean, and will broadly cover the following three topics:

  • The city and its countryside
  • The language and religion
  • The Eastern fringes

Here you can find our cfp (now closed).

Session I: The Eastern fringes

This session broadly examines the linguistic relations in the Eastern borderlands of Byzantium and beyond: from Eastern Europe via the Arabian Desert to the heart of the Nubian kingdoms. Valentina Grasso questions common views on the extent to which language was a bonding force for the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula before the appearance of the Qurʼān. Tomasz Barański seeks to explain the long-term Arab influence in the Middle Nile valley, and the main steps of the introduction of Arabic to Nubia. Mirela Ivanova gives examples from central and Eastern Europe of the translation of language as the translation of culture.

1. Valentina Grasso, University of Cambridge/ISAW, New York, An Arab-less Arabia? Literacy and Ethnicity in pre-Islamic Late Antiquity

While it is common to delineate geographical boundaries based on scripts and/or languages, the use of one language to define one space is inherently problematic for pre-Islamic Arabia. Scholars have claimed that language provided both a sense of cultural cohesion for “Arabs”, and at the same time a feeling of distinction from “non-Arabs”. There is, however, much uncertainty regarding the extent to which language was a bonding force for the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula before the appearance of the Qurʼān, the first Arabic document on parchment. While fewer than twenty inscriptions are accepted to be in ‘Old Arabic’, several languages and scripts were recorded in the peninsula during pre-Islamic times. Indeed, although Roman literary sources often tend to frame the pre-Islamic inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula as one group, the Arabians differed in traditions, languages, and customs. The ‘sociality’ of the Arabs only emerged following the rise of Islam, as the various polities of Arabia perceived each other as ‘foreign’ and ‘other’ based on lineage and culture, in particular of language and faith. Only at the end of the first millennium, when Islam attained maturation, the great majority of the Arabs viewed themselves as belonging to one community, built around one faith, Islam, and with one language, Arabic. This paper will explore the concept of literacy and the role of languages for the preservation of group identities in late antique Arabia through a comparison with its neighboring Ethiopia. In doing so, it aims to investigate the social implications of bilingual inscriptions in pre-Islamic context(s) and the pivotal emergence of Arabic as lingua sacra to shape identities at the dawn of Islam. 

2. Tomasz Barański, University of Warsaw, Inculcating Arabic into the Nubian soil – the process and its agents

Nubia had a peculiar place in the ideological vision of Muslim geographers, being neither under the Muslim rule (Dār al-Islām) nor the land of the Infidels (Dār al-Ḥarb). As a consequence of the failure to conquer the land to the south of the first cataract in the seventh century a special peace treaty (Baqt) was concluded between Muslim Arabs and Christian Nubians. Although a formal division was established, many links still connected these lands and attracted both sides to cross the border. In my paper, I would like to focus on the long-term Arab influence in the Middle Nile valley. The main steps of the introduction of the Arabic language to Nubia will be presented not only based on the historiographic descriptions but also on more tangible, and thus less disputable, evidence as epigraphic and documentary sources. Thanks to the archaeological finds, we know that it must have started as early as the mid-eighth century at least. In the later period, the Fatimid policy with its religious and mercantile agenda gave it another impulse to penetrate into the south. The final stage of medieval Nubia’s history, which, alas, remains largely obscure, witnessed a historic language shift. However, the process under study took centuries before Greek, Coptic and most of all the Old Nubian language lost their importance and Arabic became the main language of commerce, religion, and state.

3. Mirela Ivanova, University of Sheffield, Translating Language or Culture? Some examples from central and Eastern Europe

[Abstract: TBA]

Session II: The language and religion

This session offers a closer insight into the intricate links between language and religion. Marta Szada will show that, counterintuitively, the Nicenes (“Catholics”) hardly noticed the linguistic distinctiveness of “Gothic” Homoianism and did not refer to it in polemical discussions. Nor did the Homoians feel the need to cultivate their special attachment to Gothic religious language as a sign of their opposition to Nicene doctrine and practice. Silvio Roggo sheds new light on the language choice of John of Ephesos, attempting to associate it with John’s apologetic efforts following his conversion to the Chalcedonian creed. Milena Joksimović discusses correlations between Christian sexual morality and wording used to describe male and female adultery.

4. Marta Szada, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, How Gothic in language was “Gothic Arianism”?

The Homoian (“Arian”) Christianity of the Goths (but also that of the Vandals, Burgundians or Rugians) in the fifth and sixth centuries preserved the traditions of reading the Holy Scriptures in the Gothic translation of Bishop Wulfila and of using Gothic in ecclesiastical and liturgical situations. It remains uncertain, however, how widespread the use of Gothic was in the successor kingdoms of the West, and how it varied by period and geographical region. I will re-examine the evidence (literary mentions of Gothic, the corpus of Gothic texts, late antique codices) to suggest an approximation of the extent and character of the changes. It is also not entirely clear how important the presence of the Gothic in religious practice was for the self-understanding of the Homoian believers. In my paper, I will show that Homoianism in the barbarian West was always a predominantly Latin religious tradition that had increasing difficulty retaining its Gothic language component. Among the factors that contributed to the decline of Gothic in the Homoian church, I will include the decrease in the number of speakers, the fact that people with no Gothic heritage joined the Homoian church, and the relative unimportance of language differences to the development of the ethnopolitical discourse of the successor kingdoms. Moreover, I will show that the Nicenes (“Catholics”) hardly noticed the linguistic distinctiveness of Homoianism and did not refer to it in polemical discussions. Since it was not a hotly debated or controversial matter, the Homoians did not feel the need to cultivate their special attachment to Gothic religious language as a sign of their opposition to Nicene doctrine and practice.

5. Silvio Roggo, Trinity College, Cambridge, Between Greek and Syriac: the curious case of John of Ephesos

This paper sheds new light on the language choice of John of Ephesos, the author of an important source for the religious history of the sixth century, the Ecclesiastical History (EH), of which only the third part, treating the period 571-588, has been preserved. John, an anti-Chalcedonian, originated from northern Mesopotamia and his mother tongue was Syriac. However, from the late 530s until his death in c. 589, John used to live in Constantinople and quickly became one of the leading figures of the Miaphysite movement, at times even conferring with the emperors Justinian and Justin II, and with the patriarchs of Constantinople. There can thus be no doubt that John used Greek on an almost daily basis. Yet despite this, he wrote exclusively in Syriac, and hence for a public that was remote from his usual Constantinopolitan residence. John’s use of Syriac in the genre of church history is unique for the sixth century. As a church historian, John continued a tradition of exclusively Greek writers like Eusebios, Sokrates, and Sozomenos. Scholarship has of course noted John’s surprising choice of language, but not yet come up with a convincing explanation. This is also due to the fact that the EH has been rather neglected so far – there is still no reliable modern translation, nor has there been an in-depth study of the composite nature of the EH. I present new evidence for the hypothesis that John developed the preserved third part of his EH out of an apology in Syriac that he wrote in the early 570s to the Miaphysite leaders in the predominantly Syriac-speaking eastern provinces. The background to this is that John had accepted the Chalcedonian communion in 571 and was therefore regarded as a traitor by intransigent Miaphysites – an accusation that John had to dispel if he wanted to retain his important position. The apologetic nature of the EH is evident throughout this work and may explain why he decided to write church history in Syriac.

6. Milena Joksimović, independent scholar, Pula, Adulter vs. Moechus – The Impact of the Greek Language on the Terminology of Adultery in Christian Latin

A specific feature of Latin language is the existence of two lexical groups describing adultery – one, originally Latin, based on the term adulter, and the other, based on the word moechus, a Latinized form of Greek μοιχός. Terms gathered around the word adulter were voces propriae for adultery; the ones from the group based on moechus appeared sporadically and in specific contexts. Another characteristic of Latin terms for adultery is that they only describe a wife’s unfaithfulness. In patriarchal ancient societies only extramarital sexual relations of a married woman (that is, with her) were considered adultery. Husbands’ infidelity was not sanctioned. Latin terms for adultery, thus, described only the unfaithful wife, her lover and their actions, and did not refer to the unfaithful husband and his affairs. Christian sexual morality has brought great novelty – equal standards for both sexes and the request for men to limit their sexual activities to marriage, as well. This cultural change has been reflected in the language – Latin terms for adultery started to denote the husband’s infidelity. For describing this new concept of adultery, Christian authors often used terms from the lexical group based on the word moechus. This group was revitalized, as the author points out, due to the influence of the Greek-speaking Christian communities in the Roman West and due to the impact of the Greek language of the New Testament. The author examines complex socio-linguistic factors that influenced the mentioned linguistic choice and explores its specific aspects: semantic shifts, changes in the word frequency, and the emergence of neologisms.

Session III: The city and its countryside

This session explores the linguistic divisions between inhabitants of large settlements of urban character (cities, towns, etc.), and the population of rural areas in their immediate surroundings. Yuliya Minets focuses on the ways in which the Greek-Syriac linguistic divide was depicted in early Christian literature, in particular on the rhetorical “usage” of speakers of Syriac as a pedagogical tool to herd the Greek-speaking urban and apparently corrupt audience to piety. Paweł Nowakowski revisits a sermon by John Chrysostom drawing a sharp linguistic division between the people of Antioch and their fellow villagers or ascetics from the wastelands. Ilaria Bucci discusses the linguistic situation at Hatra, to explore how what we know about linguistic diversity (Hatran and Palmyrene Aramaic, Greek, Latin) in the city can help us detect the presence of particular groups and better understand the contexts where language contact occurred.

7. Yuliya Minets, Jacksonville State University, The Greek-Syriac Linguistic Divide as a Literary Construct: Bridging Barriers and Teaching Piety

The paper focuses on the ways in which the Greek-Syriac linguistic divide was depicted in early Christian literature. I explore the instances of deliberate emphasizing and deliberate ignoring the language barrier as a factor in communication between the characters of a narrative and as a way to secretly reveal or conceal the information; references to code-switching; rhetorical “usage” of speakers of Syriac as a pedagogical tool to herd the Greek-speaking urban and apparently corrupt audience to piety and to construct the images of awe-inspiring, though exotic forms of asceticism; to restate one’s orthodoxy and orthopraxy or to question them. In all these cases, language becomes an instrument that creates a special relationship between the author, his audience, and the characters of literary composition; the choice of language is closely related to issues of social differentiation, power, and control in a multilingual society. When it comes to early Christian literature, the author is often the one “used” the language – in addition to simply reporting on a character’s linguistic background or competence, the author could and often did employ the remarks on one’s code-switching intentionally in order to advocate for a specific issue or to present a certain case. Another focus of our analysis is mutual language-related stereotypes that speakers of Greek held against speakers of Syriac and vice versa. This will help us to glean a better understanding of the symbolic meaning, relative prestige, and contextual use of languages in Late Antiquity. In this paper, I inquire about the authorial intentions behind different choices in depictions of linguistic distinctions, and ask: What do the ways in which Greek-Syriac cross-linguistic communication is depicted in literary sources add to our understanding of the linguistic and religious processes in the late antique Near East? 

8. Paweł Nowakowski, University of Warsaw, Syriac – a monkish thing? Revisiting a passage from John Chrysostom

Among the sermons by John Chrysostom, one (On the Holy Martyrs [CPG 4357; BHG 1186]) has been famously disputed as a possible reference to either the villagers or monks from the hinterland of Antioch on the Orontes as speaking a language, or at least a linguistic variety, considered as “inferior” by the Antiochenes to their own variety of Greek. In his response, the preacher emphatically reproached the Antiochene Christians for ridiculing these strangers, and, instead, praised their zeal to undertake a tiresome pilgrimage to a Christian festivity. In my talk, I will revisit this sermon by comparing it with a letter by Ambrose of Milan (Ep. 74.16), apparently touching upon this very same issue from the perspective of a Westerner, and will conclude with a short overview of a similar remark by Severus of Antioch (Cathedral Homily 19, ll. 34–35), and the epigraphy of the Antiochene hinterland. Together, these sources may help us answer if there ever was such a significant linguistic chasm between the city and its countryside, as implied by Chrysostom, and if monks played any significant role in it.

9. Ilaria Bucci, Birkbeck College, University of London, Languages in contact at Hatra: a textual and archaeological perspective

Hatra was a large settlement in the Arsacid orbit, located on the frontier between Rome and Parthia. The city was an important religious centre, and its rulers controlled a vast area in North Mesopotamia that was mainly inhabited by Arab tribes. The epigraphic corpus is rather homogeneous, with over six hundred texts – including official inscriptions and graffiti – written in the local variety of Aramaic. Linguistic diversity is rarely attested in the town, and only a few texts in Latin, Greek, and Palmyrene Aramaic seem to signal the presence of particular groups. This paper will investigate those traces, to better understand the contexts where language contact occurred, and discover what they reveal about Hatra’s history and society.