Blogs > Cliopatria > Interdisciplinary conversations in several directions

Jun 15, 2009 2:53 pm

Interdisciplinary conversations in several directions

Medievalists operate in a climate where the word `interdisciplinary' is like rain in the UK. It falls on one quite a lot, one soaks a certain amount of it up whether one likes it or not (no medieval historian completely ignores objects, for example, even if one only uses them for slides in Powerpoint), and it is generally agreed that we need more of it to do our work well, by which is often meant, to make plausible or successful bids for funding. But, all the same, most people prefer it when the sun comes them out and they can luxuriate in the field they've made their own rather than continually having one's view messed up by alternative perspectives. Very few people seem to actually like the rain.

This is not least because it's not easy, if one's trained in one discipline, to acquire a habitus of thought that belongs to another. As something I was recently reading by John van Engen points out, this means continually operating in a species of intellectual argument with oneself, seeing all one's evidence from two or more perspectives.1 Now, I write as someone who thinks of himself as more interdisciplinary than most. I have a reasonable grounding in the physical sciences, I have a school level of mathematics and understand a very little statistics (allowing me to use words like `significance' and `percentage' with some basis) and I've actually read quite a bit of archæology, always the most important other discipline for a medievalist to be aware of. Also, one wayand another, I talk to anthropologists a reasonable amount, though I don't really have the reading background in their work that I would need to apply it to my own. I think I have some basis for an evaluation of interdisciplinarity as a prescription. And intellectually, I can see the truth in van Engen's `hard road' idea, but all the same some recent brushes with work from other disciplines leave me doubting whether it has to be that hard.

A small portion of a Slovenian manuscript written in Glagolitic script

The first of these was a paper in a volume of proceedings from a conference that I actually attended in my professional capacity rather than as a historian, entitled "Digital Cultural Heritage – Essential for Tourism", one of a series called EVA, for Electronic Information, Visual Arts & Beyond. They handed out the proceedings at the conference, and from a historian's perspective that was interesting simply because there are papers in the proceedings that weren't given, and there were other papers given that aren't in the proceedings (not least mine, but that now has a home elsewhere so that's OK).2 This means that the official record of the meeting is actually some way off the real events, which is an interdisciplinary example in itself. For that reason, and also since I own the book, I thought I'd better actually see what's in it. Mostly there are no surprises, obviously, and most of the papers are computer science of one level or another. A few of them however are genuinely interdisciplinary and one of these is a paper by a team from Vienna called"Static Stroke Decomposition of Glagolithic Characters".3 The abstract tells you roughly what they were at:

This paper proposes an adaptation of linguistic methods for computer application in order to determine the graphetic features of chracaters for the use of automatic script description. The characters are dissected with the aid of a skeleton into analyzable segments: static strokes and nodes. On these or on a binary representation of the character the distinctive features are calculated. Included in the analysis are also the stroke endings whose shape carries information about the writing tool. The test subjects consist of Glagolitic character images, both from a medival codex and a calligrapher.

As you can see this brings them firmly into the domains of palæography, the study of ancient scripts, which is one of the small bag of skills medievalists have to have to do their work.4 Because it involves recognition, this always looks like a very human business. One can describe an actual script system, like for example Caroline minuscule which has given rise to most of the modern European typefaces now in use, fairly systematically, but when dealing with individuals' own hands palæographers tend to use an almost-undefinable term, ductus, which contains parts of all of words like `attack', `slant', `speed', `comfort', `liveliness' and many other factors that all sound incredibly subjective and present mainly in the eye of the beholder. These people, however, had read enough palæography that they were aware of the factors; one member of the team, indeed, was a specialist in Eastern European scripts.5

Thus, what the paper does for the outsider, albeit mainly for Glagolitic (in which the Slavonic Bible was first written, and which remained in limited use in Croatia until the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though replaced elsewhere with Cyrillic), is to show that such factors are measurable, quantifiable and therefore reproducible in the scientific sense. The way that they analyse each letter-form as a grapheme, with a topology of strokes with a measurable form-factor and their junctions, could be applied to any script. It may well be that the trained human eye will be better at spotting the same scribe in several different manuscripts for a long while yet; but this shows that such people are spotting something definite and that there is therefore some scientific check on their findings and an accessibility from outside to such judgements. In the process, it also tells me something about my own discipline and its materials that I didn't consciously understand before. I think that is pretty much the definition of `good' interdisciplinarity, and other than understanding terms like `grapheme' and `form-factor' (which is a statistical measure of confidence in a graph plot relating to whether it forms a coherent shape or not, or so I believe), I did not have to soak myself in OCR science for weeks to follow this, just have had a few weeks of training in palæography many years ago and have messed with old scripts myself.

It may be, however, that the best way to incorporate interdisciplinarity in one's work is in highly technical cases like this, already something of a specialist skill in history and computer science both; the fringes meet more easily than the main bodies of thought of two different disciplines. (Glagolitic is an exceptionally good place to start on such work, too, since its full range of letter-forms hasn't even been fully collected yet: there are 256 known characters in it and more come up with each manuscript studied.) And this is even easier to do where you can work as a team rather than a single intellect, because of course you don't have to acquire the habitus yourself, just employ it and listen to it when it tells you why what you're saying sounds weird. Van Engen's hard road is one that can only really be walked alone.

It is still easier to have this conversation when you're dealing with small definite things than whole-sweep enquiries about major social phenomena, though. The more variables you try and study the more places your understandings differ, until you really can't substantiate a common ground at all. So my counter-example would be a paper I went to hear the other day because it was close by and seemed to touch on important themes for a medievalist, by a Cambridge post-doc in anthropology called Liana Chua, entitled"Speaking of Continuity: change, conversion and the anthropology of (Bidayuh) Christianity".6 She was talking about her fieldwork in Sarawak, a region of Borneo now belonging to Malaysia but with a very peculiar history, where in the last forty years Christianity has effectively replaced the old religion, Gawai, as a way of life, and now in her adoptive village there are three different Christian churches and a steadily declining number of old practitioners of the old religion, probably too few to ensure its survival beyond another generation. Her concern was with the way that old practices, both of practice and of internal thought, had been either incorporated into the new ways or discarded, but for this outside the interest was in, yes, that, surely, but also the process and motives of the actual conversion.

There are obvious medieval parallels to almost any case of a people's conversion to Christianity, and it wasn't even me that raised them in questions, I'm happy to say. Especially interesting in this case is that one of the reasons for the popularity of Christianity is principally that it's not Islam, which is the `state' religion of the Malay Peninsula by which Sarawak is ruled; there is a great deal of opposition to the over-privileged Muslims and the access to power that conversion to Islam, at the cost of one's local roots, gives one, as Dr Chua told it. There are of course many medieval parallels for a religion of opposition, especially of course within Christianity itself. Likewise, the way that the Bidayuh have adopted Christianity is a very performative one, prayer meetings for any special occasion and a spirituality very much mediated through objects, altars, books, rosaries, holy water and so on, aspects of some of which have been borrowed straight from Gawai. That gelled well for me with medieval Church councils trying to cut out the use of objects and old locations, and the commentator who raised the medieval parallels pointed out the different attitudes at conversion of the Franks, for example, who mostly destroyed pagan sites in a fairly total and symbolic manner, and the Anglo-Saxons, where Pope Gregory advised missionaries to repurpose and repackage (albeit not in those buzzwords) rather than confront and destroy; this made a good parallel for the differing attitudes of the Anglican and Catholic churches in the subject village as compared to that of the Evangelical Church of Borneo, who reportedly despise the old cult and condemn the materiality of the other churches' practice, instead preaching a concern with the soul and the hereafter that is very much letter rather than spirit for the other two.

The Bidayuh Longhouse in the Sarawak Cultural Village, Kuching

All the same, the biggest factor in conversion among the Bidayuh seemed to have been a sea-change in the actual experience of living in the communities concerned. Where sixty years ago the relevant village almost all lived communally in one huge long-house and worshipped the old way, and got their living from subsistence rice-farming, now they live in separate concrete houses around what remains of the old long-house, with mobile phones and satellite television and refrigerators, meaning that their communality, always expressed mainly through religious gatherings, now centres on the churches more than the homes. The diet is changed by the fridges, and subsistence agriculture no longer pays the bills so most families have a wage-earner who works in the city and comes home at weekends. In the cities the easiest identity to maintain is a Christian one, whereas you can't spend a day gathering reeds for a Gawai ceremony there. The way of life has changed completely, and for these religion is so much a matter of the day-to-day life that that makes the old religion far less relevant. Also, and interestingly, there is a feeling that it is just less effective as it loses people; Dr Chua spoke of a twenty-year period of testing where people would seriously evaluate their lives as Christians against their experience as Gawai practitioners to see which was working better for them; they very much do religion for the life now, not the life hereafter, which reminded me of some the preaching Bishop Daniel of Winchester is supposed to have suggested for Saint Boniface among the Frisians. It is not, therefore, that Gawai is considered false, just disadvantaged and less useful; times have changed and Christianity fits them better.

This is very interesting to me, but not much use. Except for the value in connection to a large state and community, which the Bidayuh have mainly used to undercut their identification with their actual government, these are not the factors in a medieval conversion. Christianity was not favoured by a changing world in early medieval Europe, except in as much as during the conversion period harvests may have been unusually bad and rainfall unusually high; but this continued after the official conversion of most of the relevant peoples.7 Therein lies the other problem: medieval conversion is usually depicted by the sources as top-down, dictated by a converted ruler, and popular adherence may have taken much longer, not least perhaps because of the lousy harvests continuing.8 In Sarawak, Christianity was certainly brought by the state, the prior one, and is now followed partly because of the existence of a newer and unpopular state-privileged religion, but it was never enjoined upon people and there were no penalties, except in terms of community participation, for not adopting it. So there are many interesting factors at work here that I recognise, and some interesting hints about how an agricultural people without much interest in theology might view the choice between religions, but they don't add to existing information so much as enhance it.

Also, as I have been reminded before when drawing these kinds of parallel, the subjects of anthropology live in a modern world. If I had their numbers and could speak the language, I could ring some of these people from where I sit typing this and they could tell me what they thought about events on the news in other countries. The Catholics there can watch the Pope on television; the global connectedness is a lot easier to spot, but on the other hand they get the Gospel preached in their own language. Did someone in a tiny village in a Pyrenean valley where they spoke Basque really react the same way to a Latin mass? What about someone in an Anglian-speaking coastal village in Norfolk where the main visitors were pagan Frisians and Swedes selling slaves and amber? Did the future look Christian to them in the same way as it did to the Bidayuh in 1980s Sarawak? I very much doubt it. It may even be dangerous to make comparisons without trying to take account of these differences, and I suspect that they are too huge.

So, unlike the Vienna paper on Glagolitic and my reaction to it, this isn't really an interdisciplinary conversation. I come out of it reminded that Bishop Daniel is a really good source and that top-down conversion does not equal doctrinal compliance and a change in thought-world at rural level; but I knew this from my own sources already. I learn that there is a debate in anthropology about continuity in religious practice over conversion; but so is there in medieval studies and we can drive it from our own material. And where we see matches, the differences make them useless except as prods back to our own stuff. To learn loads about Bidayuh culture and soak myself in the anthropological debates relevant to them as van Engen suggests is necessary would, in the end, probably not get me anything to take back to the Middle Ages. He suggests that in a lot of ways Hinduism is the most interesting parallel to medieval Christianity, in as much as it has a sacred text in a language monopolised by a learned caste that is nonetheless core to the beliefs of many peoples with different vernaculars mainly united by conquest, and close readers of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe will have seen this argument before, made persuasively by Michael Wood.9 There the hard work might yield a dividend; but actually, as long as the rain keeps falling, the small technical stuff may be a much easier way and more fruitful to irrigate our thinking.

1. John van Engen,"An Afterword on Medieval Studies, or The Future of Abelard and Heloise" in idem (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 401-431 at pp. 422-424.

2. Robert Sablatnig, James Hemsley, Paul Kammerer, Ernestine Zolda & Johann Stockinger (eds), Digital Cultural Heritage – Essential for Tourism. Proceedings of the 2nd EVA 2008 Vienna Conference, Vienna, August 25-28, 2008 (Vienna 2008). My paper was"A View from a Coin Room: the COINS Project and Numismatic Study", but it's changed a lot in getting ready for publication and I can't give full details of its new shape just yet; I should know before the end of the summer.

3. Maria C. Vill, Melanie Gau, Heinz Miklas & Robert Sablatnig,"Static Stroke Decomposition of Glagolitic Characters" in Sablatnig et al., Digital Cultural Heritage, pp. 95-102.

4. Van Engen attempts to list these skills in"Afterword", pp. 416-421. The standard introductory manual for medieval palæography is Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, transl. Daibhi Ó Cróinín & David Ganz (Cambridge 1990), but the casual browser may find Dianne Tillotson, The History of Scripts, online at, last modified 31 August 2005 as of 10 June 2009, more accessible.

5. Heinz Miklas, author of (among other things),"Zur Struktur des kyrillisch-altkirchenslavischen (altbulgarischen) Schriftensystems" in Palaeobulgarica Vol. 12 (1988), pp. 52-65.

6. Liana Chua,"Speaking of Continuity: change, conversion and the anthropology of Christianity", paper given before the Post-Doc Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, 8 June 2009.

7. My access to this scholarship is through Pere Benito i Monclús,"Fams atroces a la Catalunya de l'any mil" in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrès Internacional Gerbert d'Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 189-206.

8. Searching for the relevant hyperlink brought up the very useful Ian N. Wood,"How Popular Was Early Medieval Devotion?" in Allen J. Frantzen & Thomas N. Hall (edd.), Popular Piety: Prayer, Devotion, and Cult, Essays in Medieval Studies Vol. 14 (Chicago 1997), online ed. Frantzen at, last modified 21 July 2007 as of 10 June 2009.

9. Suggestion by van Engen in"Afterword", p. 426.

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