In a ground-breaking monograph first published in 1937, the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne argued that one could not understand the medieval West without reference to the Islamic East, or, in his famous phrasing, without Mohammed, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. We now know the details of Pirenne’s arguments about the persistence of the Mediterranean as a Roman lake, only to be divided East and West by the rise of Islam, are almost entirely incorrect. Nonetheless, Pirenne’s fundamental insight that the pre-modern world was deeply interconnected retains its force. Building on generations of scholarship, in particular Peter Brown’s reconceptualization of a long late antiquity which produced a flourishing in religious and cultural thought in a period formerly thought to be characterized by invasion and decline, we understand more clearly the extent to which connections existed and persisted across assumed boundaries, whether geographical or temporal or religious. The First Millennium Network seeks to extend this reorientation in scholarly perspective by finding creative ways to encourage interdisciplinary and comparative study of the entirety of the first millennium of the Common Era, particularly in Western Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic world. The Network places special emphasis on the diversity of, and interconnections among, the religious communities within first millennium societies—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Manicheanism, Zoroastrianism, etc.—in their multitude of forms.
In order to encourage scholarship of this nature, the First Millennium Network is currently organizing a program of DC-area events, including: a yearly high-profile lecture or similar event; a more regular, local seminar series; and a reading group. Our major public event of the 2018–19 academic year was a colloquium on “Constructing the Past in the First Millennium” on November 9, 2018. It was held on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park. At the event, scholars working from a Western European, Byzantine, and Islamic perspective each addressed the theme, followed by a panel discussion among our four speakers and the audience. Our speakers for this event include Courtney Booker (University of British Columbia), Fred Donner (The University of Chicago), Helmut Reimitz (Princeton University), and Allison Vacca (University of Tennessee, Knoxville). These events are open to the public, and are meant to draw attention to the fruitfulness of comparative research.
We have inaugurated a seminar series, in which local scholars present works-in-progress. This initiative is meant to foster connections in the field and to enrich all of our work by setting it into a broader perspective. Encouraging graduate student participation is a major goal of the Network. Therefore, graduate students have been warmly encouraged to take part in the seminars and to present their own work, but we will also seek to organize seminars intended primarily for both undergraduate and graduate students, in which they can exchange ideas and discuss research.
The Washington, D.C.-area is already host to an active reading group FMRG (First Millennium Reading group), which meets monthly to discuss provocative recent work in the field covered by the First Millennium Network. This group, founded by Jennifer Barry (University of Mary Washington) and Sam Collins (George Mason University) provides an informal setting in which to foster connections among scholars in different fields and at different stages of their careers. The First Millennium Network has coordinated with the reading group (formerly known as Washington Area Reading Group in Byzantine and Late Ancient Studies, WARBLS) to work together toward our common goals. Additionally,the FMRG and the First Millennium Network have forged strong ties with Marginalia, an online magazine intended to advance critical scholarship pertaining to topics on Religion in an accessible format.
A forum titled, Origin Stories: A Forum on the “Discovery” and Interpretation of First-Millennium Manuscripts, was published by Marginalia, August 2018. This forum spun out of a FMN event hosted by the Freer/Sackler galleries, part of the Smithsonian museums, in October, 2015. The event, prompted by the discovery of the ‘Birmingham Qur’an’ featured a discussion of sacred texts, their manuscript transmission, and how best to convey the technical complexity of such materials to a public audience eager to understand their import for contemporary religions. The forum expands upon these discussions and has linked up with The Lying Pen of Scribes: Manuscript Forgeries and Counterfeiting Scripture in the Twenty-First Century, the Norwegian project on forgery and provenance. Throughout the course of the forum, contributors addressed the scholarship and the politics behind the discovery, interpretation, and diffusion of such “new” texts.
Next year, the First Millennium Network will hold its first two day conference to discuss the limits and generative possibilities for engaging the broader concept of the First Millennium. This conference will then result in the first publication of the First Millennium book series. Stay tuned for more information.