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 2014–15 academic year was a workshop on authority and delegation in the late antique and early medieval worlds on April 15, 2015, 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 three speakers and the audience. Our speakers for this event were Michael Cook (Princeton University), George Demacopoulos (Fordham University), and Patrick Geary (Institute for Advanced Study). Our major event of the 2015–16 academic year will be a public lecture by Chris Wickham (All Souls College, University of Oxford), paired Michael Bonner (University of Michigan). These events are open to the public, and are meant to draw attention to the fruitfulness of comparative research.
We are inaugurating a seminar series, in which local scholars will 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 will be 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 graduate students, in which they can exchange ideas and discuss research.
The Washington, D.C.-area is already host to an active reading group (WARBLS: Washington Area Reading Group in Byzantine and Late Antique Studies), 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 hopes to coordinate with WARBLS to work together toward our common goals. Additionally, WARBLS 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.