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This seminar addresses subjects of common interest to all branches of medieval studies. The seminar particularly encourages interdisciplinary topics and approaches, which will stimulate discussions of issues in the study of medieval culture. One of the great advantages of the seminar is that it brings together representatives of medieval disciplines, from Columbia and elsewhere, who otherwise would have only rare opportunities to talk about questions of common interest.

Neslihan Şenocak

Hannah Weaver

Jilian Pizzi

Meeting Schedule

09/21/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
6:00 PM
Lovebirds: Avian Erotic Entanglements in Medieval French and Occitan Literature, Joint meeting with (777)
Eliza Zingesser, Columbia University


In this talk, I will explore how birds supply erotic affects and drives in medieval French and Occitan literature. I argue that erotic desire and pleasure are frequently both mimetic, in the sense that the human subject has to learn them from a bird, as well as interspecial— interspecial since both are staged as contingent on certain conditions (the hearing of birdsong) and on a certain set of relations (between the human poetic subject and the bird). Although the characters in these texts do not orient their desire towards the same object as the bird, they nevertheless learn how to desire, and that they should desire, through an encounter with birdsong. I argue that troubadour love songs, especially, rely on birds as a motor for erotic affects, a trait that the trouvères reacted against by professing their indifference to birdsong. The fact that such alleged indifference became a topos in its own right and, in this sense, expected, represents another type of reliance on birds. I show, further, that this affective dependence is often coterminous with a strange spatiality, where inside and outside blur and the distinction between human and avian subjects becomes difficult to determine.

11/30/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
5:30 PM
Patterns of diversity: law compendia and legal pluralism in the Carolingian world
Helmut Reimitz, Princeton University


From the fifth to the tenth centuries a legal culture emerged in the Latin West that might best be characterized as legal or normative pluralism. Many of these laws and legal traditions had grown out of the late Roman world, including some of the barbarian law codes which often present a mixture of Roman and non-Roman legal norms and practices. But after the dissolution of a centralized Roman government in the Western Empire, which had included local, regional and even non-Roman laws within an imperial framework, the relationship of these laws to each other had to be defined in new ways and this ongoing work and adaptation also informed how new laws and law codes were conceptualized and codified in the following centuries. A particularly fascinating window into this learning process is the quite manifold and rich corpus of legal compendia that have come down to us from the Carolingian period. It represents the coexistence, interaction, and interdependence of a variety of legal orders and traditions. Just as importantly, these many laws began to be compiled and codified, so that a single manuscript might gather together regional adaptations of imperial Roman law, provincial Roman law, local customary laws, the laws of communities that came to live in the Roman empire (the so-called “barbarian” laws), and last but not least Christian and ecclesiastical laws. In the paper I would like to discuss some compendia from the Carolingian period and compare their specific selection and arrangement with the spectrum of possibilities available to editors and compilers at the time. The comparison shall help to illustrate that these compendia did not just have a representative function but demonstrate the urgent and intelligent work on legal frameworks and institutions and how this works reflects changing patterns and structures of legal pluralism from the time of Charlemagne to the later and post-Carolingian world.

02/22/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
5:30 PM
The Ethiopian Community of Santo Stefano, Rome: Between a European and an Ethiopian Archive
Samantha Kelly, Rutgers University


This talk will present findings from Samantha Kelly’s forthcoming monograph, Translating Faith, that traces the fortunes of an Ethiopian Orthodox community in the spiritual capital of Latin Christianity during a century of profound religious upheaval and geopolitical change. Drawing on sources in Gǝʿǝz and European languages, this study foregrounds Ethiopians’ experience as they established a distinctively Ethiopian pilgrim hostel and monastery in the midst of Vatican administrative organs, and as they disseminated their expert knowledge of Ethiopia in conjunction with Latin Christian collaborators and patrons. Special attention will be paid in this presentation to the different perspectives to be gained by foregrounding the Ethiopian archive alongside the European.

03/19/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
5:30 PM
War, Crusade and the Making of Famine in the Mediterranean (11th-13th Centuries)
Pere Benito i Monclús, University of Lleida


Over the last two decades, the paleoscientific revolution has had a profound impact on the way we make history, generating new narratives that have challenged older historiographical paradigms. Studies on premodern food crises have been undergoing a similarly important renewal, spearheaded by specialists in the social and economic history of the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds. Emerging new works integrate theories derived from the New Institutional Economics as well as the literature on contemporary famines, with emphasis on Amartya Sen's entitlement theory of famine.
Famine has been shown to be closely related instead to urbanization, development, market integration, and warfare. Where the latter is concerned, recent studies suggest that between the eleventh and the mid-thirteenth centuries, supra-regional famines were closely related to the projects of crusade. The aim of this talk is to examine this hypothesis in the context of the First and Second Crusades, the Catalan-Pisan crusade against Mallorca (1113-1115), and the first campaigns of conquest of the Kingdom of Valencia by the armies of James I (1234-1235).

04/11/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
5:30 PM
The Bucolic Mode in Byzantine Art and Text: Imperium, Weather, and Nature
Paroma Chatterjee, University of Michigan


This paper makes a case for the little studied bucolic (or pastoral) mode in image and text in Byzantium. The paper suggests that bucolic themes were linked, at different moments of the era from the 4th to the 15th centuries CE, to spheres as diverse as imperial power, the workings of weather, and the (somewhat) systematic understanding of nature. However, the very elements perceived to constitute this mode work against the normative principles structuring Byzantine art. This is partly why the bucolic has received scant attention in the discipline. But interestingly, the mode’s very contingencies informed its efficacy in the contexts where it was deployed.