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The seminar investigates the roles of literacy and writing in religious traditions.  Its goal is to serve as a research group for the comparative study of literacy and the uses of writing as a form of communication technology in world religions.  Approaching the relationship between religion and writing through the lenses of literacy and communication technology, the seminar strives to address all media – from inscriptions on stone and clay tablets to internet websites – and all literary genres – from myths and commentaries to divine revelations and hymns – as well as the theoretical and practical implications of the absence, or rejection, of writing.

Seminar Blog

Dagmar Riedel

Heidi Elizabeth Hansen

Meeting Schedule

10/19/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
5:00 PM
Writing on Ecstasy in the Academy: Can It Be Done? Should It Be Done?
June McDaniel, College of Charleston, Emerita


The topic of religious ecstasy has been largely suppressed in the academic study of religion, for the importance of religious and mystical ecstasy has declined in the modern West. The search for ecstatic experience in modern society has migrated into such areas as war, politics, terrorism, transgression, sexuality, psychedelics, and anti-institutional forms of spirituality. The loss of religious and mystical ecstasy, as both a religious goal and as a topic of academic study, has had wide-ranging negative effects. Writing in the fields of religious studies, psychology and anthropology must go beyond criminalizing, trivializing and pathologizing ecstatic and mystical experiences. Writers need to take these states seriously as important aspects of lived human experience.

11/08/2023 Zoom
12:00 PM
Deploying Writing and Craft in the Twelfth-Century Cult of St Frideswide
Andrew Dunning, Jesus College, University of Oxford


Anyone arriving to Oxford by train will pass through Frideswide Square. Visitors will quickly learn that Frideswide was an early English princess and abbess who became the patron saint of the city and university in the later Middle Ages. They are less likely to learn how this woman became a figurehead uniting Oxford’s town and exclusively male gown. The answer lies in a series of twelfth-century mishaps: a mismanaged foundation of a religious community, a Sicilian book-hunting expedition gone wrong, and an assassination. These seemingly unrelated threads come together in the journeys of a writer and regular canon, Robert of Cricklade, and his efforts to recreate a pilgrimage cult to an early English saint at St Frideswide’s Priory, an Augustinian community founded around 1120 out of the remnants of earlier foundations.

03/28/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
5:00 PM
Immanuel of Rome: A Jewish Dante?
Dana W. Fishkin, Touro College

04/18/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
5:00 PM
The King’s Song: Poet Kings in the Islamic East
Ali Karjoo-Ravary , Columbia University


This talk looks at the political importance of poetic production by kings in the Islamic east in the late medieval period by considering what kings aimed to accomplish through the production of their own divans. Focusing on the Turkic poetry of Burhan al-Din of Sivas (d. 1398), a Sufi and qadi who ruled eastern Anatolia for nearly 18 years, it contextualizes his divan in the convergence of Sufism and political power that marked the post-Mongol Islamic east. This talk will end by looking at how the divans of other kings, chief among them Isma'il I (d. 1524) of the Safavids, responded to and abrogated the poetic choices of Burhan al-Din.