By Jonathan Shepard
Historical Insights: Focus on Teaching (The Higher Education Academy), 2011
Introduction: Byzantium impinges on mainstream medieval history at many points, from the Franks of Clovis to the rise of the Italian maritime city states and on into the Italian Renaissance. Yet, like its ‘God protected’ capital city, it is not particularly accessible to — and in fact deters — the outsider. Faced with the ever-rising tide of publications in their own fields, Western medievalists can be forgiven for leaving Byzantium to the Byzantinists. But they will be missing out on new ways of looking at topics such as Holy War, the ‘Otherness’ of the Islamic world and the formation of political structures in Eastern Europe. As part of a wider module, a couple of sessions on Byzantium — or visits to Byzantium — can throw light on any of these topics. The narrative sources are now mostly in English translation, surveys and text-books are available, the number of English-language monographs is growing and there is a fair amount written on Byzantium’s links with ‘outsiders’, often a topic of fascination for undergraduates.
But what, and where, was ‘Byzantium’? Territorially and institutionally it underwent drastic metamorphoses in the period c.400–1453. The few fixed points were: the city of Constantinople; adherence to the Christian faith as defined by Church Councils and upheld by the emperor; and a sense of being the true ‘Romans’ even though Greek was taken to be the distinguishing language of civilisation. The history of ‘Byzantium’ can easily shade off into the history of the Orthodox Church, or of Eastern Christianity in general. Pinning down Byzantium’s history and political culture, and even trying to determine its chronological limits (c.400 or c.500, or 324 when Constantine the Great decided to make his capital on the Bosphoros?) is one of its challenges, wide open to first-years and professors of Byzantine history alike.