Advancing Medieval Studies in Halle
Mikhail Boytsov, Professor in the HSE’s Faculty of History, recently held the Christan Wolff professorship at the Martin Luther University in Halle and Wittenberg. He spoke with the HSE news service about his experience working in Germany and his plans for future research.
— Tell us a little about your cooperation with Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg.
Martin Luther University has a rich history, having been formed as a union of two of Germany’s oldest universities. One was founded in Wittenberg back in 1502 where Martin Luther was professor, and the other was founded in Halle an der Saale in 1694. Today’s Martin Luther University takes great pride in its traditions in the humanities, especially history and archaeology. I first met colleagues from the Institute of History in Halle in 2008, having received an invitation to give a presentation there when I was a visiting professor in Heidelberg. However, I had met with the university’s leading medievalist, Professor Andreas Ranft, several times at various conferences in the past. He was the one whose initiative brought me to Halle for two months to fill the honoured role as holder of the Christian Wolff professorship, which was established relatively recently in 1999 to expand the university’s international connections. On the one hand, it is a great honour for the person who is invited, but on the other hand, it allows Halle professors and students to become better acquainted with research that is currently being conducted outside Germany.
— How is your work going in Germany? What obligations do you have as a guest professor?
The attractiveness of the Christian Wolff professorship, in particular, is that the person holding it does not usually face the burden of a large teaching load. First, it allows you to delve into your own research, using excellent library resources – not only Halle’s resources, but thanks to interlibrary loan, those of other German libraries as well. In addition, informal daily conversations with colleagues — both professors and students — play an important role. I would like to bring such friendly interdisciplinary communication to our country.
I did have an official duty to organize and lead a colloquium in the form of a weekly seminar inviting presenters not from Halle, but from other university centres. Thus, on the one hand, I had to use my connections to attract new people to the University of Halle, but on the other, I had an excellent opportunity to meet good friends and interesting colleagues. They all work on their own subjects, of course, but they belong to a broad research field in which I am very engaged. We decided to define this field using the short formula ‘The Court and Authority,’ which is how our colloquium became known.
— What is relevant today about a seminar on ‘The Court and Authority’?
A seminar on authority is always relevant, of course, because power relations are not only present during our lifetime, but in many ways shape this life. As for the court, this ancient and ever-changing institution, of course, was generally the source of power in societies of the past. In recent decades, historians increasingly focus on informal, unformalized, and non-verbalized aspects of power relations. Thus, the coronation ceremony was no less important for medieval society than, say, the constitution and written laws are for society today.
— What is your circle of colleagues and students like?
We agreed in the beginning that we would not limit our colloquium participants in Halle to academic luminaries, but rather would invite people of all ages and from different levels in academia. I don’t want to compare all of our guests together, but I would note that all the reports not only had highly professional content, but were also very well presented. Listeners – both students and professors — were truly fascinated.
— What are your future research plans?
Currently I am working on several articles devoted to topics that seem very different at first glance but are in fact quite closely related. First, I need to continue a review I started on one of the most famous legal artefacts of the Holy Roman Empire — the so-called Golden Bull of 1356 (also sometimes referred to as Germany’s first constitution). In my view, there are serious reasons to radically change our textbook understanding of this artefact. Whether I am correct in this assumption will have to be determined by discussion. Second, I plan to write about funeral ceremonies and embalming bodies of medieval sovereigns as an important and highly indicative cultural practice. Third, I am finishing several drafts on the political symbolism of the early Middle Ages. Fourth, I need to finalize a collection on symbolic gifts in the Middle Ages and submit it for publication. Fifth, I need to take part in discussions on the essence of the Middle Ages and on estate representation…
Right now, however, the most important thing is for ‘The Dynamic Middle Ages II’ to be as successful as it was the last time; it’s a very unique and bold event. We are very proud that the Higher School of Economics is bringing together the best young medievalists from across Europe to Moscow — a wonderful start to a better future for our discipline.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for the HSE news service
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