On February 7, a few of us in the department received an email from Egypt. At first glance, I thought this might be one of the periodic letters we get claiming a desire to learn about conversion and Christianization and an interest in our ‘school’. Although this mail requested general help, it did refer to a particular scholarship programme, a reference that made it seem more credible than the obvious spam. Nevertheless, I clicked through to the attachments with a small bit of doubt.
What I found was an application from an Egyptian doctoral candidate who was looking to come to Norway but needed support from a Norwegian institution before the application could be considered complete. And the deadline for submission to the Norwegian Research Council was fast approaching.
The proposal involved a look political thought of a medieval writer who was particularly concerned about the relationship between spiritual and temporal authority. In and of itself, a recurrent subject of interest, that is in a religious age how did these spheres overlap, how were they segregated and what kind of struggles arose from the tension. The medieval figure in question is often considered a harbinger of later political thought in that while he recognizes both secular and spiritual authority, he lobbies on behalf of secular authority. And, perhaps more importantly, argues for the supremacy of the people over both based on idea of civil community and citizenship.
This is not my particular field and so I know little about the state of research into this particular figure and where the proposed study lies within the field, but a few things did catch my eye. First and perhaps foremost was the idea that as a pre-cursor to the larger Reformation the political thought of this medieval writer could usefully serve as a model for how civic-minded reform can be voiced within a theocratic society. In other words, the medieval dynamic can be seen as a parallel and contrast to contemporary societies where religious authorities assert temporal authority.
A project that examines the ideas of a civil community in the medieval past that could be accepting of pluralism and difference among citizens of the state even as they are faithful to the church. It’s no great leap to envision how this project would reflect and could contribute to ideas important to the future of the applicant’s world. Given the political situation in Egypt up to this point, I wondered if the Western past provided in some sense a safe haven for exploring ideas that might be more difficult or dangerous to voice when they impinge on contemporary politics.
I reckon it would have been easier for people to conveniently forget the email from Egypt, but a few of us lobbied to have the applicant invited to Bergen. Some faculty believe that we should screen who we invite for the ‘best’ applications (a notion that is particularly difficult when these applications come from very different academic cultures not least of all because varying degrees of access to academic resources generate different standards for what is considered quality work). Others take the point of view that we should be touched that people want the opportunity to come to our institution and so should invite all interested while letting the Research Council debate the merits of the application itself.
My view was that if you are interested in using the European Middle Ages as a way of exploring political questions that resonate in a part of the modern world characterized by decades of authoritarian rule as well as sectarian strife, and if we can be of any help by providing access to academic resources and by offering constructive comments, then of course we would be happy to have you. Too often the medieval, and so the medievalist, is viewed as irrelevant, if not opposed to everything that is modern. And yet because much of the actual world does not live up to the modern ideal, we ought to be prepared to understand and acknowledge many forms of modernity, some of which might look in important aspects more medieval than we care to admit. So I spent the week of the seventh of February corresponding with applicant, securing an invitation and offering suggestions to the proposal itself so that everything came together before the deadline, just after Mubarak resigned.