Benet’s Research across Borders: Dr Maximilian Lau from Byzantium to China
Though the Christmas vacation is a quiet time for many, 2022 had barely begun when I gave my first lecture of the year, and to an especially international audience.
I spent the 5th of January speaking at the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations. The Institute is based at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, China, and their lecture series is co-hosted with the University of Cologne, Germany, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and broadcast online. The theme of this series is ‘Networks and Connectivity’, appropriately for a time when we have been kept apart by Covid19. I spoke about how Byzantium re-established itself in Anatolia after the Turkish conquests, and how that process was comparable to similar developments in Song Dynasty China.
Before the pandemic, I spent a substantial part of each year in the Balkans and the Middle East surveying castles, monasteries, and other sites from the eleventh-thirteenth centuries. I then compare this evidence with surviving texts in order to explain what was occurring in these regions, at a time when this part of the world was being reshaped by the events such as the Crusades.
My research has demonstrated that Byzantium was able to re-establish itself in Anatolia after the Turkish incursions of the eleventh century through a major program of fortification building. These fortifications were sited along roads and rivers, and between them they formed a network of defences that protected whole regions and facilitated logistical support for future reconquests. These fortifications then provided enough stability that major ecclesiastical sites were also constructed, leading to a flourishing of provincial life in what had been a war-torn frontier. This reflects similar developments during Song Dynasty China in its struggles against the Jurchens/Jin Dynasty. The Song managed to survive after the fall of their capital, Kaifeng, through the construction of military-agricultural colonies along its frontiers.
The evidence that survives from China fills in the gaps in our knowledge regarding how this process worked in Byzantium, and vice-versa. This research therefore allows us to understand how pre-modern societies could bring stable government and security to previously wild and dangerous regions.
It is also the foundation for future collaborative work on local government that I intend to undertake at St Benet’s, in collaboration with his colleagues from around the world. This project, entitled ‘Noblesse Oblige? ‘Barons’ and the Public Good in Medieval Afro-Eurasia (10th-14th Centuries)’ re-examines the role of local elites. This project will examine whether local elites were truly regressive agents whose self-interest was at odds with wider society, or whether ‘private’ rulers such as lords, amirs, kshatriya, and samurai in fact contributed towards the common good.
Dr Maximilian Lau is a St Benet’s researcher and Adjunct Professor of History at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo.