The history of the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle – In Conversation with Dimitri J. Kastritsis

An Early Ottoman History focuses on the so-called ‘Oxford Anonymous chronicle’, a comprehensive history of the Ottoman dynasty in Turkish. We caught up with author Dimitri J. Kastritsis to discuss Ottoman history and what we can learn from the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle. 

Could you tell us a bit about the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle and the history behind it?

The term Oxford Anonymous Chronicle (abbreviated OA) has come to be used for an Ottoman history completed in 1484, which survives in a single manuscript now at Oxford (Bodleian Library, MS Marsh 313). Not much is known about the history of the manuscript, which had previously belonged to the Dutch orientalist Jacob Golius (d. 1667). It seems Golius had used it to teach himself Turkish, as it contains many notes in pencil translating Turkish words into either Persian or Latin. After Golius’s death, the manuscript was purchased at auction by Narcissus Marsh, Archbishop of Armagh, who bequeathed it to Oxford University in 1714. That is how the manuscript came to be associated with Marsh and Oxford.

Unfortunately, nothing is known of its history before it arrived in Holland. It is likely that Golius or someone else acquired it in Istanbul. It is clear from the quality of the manuscript itself (the nice calligraphy and use of gold ink) that it was originally intended as a presentation copy, almost certainly made for the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512). That Bayezid was the patron of the work itself is stated explicitly in its introduction, and is also clear from the content of the historical chapters (see below). The author-compiler is unknown. There must originally have been a title page with his name, which is now lost. He was probably a member of the scribal and religious classes (the ulema) and informs us that his family was ‘nourished for generations’ by the bounty of the Ottoman dynasty. Also, he tells us he was asked by Bayezid to compile a history of the dynasty in Turkish, the vernacular language ‘which is in use in the lands of Rum’ (Byzantium or eastern Rome, which by that time had come under Ottoman rule). This was a common trend in the fifteenth century, and reflects similar movements in western Europe and elsewhere toward the production of works in vernacular languages. It is important to bear in mind that when the Oxford history was being written, there were still scholars who believed the proper language for history was not Turkish but Persian.

Which sources did you draw upon during your research? Did you come across anything that you found particularly surprising?

For my research on the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle (as reflected in the Introduction and extensive footnotes, as well as the translation itself) I drew on a broad knowledge and interest in this period of history. My ultimate objective is to try to see the early Ottomans, late Byzantium and the wider Middle East as a whole. This is what I did in my first book, The Sons of Bayezid (Brill, 2007), which is a detailed study of a single decade in the early fifteenth century. It is also the goal of my next, much broader book project, for which I have an advance contract with Harvard University Press. In fact, I did most of the research for An Early Ottoman History while on a Byzantine Fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks (Washington DC, 2013–14) awarded to work on the aforementioned broader historical study. But all these projects are actually related. It is impossible to understand this period as a whole without an interdisciplinary perspective, as well as an understanding of cultural production, which includes histories like Oxford Anonymous.

From the beginning, what I have found most surprising about Oxford Anonymous is the fact that fully a third of the history (the middle part) deals with a single decade: the dynastic wars between the sons of Sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389–1402) following his defeat by Timur (Tamerlane) at the Battle of Ankara (1402). This is the reason I became interested in Oxford Anonymous already as a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. Working on An Early Ottoman History gave me the opportunity to broaden my perspective and see how this text fits into the larger compilation (see below).

How does the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle compare to histories written around the same time? Is there anything that makes it stand out in particular?

The Oxford Anonymous Chronicle should be seen in the context of other comprehensive histories of the Ottoman dynasty written under Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512). This was a time when the Ottomans were consolidating their empire following the conquests and centralizing measures of Bayezid II’s father, Mehmed ‘the Conqueror’ (r. 1444–46, 1451–81). During this time, the Ottomans felt the need to explain who they were, how they compared to other Islamic dynasties, and how their great conquests in Europe (especially Constantinople) fit into the course of history. There was controversy over right religion: different faiths, but also different ideas and schools within Islam. Other points of contention included the role of the state and different elites within it, and escatological expectations which were part and parcel of all these political and religious controversies.

In Oxford Anonymous, the importance of all this is apparent especially in the introductory sections, where the Ottomans are compared to other dynasties and given a genealogy tracing their origin to Esau, the son of the Hebrew Prophet Isaac. There is an interesting argument about how the Ottomans are legitimate because they did not usurp other major Muslim dynasties. This was important at a time when they were known for having absorbed the territories of many neighbours, including Muslim rulers. Another aspect of the Oxford chronicle that is remarkable is its focus on dynastic struggles between Ottoman princes. As already suggested above, the compiler of the history chose to base over one third of his survey of Ottoman history on an older epic account of such dynastic wars. In fact, there is similar material elsewhere in the history as well. I believe the obvious explanation is that when the compilation was being made, its patron Bayezid II was facing a rival claimant to the throne: his brother Cem Sultan (d. 1495), who was living in western Europe as a diplomatic captive.

How do you feel An Early Ottoman History paves the way for further research into the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle and the Ottoman Empire?

As an original study of the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle, my book picks up where the late Victor Ménage left off in the mid-1960s. Ménage, who taught at SOAS in London and died in 2015, is still viewed as having laid the groundwork for understanding early Ottoman historical writing. He had plans for an edition and study of Oxford Anonymous, but these never came to fruition. So in a sense, my book revisits the work of Ménage and other pioneers, but with a new eye since these people were of an older generation. Put simply, following the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ in the humanities beginning in the 1970s, it is no longer enough to focus simply on historical facts or the sources from which compilations like Oxford Anonymous are derived. These aspects are still important, and are ones where Ménage did exceptionally well; so I have done my best in the book to follow in his footsteps. However, it is also important to look in more detail at the relationship between language, culture, and society, and at the different meanings that can be conveyed through different styles.

In my translation, introduction, and footnotes, I have taken pains to show the reader unable to read the original text how the language and style change from section to section, and what this could signify. For this reason, among others, I think An Early Ottoman History will pave the way for further research in early Ottoman history and historiography. Moreover, these days there is a growing awareness of the need for translations of Ottoman texts to be used for teaching, as well as research by non-specialists. In this respect, I believe my book will play a truly pioneering role, as there is nothing like it available in English.

Dr. Dimitri J. Kastritsis is Lecturer in Ottoman History at the University of St Andrews.


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History, Liverpool Interest

The contribution of Black seafarers to British maritime history – in conversation with Ray Costello

 The Black Salt exhibition at the Liverpool Maritime Museum is due to reveal the contribution Black seafarers to some of the most significant maritime events of the past 500 years. To celebrate its opening we spoke to Ray Costello, author of the accompanying book Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships about the roles of and experiences of Black sailors in the British navy. 

Black Salt

The Black Salt exhibition opens at the Liverpool Maritime Museum 29th September. Could you tell us a bit about the exhibition?

This major exhibition the Merseyside Maritime Museum are putting on is derived from my LUP book, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships (2012). It will occupy most of the ground floor, beginning in the reception area, and is to be presented as –

BLACK SALT: “… in the shipboard company of ‘old salts’… the greatest ‘melange’ of different cultures, races and languages… an important ingredient were seafarers of African descent – Britain’s Black Salt.”

I had already approached LUP to publish Black Salt when Rachel Mulhearne, the former Head of Merseyside Maritime Museum, told me that she was very keen on the idea of staging an exhibition based on this topic. This seemed a good idea at the time, as the book would be a good companion, but it was unfortunately at a decidedly ‘iffy’ time insofar as funding was concerned. At the time, the exhibition did not happen but fortunately the book went ahead and was considerably more than a slim ‘companion book’, never to be forgotten by the Maritime Museum, thanks to Janet Dugdale, the Head of Waterfront and Rachel’s successor, who was adamant that this exhibition was going to happen one day. Through her determination, it has!

How does it emphasise the ways in which sailors of African descent contributed to Britain’s maritime identity?

Black seamen have served on British ships since at least the Tudor period, and by the end of the period of the British slave trade at least three per cent of all crewmen were black and a far higher percentage since. Both the new exhibition and the book, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships, (Liverpool University Press 2012), help to highlight this overlooked group of servicemen by examining the work and experience of black sailors in the British merchant marine and Royal Navy. These ranged from all over the Black Diaspora, from impressed slaves to free Africans, British West Indians, and even remembering African Americans who served on British ships both before and after the independence of the American colonies.

One of the most important roles has also been in wartime, of course, spanning centuries. This includes not only actually fighting in the Royal Navy, but also the tremendous contribution made by black merchant seafarers. At the Battle of Trafalgar, one of Britain’s most important naval victories, sailors of African descent can be found in a variety of roles. The outcome of the battle would determine the command of the oceans for decades, of course, and when Nelson gave his famous signal, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’, many of his ‘old salts’ had sailed and fought with him before, including Britain’s seamen of African descent.

How does the exhibition depict the challenges faced by sailors of African descent both at sea and ashore?

In the exhibition we show that the dangers faced by even free early black sailors during the slave trade era could range from being captured by enemy ships and sold in America and the West Indies to being sold by the captain of the ships on which they served.

Later in their history, black crew working below deck could sometimes be overcome by heat exhaustion, especially in the tropics, when the temperature could rise to anything between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Black tartaric acid ointment was used to smear on burns, most men working in the stokehold wearing protective leather boots and an old pair of trousers. Trimmers in the bunkers sometimes wore little more than boots. This, then, became the norm well into the twentieth century and lasting until the decline of British shipping.

How did you come to focus your research on the topic of sailors of African descent in the British navy?

Over the past year I have enjoyed co-curating this exhibition, so I am naturally pleased. It had to be Liverpool, of all locations, as its old black community is largely derived from seafarers. As black seafarers have been an established part of both the Royal and Merchant Navies for centuries, it comes as a surprise to many that, although there been at least a publication in the United States about their own black sailors, there has been never a comprehensive exhibition or book on the topic in Great Britain. Any national memorial to seafarers of African descent is still lacking. The history of seafarers of African descent on British ships is very much a forgotten narrative, unknown to most people, and we have been happy to perhaps play a small part in rectifying this situation!

The book draws attention to the fact that the navy was possibly unique in that black and white could work alongside each other. Was this the case in any other industries? What was the impact of this?

You could say that black and white sailors simply had to have some sort of relationship, as, particularly in the Royal Navy, charged with protecting King and country, they were very much reliant upon one another. This did have its limitations, however, as there was always the possibility that as soon as they set foot on dry land their relationship could at least be altered as the cold reality of the societal norms of the day were re-established once more. Even aboard ship, there could be expressions of segregation, such as the ‘chequeboard’ system of a black crew keeping watch for so many hours, only to change with an all-white crew for the next watch. Few other forms of employment in shore jobs offered even a temporary relaxation, as men would be working together, or more likely segregated, in a very different ‘world’ from the strange little society of the ship at sea. In spite of these restrictions, we always find exceptions throughout the book, and in many different scenarios, an example being the officer who kept up a life-long friendship with a black able seaman, even leaving him something in his will. There was a good reason – this black seafarer had saved this officer’s life at the Battle of Trafalgar!

How did the experiences of black seamen or sailors differ to those of their white counterparts?

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, covering the Napoleonic Wars, they were to be found in deck occupations such as gunners, deck-hands and ‘top men’. ‘Top men’ were very much respected by both crew and officers alike, as they had the responsibility of working at heights in the rigging, setting sail and looking out for enemy ships, etc.

There were far less favourable conditions in the age of steam than in the days of the old sailing ships, when a black seaman could occupy a far wider range of employment aboard ship in both the Royal and merchant marine. In the age of the steam-driven ironclad ships, there were changes in the employment of seafarers of African descent, who were more likely to be found below deck; as cooks, stewards and stokers from the West African coast, India and Madagascar, as they were thought to be better suited to the heat of the engine room. Steam ships required fewer sailors of the traditional type, schooled in the intricacies of rigging and sail, and a newer breed of seaman replaced them.

Larger passenger ships also meant more black seafarers occupying a life below deck, as they were not thought to be suitable for passenger-facing jobs. Compare this with the first black female captain Belinda Bennett shown in our exhibition as now being in in charge of a passenger vessel!

Was there much chance of mobility in terms of rank for black seamen and sailors?

Needless to say, during the early days, certainly the period of the slave trade, black seafarers served at a time when the status of black people in European society was possibly at its lowest ebb, regardless of their social rank in their home countries, but even during the eighteenth-century, examples of royal naval officers of African descent individuals can be found who rose above that situation, finding respect and recognition from their crew-mates. It was by no means easy, however. A very sad case was that of a Black British seamen, 25 ­year­ old Norfolk-­born Barlow Fielding, who was thought to be petty-officer material, possibly at least a boatswain, by his captain, John Colpoys of HMS Orpheus. It did not take long before Fielding asked to be demoted, as his white fellow seafarers took exception to his rank and were making life difficult. His captain tried his best to help by having him transferred to another ship, but failed, resulting in Fielding having something that we would probably now call a nervous breakdown and ending up in Hasler Hospital in Portsmouth.

The book draws upon the experiences of individuals during this time, ‘their experiences span the gamut of sorrow and tragedy, heroism, victory and triumph.’ How did you discover these experiences? Did the experience of any one individual particularly surprise or move you?

Apart from the usual secondary and primary documentary sources, contemporary narratives written or dictated by black seamen themselves were sought, alongside oral testimonies of living seamen. Oral histories are the most fascinating, as some of the sailors’ stories have never seen the light of day before, adding something new to the narrative.

Although not oral testimony, I think my favourite is probably the Jamaican-­born John Perkins, possibly the first British post captain of African descent in the Royal Navy. The rank of post captain is an obsolete alternative form of captain in the Royal Navy, extremely high-ranking, even more than an officer in charge of a ship who is usually called captain regardless of rank, or commanders, given the title of captain as a courtesy, even if they did not currently have a ship! A post captain could eventually become an admiral if he lived long enough. What is surprising is that John (nick-named affectionately by his men as ‘Jack Punch’) is that he was black and achieved that rank in 1797 when the slave trade was still in operation. Later in their history, it was less unusual to find officers of African descent on commercial vessels and smaller riverine craft, but the Royal Navy would have to wait until the late twentieth century for another black captain, along with the United States, who did not commission its first African American naval officers, a group known as the ‘Golden Thirteen’, until 1944.

There are others, such as William Hall, the first black Royal Navy recipient of the Victoria Cross, but that, as they say, is another story, also included in the Black Salt Exhibition.

How to you think the book and the exhibition pave the way for wider discussion and further research into black seafarers and their role in the British navy?

I think that there is endless scope for further research, as most people I have spoken to seem quite surprised that so little has been done in this area, as, particularly in ports such as Liverpool, black sailors are common-place. I have been delighted at the interest already shown in the book and look forward to seeing the public’s response to the exhibition. I am sure that my publishers, ever in the lead of promoting new research, are no doubt as interested as I am.

There are both individuals and groups out there whose stories, both oral and written, have hardly been looked into. My own hope is that other researchers will ‘take the bait’ and delve into what must surely be a vast area of untapped knowledge just waiting to be discovered and publicised in a way that shows just how diverse a country Great Britain really is and has been for a surprisingly long time. Both the Black Salt book and exhibition at Merseyside Maritime shows that the City of Liverpool, with its old black community descended from African seafarers, is an excellent place to start.

Ray Costello is an independent historian and writer and an honorary research fellow of the School of Sociology and Social Science, University of Liverpool.

Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors opens on 29th September at the Liverpool Maritime Museum. Click here for more information.

For more information on Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships please visit our website.

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History, Liverpool Interest

How Battles Over Booze Shaped Modern Liverpool – In Conversation with David Beckingham

How did Liverpool transform its 19th century reputation for drunkenness? David Beckingham, author of The Licensed City explains the social impact of licensing laws in a city centred on drinking culture. 

What made you decide to study Liverpool and what did you focus on in your research?

For much of the nineteenth century, Liverpool enjoyed a terrible reputation for drunkenness. According to police statistics it was at various times the most drunken city in England. At its peak in the 1870s, there was something like 20,000 annual police proceedings for drunkenness. I was interested to find out more about why Liverpool looked so at odds with other cities.

I began by considering the role of numbers in constructing municipal reputations. I was cautious of these numbers, aware that they were counting incidents of policing and not every act of consuming alcohol. But I wanted to know what that record said about Victorian Liverpool, a city whose civic ambitions betrayed a series of social anxieties.

This meant asking why the authorities in Liverpool thought that the city had such a drink problem. Because policing reflecting anxieties about largely public behaviours, I started to consider the role that drink played in the social and street life of the city. This took me on a kind of archive tour of the docksides, the slums of north Liverpool, the mercantile heart around the Town Hall, and the theatre land of Williamson Square. I focus on the regulatory mechanism for controlling the sale of alcohol through pubs. This is the licensed city of my title, a city where regulators were keen to address the links between drink and a range of social problems.

How did you go about your research for this book? Were you surprised by any of your findings?

My book grew out of a PhD in Geography. Most of my research was done in Liverpool’s Central Library, where I read the minute books of the Council, Watch Committee (which was in charge of policing) and magistrates. Newspapers were also fantastically useful. I particularly liked reading old satirical papers like Porcupine. They provide a very different angle on the sometimes rather dry tone of official minute books and, even through their criticisms, revealed the sense of civic pride and identity so central to social reform.

The archives also have some wonderful temperance material, produced by reformers campaigning against drink. This included an amazing set of maps of pubs in different parts of town, which are reprinted in the book. Being trained as a geographer, I was interested to think about what kind of political work was done by representing information in this way. They show us how tempting it can be to construct reductive moral arguments about people and places.

I really wanted to learn about the cultures of Liverpool’s pubs. We know what they looked like: plans formed part of the licensing process and there are plenty of street photographs that reflect changing branding and design. Liverpool still has some famous examples of pubs from the period. I tried to imagine what they would have sounded like as people talked over their beer about their daily concerns. The written records aren’t really set up for that, of course. Things were usually recorded when they went wrong, but by understanding this it is still possible to glimpse daily life.

Most surprising, to me, was just how detailed these records could be. They show magistrates manipulating the layout of pubs, doing away with screens or doors to cosy corners where people could get up to mischief. My favourite examples come from cases where publicans were tasked with managing women who were reputed to be prostitutes. The law didn’t ban women from seeking liquid refreshment, but it asked that they stay no longer than was necessary for ‘reasonable refreshment’. Importantly, it didn’t spell out how long this was. One London Road publican was told that if he spotted a known prostitute she should not be allowed to stay on his premises for longer than four minutes. The obvious concern was to prevent pubs being used by prostitutes to solicit for sex. To me it conjures up an image of the pub’s staff lining up clocks along the bar. I can’t imagine the magistrates’ intention was to endorse speed drinking, but this tells us a lot about their priorities. It has been really instructive to see just how these gendered moral codes ran right the way down through the social life of the city.

Photograph courtesy of Colin Wilkinson at Blue Coat Press

Why did alcohol become such a pressing political issue in the nineteenth century?

In a way, that concern with prostitution helps explain something very important about drink. It intersected with such a broad range of social issues and policy arenas, right the way from labour productivity and criminality through to health and housing reform.

It is clear to me that the problem of prostitution played a particular role in politicising the management of pubs in Liverpool, in no small part because of the political clout of some of the city’s brewers. This helped turn drink from a question of individual moral responsibility into a collective question about the city’s management to be challenged through the ballot box.

Nationally, the growth of the temperance movement also reflects a distinctive feature of drink: it made really very tangible an important and unresolved debate about the rights and reach of the state to govern individual behaviours. This is really what got me interested in drink in the first place. It is a great case study for understanding the developing governance of everyday life in Victorian Britain.

To what extent did you find that reforming licensing laws tackled the social issues that Liverpool was facing in the nineteenth century?

That’s a really important question. It is wrong to assume that the broader social changes I narrate were all down to licensing. Licensing has to be seen alongside other reforms such as slum clearance, as well as changes in prosperity and social attitudes to drink. But that’s the interesting thing about drink: it links to so many other features of urban life. The magistrates reduced the numbers of licences, particularly beerhouses in the working-class parts of town, and they really did try to address what went on in pubs. They also learnt how to use licensing to shape the world beyond the pub. In that, they showed that licensing was a useful tool of social governance, and the argument I make is that this was often directed at behaviours other than simply drinking.

It would also be wrong to see any successes as all their own work, however: I place great emphasis on the campaigns of social reformers. They were central to the definition of particular behaviours as problems that required intervention. For me the most telling thing is that reformers thought that licensing was working. This fed into a really useful political narrative that their social action was helping transform how their city was run. That takes us full circle back to the idea of reputation.


For more information on The Licensed City please visit our website.
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The ‘truth’ behind Atlantis – Christopher Gill on Plato’s Atlantis Story

Christopher Gill, author of Plato’s Atlantis Story, discusses the philosophical significance of Plato’s compelling Atlantis story and how the mythical city has captured our imagination throughout time. 

Could you give us an overview of Plato’s Atlantis Story?

First of all, it’s not just the story of Atlantis. That is the famous name, but it’s actually a tale of two cities. It’s the story of Atlantis and Athens, two long-ago cities in Greece, and both of them are set in an idealised past. It’s about the character of the two cities, especially the contrast between them, which is a contrast in constitution, structure and character. The story describes each of them separately and leads up to a future war which is never actually described, a war which leads to the defeat of Atlantis – and that is something that is often glossed over in people’s idea of Atlantis. Ancient Athens wins and Atlantis is defeated.

What is the philosophical meaning of the story?

To get the philosophical meaning, it’s useful to think about the relationship between the Atlantis story and other major Platonic works of philosophy. There is an explicit link to the Republic in that the philosophical meaning of this story is a political one. We have the equivalent of the ideal state of the Republic set in ancient Athens and we have a kind of counter-ideal in Atlantis. The focus, in both cases, is on their structure or constitution, which is what Plato’s Republic is also about. Political structure is important and gives rise to events – and this is part of the philosophical significance of the story.

You get another indication of the philosophical significance if you think about the relationship to the Timaeus, the story of the creation of the universe – both stories are put side by side in this text. Both stories, in different ways, place human life in the context of the cosmos, and this greatly expands the perspective that you have on the city as a political community. In the Atlantis story, we find a massive expansion of time, space, and geography; we go out to the far west and we go far back in time. The story invites us to place the city in this much broader perspective. Also, the description of the city is very much centred on its physical context, showing the city in its material and environmental context, just as the creation story is an account of human beings being formed within the universe as a physical entity.

These themes, the political theme and the theme of the universe, are expressions of the more general idea of making the ideal into something concrete, physical and actual. The two cities are specific expressions of the ideal and the un-ideal political community and Atlantis functions as a foil or contrast to the ideal.

What is the significance of Plato’s presentation?

This volume brings out the significance of the use of dialogue and the interplay between characters. The dialogue between the figures (Socrates and the other characters) frames the story, which forms part of their conversation. Plato in other writings uses dialogue form and tells stories (his ‘myths’). But this story is quite unique in Plato, offering a quasi-historical description of two cities, going back far beyond Plato’s own time. It is very vividly presented, with highly specific and graphic presentation of both the cities, their geography, topography and the physical expression of their political life. Of course, that’s what has captured people’s imagination over time. The description reflects the 4th/5th century Athens of Plato’s personal experience whilst also creating an idealised past.

Also, Plato presents the account in such a way that the theme of truth runs through the story. It poses the question, implicitly: what is truth? Critias insists that his story is true and accurate but it looks suspiciously unlike a true story, and more like a philosophical fable. The story starts like a myth, so it is puzzling when it is described as true. Running through the conversation between the characters is this interplay between truth as fact and truth as ideas. This interplay feeds back into the core philosophical point in the story about making the ideal into something actual. It’s difficult to work out when the story is set, whether it is real or not, whether it could have been real. There is a  slightly surreal quality to it all, which helps to unsettle our notion of truth and makes us raise profound questions, which is Plato’s ultimate aim in the story.

 Why do you think people are still drawn to Plato? What makes him so significant?

The reason why we’re drawn to Plato is because he is an absolutely brilliant, world-class philosopher. It’s like being drawn to the Bible or Shakespeare or Darwin. The ideas are still philosophically powerful for us. But also, I think Plato also still attracts because he’s a wonderful writer. He is bold, his conceptions capture people’s minds and imagination. He combines philosophical and literary brilliance. It’s that combination of the philosopher and the author that makes him still continually compelling to us.

The story-telling is key in this text, people return to again and again because it seems so vivid that people almost feel it must be true. It’s so wonderfully told, and with such richness of detail, that it has driven people over time to actually look for Atlantis even though it absolutely isn’t there.

What do you think will make this book useful to students?

There are two kinds of readers who will find it really useful. One is Platonic scholars or philosophy scholars in general; they will appreciate the fact that it is comprehensive, with the text, the commentary, the translation and vocabulary brought together in a compact format. There’s a very long and in-depth and new interpretive essay which builds on previous scholarship on the work. So the book has a definite appeal at the academic level.

But there’s also something for everyone because some can just use the translation, and others can make use of the book as a whole. It is especially directed at students, people studying Greek at university or school. It is a very practical text, in a number of ways. This is partly because it’s comprehensive, but also because it gives a lot of help with the grammar and translation, help that students need to work their way through this text. There is a detailed grammatical commentary and a full vocabulary of Greek words, as well as a new translation of the text. Alongside this, the unusual presentation of the text in bite-sized chunks of notes and commentary makes the content more digestible. This book is practical, engaging and designed to provide what modern students need.

For more information on Plato’s Atlantis Story please visit our website.

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Challenging perceptions on Columbanus and Jonas of Bobbio – an interview with Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood

Perceptions on the life of Columbanus, Jonas of Bobbio and hagiography itself are changing in the eyes of historians. We interviewed Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood, authors of the highly anticipated Jonas of Bobbio to find out more. Jonas of Bobbio

How long have you been working on Jonas of Bobbio? Have you encountered anything surprising in your research?

O’ HARA: What has amazed me is the interest and pride taken in these long-dead figures by the local communities such as in Bobbio and Luxeuil where it is very much living history and part of their civic identity. The slow work of translating Jonas’ Latin gave me a greater appreciation for his skill as a writer and for the subtlety of his approach. Unknown to me, Ian Wood had also been working on a translation and we started to collaborate on the volume in 2013 following a meeting at a conference in Bobbio and the collaboration has been very fruitful.

WOOD: I first started working on the Vita Columbani in 1974, and my first article which dealt with the text was published in 1982, although I had already published on sixth- and seventh-century monasticism in 1981.  Since then I have published over a dozen articles on the text, which was also the focus of one chapter of my book The Missionary Life (2001).

 Jonas of Bobbio is best known as the author of the Life of Columbanus and his Disciples, what is the importance of this work today?

WOOD: The Life of Columbanus is one of the great works of hagiography, and it dominates modern interpretations of the seventh century – although one can question whether those modern interpretations have made adequate allowance for Jonas’s own intentions.

O’HARA: As well as being one of our principal sources for Columbanus and the monastic movement he initiated in Francia and Lombard Italy, the work is important as a historical source for the history of Europe at this time. It tells us a lot about travel, monastic foundations, politics, and new forms of religious life during this key period of transition.

 What part does the genre of the text play?

WOOD: The genre of the text (i.e. the saint’s life, hagiography) determines the parameters of Jonas’s narrative, but at the same time there are novelties about his text, not least the creation of a second book, on Columbanus’s disciples.

O’HARA: In the case of Jonas we are fortunate that the work was composed only 25 years after Columbanus’ death so he had to remain faithful to the historical outlines while editing some more controversial aspects of the saint’s life. It is pretty easy to detect what is genuinely historically accurate from what is spurious thanks to having the corpus of Columbanus’ own writings and other historical sources which act as a kind of control to Jonas’s account.

The book may be described as a ‘travelogue’ through Western Europe, could you explain more about this?

O’HARA: One of the exciting things about the work is that it reads like a religious odyssey through Western Europe at the turn of the seventh century because it follows the travels of a holy man from Ireland through France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, to Italy where Columbanus died in 615. Jonas is a master storyteller who weaves monastic foundation narratives, adventure, drama, intrigue, and conflict into his narrative of this headstrong holy man.

Wood: I have an article in the latest Antiquité Tardive that looks at this question in detail, but, leaving aside the spiritual nature of the travelogue, which has been dealt with in a fascinating article by Bruno Judic, Jonas tells us more about travel in western Europe in the seventh century than any other text.

O’HARA: He knew the places he was writing about and he had met and talked with the men and women who had known Columbanus personally. One of the important aspects of this work is that it is the work of a near contemporary.

What is the importance of the monastic foundations of this period?

WOOD: By the end of the seventh century around one third of Western Europe was in the hands of the Church.  Although much of the property was obviously given to bishops and episcopal churches, the development of monasticism was a major factor in the ecclesiasticisation of Europe.

O’HARA: We see a radical transformation in the seventh century in the ways monastic groups and secular elites co-operate and the ways religious norms begin to influence court culture and the exercise of power.  The new Frankish elites became patrons of this new monasticism, endowing monasteries with vast amounts of land and wealth from their own resources. These new monastic centres were plugged into royal and aristocratic networks and functioned as places of intercessory prayer and cultural memory.

The book reveals that Jonas was heavily influential on perceptions of Columbanus. Why are we beginning to realise that this is the issue?

WOOD: In general, hagiography was regarded as rather unreliable evidence until the 1970s: there followed a period in which hagiography was considered much more seriously, but the importance of the input of the hagiographers themselves is, in general, a relatively recent historical observation – I think I am right in saying that my article of 1982 was one of the first historical pieces to put Jonas, rather than Columbanus, at the heart of an argument.

O’ HARA: My view is that Jonas mirrors many of the concerns and issues that were important to Columbanus. Jonas was of course influential in shaping the perception and image of Columbanus, but he relied on the Bobbio tradition and on eyewitness reports. If we read Columbanus’ writings and Jonas’ account together I think they are compatible in many respects. He could not make it all up because many of the people who knew Columbanus were still alive and he was writing in part for them. One of the key aims of Jonas was to revindicate the reputation of Columbanus in the face of attacks on his legacy from members of the Frankish communities. In many ways I see Jonas as a conservative reactionary to the crises that had erupted in the Frankish communities in the years following Columbanus’ death.

You can find
 Jonas of Bobbio: Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Réomé, and Life of Vedaston along with other texts in our Translated Texts for Historians series on our website

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