“From the Medievalist’s Point of View, a Transregional Approach Is Often Inevitable” – An Interview with Christoph Mauntel
In the series „Feldman Fellows Revisited“ we regularly interview former and current Feldman fellows on aspects of mobility in academia, transregional approaches abroad and where they stand on definitions of transregional studies as voiced in our series “All Things Transregional”. The Feldman fellowships allow young researchers to pursue research in two to three host countries with institutes and branch offices of the Max Weber Foundation. Named after the American historian Gerald D. Feldman (1937-2007), these fellowships enable selected researchers to spend up to three months abroad to visit archives, libraries and other research facilities on site. With the format of the funding being already transregional, we are wondering: to what extend does transregional funding promote transregional research?
What project were you working on during your fellowship? Did you have any previous experience with the research facilities in your countries of destination?
My research project focuses on the concept of ‘continents’ and its meaning for Latin Christianity during the Middle Ages. The knowledge about the three known parts of the world, Asia, Europe, and Africa, itself is of Greek and Roman origin, but gained importance only during the Middle Ages, as it was transformed into a religiously coined concept. My work during the Feldman fellowship (in Paris, London, and Moscow) involved first and foremost studying medieval texts and maps that describe and/or depict the continents.
Before my research trip in 2015, I had already been acquainted with the German Historical Institutes in Paris and Moscow. The institute in Paris hosted me in 2010 with a fellowship in the context of my PhD-thesis, allowing me to study sources in the National Archives as well as the National Library. In Moscow, I had the opportunity to get to know the Institute during an internship in 2009. In September 2015, I was especially lucky to be able to attend the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the Institute, despite the devastating damage a fire had caused to the Institute’s building in January. The visit to the Institute in London was my first one. I particularly enjoyed the possibility to present my research at the Institutes’ colloquium.
What role does mobility play for your research? How important is it for your project to work transregionally?
Especially for historians, access to primary sources is of key importance. Many medieval sources are by now edited or, a more recent development, accessible in digital form. However, not all necessary and important sources are accessible from one’s armchair – and not all questions can be answered by traditional editions or digital scans. In many instances, it is essential to have a close look into the manuscripts, on maps or other archival sources. This kind of work would not be possible without mobility and accessible libraries. Another important point, of course, is the contact to colleagues. Here as well, many things can nowadays be handled via email or telephone. But for all the good questions and hints we do not know yet, the coffee breaks during conferences or an after-work pint with colleagues are irreplaceable.
It goes without saying that a project focusing on descriptions and depictions of the world on a global scale has to work transregionally. Medieval best-sellers such as the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville († 636) were widely distributed in medieval Europe and surviving manuscripts can still be found in many libraries – across the world. The challenge here is to balance overall questions (how do manuscripts of Isidore’s text describe/depict the continents?) with regional specifics (are there specific characteristics of British, Spanish etc. manuscripts of Isidore’s text?) – not to speak of texts that found distribution only in certain areas. For medieval history, one could argue, a transregional approach is quite usual, while at the same time the focus just on one region can be as legitimate.
Did you have a look into our interview series “All Things Transregional”, and if so, where do you position yourself within the debate on what our various interview partners defined as transregional research?
I would agree with most of the experts interviewed in your series that transregional research can only be one approach among others, and as Karl Schlögl wrote in his book on the spatial turn (“Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit”, 2003), the more “turns” or perspectives we have, the better it is for the questions we ask. Thus, I certainly agree with Thomas Maissen who stated that the different research perspectives at our disposal all enrich the way we ask questions and should not be chosen just in accordance with the expected outcome of our studies. A transregional focus thus can be useful to question our own (pre-existing) categories of thinking (be they regional, national or global), as Sebastian Conrad and Monica Juneja wrote. My own project on the concept of continents tries to do so, just on a more global level: We still conceive the world as consisting of different continents and use the concept as an essentialist geographic (or even cultural) category.
However, I also share the skepticism of Barbara Mittler: maybe transregional research on a global level (that is, comparing certain aspects in different cultural and social settings worldwide) can only be an interdisciplinary effort, because each of these settings surely needs specialized expertise. In my own work, I was highly influenced by cooperation with experts on Arabic or Chinese cartography. Whether you want to call this transcultural or transregional is maybe just a question of perspective.
Did you notice any differences in academic approaches towards transregional research in the respective countries you have visited?
I think the observations made by Michael Goebel on transcultural research as a somehow German characteristic (at least under this name) speak for themselves. However, from the medievalist’s point of view, a transregional approach is, as already stated, often inevitable – no matter where you come from.
In order to get to know different approaches, my own experience tells me that mobility cannot be overestimated: The stay at the German Historical Institute in Moscow was in this case especially interesting. When discussing my project with members of the Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the different culturally shaped perspectives on the same topic became quite clear. It is by discussions and exchange that we enrich our perspectives.
Do you have any advice for young scholars who are interested in doing research in/on the same regions?
While struggling with so many questions I cannot yet answer on my own topic, I feel quite ill-suited to give any advice to young scholars. I would just encourage every (young) colleague to find her/his own way and own perspective on the research project at hand. There’s no need to be hesitant, neither of seemingly huge research projects, nor of trips involving archive work. Manuscripts can without question be daunting, and archive hours can be long, but it’s worth the effort. And apart from that, the contact to amazingly helpful and friendly colleagues as I was allowed to experience, is one of the most inspiring parts of our work.
In 2015, Christoph Mauntel was awarded the Gerald D. Feldman-Travel grant and visited the German Historical Institutes in Paris, London, and Moscow. He joined the Research Training Group “Religious Knowledge in Premodern Europe (800-1800)” at the University of Tübingen as a Post-Doc in the same year. From 2010-2015, he worked at the Department of History and the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” at Heidelberg University.
The Gerald D. Feldman Travel Grants are awarded annually. Find further information on this fellowship program here.
Citation: Feldman Fellows Revisited: „From the Medievalist’s Point of View, a Transregional Approach Is Often Inevitable“ – An Interview with Christoph Mauntel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.02.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/5973.