“Maritime History Has Become a Huge and Highly Specialized Field Today” – 5in10 with Sebastian Kolditz

Sebastian Kolditz (Bild: Claudio Cassaro)

Sebastian Kolditz studied history and physics at the Universities of Leipzig and Vienna. He received his PhD in Medieval History with a thesis on the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438/39. After having spent some years at the Centre for Mediterranean Studies at Ruhr Universität Bochum he has been working at the history department of Heidelberg University since 2013. In 2019/20 he is Ludwig and Margarethe Quidde fellow at the German Historical Institute in Rome, where his research project focuses on the representations of the maritime sphere in narrative sources from the Early and High Middle Ages.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

Maritime history is a rather popular issue these days: many books dedicated to seas in history are published every year. Concerning the Middle Ages, subjects like the Vikings’ ferocious attacks and wide-ranging discoveries, the splendour of Venetian sea power or the deeds of “pirates” like Eustace the Monk continue to arouse our fascination. These stories are part of today’s common imaginaire of the sea in the Middle Ages as are some famous shipwrecks discovered by archaeologists (e.g. the Bremen cog). On the other hand, there is a general notion that the sea was a space feared or even avoided by “medieval people”. Nevertheless, we should be aware that these stories and images are in fact our narratives about a faraway epoch. Against this background, my project highlights what narrative sources – primarily chronicles and annals, but also letters or poems from the High Middle Ages up to the 12thcentury – tell us about the sea and maritime ventures as parts of the contemporaries’ vision of history. I am interested in the relevance of maritime events in Latin and Greek sources, in the ways these events are represented and told, and in the knowledge about seascapes and seafaring they contain.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

The idea for this project emerged gradually over some years. The time I spent as a researcher at the Centre for Mediterranean Studies at Bochum University was certainly crucial for its conception though I started it only afterwards, at Heidelberg. Becoming familiar with conceptualizations of the Mediterranean in current historiography and in other disciplines sparked my interest in the literary construction of historical spaces. Furthermore, I nurtured a growing interest in the notion of “event” in historical theory and in the formation processes of events through telling and retelling, writing and rewriting. These theoretical issues, among other aspects, contributed a lot to the configuration of my current project.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

Due to its focus on narrative sources from the Early Middle Ages, the project is necessarily based on edited texts, most of them either in Latin or Greek. Combining these two historiographical traditions also means to bridge the gap between Byzantine and Medieval studies. The close reading of the texts goes together with a focus on their authors, their manuscript transmission and further reception. In some specific cases the manuscripts themselves play a crucial role when modern critical editions are lacking or have been accomplished only partially. This is, for instance, the case for the complex historiographic traditions of two exemplary maritime places, namely Venice and Pisa. In both cases, the codification of a more or less uniform memory of the cities’ early history took a long path down to the Later Middle Ages, when a large number of anonymous city chronicles were produced, most of which are still inedited and have barely been studied so far. The work in some archives and manuscript collections thus plays an important though not central role during my current stay in Italy.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

This question is a bit difficult to answer succinctly because I have been inspired by many events and studies. I would like to mention specifically Sebastian Sobecki’s brilliant study of the sea in medieval English literature which has opened new perspectives from philological as well as historical points of view, and also Martin Clauss’s excellent work on the narration of military defeat in medieval historiography which has influenced my methodological considerations. I also look back to a number of conferences over the last years, for example a workshop of the Société Internationale des historiens de la Méditerranée with a focus on “fear of the sea” as a multifaceted topic, or a conference at Bielefeld on maritime discoveries. These and some other events gave me a lot of insights into specific aspects of maritime history, which indeed has become a huge and highly specialized field today.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Yes, academic mobility certainly does have considerable effects. In the course of my PhD project on the Church Council of Ferrara-Florence in the 15th century, I had the opportunity to experience the fruitful work atmosphere in institutions like the German Historical Institute in Rome or the Centro Tedesco di Studi Veneziani in Venice which enabled me to do research in various archives in Italy. Beyond that, there was also a very productive exchange with colleagues, not only from Italy, but also from other countries who worked in the same archives on issues concerning the same period. Thus, we could exchange observations on useful archival material, we discussed our approaches and even envisaged future collaborative projects. Some of these contacts still exist, and some led to collaboration in the form of conferences or networks. During my current stay in Rome, I really appreciate the very special international academic presence here: for example, my work has benefited considerably from the kind hospitality of the École française de Rome and its excellent library.

Citation: “Maritime History Has Become a Huge and Highly Specialized Field Today” – 5in10 with Sebastian Kolditz, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.02.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/?p=22195

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