Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2016) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

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Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Seminar: Social Networks in Ancient and Medieval History

Social Networks, not swords, civilised
the northern barbarians, or so it appears.
Italian WW1 war-bond poster.
 Photo courtesy of J.C. Meyer.
Last week I was invited  to take part in a small seminar organized by the research group for premodern history, department of archaeology, conservation and history, University of Oslo. The seminar was aimed at students writing their MA-theses within ancient and medieval history, in order to make them think about how different kinds of social network approaches could inform their research. I got to talk about my networks of local rulers in the Roman Near East and of water sources in the Syrian Desert, but more important to me I got to listen to some really great presentations on social networks in early medieval northern Europe.

Pierre Bauduin (Caen) spoke on "Social networks, mediation and competition in the Viking Age: the Frankish example", where he demonstrated how the Frankish elite and their Viking neighbours in present day Denmark cultivated ties by way of hospitality, and exchange of spouses, hostages and foster-children. This facilitated trust between groups who had common interest in peaceful relations, but who shared few institutional ties, notably the Danes were still mostly adherents of the pre-Christian Norse religion, and social networks paved the way for the first Christian missionaries to Scandinavia.

Philadelphia Ricketts (independent scholar) gave a talk on "Snorri Sturluson and his daughters". Snorri (1179-1241) is a famous poet, but was also a powerful chieftain in 13th century Iceland, and a key player in the bloody events leading up to the takeover of the island by the king of Norway in 1262. Philadelphia showed how Snorri, with variable success, married off his daughters as part of his political power games, but also how his daughters were not always willing to or able to play their part. The talk showed how women were instrumental in creating links between otherwise separate social networks in clan-based, pre-state Iceland, and how resourceful individuals were able to utilise this situation to improve their own position.

Richard Gaskins (Brandeis) addressed "Political Development in Early Iceland: Applying Network Theory to the Sagas", where he argued that Icelandic society in the settlement period (870-930) show the characteristics of a "small-world" network, while in the following period of chieftains (930-1080) networks were of the "distributed" kind, giving way to "hub and spoke" networks in the late pre-state period of larger domains (1080-1246). Gaskins use of network models gave very evocative descriptive accounts of the situation in premodern Iceland, and also opened the way for discussing how and why networks changed.

Apart from all papers giving insight into fascinating historical settings and source material, I was intrigued by the explanatory potential of social network approaches to pre-state societies. These were situations where few or no formal political and legal institutions were in existence, and social networks were thus allowed to operate undisturbed so to say. Part of the idea behind the seminar was to get the students interested in network approaches, and I hope we can look forward to some exciting  MA-theses from Oslo in a year or so. Meanwhile I have to admit that I am a tad bit envious on the people researching medieval Iceland for their incredibly rich source material.