The medieval historian talks about discovering his role in a collaborative book project during a six-month stint as a CAS fellow.
Stephen D. White, the Asa G. Candler Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at Emory University, has (as his title suggests) had a long, acclaimed career as a scholar.
He has written dozens of scholarly articles and books, received numerous awards, grants, and fellowships, and worked at institutions including Harvard University, Oxford University, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Yet when asked to describe his time at the Centre for Advanced Study (CAS), White said 'I’ve never done anything like this before.'
White arrived at CAS in January along with a small group of other medieval historians. The historians replaced a group of social scientists, who had spent the fall at CAS working on a separate book project.
Joining White in Oslo was his wife, Katherine Gilbert. An author and editor who has worked with several of the participating fellows in the past, Gilbert lent her assistance to the project.
White and the rest of the medieval historians came to CAS with one main goal: to write a book analysing the civil wars of medieval Europe from new perspectives. But that wasn't all White got out a six-month stay at CAS.
We sat down with White toward the end of his stay at CAS. Read the full interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity, below.
White was one of a dozen scholars who participated in the CAS project The Nordic 'Civil Wars' in the High Middle Ages in a Comparative Perspective. Read our exit interview with the project leaders here.
Q&A - Stephen D. White
- You’ve been here since January. Almost half a year later, do you feel that you -- as in the project -- are on the right track? Are you figuring out what this book is going to be all about and how to structure it?
Stephen D. White: I think it’s working itself out. It took me a while to figure out where the project was going when I arrived here. I realised other people -- in particular the social scientists -- had been around in the fall and had worked collaboratively on papers with Hans Jacob [Orning], Jón Viðar [Sigurðsson], and also Helle Vogt, all of whom I'd known for years. As a result I saw drafts -- sometimes rather preliminary drafts -- of these articles that were jointly written. And I was trying to figure out what I was going to write.
My role was to comment on what they were doing, but from the perspective of an English and French historian, since they were talking about what they were doing in Scandinavian civil wars in a way that was inflected by collaborating with social scientists who weren’t here -- except for Henrik [Erdman Vigh], I talked to him.
It took me a while to figure out how I fit into the project and to develop one essay that would fit into this volume that they’re calling ‘the anthology’ with the collaborative pieces, and then another piece that would go into a volume of essays on civil wars.
Things for me became clearer when Gerd Althoff showed up, since he's playing a similar role to mine, but from a German perspective. It was helpful to talk to him and see what he was doing in relation to this kind of work. I felt that things came together maybe two months ago. That’s when it took shape.
What was different about this and made it particularly interesting was I came in with the idea that there was work going on here or in some cases had been done, and my role was to figure out what I could contribute.
In addition, part of my agenda was to give a bunch of papers, like the Sophus Bugge [Annual Lecture], a paper for a conference on peace, and a paper for a colloquium at the university on religion and war.
I also went up to Trondheim to give a lecture. Ultimately, everything that I have been doing was somehow related to the project -- but for certain purposes sort of a separate thing -- and thus I’m very glad I did them. But in the short run, it was a lot of multitasking. ‘Oh, I’ve got to talk about King Arthur next week. How am I going to fit that in?’
I’ve never done anything like this before. [I have] spent a lot of time in interdisciplinary programmes. I’ve done a few collaborative publications. Years ago I worked on a collaborative project in France with an archaeologist and an art historian working on a French abbey excavation. There’s always a certain amount of schmoozing around, trying to figure out in actual practice something that you understand on paper is going to work out. It’s fun, but there are times when somebody sends you this essay by people you’ve never met, and you wonder ‘What were they thinking?’
I’ve had a fair amount of experience with residential fellowships. I’ve spent time at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina and also at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. This is smaller, but it’s also nice that there’s more focus. At these other places sometimes collaborative work develops, but people come in as individuals. I think the flexibility here is a good thing.
I think also things were facilitated by the fact that both of us knew Hans Jacob, Jón Viðar, also Kim Esmark, and Helle Vogt. Actually, Kate has edited their work before.
- You’ve obviously had a long, really interesting career. You’ve worked in a lot of different places. You said you haven’t done something like this before. What is the thing that makes this stay different? Was it the time you had? The nature of the project? The folks here?
White: I wrote a book in collaboration with a medieval art historian and Kate [serving] as both editor and researcher. I’m accustomed to that side of things. I’ve also contributed to editing volumes that came out of very small conferences where people came in with papers but the papers changed as a result of that. That’s probably the closest kind of thing to this that I’ve done in the past.
What was distinctive about this experience is that there's just a lot more interaction.
What was different about this and made it particularly interesting was I came in with the idea that there was work going on here or in some cases had been done, and my role was to figure out what I could contribute. I had some ideas coming in. I had corresponded with Hans Jacob. I did a fair amount of reading before I came. But I didn’t know exactly how it was going to work out, partly because I hadn’t seen more than -- maye I saw a draft of one or two essays before I came here. But they were being drafted over the course of last fall. I listened to -- I think on your website -- a talk by John Comaroff when I was in Cambridge, and he’s somebody I’ve actually never met, but his work I know quite well.
What was distinctive about this experience is that there's just a lot more interaction. As I read things in the collaborative essays, I made comments that maybe had some impact. Also it was interesting when Gerd Althoff arrived. Both of us read a number of things in drafts that each of us -- we’d go out there [to the common area] and talk for an hour and a half and scribble on printouts, so things changed. I think that was a good part of the process. But I think it’s also interesting because the project itself is on a subject in which there’s a lot of interest from other people, including medievalists, but also political scientists and anthropologists.
From an intellectual perspective, they’re talking a lot about social networks, but there’s also the kind of networking that goes on here which is more or less a matter of extending networks or combining networks than it is creating from scratch. That’s important. I’ve given a paper here several years ago, so I have met people here. I don’t know how it works in the other projects, but in this case the fact that there were a number of pre-existing connections among people here that could be extended or changed around, reconfigured -- that was a very good thing.
- What are you going to do this fall? What’s next for you two?
White: We’ll be back in Boston, Somerville. [Kate] is interested in coming back to Norway one way or another -- as am I -- but for now we’ll be in Boston. One of the things I’m going to be doing is finishing up for publication papers that I gave here. I’m very far advanced on all of them. Kate expects to be doing more editing work on collections of essays connected to the project.
From an intellectual perspective, they’re talking a lot about social networks, but there’s also the kind of networking that goes on [at CAS] which is more or less a matter of extending networks or combining networks than it is creating from scratch. That’s important.
There’s also further questions of -- I’m 73 years old. You sort of try to figure out -- I’m essentially retired -- how much I want to stay doing basically this kind of stuff, or whether I’d like to develop other interests. But being here has also helped that, because this is not a region that I’ve had -- it’s a region I knew about some and had read about, but not a part of the world I was actively engaged with. It’s interesting and appealing in lots of ways.
It’s been a good thing. It’s also especially nice finding something like this that Kate and I can do together. Work here is in some ways quite separate, but it’s also nice to be able to do that jointly.