Of circumstance and Armenian chroniclers

I promised to start blogging an inventory of my publications back in April. Yes, it’s now July. It turns out that my breezy confidence concerning the ease of discovery of my rights to my own work was…misguided.

My first publication arose from my M.Phil. thesis. The thesis itself was an enormous logic and date-accounting puzzle, which I thought was all kinds of fun but which, when described to fellow students, tended to get the reaction “I’m so sorry, that sounds horribly boring!”  That says something about the geek disposition, I suppose.

The topic of my thesis, and the eventual paper, was the chronological weirdness of the first book of the Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa. There is a back story there, on how a vaguely Byzantium-fancying computer geek came to be writing about an Armenian historical chronicle concerned in large part with a topic (the Crusades) that, had I been asked in 2003, I would have found utterly uninteresting.  It’s also a tale of how the smallest sorts of circumstance can shape a career.

I began grad school on the heels of the Great Dot-com Bust.  My bachelor’s degree was a strange MIT hybrid (“Humanities and Engineering”) which really meant that I had been on course to do a computer science degree when I realized that I could have a lot more fun doing half my coursework in history, and at the end of it I would still probably get a programming job at some Internet startup.  So it came to pass, but I could never shake the urge to go back and give history a more proper study.  In the end the universe did me a perverse sort of favor when my company laid me off just as I was finally resolving to prepare those grad school applications.

This is how I found myself in a room at Exeter College one gorgeous afternoon working out, together with the other new master’s students, what I ought to be doing for the next two years. Among the decisions we needed to make was the language we would study for the examination requirement; the (rather fantastic-sounding) options were Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Church Slavonic, and Arabic. I had enough Greek and Latin to be getting on with, but my powers as a dead-language autodidact had already failed me once when confronted with Armenian. Why not get some actual tuition in it and see how I did?

Of such whims are career paths made.  Once I had expressed a guarded interest in Armenian language, well, it seemed evident to the assembled dons that I should apply it by studying some Armenian history.  That turned out to be a field so very under-studied that potential thesis topics were lurking under nearly every assigned primary text and journal article.  I resolved eventually to write a thesis on the subject of the Armenian economy of the tenth and eleventh centuries, seeing what we might piece together by looking critically at literary and epigraphic sources. I dutifully began to read, and by August I had a collection of notes on the three main historians of the era (dots indicate approximate note volume):

  • [..]  Aristakes of Lastivert
  • [….]  Stephen of Taron       
  • [……………………………………………………………….]  Matthew of Edessa    

Hm. Clearly my thesis had chosen a direction, even if I hadn’t.  It was not Matthew’s poetic writing, vivid narrative, or historical accuracy that had caught my attention – in the latter case, rather the opposite. How could such a vast history be so very full of such obvious mistakes? Was there any rhyme or reason to them? Could we trust *anything* that Matthew was trying to tell us? If so, what? It took a few months more for the thesis topic to resolve itself to these chronological mistakes, but I got there in the end. The whole process began to turn into an intriguing logic puzzle that I had a lot of fun trying to solve, and it seemed a little unbelievable that no one had beaten me to it.

It took me three years (and another job in industry) to condense the thesis to an article suitable for publication, but I finally submitted it in 2008 to the standard journal for Armenian scholarship, the Revue des études arméniennes. My reward was a charming hand-written letter from the editor acknowledging my contribution and that he would be happy to publish it, though he wondered what my view was on certain issues I hadn’t addressed. I got to pretend for a moment that I was about fifty years older than I am, initiated into the academic community in an era where scholarship was carried on through personal correspondence.

As I have not heard anything from Peeters (and cannot find any information online) concerning author rights, and as I don’t believe I actually signed anything handing over any rights in any event, I have chosen to go with the safest reasonable option for open access: the final version of the article content, before typesetting.

Andrews, Tara L., ‘The Chronology of the Chronicle: An Explanation of the Dating Errors within Book 1 of the Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa’, Revue des études arméniennes 32 (2010): 141-64.

2 Replies to “Of circumstance and Armenian chroniclers”

  1. Hi Tara: Thanks for sharing your story about this article, your thesis, and how you got to be an Armenian specialist! It’s interesting that your language choices were Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Church Slavonic, and Arabic, but not Georgian. (I sometimes think I need to learn Georgian to extend my PhD thesis research into some post-degree research and articles, but no one seems to know Georgian, well, except other Georgians.) Also, have you been following DO’s recent Facebook updates and their increased interest in the digital humanities?

  2. Hi Betsy,
    Glad you liked the story! As for Georgian, by the time I got to Oxford Robert Thomson had recently retired, so there was simply no one there who could teach Georgian. (He was the Armenian chair but I think he could be coaxed into teaching a little Georgian if need be, though possibly not to examination level.) It’s funny because everyone seems to be becoming aware of the need for Georgian lately, but still hardly anyone has any available opportunity to actually learn it.
    As for DO, yes, I’ve exchanged a few emails with Joel Kalvesmaki in the last few months. Their DH drive could probably be the subject of another post…

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