Byzantine Studies Association of North America
BSANA MembershipCommittees & OfficersAnnual ConferenceOpportunitiesDocumentsBSANA Home


The Byzantine Studies Conference 1975-1999:
Looking Back After the First 25 Years

Alice-Mary Talbot (Dumbarton Oaks)

[This short history of the BSC was prepared for the Abstracts of the 1999 Conference at the University of Maryland.]

On this occasion of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Byzantine Studies Conference, it seems appropriate to take a few moments to reflect on the genesis of the conference and its evolution over the past twenty-five years, coincidentally the final quarter of the 20th century. Space permits only a brief sketching of the history of the BSC and a few personal reflections and observations as one of the co-founders who was "present at the creation."

I believe one can trace the origins of the BSC back to 1972 when the Senior Fellows at Dumbarton Oaks decided to make a momentous one-time departure from the traditional program of the annual spring symposium. Up to that year, and thereafter, Dumbarton Oaks symposia had been organized around a unifying theme, with one or more symposiarchs planning the program and inviting appropriate speakers, who were typically established scholars of a certain age and predominantly male. In 1972 the decision was made to invite a number of younger scholars -who had recently completed their dissertations to speak on their research in progress; the symposium was entitled "Current Work in Medieval and Byzantine Studies." Nine papers were delivered, four by men, five by women; clearly change was in the wind. I would argue that this D.O. symposium served to "heighten the consciousness" of North American Byzantinists: they came to realize that there existed no forum in this country for the presentation of papers on current research in Byzantine studies, especially by younger scholars. In the words of Walter Kaegi, co-founder of the BSC, "No existing learned society or annual meeting in the early 1970s could or would provide sufficient annual space on their program for a critical mass, not merely a token representation, of interdisciplinary Byzantinists to communicate and discuss their latest research. The unwillingness of the 1974 American Historical Association's program committee to accept a full complement of Byzantine applicants was one of several catalysts for the creation of a new specialized conference." Approaches were made to a number of societies and conferences for some form of affiliation, but in the end this kind of arrangement was rejected because no single group could accommodate the wide range of interests of Byzantinists.

Consequently, shortly after the D.O. symposium returned to its usual format in 1973, a group of Byzantinists who were mostly in their thirties or early forties decided to launch a new conference designed- to "serve as an annual forum for the presentation and discussion of papers embodying the current research on all aspects of Byzantine history and culture." It was deliberately scheduled for the fall, to balance the spring symposium at D.O., and was open to scholars of all ages, including graduate students. To ensure the quality of papers abstracts were to be submitted to a program committee which would select the speakers to be invited.

Walter Kaegi of the University of Chicago deserves credit as the person who initially conceived of the idea and played a key role in planning the initial conference. I was asked to serve as co-chair that first year and as local arrangements chairman in Cleveland, even though I had no university affiliation and had to arrange for the conference to be held it the Cleveland Museum of Art. Walter and I also chaired the program committee. In 1975 there were of course no funds upon which to draw, so the first conference was a real bare-bones, shoestring affair. The registration fee was $7.00, including abstracts, and the motel rooms cost $17.00 for a double. The conference lasted two days, and forty papers were delivered. We hoped that perhaps 75 people would come; to our amazement, about 120 registered. The inaugural banquet of home-cooked Greek food was provided free of charge through the extraordinary generosity of the women of the cathedral of SS. Constantine and Helen.

In any case we were persuaded that there was a need for such a conference, and steps were taken for the organization of a permanent annual forum. David Wright played a prominent role in drafting the constitution which has served as well to this day. A pattern was established of moving the conference each year to a different university or college campus, or occasionally a museum, normally alternating between venues on the East Coast and in the Middle West. We have met once in Canada, but never on the West Coast, much to the dismay of our colleagues in California, Oregon and Washington. An elected governing board of sixteen scholars decides on policy and chooses the location of each conference and the program chair. We have resolutely remained a conference, and not an association, despite periodic attempts to expand the BSC mandate.

From many points of view the conference has achieved its original goals, of serving as a forum for ongoing. Research in Byzantine Studies in Canada and the United States, and of welcoming participation by scholars at all phases of their careers. The conference continues to grow, suggesting an increasing interest in the discipline of Byzantine studies. From a low of 40 papers in 1975, the inaugural year, the BSC has expanded to an all-time high of 117 papers in 1993 at Princeton, with three simultaneous sessions. Normally the number of papers ranges between about 70 and 90. There have been particular efforts to attract graduate students as attendees and speakers, through. subsidized registration fees and meals, travel stipends, and the offering of a prize for the best graduate student paper. As a result graduate students now present as many as one-third of the papers. The BSC is an equal opportunity organization in other ways as well, and the participation of women in leadership roles is especially noticeable. Over the past 25 years, thirteen-women and ten men have served as president, and seventeen men and thirteen women have been program chair. In the 1990s women have come to dominate: the presidency has been held by six women and four men, and eight women and two men have chaired the program committee. Another trend has been the increasing participation of scholars from abroad. This year, out of 94 speakers eleven have crossed the Atlantic specifically to attend the conference, coming from such lands as Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Georgia. One possible negative result of the establishment of the conference has been the increased isolation of the field of Byzantine studies; Byzantinists are now much mom likely to attend the BSC than meetings sponsored by the Medieval Academy, the Medieval Institute in Kalamazoo, the AHA or CAA.

A rapid survey of the contents of papers over the past 25 years reveals both certain consistent patterns and some emerging trends, which reflect the profile of the discipline in North America. One phenomenon is the dominance of late antique studies in the programs of the BSC. Papers on topics of the 4th-7th c. have typically composed from 40-50% of the sessions. The other side of the coin is the weakness of late Byzantine studies, the percentages of papers on the l3th-15th c. are usually in the teens or twenties. If we look at the distribution by discipline, the results produce few surprises.

Papers on art, architecture and archaeology taken together typically comprise about one-half of the program, with most of the rest divided between history and literature. Although historical topics have been more numerous than those on literature, philology and given the fact that currently only two North American Byzantinists are teaching in the field of literature and philology. Thus the choice of topics for presentation at the BSC suggests that a number of Byzantine philologists are masquerading out of necessity as historians and classicists. Weak areas as far as representation on the program is concerned are theology, liturgy and church history, numismatics and sigillography, history of medicine, and law. Almost entirely absent are any papers on history of science and epigraphy. To a certain extent these percentages accurately reflect the interests of North American Byzantinists, since American researchers in the fields of Byzantine numismatics, sigillography, epigraphy, legal history and history of science can be counted on the figures of one hand. I would argue, however, that there is much greater interest in this country in Byzantine church history and patristics than one would guess from papers presented at the BSC. Certainly if one judges by the numbers of recent dissertations in the field, with 17 on John Chrysostom alone, patristics would seem to be thriving. The answer must be that theologians and historians of religion rarely participate in the BSC, preferring to attend conferences in their own discipline. I should also like to note the emergence of papers in the field of women's studies, beginning in the 1980s, and in applications of computer technology to our field.

On this celebration of the 25th anniversary of the BSC, we can say that it has reached its maturity, and that its basic character is well established. As we enter the 21st century let us hope that the conference will continue to be responsive to new trends in scholarship and indeed to take the initiative in pointing out new directions for our discipline.