Presenting my ‘Judas Superstar’ paper at the South West PG Theology and Religion conference

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Stephanie Roberts, a current MA Theology and Religion student, talks about her experience of attending and presenting a paper at a recent PG conference, hosted by the University of Exeter’.

On Saturday 6 May, the 22nd Joint Postgraduate Conference on Theology and Religion was held at Exeter for the first time. With a total of 30 research papers presented, the day proved to be a fascinating exploration of the current research undertaken by MA and PhD students in the South West.

The presentations were split in to themes covering all things from ‘Belief and Practice in Antiquity’ to ‘Philosophy, Ethics and Revelation’. This is just some indication of the great diversity of papers explored during the day. The eclectic nature of this conference inspired a feeling of open-mindedness amongst the guests and speakers. This relaxed atmosphere, and the words of encouragement from my fellow postgraduate students, somewhat eased my nerves of presenting a paper for the first time later in the day.

For my part, I was curious to learn more about the areas of theology that some speakers had chosen to dedicate three years of their lives to, and yet had never crossed my path of study. I found throughout education that many students (including myself at times!) have a ‘but will this be in the exam?’ approach to learning, unwilling to clutter their minds with information that will not increase their final percentage. It was refreshing to be involved in a day where the audience were enthusiastic to widen their view of theology and engage in these new areas of study that are, no doubt, often outside their own chosen sub-discipline.

Following the coffee break, it was time for me to give my first presentation at an academic conference, with a paper entitled ‘Judas Superstar? A reflection on the relationship between Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar’. Despite my apprehension as a fresh-faced MA student addressing an audience who, generally, had much more experience of academic conferences, I was relieved that the questions were less intimidating than I had feared!

As far as academic papers go, I have found this one particularly enjoyable to present as the inclusion of movie clips and rock-ballads naturally accompany my analysis and the sight of audience heads bobbing along to Judas’ solos made me feel more at ease throughout the presentation. It seems the perfect way to have introduced myself to this academic rite of passage.

One paper I found particularly thought- provoking was by Amna Nazir, a PhD student of Law and Theology with cross-institutional supervision from Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham. She demonstrated the necessity of interdisciplinary study in her paper, ‘The Death Penalty in Islam: A Religious Necessity?’. Having never studied Islam, this is a topic I knew very little about but I was intrigued by the provocative title.

Nazir explored the death penalty in Sharia law and international law and argued that, until there is absolute justice in the courts and governments of these countries, the death penalty cannot be right. Nazir explained that court cases’ reports are often restricted and so it is impossible to know whether countries have properly adhered to both Sharia and international laws. Furthermore, the great variance of its practice across Islamic countries is indicative of the fact there is a lack of consensus even within the faith about when the death penalty is to be evoked.

I found the paper incredibly interesting to listen to and the discussion that followed was just as rich. It became clear that there are a small number of Muslim voices supporting this view and, where westerners attempt to enforce their views against it, their criticism is merely met with disdain or suspicion by Islamic countries. Ultimately, if the application of the death penalty in Islam is to change in any way, the impetus must come from within the religion.

It was exciting for me to be involved with such a packed day of research papers and, in my view, the conference aptly demonstrated the active interest present in the theology’s many manifestations. The post-graduate community highlighted their willingness to engage in interdisciplinary study and to recognise the impact religious studies can have in a modern context.

Arguing about Empire: the Dreyfus Affair and the Fashoda Crisis, 1898

This article was originally posted on Not Even Past, the public history website of The University of Texas at Austin. Reproduced with kind permission.

We are very happy to announce a new online collaboration with our colleagues in the Department of History at the University of Exeter in the UK. Not Even Past and Exeter’s Imperial & Global Forum, edited by Marc Palen (UT PhD 2011) will be cross-posting articles, sharing podcasts, and sponsoring discussions of historical publications and events.

We are launching our joint initiative this month with a blog based on a new book by two Exeter historians, Arguing About Empire: Imperial Rhetoric in Britain and France.

By Martin Thomas and Richard Toye 

“At the present moment it is impossible to open a newspaper without finding an account of war, disturbance, the fear of war, diplomatic changes achieved or in prospect, in every quarter of the world,” noted an advertisement in The Times on May 20, 1898. “Under these circumstances it is absolutely essential for anyone who desires to follow the course of events to possess a thoroughly good atlas.” One of the selling points of the atlas in question – that published by The Times itself – was that it would allow its owner to follow “most minute details of the campaign on the Atbara, Fashoda, Uganda, the Italian-Abyssinian conflict &c.” The name Atbara would already have been quite familiar to readers, as the British had recently had a battle triumph there as part of the ongoing reconquest of the Sudan.

Fashoda, underlined in red, lay on the eastern margins of the Sudanese province of Bahr el-Ghazal. As this 1897 map indicates, the French Foreign Ministry, too, needed help in identifying Marchand’s location. (Source: MAE, 123CPCOM15: Commandant Marchand, 1895-98.)

Fashoda, much further up the Nile, remained, for the time, more obscure. Newspaper readers might have been dimly aware that an expedition led by the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Marchand was attempting to reach the place via the Congo, but his fate remained a mystery. Within a few months, however, Captain Marchand and his successful effort to establish himself at Fashoda would be the hottest political topic, the subject of multitudes of speeches and articles on both sides of the English Channel as the British and French Empires collided, or at least scraped each other’s hulls. It never did come to “war,” but there was certainly sufficient “disturbance, fear of war and diplomatic changes achieved or in prospect” to justify a Times reader purchasing an atlas, perhaps even the half-morocco version, “very handsome, gilt edges,” that retailed at 26 shillings.

The clash at Fashoda was both a seminal moment in Anglo-French relations and a revealing one with respect to imperial language. In addition to rhetoric’s role in stoking up tensions, there are further angles to be considered. Falling at the height of the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish Army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, endured a protracted retrial after being wrongly convicted of spying for Germany, British official readings of the Fashoda crisis were also conditioned by the growing conviction that the worst aspects of French political culture – an overweening state, an irresponsible military leadership, and an intrusive Catholic Church – were too apparent for comfort.

Viewed from the British perspective, dignity, above all, was at stake. The French were obsessed with the prospect of their own impending humiliation; whereas the British, from a position of strength, showed verbal concern for French amour propre, even while their own actions seemed guaranteed to dent it severely.

French Poodle to British Bulldog: “Well if I can’t have the bone I’ll be satisified if you’ll give me one of the scraps.” J. M. Staniforth, Evening Express (Wales).

What the rhetoricians of both countries had in common was their willingness to discuss the fate of the disputed area exclusively as a problem in their own relations, without the slightest reference to the possible wishes of the indigenous population. This is unsurprising, but there was more to the diplomatic grandstanding than appeared at first sight. It was the Dreyfus case that best illustrated how embittered French politics had become.

Dreyfus’s cause divided French society along several fault lines: institutional, ideological, religious, and juridical. By 1898 the issue was less about the officer’s innocence and more about the discredit (or humiliation) that would befall the Army and, to a lesser degree, the Catholic Church (notably imperialist institutions), were the original conspiracy against him revealed. So much so that the writer Emile Zola was twice convicted of libel over the course of the year after his fiery open letters in the new print voice of Radical-Socialism, L’Aurore in early 1898 compelled the Dreyfus case to be reopened,

Twelve months before Dreyfus was shipped back from Devil’s Island to be retried a safe distance from Paris at Rennes, Zola’s convictions confirmed that justice ran a poor second to elite self-interest.

High Command cover-ups, the ingrained anti-Semitism of the Catholic bishopric, and the grisly prison suicide on August 31 of Colonel Hubert Joseph Henry, the real traitor behind the original spying offense, brought French political culture to a new low. From the ashes would spring a new human rights lobby, the League of the Rights of Man (Ligue des droits de l’homme). Meanwhile, the Dreyfusard press, led since 1897 by the indomitable, if obsessive, L’Aurore, wrote feverishly of alleged coup plots to which Marchand, once he returned from Africa, might or might not be enlisted.

Charles Léandre, Caricature of Henri Brisson, Le Rire, November 5, 1898. Here caricatured as a Freemason.

At the start of November, Henri Brisson’s fledgling government finally decided to back down. A furious Marchand, who had arrived in Paris to report in person, was ordered to return and evacuate the mission. The right-wing press, fixated over the previous week on the likely composition of the new government and its consequent approach to the Dreyfus case, resumed its veneration of Marchand. La Croix went furthest, offering a pen portrait of Marchand’s entire family as an exemplar of nationalist rectitude. The inspiring, if sugary, narrative was, of course, a none-too-oblique way of criticizing the alleged patriotic deficiencies of the republican establishment and siding with the army as the institutional embodiment of an eternal (and by no means republican) France.

Something of a contrived crisis – or, at least, an avoidable one – Fashoda was also a Franco-British battle of words in which competing claims of imperial destiny, legal rights, ethical superiority, and gentility preserved in the face of provocation belied the local reality of yet more African territory seized by force. If the Sudanese were the forgotten victims in all this, the Fashoda crisis was patently unequal in Franco-British aspects as well.

“Come Professor. You’ve had a nice little scientific trip! I’ve smashed the dervishes — luckily for you — and now I recommend you to pack up your flags and go home!” John Tenniel, Punch, Oct. 8, 1898.

On the imperial periphery, Marchand’s Mission was outnumbered and over-extended next to Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian expeditionary force. In London a self-confident Conservative government was able to exploit the internal fissures within French coalition administrations wrestling with the unending scandal of the Dreyfus case. Hence the imperative need for Ministers to be seen to be standing up in Marchand’s defense. In terms of political rhetoric, then, the French side of the Fashoda crisis was conditioned by official efforts to narrow the country’s deep internal divisions in the same way that the Republic’s opponents in politics, in the press, and on the streets sought to widen them.

Martin Thomas and Richard Toye, Arguing about Empire: Imperial Rhetoric in Britain and France

Originally posted 1 May 2017

A Cathedral field trip

This post originally appeared on Katherine McDonald’s personal blog. Katherine is a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter.

One of my academic specialisms is the study of inscriptions, otherwise known as epigraphy. Most of the material I work with is epigraphic, and sometimes this is one of the biggest challenges in my work. Learning how to read inscriptions is a skill that you need to learn by trial-and-error and, ideally, by having someone with more experience than you show you the ropes. So how do you teach epigraphy to graduate students? With a field trip to Exeter Cathedral, of course.

There are a few practical skills associated with epigraphy, the most important of which is squeeze making. Squeezes are paper impressions of inscriptions, formed by hitting wet filter paper into an inscription with a specially made brush. Once the paper is dry, it holds the impression of the stone permanently. Squeezes can be rolled up and stored for centuries (for example, in Oxford) – and even posted to scholars on the other side of the world. They allow scholars anywhere in the world to study inscriptions which they could not see in person. And, strangely enough, the negative image they provide is often much easier to read than the original inscription, revealing details that were not visible to the naked eye. They can also be easily scanned and digitised.

With the help of cathedral staff, we chose an appropriate stone for making a squeeze. Here’s Dr Charlotte Tupman (Digital Humanities, University of Exeter) demonstrating to some of the group.

DSC08150Charlotte demonstrates the exact “thwack” noise the students should aim for with the squeeze brushDSC08164.JPG
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The reverse of one of our finished squeezes – you can see a huge amount of detail of the surface of the stone (and also a bit of dirt from the floor).

When I popped back the following morning, I found perfectly dried squeezes all ready to be taken up to the department. It was a really fun and practical (if slightly messy) session, and we ended up with a great squeeze of this slab. If you want to see squeezing in action, here is a page with two videos from a group of students in Athens showing how the process works.

It’s not always possible to make a squeeze, though. Some stone is too soft, or too damaged, to be hit with a squeeze brush without damaging it further. Many of the inscriptions from pre-Roman Italy, for example, are on tufa – a light, bubbly, porous stone which would be more or less impossible to squeeze. In these situations, knowing how to use light and photography can be really helpful. In Exeter Cathedral, some of the most damaged slabs would be too fragile to squeeze, so we experimented with reading them in different ways.

Students reading worn inscriptions using a torch

Using a torch can illuminate all sorts of details on difficult-to-read inscriptions. Many museums and churches are dimly lit, so any kind of light is helpful – but a steeply raking light, at a very sharp angle to the surface, is the most helpful. Here’s an example taken by one of the students last week.

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With just the natural light available, this inscription is partly readable, but not very clear. There are distinctly worn sections where the lettering is difficult to read. If we introduce a light at a steeply raked angle, we see something very different.

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With the light at this angle, the name “Katherine Berry” is suddenly revealed! You might be able to see the other lines more clearly as well – but of course the best thing is to take a number of photographs or readings with the light at different angles, to illuminate different letters on the stone.

What did we get out of this session? We weren’t dealing with Greek and Roman inscriptions this time, though the process and principles are much the same anyway. The students responded with lots of thoughts and questions, but there were two responses that really stood out for me:

(1) Keep in mind the language of the period

In the picture above, you might be able to make out that Katherine Berry “dyed” in 1687. To us, this seems like an “incorrect” spelling for the word died. But in 1687, English spelling wasn’t standardised in the way it is now, and this spelling was completely valid. So as readers we have to be sensitive to the practices of the time, otherwise our false expectations could affect our reading and lead us to assume, for example, that this couldn’t be a letter Y at all.

This is equally true of Greek and Latin inscriptions. The spellings – and even the shapes of the letters – are not what we are used to. The alphabet used in fifth-century Athens, for example, is not the same as the Ionic Greek alphabet that we use to read their texts – and this can make a big difference. Similarly, in the time of Augustus, as well as later and earlier, there are inscriptions with the spelling pleps as well as plebs – both are fine, and it’s our own later standards that make one look wrong. To read inscriptions accurately, we need to allow for spellings and letter-shapes to vary.

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Squeeze of IG I(3) I, Late C6th-early C5th. Notice how the lambda and sigma of “Salamin” (the end of the second line) are a different shape to how we would print the Greek alphabet now.

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The pleps spelling in action in a (probably) Augustan inscription. CIL 06 40310.

(2) Epigraphy is subjective

If you’ve only even looked at inscriptions as they are written in textbooks, or printed in an edition, they seem quite fixed and objective. But as soon as you start trying to read inscriptions which are worn, damaged or contain mistakes made by the original engraver, you realise how many judgement calls have to be made by the epigraphist. With experience and practice, you can get better at spotting traces of letters and making educated guesses, but sometimes they really are guesses. This is why, if you are interested in using inscriptions in your research, it is so important to see them in person (or as a squeeze) to decide whether you agree with past interpretations.

Many thanks to Exeter Cathedral and Charlotte Tupman for all their help with this session.

If this post has inspired you to take a closer look at inscriptions in buildings near you, please let me know in the comments or on Twitter. (But please don’t take squeezes without permission!)