A postdoctoral adventure to Medieval Sardinia

Rome Awardee Hervin Fernández-Aceves has recently been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship as part of the AHRC project Power, society, and (dis)connectivity in medieval Sardinia.  He will be continuing his research into Sardinia’s giudicale aristocracy and its rare corpus of charter materials, the carte volgari and the condaghes. Here he tells us a bit more about the research he has undertaken at the BSR.

After I submitted the final version of my doctoral thesis, I finally had both the time and the clarity to think about fresh research ideas, both beyond my field of expertise and outside of my comfort zone. That was how, after having focused both my masters and PhD-level studies on the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, I had the realisation that I wanted to look elsewhere: medieval Sardinia. I knew from the beginning that swapping the focus of my central research was a risky move, mostly considering the very early stage of my academic career. At the same time, however, I was both shocked and fascinated by just how little we know about Sardinia during the central Middle Ages.

ta_1804 (002)

Ashby, Thomas, [Silanus (Italy), Church of Santa Sabina], 1906, BSR Photographic Archive, TA[PHP]-1804

From the outside, swapping one ‘Italian’ region for another may not seem like such a big deal – how different could Sicily and Sardinia have been in the Middle Ages? Despite studying the medieval Mediterranean for years, in the company of colleagues, experts and professors, from what I could gather no one could actually provide a sound, non-anecdotal explanation of the relevant events and processes that took place in Sardinia for almost two hundred years, from the end of the Byzantine period to the time of the Catalo-Aragonese conquest. For centuries the island was nominally part of the Byzantine Empire, but it became ever more isolated from the regions around it. By the late 1000s, its rulers – also known in the Italian historiography as giudicati – were recognised as independent kings whose earliest surviving charters were written in the Sardinian language using Greek letters. How could it be possible for this ‘lost world’ to be so geographically close to other extensively studied regions, yet still remain so apparently different and disconnected from the medieval realities we think we understand? At least one thing was clear: this important and neglected anomaly in medieval history deserved reconsideration and more study. Indeed, I am not the only one to have had this thought; the publication of two major new volumes of collected essays show that scholarly interest in the island’s history is growing in the English-speaking world.[1]

As an early-career historian, the BSR provides a nurturing platform from which to explore fringe and innovative subjects which are usually  not supported by other institutions. The support it offers goes beyond 24-hour access to a well-stocked library, membership to a highly respected academic body and free Italian classes. For me, the opportunity to continue my research and reflect on the implications of my academic project from many different points of view has been an unparalleled experience.

ta_XIX_100

Ashby, Thomas, [Codrongianos (Italy), Church of Santissima Trinità Di Saccargia, Distant View], 1907, BSR Photographic Archive, TA[PHP]-XIX.100

There is no doubt that the material I can access as a BSR award-holder, both in its own library and in other repositories in the URBiS library network – a fantastic resource that allows members to use other libraries in Rome including those in the École Française and the Hertziana – is incredibly useful, but these are not the only resources I have benefitted from. Whilst these edited sources, journals and historiographical works have formed the building blocks of my project, it is the debate and reflection gained from the casual talks outside the library that have provided the necessary mortar.

The social environment here at the BSR is indeed much warmer and more informal than I originally expected. Being part of a community that includes both academics and artists means I enjoy countless conversations, during lunch or dinner, over a glass of wine or whilst walking around the eternal city. Talking about medieval Sardinia, what I understand of it and why I want to research it with the other award-holders and residents has allowed me to not only refine my research questions but also to dig deeper into the academic relevance of my work. At this early stage in my project, engaging in historiographical discussion is fundamental, but reaching out to people from other backgrounds, including non-historians, has also proved incredibly useful in allowing me to remain critical and clear in my research. After a long day of reading and writing in my own ‘bubble’, having the ability to share my work with artists and archaeologists is truly refreshing.

The BSR is a great place to be productive, but it is much more than that. Here, I’ve found a rare space that promotes original and fresh ideas without too many preconditions, allowing me thus to change altogether my research subject at this very early stage of my career. What started out as an academic gamble for a postdoctoral medievalist, the BSR has transformed into a constructive experience, which has laid vital foundations for a brand new, exciting research project.

In 1983, the BSR published an article by Rosalind Brown on one of the major sources for the social history of medieval Sardinia: The Sardinian Condaghe of S. Michele di Salvenor.[2] For over three decades this was the only academic article in English about these texts – the condaghes –, which are naturally the central object of my research. Is it a coincidence that the BSR has once more become a platform where the boundaries of medieval historiography are being pushed again into the dominions of Sardinia? I would like to think not.

Hervin Fernández-Aceves (Rome Awardee)

 

[1] A Companion to Sardinian History, 500–1500, ed. by Michelle Hobart (Leiden: Brill, 2017); The Making of Medieval Sardinia, ed. by A. Metcalfe and G. Serreli (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).

[2] Rosalind Brown, ‘The Sardinian Condaghe of S. Michele Di Salvenor in the Sixteenth Century’, Papers of the British School at Rome, 51 (1983), 248–57 <https://doi.org/10.1017/S0068246200008631&gt;.