The written exams were last week (May 4-8). They went fine. The major field was ten questions, of which I had to choose three:
- Why did everyone think there was a yasaq [i.e. law code] of Chinggis Khan? What form did it actually take?
- What sorts of misperceptions did Muslim and Christian authors have of the Mongols' attitude to their religion? What was the cause of these misperceptions?
- In what ways can the Timurid Empire [founded by Timur Lenk in 1370 and continuing throughout the fifteenth century] be regarded as the continuation of that of Chinggis Khan?
The Reformation minor field was six questions, of which I had to answer one of the first three and one of the last three, so I wrote on two questions:
- Traditional Reformation historiography, largely written by Protestants, regarded the late medieval church as very sick. As early as 1929, however, Febvre challenged this conception in a famous article. He concluded that late medieval Christianity displayed "an immense appetite for the divine" in all the forms offered by the Church, and that the causes for the Reformation must be sought elsewhere, in social and economic causes. What do you say? What has more recent scholarship contributed to this matter?
- Even before the Council of Trent, several of the fathers of the council were calling for the writings of Erasmus to be censored. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, condemned Erasmianism as a threat to orthodoxy. Modern scholars, however, see continuities between the humanist's work and the official reform of the Church which began in the 1530s. Are they justified in doing so? What do you say?
For the Byzantine minor field, there were only five questions, of which I had to answer three:
- Was there something developing in Nicea in the period 1204-1260 which was aborted by the Byzantine recovery of Constantinople in 1261?
- Arguably, the Fourth Crusade was the result of Byzantine weaknesses before 1204. Of what sort were these weaknesses? Were they perennial or were they new?
- Did the recovery of Constantinople in 1261 revive tensions which the Empire of Nicea had been able to resolve?
- Was there a Palaiologan renaissance?
- What role did the Orthodox Church, hierarchy, monks and laity, play in either supporting or dividing the Empire in the Palaiologan period?
Of these questions I answered #1, #4, and #5 in writing, but I was very disappointed there wasn't any question on the attempts at ecclesiastical union with the Latins which dominated the reign of Michael VIII (1258-82) and the last fifteen years of Byzantium (1439-53), nor was there any question about hesychasm, the major controversy of the fourteenth century. So I worked those into my answer to the last question, which I constructed as a whirlwind overview of Byzantine ecclesiastical history from 1261 to 1453.
In the oral exam, I was able to pick the order of my fields, so we started in the west and moved east. This had the advantage of starting with what we all knew something about (Reformation) and ending with what I hoped only I knew much about (Mongols), although as it turned out one of my examiners (not the major field examiner) had also done an exam in the Mongols in graduate school. It also had the advantage of sandwiching the Byzantine field, which I was most unclear on what I would be asked in the oral exam, between the Reformation field, where I had a clear idea of what to expect, and the Mongol field, where I knew the most.
So for the Reformation, the examiner asked me to respond to the statement "The Reformation is an urban event," which is a famous assessment in the historiography, and then he asked me whether print would make the top three causes of why the Reformation took root (I argued that it is, but not simply as a force, but rather how it was used by Protestants who were far more eager to take theological debate to the lay public than their Catholic opponents). Another examiner then asked me to respond to the older historiography about how easily the princes hi-jacked reform moves for their own political ends, and why the Reformation only happened in non-Romance language regions. Unfortunately, I failed to point out the biggest counter-example to the last assertion, which is that Calvin's Geneva was francophone.
For the Byzantine field, the professor asked me follow-up questions on the questions I answered, and also asked me the questions I had not answered. I did not know the key detail he wanted to draw out of me regarding how monks sustained the empire, namely that they built fortifications at imperial request, and I did not satisfy him by identifying perennial weaknesses in the Byzantine state which led to the Fourth Crusade's conquest. He also asked me whether the Empire could have survived after 1261 or whether it was completely doomed, and I think I satisfied him with my thinking on the matter.
For the Mongol field, my examiner asked me what was the importance of the Mongol Empire (a huge question, which I don't think I answered satisfactorily), and the impact it had on the Christian and Muslim intellectual culture (here I scored points with a few anecdotes). He also asked me what the Syriac and Armenian sources tell us about the Mongol Empire which cannot be found in other sources, which is a slight variation on one of the questions that I did not answer, and I'm glad I did not answer it, because I would have answered it differently. Finally he asked me how one might write a history of Christianity in the Mongol Empire from the ground up, and I was able to sketch what kinds of sources exist. One of my other examiners then asked me about the idea of Prester John [a legendary Christian priest-king in farthest "India," i.e. Asia, who would come to help the Christian crusaders against their Muslim enemies, or so the Western Europeans thought], and whether that image hindered western European princes in their diplomacy with the Mongols. Again, I'm not sure my answer satisfied him, but I made an argument that western princes were a little more realistic (not much), and were aware that the Mongols they were dealing with (at least after 1242) were not Christian, but the Europeans were trying to make the Mongols Christians.
So that's the scoop on my general exams. They are over, I passed, although it's not official until the administration accepts my examiners' recommendation. But now I'm a free man, ready to get started on my dissertation. But first, about returning all those books...