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Prof. Hudson

Past Isn't Prologue: New grant funds study of medieval Christian, Muslim institutions

By John Masson
July 11, 2012

John Hudson, a William W. Cook Global Law Professor at Michigan, who also teaches at St. Andrews University in Scotland, is among the recipients of a $4 million European Union grant designed for collaboratively studying some of the differences between medieval Islam and medieval Christendom, then examining lessons relevant to the modern world.

"If you look at the world in 700, if there's a place that looks like it will become highly bureaucratized and institutional, with considerable political continuity, it's the Islamic world, not Christendom," said Prof. Hudson, one of four academics who will coordinate the program. "Of course, the outcome is the reverse, which obviously kicks us into a discussion of the modern world."

What makes the topic even more interesting, Hudson said, is that the entire Mediterranean world shared the common classical legacy, particularly of the Romans—yet the areas dominated by Christianity nevertheless developed in ways significantly different from those areas dominated by Islam.

The topics under examination should be particularly interesting for historians of the law, Prof. Hudson added—those of the English Common Law, Continental Civil Law, and Islamic Law.

"If you're interested in medieval law, this question of institutionalization is absolutely essential," Prof. Hudson said. "It raises the question of specialized legal learning and how it relates to legal education and the working of the courts. So the institutionalization question, the comparative, the collaborative, and the legal all fit together for me."

Prof. Hudson's Michigan Law colleague, Prof. Bill Miller, said the grant, which funds 11 PhDs at universities in Europe and Israel and two postdoctoral positions, will be a large boost for an under-appreciated field of scholarship.

"Medieval history is one of those areas in the humanities where money and jobs are scarcer than in what pass for trendier, more relevant areas, but it also boasts a multitude of scholars to die for," said Prof. Miller, whose own scholarly contributions include such entries as Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland; Humiliation; The Anatomy of Disgust; Losing It; and Faking It. "And the fraud level is low, because you have to learn so much before you can even begin to think of faking it. This is a small sign that justice occasionally gets done."

There's another twist to the grant, as well: offered as part of the Marie Curie Initial Training Network, it aims to combine first-rate, cooperative academic work across several European countries with top-level training in disseminating the resulting ideas to the public through the media.

"Part of the purpose of this is to bring in that media savviness from the start of academic training, and to make sure those who may have a talent to do a sort of popular history have the opportunity to do so," Prof. Hudson said.

Ideally, that communications training—dubbed "Media School for Historians"—will help give rise to a new generation of European scholars who relish the challenges of getting their ideas out to the general public and not just to a small cadre of academics, Prof. Hudson said. For that reason, beyond the scholarship, the grant also supports a postdoctoral position with a Spanish documentary filmmaker, and another at the Dutch publishing house Brill.

The project, known formally as "Power and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom," is slated to run until 2016, Hudson said. It concludes with a conference: "Consequences in the Contemporary World"—and with documentary films and publications, as well.

"We're looking forward to the work, partly because it's an important medieval question, but also because it's one of those questions where we think the medieval answer matters right now."

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