Thomas Arentzen writes from Dumbarton Oaks

Postdoctoral fellow Thomas Arentzen is spending the academic year of 2018/19 at the prestigious Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard University research institute. The upcoming fall of 2019, he will move to Uppsala University after receiving a project grant by the Swedish Research Council for the next four years. Below, you can read his Letter from America.

Byzantinists at Dumbarton Oaks, Fall 2018. Photo: Dumbarton Oaks

”If ever the humanities were necessary, it is in this epoch of disintegration and dislocation”

–Mildred Bliss, 1942 

(quotation carved in stone outside the Dumbarton Oaks Library)


Washington DC is a delightful city. As capitals go, it is surprisingly calm – especially now during the wintertime when most of the tourists are gone. The Washingtonians are spending a good amount of their time asking each other how they are doing or how things are going on this particular day. There is a somewhat relaxing slowness to life here, and even in January, locals still walk around in shorts. Why bother change to longer pants? The snow will probably soon be gone anyway. 

At the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, however, it is business as usual. Together with three European scholars and one American, I make up this academic years’ “Byzantine Fellows”. In addition to us, a selected handful of “Junior Fellows” is working to finish their doctoral dissertations. We all live and work on Harvard’s expense, and it is an extremely stimulating environment for research and studies. To some it may perhaps sound contra-intuitive to journey across the Atlantic to do research on European history, but the fact is that hardly any collection in the world can compare itself to Dumbarton Oaks, at least when it comes to Byzantine Studies. Additionally, the institution has an impressive pre-Columbian collection and houses fellows who work in pre-Columbian and Garden Studies too. 

Thomas Arentzen taking a swim in Dumbarton Oaks' famous swimming pool. 

It was the aristocratic Bliss family who owned the Dumbarton Oaks mansion in Georgetown and laid the foundation for its current outstanding collection. When the couple decided to donate the estate to Harvard University and to research in 1940, Beatrix Farrand had already designed its legendary garden (which National Geographics lists among the world’s 10 most astonishing) and Igor Stravinsky had composed his Dumbarton Oaks concerto. Dumbarton Oaks is a special place in America. Personally, I cherish in particular the swimming pool. It is famous among Byzantinists – not least because rumors say that the great Alexander Kazhdan ended his days here during a swim in 1997.

I am here to finalize a book project about Byzantine Holy Week literature. Many of the hymns and homilies for the pre-Paschal days give grotesque descriptions of bodies in decay. Other bodies strut with sexual desire. Is this not a bit odd? I asked myself – it is after all Holy Week! I am, moreover, working on a translation project together with a colleague here, and we plan to turn our translations into a book in a couple of years. And finally, I am proof-reading a volume which I have edited together with Mary Cunningham, called The Reception of the Virgin in Byzantium: Marian Narratives in Texts and Images (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

As our dear Dean at the Faculty of Theology has pointed out, the postdoctoral phase in life amounts to a proletarian existence. I do, admittedly, remember times that have been even more proletarian in my own life, but I was no less than thrilled when I receive the message from the Swedish Research Council; they had granted me a four-year funding for the research project “Beyond the Garden: An Ecocritical Approach to Early Byzantine Christianity” at Uppsala University. This means that I will leave the Faculty of Theology after my postdoctoral period is over this summer to become a researcher in Uppsala. It is with a heavy heart that I will depart from beloved colleagues. After all, however, Uppsala is not a bad alternative. I will be exploring ecological aspects of early Christianity.

For now, my family and I are enjoying life in Washington DC. We have celebrated a different kind of Christmas, which included communal carol singing in our neighborhood at night. After new year's, there was a winter storm with snow chaos and closed schools. Most people started stocking up on food and water when the forecast began mentioning snow. Snow in subtropical regions is no joke. But we are having fun anyway!

Best  greetings from Washington


Published Mar. 12, 2019 7:37 PM - Last modified Mar. 12, 2019 7:37 PM