The role of the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos in the Middle Ages

14 March 2022

Dr. Zachary Chitwood, lecturer in Byzantine Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant to fund his research project MAMEMS. This is despite the fact that research in the humanities and social sciences rarely seems to take advantage of this form of financial support although grants from the European Research Council are specifically designed to sponsor innovative research of all kinds.

Mount Athos is located on the Halkidiki peninsula, with its three characteristic promontories that jut out far into the Aegean Sea. The eponymous region encompasses the entire eastern finger, on the very tip of which is the mountain itself that rises to an impressive 2,033 meters in height. "Athos is a center of Orthodox Christian monasticism situated not far from Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece," explains Dr. Zachary Chitwood. "Its political status is similar to that of the Vatican. It is not an independent state but rather considered a semi-autonomous monastic republic. Athos is currently home to 20 major monasteries and some 2,300 monks. There is also one particularly idiosyncrasy: Women are traditionally not allowed on Mount Athos and even female animals of all kinds are banned to the extent residents can control."

Chitwood describes a world that seems rather bizarre to people accustomed to Western European living. But Athos played a prominent role in the affairs of the Eastern Mediterranean over centuries. "Athos is a remote site and its inhabitants dedicate themselves to prayer and an ascetic lifestyle. This tradition has been diligently protected right up to the present. In the medieval period in particular, Athos was a highly influential and independent international player that maintained close ties with the Byzantine Empire. Much of what we know about Constantinople today we learned from the records kept by the monks of Athos."

A database of the monastic republic

Chitwood has initiated a project that aims to transform the way the holy mountain is viewed. The objective of MAMEMS, short for "Mount Athos in Medieval Eastern Mediterranean Society", is to put together a prosopographic database to create a collective biography comprising all available information about the monks, the founders of the monastery, and of prominent and less prominent visitors to Athos. Chitwood will be focusing on data from the period 850 to 1550, an era during which Athos was very active in the greater politics of the time.

The project is being funded by the European Research Council since Chitwood managed to secure a coveted ERC Starting Grant for MAMEMS. The European Council is making roughly EUR 1.5 million available for his project. The project is being funded by the European Research Council since Chitwood managed to secure a coveted ERC Starting Grant for MAMEMS. The European Council is making roughly EUR 1.5 million available for his project. "Dr. Chitwood is the first JGU researcher in the fields of the humanities and social sciences receiving an ERC Starting Grant," emphasizes Julia Doré, European Liaison Officer and head of the JGU EU Office. "Mainz University with its University Medical Center is actually quite successful in this funding line. Fifteen ERC Grants are currently in place at JGU; a total of 35 JGU projects have been financed this way since the program was launched in 2007." However, all of these research projects were and are in the disciplines of the natural and life sciences. MAMEMS is the exception.

"Within the German research funding system, we also have the Emmy Noether Program to support early-career researchers. This is somewhat comparable to the ERC Starting Grants," explains Doré. "However, the Emmy Noether Program is open only for a very specific group, namely young researchers who are within four years of obtaining their doctorates. An ERC Starting Grant, on the other hand, goes to individuals up to seven years after they have been awarded their doctorate. Furthermore, there are few if any restrictions on how an ERC Starting Grant can be used. Dr. Chitwood would have been free to transfer his research base to Thessaloniki because the grant comes with no location restrictions within Europe. There are also grants for every stage of an academic career, i.e., the Starting Grant worth EUR 1.5 million, the Consolidator Grant worth EUR 2 million, followed by the EUR 2.5 million Advanced Grant. On top of this, research teams of up to four individuals may apply for a Synergy Grant and receive a maximum of EUR 10 million."

High risk, high reward

The European Research Council takes a special interest in academic projects that are pioneering, while other EU funding is often earmarked for economics- and business-related research. "ERC Grants are somewhat distributed along the lines of 'high risk, high reward'," asserts Chitwood. "Your project should take a bold approach. You might fail, but the potential gain in knowledge if all goes well will be all the greater." – "The idea of putting together the kind of database envisioned is really innovative. So that gives MAMEMS a fascinating appeal", says Doré. "The project also has a European orientation and that makes it very attractive for ERC funding."

Chitwood has put together an interdisciplinary team, including slavicist Dr. Kirill Maksimovič, kartvelologist Dr. Tinatin Chronz, ottomanist Dr. Vanessa de Obaldia, and byzantinist Emanuela Mindrila. The group is supported by two student assistants. "I'm fascinated by international aspects of European research," says Chitwood. "I myself was born in the USA, while my team members come from Russia, Georgia, and Romania."

It is with this diversity of the group that Chitwood hopes to achieve a successful outcome of what is a complex, extremely multifaceted project. "As you might expect, there are Byzantine monasteries on Athos but there is also a monastery that was established in the 10th century by a Georgian prince. There are Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian monasteries. There even was a Benedictine monastery – centuries ago. Each of the communities of monks has its own traditions and each has reacted differently to our request to visit their archives."

Chitwood's team will go beyond the usual annals and records. "We will be the first to look at the memorial books preserved in the monasteries. These have not yet been examined, have hardly been redacted. Some have not even been cataloged." This wealth of resources will allow the MAMEMS researchers to make an abundance of biographical data available that can then be accessed and used by various academic disciplines. "I can already tell you, for instance, that despite the ban on females there have been several occasions when women were present on Athos," reveals Chitwood. "As an example, in the mid-14th century the wife of a Serbian ruler was allowed to pay a visit."

Helpful support in the application process

"Dr. Chitwood approached my colleague Dr. Nicole Birkle for support with the ERC Grant application," Doré remembers. "Of course, we do have many postdocs doing outstanding research here at JGU. But you also need to be familiar with the formalities involved when it comes to preparing applications like this. The JGU EU Office can tell them which grant is available for their project and what formalities they need to adhere to for the specific application."

Many researchers – notably those in the humanities and social sciences – are reluctant to apply for highly endowed ERC Grants and make do with smaller, national funding. "Around nine percent of our third-party funding comes from the EU. The German Research Foundation, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research as well as private foundations contribute a much larger proportion," Doré observes. "We would like to see an increase in numbers of applications submitted for ERC Grants but I have the impression that there is a lot of respect due to the large amounts of money involved. Naturally, there is also a high risk of failure. European competition is really hard – no matter how impressive your project is, there are always critics out there."

Yet MAMEMS is a prime example of how an exceptional project can attract such a grant. The successful funding award inspires Doré to give the following advice: “There is no need to be intimidated by ERC Grants. They might be just as suitable for projects in the humanities and social sciences."