Why on earth does my research matter?

Sometimes it can be hard for PhD students (or academics in general, I imagine) to explain to normal people why our research matters. Of course, my research often needs no justification in the academic circles I travel in. People who work with popes or the Later Roman Empire or mediaeval canon law or manuscripts or the Church Fathers say, ‘Fantastic! I’m so glad someone’s doing that.’

Nevertheles, sometimes engineers are curious about my research.

So why does tracing the relationships amongst manuscripts with Pope Leo I’s letters, creating some sort of stemma (family tree), and ultimately a new critical edition, matter?

First, the manuscripts and the family tree are important. They show us who was reading Leo, what they were reading, and where. They show us how people were using Leo — papal letters are not as straightforward as, say, epics (not saying Vergilian TC is easy, mind you), being reconfigured and excerpted in various ways for various reasons almost every time they survive. This helps us understand better the world of the scribes, of the monks, of the movers and shakers of ecclesiastical history and intellectual history to the end of the Middle Ages.

Understanding Leo’s manuscripts in particular will also cast light in two important directions. First, we will gain insight into the early years of the transmission of papal correspondence to posterity, the ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ and habits of the scribal tradition. Second, we will gain insight into how the so-called ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, whence come many collections and manuscripts of canon law (and thus of Leo’s letters, which are the raw material for canon law), which was occurring from the late eighth to late ninth centuries and touched on much more than canon law — understanding this corner of it, however, will cast light on the whole as we better see how Leo and the papal decretals were treated and transmitted by Western Europe’s scribes as history moved towards the Central Middle Ages.

These two aspects of understanding the manuscripts help us understand the past better. They fill in corners of the darkness of our understanding. They help put faces and moments and material objects (books) to the events that shaped the mediaeval church, a highly powerful institution that looms large over the transmission of all western intellectual history, papal, Christian, and otherwise.

For me, that would be enough. For car engineers, the question of, ‘Why?’ may still loom.

So we go a further step back. Leo’s letters cast light on Leo, on the early development of western canon law and the papacy, and on the events and theology surrounding the Council of Chalcedon in 451 — at which council his delineation of two-nature Christology was approved as official within the Empire, and is still accepted by Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestants. Leo is, thus, important for those interested in those three traditions (whether Christians or interested persons), as well as for those interested in the non-Chalcedonian traditions (the ‘Miaphysite’ Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, as well as the ‘Dyophysite’ (aka ‘Nestorian’) churches).

And whether you believe or even care about Late Antique Christology, Leo is an important player in the history of ideas and the fragmentation of Christendom in those years, and is important for the centuries that follow through the course of intellectual history (this is also true when we consider Rome and her relations with Constantinople). Finding out his ipsissima uerba is an important task, then.

If that leaves you unconvinced, think about this: The last edition of Leo’s letters is flawed. Even when the Ballerini made good editorial choices, their notes leave much to be desired. It is important for us who study ideas to be transparent, to know where these ideas, these words are found. Is a variant reading a conjecture from the editor? If it’s from a manuscript, which one? Knowing these things will enable the reader to better evaluate the author’s ideas.

In the end, if we want to go beyond these reasons as to why my research matters, all I can think of is: It furthers our knowledge of several important moments and movements in the history of ideas, of canon law, the papacy, Christian theology, Latin epistolography, and more.

And knowledge is worth having.

Justifying that brings us to philosophy, but, in fact, so will the question, ‘Why a better car?’


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