Thomas A. Carlson
Fields of Study: Medieval Europe & Middle East; Byzantium, 1000-1453; Middle Eastern Christianity; Islamic Studies
Advisors: Peter Brown, Michael Cook
Thomas Carlson is a Ph.D. candidate studying the history of Christianity in the Medieval Middle East (see Research below). He has previously earned an M.A. in History (Princeton), an M.St. in Syriac Studies (Oxon.), and an M.Div. (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). His undergraduate studies were at the University of Washington, with a B.A. in English Literature and a B.S. in Pure Mathematics and Computer Science. He is originally from Minnesota.
Mr. Carlson's research explores a topic of rising prominence within Middle Eastern History, that of Christians in Islamic society. Scholars of Middle Eastern Christianity have largely been secluded away from the main streams of historical scholarship and Islamic Studies. This is changing, however, as historians of the Middle East and the broader public are becoming increasingly aware of non-Muslims in "the Islamic World." Mr. Carlson is interested in researching the full spectrum of Middle Eastern Christians in a diverse social and cultural context. His dissertation, entitled "Christians in Fifteenth-Century Iraq: The Church of the East as a Conceptual Community," expands our understanding of Middle Eastern social diversity in three main ways. First, the work examines the attested interactions among the different sub-sections of society in eastern Turkey, Kurdistan, and Iraq in the fifteenth century, using a range of Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, and Persian sources. This augments the work of John Woods on the Aqquyunlu ruling elite, and addresses a region neglected by most scholarship on this period, which has gravitated to imperial centers such as Cairo, Samarqand, or Istanbul. Secondly, this research develops a model for analyzing how past societies understood their own social groups. Generalizing Benedict Anderson's work on nationalism, with input from sociological studies of ethnicity, this project argues that the conceptual dimension of communal life (a "conceptual community") is an important and complex topic for historical inquiry. This framework for approaching social diversity is applicable to all regions and periods and provides a rigorous method for analyzing collective identity. Thirdly, by applying this method to one particular Christian group, the project contributes to our understanding of the internal dynamics of a substantial portion of the population. Rather than studying Middle Eastern minorities in terms which presume external (European or even Muslim) perspectives, this work asks how the members of one such group understood the nature of their community, and traces the multiple dimensions of their self-concepts. By consulting previously unstudied manuscript sources, Mr. Carlson has been able to delineate this minority's self-understanding in the dimensions which they emphasized, dimensions of theology, ritual, hierarchy, and history.
His research interests expand from this specific question to the dynamics of conceptual communities in other medieval settings. He is especially interested in the interplay between political and ethnic loyalties and definitions of Christianity, for example in the complex eastern reception of the ecclesiastical unions (not only Latin-Greek, but also Latin-Armenian and Latin-Syriac) declared at the Council of Florence (1438-1445). Thus Mr. Carlson's research interests lie primarily in the history of ideas and worldviews, but also in institutions and society, especially the complex interactions between social realities and the ways people understood them.
Mr. Carlson has taught two courses at Rutgers University (New Brunswick) as a Part-Time Lecturer: "The Mongol Empire" (Spring 2011) and "The Age of Reformation" (Spring 2010). His teaching interests are centered in the medieval eastern Mediterranean and Iraq, but expand to include the late antique Middle East and all of medieval Europe and the Middle East. Before coming to Princeton, he had previously taught pre-calculus at a high school level in the Seattle area and a year-long course in New Testament Greek at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
- Mark Dickens and Nicholas Sims-Williams, with contributions by Thomas A. Carlson and Christiane Reck, “Christian Calendrical Fragments from Turfan,” in J. Ben-Dov, W. Horowitz, and J. Steele (eds.), Living the Lunar Calendar. Proceedings of the Conference at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem (Calendars and Years 3; Oxford: Oxbow Books, forthcoming).
- “The Nature of the Church (of the East) in Is h aq Shbadnaya’s ‘Poem on the Divine Economy,’” The Harp: A Review of Syriac and Oriental Studies 26 (2011): forthcoming.
- “Iṣhaq Shbadnaya,” in Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz, and Lucas van Rompay (eds.), Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2011), 214-215.
- “ A Light From ‘the Dark Centuries’: Isḥaq Shbadnaya’s Life and Works,” Hugoye 14 (2011): 191-214.