Fields of Study: Medieval Middle East, Byzantium, & Europe; Eastern Christianity (Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, & Greek); Islamic Studies
Dissertation Committee: Peter Brown, Michael Cook, William C. Jordan, David G. K. Taylor (Oxford)
Thomas A. Carlson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Medieval Middle East History, as well as a Research Fellow on the Syriaca.org project based at Beth Mardutho Research Library in Piscataway, N.J. Before his Ph.D. in History (Princeton, 2012), he previously earned an M.A. in History (Princeton, 2009), an M.St. in Syriac Studies (Oxford, 2007), and an M.Div. (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2006). 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.
Dr. Carlson is a historian of religion, culture, and society in the medieval Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, primarily c.950-1500. He is particularly interested in concepts of communities (what Benedict Anderson termed “Imagined Communities”) at the intersection of religion and ethnicity, and how diversity (whether religious, ethnic, or linguistic) affected the way medieval societies functioned. His interests include relations between religious groups, how concepts of religious and ethnic communities change over centuries, the range of social and cultural dimensions which were part of Islamization, and more recently the conceptual dimension of geography, regarded not merely as a record of locations but also as the cultural meanings assigned to different places.
Dr. Carlson's postdoctoral research is part of a project to develop Syriaca.org as an online tool for Syriac Studies scholarship. He has been the lead researcher on the development of The Syriac Gazetteer, a database of over 2000 places relevant for Syriac Studies. The database covers geography from ancient to modern times, from Middle Eastern centers of Syriac culture such as Edessa to medieval outposts in China and modern diaspora communities in the United States of America, as well as including intellectual hubs for the production of Syriac scholarship. In developing the Gazetteer, he is also clarifying the theoretical challenges facing digital approaches to geography, especially pre-modern geography. For example, due to the shifting topographic footprints of places over the centuries as well as our present inability to locate certain places of the past, treating places as conceptual entities referenced in a universe of texts yields a different range of research possibilities than the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) approach of refining measurements to plot a place on a map. On the other hand, conceptual entities do not have a strong identity relation (place A and place B may be simultaneously “the same” in one sense and “distinct” in another), which requires the development of tools which can tolerate a degree of slippage. His work in digital humanities explores both the possibilities and the limitations of new approaches, and he argues for the necessity of collaboration between humanities researchers and technological experts to unite theoretical nuance with innovative methods.
Besides his work on Syriaca.org, Dr. Carlson is revising his dissertation, entitled “Christians in Fifteenth-Century Iraq: The Church of the East as a Conceptual Community,” into a book which speaks to discussions of religious diversity and the dynamics of belief and practice studied by Islamic historians, medievalists, Byzantinists, and Syriacists. His dissertation generalized and modified Benedict Anderson’s approach to nationalism in order to explore what Christianity meant to a Syriac Christian denomination headquartered in Mosul in northern Iraq, the so-called “Nestorian” Church of the East. This project demonstrated the very local nature of politics at the borders of medieval empires and clarified the multi-lateral dynamics of Muslim-Christian relationships, involving several different Christian groups and both ruling and non-ruling Muslim neighbors. The dissertation uncovered greater theological continuity between European and Middle Eastern Christians than scholars have typically recognized, while revealing concepts of religious authority and historical time which East Syrian Christians shared with their Muslim neighbors. The communal rituals delineated the membership of this religious group, but they also marked members according to a range of voluntary and involuntary qualities (including gender, age, rank, and level of participation), resulting in a highly textured membership. The concepts and practice of the ecclesiastical hierarchy changed radically in the fifteenth century, due to the failure of a fourteenth-century clericalist reform under the strain of increasing warfare between rival Türkmen confederations. The study of Middle Eastern Christian groups, which remained a substantial portion of the population of important regions into the Ottoman period, enables scholars to differentiate between elements of medieval Christendom which were distinctively European as opposed to characteristic of Christianity more broadly, as well as between aspects of “Islamicate society” (to use Marshall Hodgson’s phrase) which were specifically Islamic rather than shared with other Middle Easterners.
Dr. Carlson is also finishing an article on the Islamization of Syria from the first Islamic conquests to the Ottoman conquest in 1517, using travelers’ accounts and geographical literature in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian.
Dr. Carlson’s next book project will suggest ways in which medieval religious and ethnic diversity in the eastern Mediterranean (c.950-1500) shaped government, law, and religion in this region, as well as how the diverse status quo of the early Islamic/Middle Byzantine period gave way under new military pressures from multiple directions and was eventually reconstituted into a new and more Muslim social system. This project intentionally straddles the scholarly divide between Christian states (the Byzantium Empire and the Crusader states, typically bundled with medieval European history) and Islamic history (Arabs, Persians, and Turks). Constantinople was a gateway to the medieval Middle East just as much as Cairo was, both linking the Fertile Crescent with Mediterranean lands further west. The Turkic influx into this region opened a new range of possibilities for the relationship between state power and religion, leading sometimes to additional patronage for Christians and eventually to a more marginalized place for non-Muslims in an ascendant Islamic empire which ruled much of the Mediterranean and the Middle East from Constantinople after 1453. This book will suggest to Islamic historians a sharper regional diversity even within medieval Islam and a more significant place for non-Muslim populations into the late medieval period, against Marshall Hodgson’s characterization of the “Islamic Middle Period” as one of cultural unity despite political fragmentation. Instead, this project suggests that the proposed cultural unity was really the professional unity of the Islamic religious elite (the ʿulamāʾ) who wrote almost all of the Arabic sources favored by scholars. A greater range of religious diversity within Islam and among non-Muslims appears not only from available non-Arabic sources, but also from the Arabic writings of the religious elite when read with attention to the issue of diversity. Considering religious minorities will show Byzantinists the fruitfulness of studying non-Christians (and non-Greek Christians) in areas conquered by armies from Constantinople, as well as the continued dynamics of Byzantine society after the retreat of imperial frontiers in the face of Turkic conquests. The book will also show how the Crusader states faced the same issues with diversity as the other rulers (whether Muslim or Christian) in the area, and came to many of the same attempted solutions. It will be a slim synthetic volume to open avenues for future research of medieval ethnic and religious diversity from Constantinople to Baghdad.
Dr. Carlson values the way teaching refines his ability to communicate clearly both the processes and results of historical scholarship, in order to train students to think carefully and engage constructively with a diverse world. Since participation in discovery is known to contribute to deep assimilation and analysis of material, even in writing lectures he looks for ways that students can make key conceptual advances for themselves. His courses emphasize primary sources both as sites of unexpected connections and as opportunities for discussions of historical methodology. He views a teacher’s role as analogous to the sports coach who motivates athletes to work harder: learning can only occur on the student’s initiative, but the teacher can enable and facilitate student learning, and can encourage students to learn.
Dr. 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). Before coming to Princeton, he previously taught pre-calculus in Seattle and a year-long course in New Testament Greek at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
- “Syriac Christology and Christian Community in the Fifteenth-Century Church of the East,” in H. Teule, E. Keser-Kayaalp, K. Akalın, N. Doru, and M. S. Toprak (eds.), Syriac in its Multi-Cultural Context (Eastern Christian Studies; Louvain: Peeters, forthcoming).
- “History and Self-Concept in the Fifteenth-Century Church of the East: The Works of Īsḥāq Šbadnāyā and Īšōʿyahb bar Mqaddam,” Parole de l’Orient 38 (2013): 1-13.
- 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 Isḥaq 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.