Some words about the winner and runner-up from the Chairman of the judging panel

For those of you who haven’t read the winning entry in this year’s Runciman Award competition, here are some thoughts from Professor Tom Harrison, Chairman of the judging panel, which may inspire you to pick up a copy:

The product of over twenty years of painstaking fieldwork  in Greece, Sharon Gerstel’s Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium seeks to reconstruct the lives of the rural poor in Greece from a wide range of sources: from the material remains of settlements, from ethnographic research, from illustrated manuscripts – but especially perhaps from the wall paintings of countless small churches used continuously over the intervening centuries, but many now in a state of disrepair.  Professor Gerstel’s book covers all aspects of rural life: from physical labour to witchcraft or the role of gossip (one of the main sins in representations of the Last Judgement). What distinguishes her book, however, is her attempt – as she puts it in her opening – to view the Greek landscape ‘from the heart’. This is an ambition that is amply fulfilled: every page is imbued with a sense of duty to preserve the memory of the rural life that she describes, and to honour those individuals who guided her in her fieldwork.  (A delightful aspect of her book is the presence of so many people in her photographs.)  Like another Runciman prize winner, Juliet du Boulay, she manages, in essence, to summon up a whole world – real and imaginary – of past experience.  For that extraordinary achievement, the Runciman Award for 2016 is awarded to Professor Sharon Gerstel.
The product of over twenty years of painstaking fieldwork  in Greece, Sharon Gerstel’s Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium seeks to reconstruct the lives of the rural poor in Greece from a wide range of sources: from the material remains of settlements, from ethnographic research, from illustrated manuscripts – but especially perhaps from the wall paintings of countless small churches used continuously over the intervening centuries, but many now in a state of disrepair.  Professor Gerstel’s book covers all aspects of rural life: from physical labour to witchcraft or the role of gossip (one of the main sins in representations of the Last Judgement). What distinguishes her book, however, is her attempt – as she puts it in her opening – to view the Greek landscape ‘from the heart’. This is an ambition that is amply fulfilled: every page is imbued with a sense of duty to preserve the memory of the rural life that she describes, and to honour those individuals who guided her in her fieldwork.  (A delightful aspect of her book is the presence of so many people in her photographs.)  Like another Runciman prize winner, Juliet du Boulay, she manages, in essence, to summon up a whole world – real and imaginary – of past experience.  For that extraordinary achievement, the Runciman Award for 2016 is awarded to Professor Sharon Gerstel.

This year the judging panel also decided to celebrate the achievements of John Dillery, author of Clio’s Other Sons, Berossus and Manetho, by declaring him runner-up. In the words of Professor Harrison:

John Dillery’s Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho, takes as its topic two fragmentary historians of the Hellenistic age, Berossus and Manetho. Both were priests, one Babylonian, the other Egyptian. Both, however, wrote their histories in Greek in the new world of the successors to Alexander. Were these works a form of cultural resistance to following Greek rule or acts of collaboration? Professor Dillery steers a wise course between these two extremes. He shows instead how both authors reflect a complex interpenetration of cultures: how the Greco-Macedonian conquests sparked a new kind of history writing in Egypt and the New East, but how at the same time both historians sought, as Professor Dillery puts it, to ‘preserve the integrity of their civilisation in the face of foreign domination’. This is a study which is based on a profound understanding of previous Greek history writing, but also of Egyptian and Near Eastern tradition – a near unique combination. If it is true that Clio’s Other Sons won’t be hitting the bookstands at WHSmith, it is also the case that it is beautifully written, could not do more to make some very difficult questions clear, and deserves a wide readership. It is a magnificent work of scholarship, one of the most important books on Ancient Greek history writing for many years and by a close margin, our runner-up for this year’s award.

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