Comparative Studies of the Premodern World

The Boston University Comparative Studies of the Premodern World Initiative aims to enhance communication between BU faculty members working on different regions and periods of the premodern world (broadly conceived as ancient, medieval through early modern), inspire collaborative research and teaching, increase the visibility of premodern studies and coursework at BU, and respond and contribute to the search for bold and sophisticated comparisons of the world’s cultural traditions that has recently gained momentum in many fields. Ultimately, we strongly hope that our initiative can help reinvigorate the role of the humanities in academia and society and imagine new models for their relevance. The initiative is supported by BU’s Center for the Humanities and the Department of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature and includes regular topical research workshops, workshops on teaching in comparison and invited lectures. All events are open to interested BU and non-BU faculty and students.

2018-19 Events

The Humanities in the 21st Century: Classical Studies in and for the World

2017-18 Events

Seeking a Future for East Asia’s Past (April 27)

Comparative Persianate Aesthetics (September 28-29)

2013-14 Events


Bhaktamāl: Redefining the Sacred in Premodern India

Talk by Abhisheka (BU)

April 2, 4:30 pm, Room 625 (745 Comm Ave, STH)


Translating and Teaching Premodern Persian Literature

A symposium organized by Sassan Tabatabai and Sunil Sharma

Keynote by Dick Davis:  Veiled Voices: Who Speaks in a Translation?

April 24-25, 2014, Editorial Institute


Binding the Pages of the Heart: Metaphors of the Arts of the Book in the Poetry of Sa’eb Tabrizi

Talk by Paul Losensky (Indiana University)

January 17, 3 pm, Room 636 (745 Comm Ave, STH)


FALL 2013

The Story of Writing: The Origins and Development of Writing Systems

A talk by Professor Sasha Nikolaev (Boston University)

The Story of Writing: The Origins and Development of Writing Systems (a talk by Professor Sasha Nikolaev)

Beyond the Silk Road: Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Cities and Courts

November 7, 2-4 pm, GSU Terrace Lounge

Presenters: Roberta Micallef and Sunil Sharma (Boston University)

This is a BU Center for the Study of Asia event:

Mapping Culture: Illustrated Gazetteers in Early Modern Japan

Talk by Robert Goree (Boston University)

December 5, 4 pm , STH 625 (745 Comm Ave)


2012-13 Events

Theme: Courts as Contact Zones

FALL 2012

November 1

Catachresis and Comparing the Incomparable: Sino-Japanese and Greco-Roman Perspectives

Wiebke Denecke


A Clash of Court Cultures: Papal Envoys in Early Eighteenth-Century Beijing

Eugenio Menegon

December 13, 5-6:30, Room 625 (STH, 745 Commonwealth)

Aristophanes and Court Culture:  Athens and the Other

Stephanie Nelson


Imperial Circulations: Ideologies of Empire and Diplomatic Practices between Asia and Europe

Tuesday, March 5

4:30 – 6:30 pm, 675 Commonwealth Ave, Room 132


Mark Elliott (Harvard University)

Conceptualizing Empire: Qing China and European Notions of Imperium, 17th– 18th Centuries

ABSTRACT: The habit in the West is to speak of the Chinese empire, but the absence of any such word as “empire” in the Chinese language ought to give us pause.  Why, exactly, do we in the West speak of China historically as an “empire,” and when did this habit begin?  Through an examination of early modern Sinological discourse, this paper makes the argument that the European discovery of empire in China coincided with the Manchu conquest of China in the mid-17th century.

Gregory Afinogenov (Harvard University)

The Ambassador and his Audience: Performance and Knowledge in Early Modern Russian Diplomacy

ABSTRACT: The Qing empire’s diplomatic relationship with Russia, like its encounter with the British Macartney embassy (1793), has often been depicted as an exotic farce in which the efforts of earnest ambassadors were derailed by the intricacies of imperial court protocol. But it would be a mistake to assume that Qing procedures were any more formalized and convoluted than those of most European courts. Drawing on the records of Russian embassies to Europe as well as China, my paper will attempt a deeper analysis of the significance of court ceremonies. By probing what these elaborately staged set-pieces were meant to convey to the diplomat, and what the diplomat learned from them and transmitted to his superiors at home, it will raise the question of the link between power, performance, and information in the context of court culture.


Malcolm Smuts (University of Massachusetts Boston)

Co-sponsors:  Boston University Center for the Study of Asia & Center for the Study of Europe


April 19, 4 pm, CAS 200 (EVENT CANCELLED)

Court and Exile: The Poetry of Ovid and Yu Xin

Talk by Alexander Beecroft (University of South Carolina)

The poets Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) and Yu Xin (AD 513-81) are both famous, among other things, for the fact that each ended their lives in exile – Ovid as a result, he tells us, of carmen et error (“a song and a mistake”); that is, for his implication in the political and sexual scandals of Augustan Rome; Yu Xin, because he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the North by a Southern dynasty in Six Dynasties China, and was never allowed to return. The best-known poetry of each is only loosely connected to their exile: Ovid is most familiar for the erotic and epic poems he wrote prior to his exile, while the single most famous poem of Yu Xin, the Ai Jiangnan Fu (“Lament for the Land South of the River”) reflects on the fall of a southern dynasty and deals only briefly with events after his own exile. Both poets, then, construct personas as court poets, who are driven from the center to the periphery as a result of events beyond their control, and in general their representations of exile suggest that it is the precise opposite of life at court.

And yet, fascinatingly, both poets write, during their exile, poetry targeted at other courts. A great deal of Yu Xin’s surviving corpus are poems directed at the Northern Zhou regime in which he lived his final decades. Less extensively, Ovid composes poems to Cotys, King of Thrace, and discusses the (quite possibly imaginary) project of writing poetry in the Getic language. Both poets, then, transfer the tropes of court poetry to a new court context, targeting both that audience and a (real or imagined) audience at home in Rome or Jiankang. This paper will explore the intriguing strategies by which each poet manages this delicate balance.


2011-12 Events

FALL 2011

November 3

Cultural Encounters, Travel, Contact Zones
Presenters: Beth Goldsmith (Romance Studies), Sunil Sharma (MLCL)

Reading 1

Reading 2

December 1

Rise of the City, Cities in Comparison
Presenters: David Carballo (Archaeology), Stephen Scully (Classics), Michael Zank (Religion)

Reading 1

Reading 2


Tuesday, February 7

CAS 132

4-6 pm


Current World Literature Debates and the Premodern World: Paradoxes and Prospects
Guest Speaker: David Damrosch (Harvard University, Comparative Literature)

Presenters: Emily Hudson (Religion),  Sanjay Krishnan (English), Wiebke Denecke (MLCL)


David Damrosch is Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and is a past president of the American Comparative Literature Association. His books include What Is World Literature? (2003), The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (2007), and How to Read World Literature (2009). He is the founding general editor of the six-volume Longman Anthology of World Literature (2004) and co-editor (with Theo D’haen and Djelal Kadir) of The Routledge Companion to World Literature (2011), and is the founding director of the Institute for World Literature.

Reading: Damrosch “Frames for World Literature”


Thursday, March 22

4-6 PM

745 Commonwealth Ave, School of Theology, Room 625

Court Cultures in Comparison
Presenters: Gina Cogan (Religion), Emine Fetvaci (Art History), James Uden (Classics)

Reading 1: Love in the Album of Ahmed I

Reading 2: Earinus the Eunuch: Martial

Reading 3: GCoganBunchiIsshiPremodern



Keynote Lecture

Monday, April 2

The Castle, 225 Bay State Road


Difference and Hermeneutics: Comparative Approaches to the Premodern World

Guest Speaker: Prof. Jan Assmann (University of Konstanz)

Discussant: Professor Christopher I. Lehrich (BU, Religion)


Jan Assmann was Professor of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg from 1976 – 2003 and is now Honorary Professor of Cultural and Religious Studies at Constance, Germany. A specialist on ancient Egyptian religion, literature and history, he has also published books and articles in the area of cultural theory (“cultural memory”), history of religion (“monotheism and cosmotheism”), literary theory and historical anthropology. As a visiting professor, he has taught in Paris, Jerusalem, and at several universities in the US. He has received honorary degrees from Münster, Yale, and Jerusalem. Assmann is a member of the Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, the European Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Academia Europea.

His books in English include Moses the Egyptian (Harvard, 1997), The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs (Harvard 2003), The Search for God in Ancient Egypt (Cornell 2002), Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (Cornell 2006); Of God and Gods (Madison 2008); Religion and Cultural Memory (Stanford UP 2005); The Price of Monotheism (Stanford UP 2009); and Cultural Memory and Early Civilizations (Cambridge UP 2011)

Awards: Max-Planck-Forschungspreis 1996; Deutscher Historikerpreis 1998. Prix Psyché 2000; Alfried Krupp Forschungspreis für Geisteswissenschaften (2006); Bundesverdienstkreuz I. Klasse (2006); Prix Européen de l’essay (2008); Thomas-Mann-Preis (2011).

The lecture will be followed by a short reception with light appetizers.


During his visit Professor Assmann will also deliver three other lectures at BU and beyond:

April 3, 2012: Joseph in Egypt: From the Bible to Thomas Mann


Venue: Brandeis University (Mandel Reading Room, 303 )

JA Flier Brandeis


April 4, 2012: Politics, Religion and Violence:  The Maccabean Wars

5 PM

Respondent: Martin Kavka (Department of Religion, Florida State University)

Moderator:  Michael Zank (Department of Religion, Boston University)

Venue: Institute for Philosophy and Religion, Boston University School of Law, Barristers Hall, 765 Commonwealth Ave (first floor)


April 5, 2012: Egyptian Mysteries and Secret Societies in the Age of Enlightenment

Sponsored by the Harvard University Department of Comparative Literature


Venue: Harvard University (Harvard Hall 104)

Jan Assmann poster_1

For more information, please contact Prof. Wiebke Denecke ( or Prof. Sunil Sharma (

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