Studying a PhD at the Parkes Institute: an interview with Bradley Barnes

The Parkes Institute is a thriving and globally recognised research centre. Our research interests cover all periods from antiquity to the twenty first century and have a truly global focus. Amongst our specialised interests currently are Holocaust Studies, Migration, Maritime Studies, Heritage and Ancient Jewish Studies, and our work is underpinned by examining questions of the relations between Jews and non-Jews and Jewish identity and culture more broadly.

Our research culture includes not only our established members of staff, but also our PhD students. In the first of a new series highlighting the work of our doctoral candidates we meet Bradley Barnes, a former BA and MRes student here at the Institute. Brad is supervised by Dr Dan Levene, an internationally recognised authority on early Jewish magic and incantations. In this interview, Brad tells us a little more about his work here at the Institute:

Bradley Barnes

What’s your project title?

Negotiating the Power of the Demon and the Divine: Semitic Cultures of Incantation Magic in Late Antique Mesopotamia.

What are some of your research interests?

Late Antiquity, Syriac Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, Demonology and Semitic cultures of Incantation.

Tell us a bit more about your PhD project

Human societies have always sought to control and ultimately shape the numerous uncertainties of everyday life, and the Christian and Jewish communities of Late Antique Mesopotamia were by no means any exception. When the uncertainty of one’s health, the success of one’s crop or a number of other misfortunes threatened to disrupt the smooth flow of life-as indeed they must have done so almost constantly-many turned to the supernatural: so as to humbly beseech their divine aid, but also and perhaps most surprisingly, to demand and command it. God, his angels and even biblical prophets, were just as easy to manipulate as humbly supplicate, if only you were to find one suitably well versed in the necessary words and efficacious formulae for an incantation- a contract of sorts, binding the divine to act in accordance with its terms. Judging by the number and variety of incantations to have been excavated and attributed to these communities, it would seem that the ancient Christians and Jews of Mesopotamia found many who were willing to allay their trivial and more serious concerns through this extraordinary technology.

It’s this fascinating dialogue between the divine and the Jewish and Christian communities of Late Antique Mesopotamia which has shaped not only my PhD project, but also my wider research over the past few years five years. ‘Fascinating’, not only for what these incantations might tell us about the wider religious cultures of these two communities, but for what they might tell us about their interaction. These ‘dialogues with the divine’ offer an intriguing insight into the imaginations of those who produced and believed in the efficacy of these incantations, but they also offer a rich repository of common ideas and smaller details, which when examined by the historian, reveals something of the exchange and perhaps something of relationship between Mesopotamia’s Late Antique Jewish and Christian communities.

What got you interested in this particular topic?

Aside from what this fascinating culture of incantation might reveal to the historian about the Christian and Jewish communities which produced them, these objects also reveal a very real, very human story. Hidden behind the words and formulae written to appease or command the power of the divine, was a mother, a father, a farmer, a lover, all fearful of the potential misfortunes which rocked the lives of the ordinary woman, man and child indiscriminately. Despite their age and despite the very different contexts within which they were produced, the incantations of Late Antique Mesopotamia are tangible and very human objects, offering the historian a rich and rare insight into the lives of those who lived in the past in a way that many artefacts simply cannot offer.

What made you want to study at the Parkes Institute?

With one of the largest collections of Jewish and Jewish related archival materials in Western Europe and with some of the world’s most expert authorities, the Parkes Institute at the University of Southampton is an obvious choice for those, interested in Jewish studies and Judeo-Christian relations. It was Dr. Dan Levene in particular, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Semitic and especially Jewish incantations, which convinced me that the Parkes Institute was where I needed to be.

What do you like about studying here?

The Parkes Institute is a friendly, intimate yet extremely well resourced academic facility, whose various scholars offer expertise on a variety of subjects directly related to the materials preserved in one of Europe’s largest collections of Jewish and Jewish related sources. In accordance with the will of James Parkes, whose collection of resources were donated to promote Jewish-Christian relations, the institute offers perhaps one of the richest environments for understanding these two communities, and the events which have shaped their interaction.

What sort of activities have you been involved in since you started here? 

It’s easy to imagine how the process of PhD might involve three years of largely reclusive study, but studying at the Parkes Institute means that the process of PhD can be a far more fulfilling, far more enriching experience than that.  Whilst engaging in my own research, I have also been invited to be a part of the University of Southampton’s Outreach programme, which attempts to further knowledge and understanding within the wider Southampton community, but also and perhaps more importantly, to raise aspirations and engage with those who might otherwise feel alienated from the possibility of going to University. You may say that I was once one of those people, having grown up in what is often referred to as a ‘non-typical’ background, and so I have grown to feel quite passionate about widening participation, and sharing in the privileges and enrichment of an education both at the University of Southampton, and the Parkes Institute.

As well as being involved in the personally enriching experience of the Parkes Institute’s Outreach programme, I have also been fortunate enough to attend a number of conferences, most recently the British Association of Jewish Studies ‘BAJS’ conference 2013, where I was able to present my own research and to engage with the questions of a variety of academics. Various funding opportunities make the possibility of attending and presenting at conferences all the more feasible, allowing each researcher the possibility to enhance and nurture the skills and tools essential for any potential academic.  My personal grasp of these necessary ‘skills’ were recently put to the test through the process of MPhil-PhD upgrade- just one of a series of official assessments, designed to assess  your progression, to shape the direction of your research  and  to give you the experience of defending your thesis.  A variety of outcomes were possible, but I’m glad to say that I was allowed to continue my research with only a few recommendations.

So what does the future hold? Well, recently with the careful guidance of my Supervisor Dr. Dan Levene, I have been invited to write an entry on the topic of my research for an American Encyclopaedia- my first, I hope of many more future publications.

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