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Winner of Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize

2019 Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize


Alice Isabella Sullivan, "Visions of Byzantium: The Siege of Constantinople in Sixteenth-Century Moldavia," The Art Bulletin 99 (2017), 31-68.

Adam Woodhouse, "'Who Owns the Money?' Currency, Property, and Popular Sovereignty in Nicole Oresme's De moneta," Speculum 92:1 (2017), 85-116.


The Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize recognizes a first article in the field of medieval studies of outstanding quality. This year many of the submissions, in the committee’s view, fell into this category, which we found encouraging for the future of medieval studies, even while it made our decision-making challenging. In the end, we determined that the scholarly scope and significance of argument of two of the submissions distinguished them from the rest, and thus decided to split the prize, awarding it to Alice Isabella Sullivan for “Visions of Byzantium: The Siege of Constantinople in Sixteenth-Century Moldavia,” The Art Bulletin 99.4 (2017): 31-68, and Adam Woodhouse for “‘Who Owns the Money?’ Currency, Property, and Popular Sovereignty in Nicole Oresme’s De moneta,” Speculum 92.1 (2017): 85-116.

With “Visions of Byzantium,” Sullivan has produced a study of a genre of Moldavian monastic church mural of remarkable conceptual sophistication and erudition. Drawing on Byzantine, Ottoman, and Moldavian history, as well as on liturgical and art historical sources, Sullivan provides a multidimensional, detailed contextualization of the “Siege of Constantinople” mural type. Her focus is on a corpus of eight churches in Moldavia that feature exterior wall paintings created between 1530 and 1541 under the aegis of the Moldavian prince Peter Rareş. Through extensive on-the-ground research in modern-day Moldova, and with comparison to Russian, Greek, and Macedonian church murals, Sullivan expertly paints a thick description of the “Siege of Constantinople” mural type’s multivalent significance. She carefully examines the murals’ architectural depictions of the city of Constantinople, their deliberate use of Byzantine liturgical garments in staging of processions, and their allusive use of battle scenes. She situates these artistic statements within the geopolitical struggle of Christendom against the Ottomans and, more specifically, in the context of the rule of Peter Rareş and his political and military aspirations. Beyond its value for the understanding of an important genre of painting, moreover, the article has implications for aesthetic theory, as Sullivan argues for the inherent transtemporality of the mural painting in its myriad motivations and effects. After all, as Sullivan’s analysis demonstrates, the murals contain multiple allusions and vectors of signification: they synthesize a number of historical moments in which Constantinople enjoyed miraculous deliverance from enemy armies, speak to Moldavian hopes for divine aid in their ongoing struggles with the Ottomans, and embody the spiritual emphases in Orthodox Christianity. The article reads like a masterwork by scholar of long standing: it is broadly and deeply researched, and it articulates its interventions with nuance and confidence.

In Woodhouse’s dazzlingly erudite and wide-ranging essay, he argues convincingly that in De moneta Nicole Oresme overturned centuries of legal theory by formulating a sophisticated argument against the right of the prince to debase the coinage. In doing so, Woodhouse shows, Oresme engaged in nothing less than a reordering of the public realm “from the ground up.” The De moneta is well-known to scholarship – and, ironically, that is partly why its significance has been overlooked. Indeed, the history of its interpretation has only reinforced stale notions about the fourteenth century as a derivative and unoriginal period. In his reading of the work, Woodhouse demonstrates that Oresme was playing for much higher stakes than a simple reordering of the tradition. Untangling Oresme’s skein of influences, Woodhouse shows how a concept such as private property, which plays a vital role in Oresme’s conception of money and who “owns” it, was still “under construction” in this period, indeed fiercely debated by the Franciscans, who rejected the notion that it originated in the Garden of Eden. By contrast, Oresme constructs a political theory in which money belongs to the community by natural law. Thus emperors and princes have no right to mint coins – only a duty to do so. The right to control money remains invested in the people. The prince who debases the coinage without good reason descends into tyranny. On this point, Oresme’s predecessors in the universities agreed but went no further than ethical opposition. Oresme broke radically from the classical and scholastic tradition by insisting that the tyrant must be restrained by effective laws as well. Oresme emerges from this study not as a mere sounding board for the tradition but as a groundbreaking political theorist in his own right. The deep learning of the essay, its skillful argumentation, and the weight of its thesis belie its status as a first article.


                                                                                                            Respectfully submitted,

Irina Dumitrescu

Daniel Hobbins

Robert J. Meyer-Lee, Chair



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