2022 Leibniz Prize for Historian Mischa Meyer – SWR Knowledge

Tübingen historian Micha Meyer was awarded the Leibniz Prize, which was awarded 2.5 million euros, for his discoveries of Late Antiquity – the period from the third to the eighth centuries AD.

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According to the German Research Foundation, Micha Meyer has had a lasting impact on the field of ancient history and related disciplines both nationally and internationally through his pioneering work in the history of late antiquity.

Mayer set new standards in research for this time, says the German Research Foundation:

“Mayer’s studies have contributed significantly to a new, more differentiated understanding of the so-called ‘long’ late antiquity.”

The locust plague and the volcanic eruption caused a famine

Late Antiquity was defined as the period between Constantine and the fall of the Western Roman Empire – ie from 300 to 475 AD. Misha Meyer’s research shows that the influence of Late Antiquity lasted much longer – at least until the eighth century.

In rehabilitation, Micha Meyer focused mainly on the 6th century AD. At that time, the Roman Empire consisted of two parts and was ruled by two emperors. It extended from Spain in the west to Syria in the east.

A volcanic eruption (here is a historical photo of Etna’s eruption) may have darkened the entire northern hemisphere for a year and a half in the year 536.

imago pictures

imago photos / H. Chans Hoffmann

An exciting time for the Tübingen historian – marked by disasters: first a locust plague in what is now Syria. Then a volcanic eruption caused a famine:

“We know that in the year 536, the entire northern hemisphere eclipsed for a year and a half. There are a lot of reports written about it and there is now scientific evidence. It may have been the result of a large volcanic eruption. It is not known exactly where it was. But it must have been volcanic eruption.”

Belief in disasters sent by God

Then the plague spread. It was believed that disasters were sent by God – and the end of the world had come. But at some point it was noticed that the disasters did not lead to the expected end of the world. This led to uncertainty again.

“Simply interesting dynamics emerged with which I tried to reinterpret the sixth century.”

Meyer describes religion as a very high priority. Everything is a divine will. Representative God Emperor. The Roman Empire is a special space protected by God and inhabited by saints.

The plague was seen as a disaster sent by God.  (Photo: Imago Images, Imago Images/UIG)

The plague was seen as a disaster sent by God.

imago pictures

imago photos / UIG

New perspectives on immigration

The end of the migration of peoples also fell at this time. It is also a reinterpretation of Mischa Meyer. He says it is not an exceptional phenomenon as long as it has been described.

Mobility played a special role during this period, as many tribes were on the move. However, Mayer considers the old idea that some people left Scandinavia at the turn of the century and then reached the frontiers of the Roman Empire 400 years later as unrealistic:

“It didn’t work out that easily.”

Misha Meyer says that the migration of the Huns from east to west is also an important factor in the history of migration. But it is also important to note that it was not only the Huns who traveled with their clan. At that time, the tribes were constantly on the move – for a variety of reasons.

The 50-year-old has made his research findings accessible to a wide audience in a highly acclaimed and highly readable book on people migration.

According to Misha Meyer, the Huns were not the only people who changed their position in late antiquity.  (Photo: Imago Images, Imago Images/AGB Image)

According to Misha Meyer, the Huns were not the only people who changed their position in late antiquity.

imago pictures

imago images / images AGB

Entering a fake encyclopedia about football

Mischa Meyer’s books and modus operandi are inspiring, which is what qualifying candidate Peter Zeller is excited about. Meyer works with an open mind and that is exactly why he has revolutionized the view of late antiquity. Misha Meyer asserts that he has a literary right to his work. Meyer showed his soft spot for stories at a young age by entering a fictional encyclopedia on football.

As an assistant student, Meyer was supposed to review and then correct scholars’ entries for the well-known encyclopedia of history “Pauli Noir”. For fun, he then wrote an article himself about a fake keyword:

An ancient sport, it was probably an early form of the modern game of football. (…) Documented at the beginning of the fourth century BC in Corinth. The sport appears to have reached Rome in the late Hellenistic period.

His boss at the time noticed this, but found it funny, and therefore sent it to the Central Editorial Office without comment. This is how the encyclopedia entered. This entry on the game of football is now one of the most popular so-called “submarines” in modern dictionaries.

“I am convinced in a way that historiography has to do with literature as well. And I try to do that in some way, at least in studies.”

The professor of ancient history in Tübingen will receive 2.5 million euros as the winner of the Leibniz Prize in 2022.
Mayer wants to use the money to further research his topics and to hire young scientists. This way he can research topics on a larger scale in the future. For example, the question of how climate affected history is an interesting one. To do this, he wants to work more closely with scientists.

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