IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Simon John
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
That it was very cool that Heidelberg had established a research centre specifically for addressing ideas connected to the apocalypse and apocalyptic thought! Given the predominance of this theme to my own research interests, and the fact that in 2020 I already had spent a very productive and enjoyable time in Heidelberg on sabbatical, I decided pretty much right away to apply.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
I’m interested in ideas about the Endtimes that existed in during the Middle Ages Europe, and above all in the period between about 1000 and 1250. That being the case, I approach the ‘apocalypse’ as many of the medieval authors from that period did so: as a divine revelation that relates to (the Christian) God’s cosmic plan for the world, and, ultimately, its end.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve?
My project focusses on how the crusades – a series of papally-sanctified military expeditions carried out in theatres in the Near East, Europe and the surrounding regions from at least the late eleventh century to the late sixteenth – stimulated ideas about the Endtimes among Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages. Much of the source material that survives from that era was produced by learned churchmen, a literate elite whose concerns did not necessarily reflect the ideas held by the rest of society. For my project, I’m looking at a corpus of chansons de geste – verse texts composed in ‘Old’ (medieval) French and directed towards audiences of aristocrats rather than churchmen – and exploring the extent to which they articulate eschatology. In brief terms, I am interrogating how far beyond that learned elite of churchmen ideas about the Endtimes may have permeated medieval Christian society.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
I’ve worked extensively on the First Crusade (1095-99), with many of my publications to date focussing on how that expedition was remembered and commemorated by Latin Christians in the centuries after it ended. I’ve also worked on the chansons de geste that focus specifically on the First Crusade. For my research project, I’m building on my earlier work in these areas to investigate the role of ideas about the Endtimes in the wider process through which the crusade was remembered in Latin Christian traditions. In short, I’m working on a familiar subject, and using sources with which I am acquainted, but asking some new questions of them.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
My short-term aspiration is for my project to produce an article reflecting my research on the crusading chansons de geste. In the longer-term, the research that I carry out will feed into my ongoing monograph project, which will centre upon Latin Christian memories of the First Crusade. Both of these will be important milestones in my publications plans for the next few years. Regarding personal aspirations, besides building connections and establishing memberships in new research networks, I hope that by the end of my fellowship I will have improved my German sufficiently to persuade German-speaking colleagues that they don’t need to switch to English!
What are the aspects you are looking forward at CAPAS?
As a historian, much of my work today has revolved around primary source material: uncovering, identifying and deciphering it. Coming from a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds, the fellows at CAPAS collectively have experience in applying myriad theoretical approaches to probe particular points about apocalyptic thought. That being the case, I’m looking forward to learning from other fellows about how I might draw from a wider theoretical toolkit to enhance my methodological approach towards the key sources for my project.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
It all depends on the type of apocalypse that we are talking about. Remaining with the vision of the Endtimes held in Christian belief, one would need only one thing after the apocalypse: to have, at the time of the Last Judgement, lived a life free of sin, thereby earning a place in God’s heavenly kingdom.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?
My absolute favourite cultural output that evokes the apocalypse, that is to say, the output that has had the most significant impact, is the 2013 video game The Last of Us and its 2020 sequel The Last of Us: Part II (which was, interestingly, released near the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic). Set in a post-apocalyptic world in which most of mankind has been turned into zombie-like creatures following the spread of a fungal-like virus around the globe, these games are underpinned by immersive narratives that I find myself turning over in my head years after last playing them. I won’t give any spoilers, though! For another output that deals with a zombie apocalypse, but in a rather more light-hearted way, I’d recommend the 2009 film Zombieland. Again, no spoilers, but the character played by Bill Murray in this film has figured out a tremendous answer to Question 7 about how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world…