Dr. Moshe Blidstein- "Caution! Oaths at Work: On the History of Swearing in Late Antiquity"

Dr. Moshe Blidstein- "Caution! Oaths at Work: On the History of Swearing in Late Antiquity"
Activity Date: 
Monday, Apr 13, 2015

This lecture examined possible conceptual frameworks for the history of oath practice in the first six centuries CE in the Mediterranean. Though oaths come in many colors and sizes, and always did, they include certain identifiable elements, which can be compared across periods and places. Oaths are therefore potentially sensitive instruments for examining social, religious and linguistic change.
Two hypotheses were proposed. First, that the main function of the oath is to enhance the swearer’s power, and that this power is at times (but not always) used to create trust in a social situation. Oaths create power by drawing upon assets of the swearer which are not currently present. Second, that changes in religious and social realities in this period would be reflected in changes in oath practice and discourse.
I examined several dimensions of changes and continuities in oath practice: the deities invoked, gestures, the role of the Roman Emperor in oaths, discourse and arguments about oaths, the concept of sacrament and exorcism. Relating to the first hypothesis, I argued that for certain dimensions a perspective on the oath as an instrument for creating power was found more helpful, while in others trust appeared more central. Relating to the second, I found more continuity than change in oath practice, and posed the question of why this is so.
In response, Dr.Yifat Monnickendam reflected on the degree of usefulness of theoretical models for the study of historical phenomenon, and on the cases in which such models are helpful. The ensuing discussion related, among other issues, to religion as a problematic framework for understanding ancient culture and to the utility of seeing oaths as a specific type of speech, which should therefore be examined through linguistic tools.