The biennial „Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity“ is the largest conference for the history of Late Antiquity in North America. This year’s meeting, the eleventh of its kind, took place at the University of Iowa at Iowa City, IA. Iowa City is perhaps a fairly unusual place to host a big conference, but the University of Iowa frequently attracts visitors from around the world. The city is located in the middle of crop fields, which Iowa is best known for and has the typical size of an American college town. As a college town, it includes a town centre close to the campus (which covers most of the city) and a massive American football stadium – perhaps the most obvious building in town. To give some practical travel advice, the nearest international airport in Cedar Rapids does not always indicate the gate number either on a screen or through public announcement, but you can ask the captain to verify that your plane is about to take off, in case you are not a local or otherwise unaware of the specific gate assignment routine (while this is meant to be funny, I do admit I got nervous this time considering that I had two immediate connection flights).
Iowa City has also been awarded the UNESCO city of literature status as the second city of this kind after Melbourne, Australia, and along with Edinburgh, Scotland. This is largely due to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a university program in creative writing that has the nation’s largest number of Pulitzer prize-winning alumni, as well as to other literary events that often take place in the local book shop. The university has a number of representative buildings, as it has acquired the former governmental area, after the city ceased to be the capital of the state of Iowa, including the Old Capitol building, where one of the conference’s keynote lectures took place.
Presenters often arrived from international destinations, including South America, Canada, the UK and Europe, Asia and Australia. The theme of this year’s conference was the transformation of poverty, philanthropy, and healthcare in Late Antiquity. Recurring themes included snake-metaphors, Epiphanius’ Panarion (besides obviously important authors such as Augustine and Ambrose) and infestation by worms as divine punishment. While many papers stressed the role of the Christian church in providing welfare and healthcare to the poor, others argued that voluntary poverty was used a literary topos in the sources as wealthy Christians regarded their property indifferently rather than renouncing it altogether. Ramsay MacMullen’s interesting keynote talk, for example, suggested that Christian medical practitioners in Late Antiquity did often exorcise demons rather than cure diseases according to the ancient state of the medical art (a topic that I have addressed from a different angle in my talk as well). As always, the conference offered a plethora of interesting questions to apply to the history of Christian medicine, and beyond, for example, in the fields of Christian theology, late antique material culture and social history. I am therefore grateful that the Learned Society Fund awarded me a travel grant.