Postgraduate Spotlight: Elisabeth Mincin

Liz is originally from the small town of Jarrettsville in Maryland, where her high school was best known for its annual ‘drive your tractor to school’ day. One day after history class, she noticed a list of British monarchs posted on the back door of her teacher’s office and, seeing the name ‘Athelstan’, became both amused and intrigued about a period of history that was never covered in the American curriculum. Soon after, when she found the University of St Andrews listed in a College guidebook, she decided to apply and has never looked back. Although she first arrived in St Andrews as an undergraduate with the intention of studying early mediaeval Britain, nearly eight years later her interests have moved considerably further east.

During her undergraduate degree, Liz became increasingly interested in the concept of ‘heresy’ – what it meant to be heterodox and how people were stigmatised by their contemporary societies. For her fourth-year dissertation, she chose to focus on the creation mythology promulgated by the Cathars of mediaeval Italy. As dualists, this sect proclaimed a belief in two gods – one good and the other evil. In order to add a comparative element to her study, she chose to also examine the dualist creation myths of the eastern Bogomil movement. This was her first foray into Byzantine history. It was not until her Master’s degree at the University of Oxford that Liz would abandon her western mediaevalist roots and move firmly into the field of Byzantine Studies.

Building from her former work on heresy, Liz’s master’s thesis examined the literary construction of outsiders within monastic communities as demonstrated by the tropes employed when sentencing dissident monks.

This idea of the social rationalisation of the outsider then led on directly to her doctoral research. Having received funding from the Dorothy Miller Fellowship at the School of History here in St Andrews, she returned from her yearlong sojourn in Oxford to start her doctorate under the supervision of Dr Tim Greenwood. Her thesis, entitled “Curing the Common Soul: Rethinking Byzantine Heresy with Particular Focus on Literary Motifs (11th-12th centuries)”, is a study of the popular motif whereby heresy is described in terms of disease. Although this trope has received some (albeit limited) attention in western focused heresy scholarship, it has been completely ignored in Byzantine studies – deemed little more than a useless topos with no relevance to the contemporary world in which it is found. Liz’s thesis re-evaluates this neglectful approach to the motif and examines its use in light of the contemporary socio-political atmosphere of the time. In doing so, she finds that the debasement of heretics as diseased individuals gave rise to the antithetical image of the healing doctor figure. This persona was seen adopted by the emperor in various texts compiled by his close affiliates. It helped an unstable ruler better maintain his own power and authority, making him the embodiment of the doctor and defender of Orthodox Christendom.

In addition to her research, Liz is has also tutored on the MH2002: Introduction to Middle Eastern History course and helped with both the Mediaeval and Middle Eastern Studies seminars. From September 2014, she will be taking up the position of Membership Secretary for the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies (SPBS), which she urges everyone to join.

Outside of academia, Liz enjoys baking cakes for her officemates in the Osgood Room, seeing musicals and eating exciting food. She would love to say she enjoys reading intellectual texts in her free time, but in truth would always prefer a relaxing evening with a light-hearted film.