Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

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A Beginner’s Reading List: Medieval Europe

It’s difficult for an academic historian to critique popular history books on the Middle Ages without sounding snotty, or dry, or some unappetising combination of both. Popular history books are where the majority of general readers encounter the medieval past. The issue is that many of the popular history works about the Middle Ages best represented in local libraries and second-hand bookshops are not particularly good.

Judging from my casual conversations with people, they’re most likely to have read works such as William Manchester’s egregious A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (1992), which was a New York Times bestseller and an unabashedly shoddy hatchet job on the medieval world, or Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), which spins a yarn good enough to win a U.S. National Book Award and does a better job with the sources than does Manchester, but whose arguments were dated even when it was first published. (Let’s not even get started on the person who once told me, in all seriousness, that they’d learned a great deal about medieval Italy from reading The Da Vinci Code. I still get the night sweats thinking about it.)

It’s much easier, however, to push good books on people than to sneer at what they have already read in good faith. All the titles listed here are in English, and should be accessible to the interested general reader, or academic non-specialist. I’ve also tried to only include works which aren’t too expensive (as far as medieval history books go), or which should be available cheaply secondhand.

Getting Started

Miri Rubin. The Middle Ages: A Very Short Introduction (2014).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This little paperback does exactly what it promises on the cover: provides a very short introduction to the Middle Ages. In just 120 pages, Miri Rubin covers the ways in which medieval Europeans thought society should work and what salvation would look like, how they treated minorities and what points of connection we can see between the Middle Ages and the modern world. This is a straightforward refutation of the idea that the Middle Ages were a benighted and backwards time.

 

Chris Wickham. Medieval Europe (2016).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

If you’re looking for a slightly more extensive introduction than Rubin’s Very Short Introduction, Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe is probably the most up-to-date broad introduction available. Wickham covers the broad sweep of the thousand years between the end of the Roman Empire in the West to the Reformation, taking in some of the key social, economic, and political factors that shaped medieval Europe. Byzantium, the Islamic world, and Eastern Europe all feature—essential areas to consider, yet ones which are often omitted in standard surveys.

 

Marcus Bull. Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages (2005).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

If you want to step back and consider why we think about the Middle Ages in the ways that we do, pick up Marcus Bull’s Thinking Medieval. It’s compact but wide-ranging, looking at the stereotypes and representations of the Middle Ages in film, television, and the press—from Ivanhoe to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Pulp Fiction—and exploring why they are so persistent. Though written with the college classroom in mind, I think it’s also accessible to the general reader with an interest in understanding why the remote past matters.

 

 

Digging Deeper

Paul Freedman. Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2008).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

There’s a popular misconception that before Columbus’ sailed west across the Atlantic, medieval Europe was cut off from the rest of the world. Yet in Out of the East, Paul Freedman explores how trade—in particular the spice trade—had long linked Europe with parts of the world far distant from it. Traders were drawn east in search of pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and other culinary and medicinal luxuries—and medieval Europeans enjoyed heavily spiced food that often resembled what we’d think of as quintessentially Asian or Middle Eastern food today.

 

Fredric L. Cheyette, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours.

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

In the late twelfth century, a woman named Ermengard, viscountess of Narbonne ruled across a large swathe of what is now southern France. Fredric Cheyette sets out to rescue her from the historical shadows. This is a hefty book, but one which provides some fascinating insight into the political and social contexts of this period—what it meant for a woman to be the lord of an important port city in a region home to one of the Middle Ages’ most famous heresies.

 

Barbara Hanawalt. The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (1986).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

How did peasants in medieval England—the vast majority of the population—care for their children and their elderly? What games did they play? What did their homes look like? In The Ties that Bound, Barbara Hanawalt made pioneering use of late medieval coroners’ rolls to uncover details of the daily lives of peasants in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England—and to show people who were as distinct and complex as anyone nowadays.

 

 

The Medieval and the Modern

Celia Chazelle et al. Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice (2011).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This thought-provoking collection of essays sets out to prove the assertion in its title. The various essays—on topics as diverse as healthcare, crime and punishment, and clerical sexual scandals—argue that while the Middle Ages may not provide neat solutions to modern social problems, then they do at least offer us new ways of approaching them. After all, “medieval” is not, and should not be used as, a simple synonym for “barbaric”, any more than “modern” is a synonym for “progress.”

 

María Rosa Menocal. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2002).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

The “clash of civilisations” narrative—of an irreparable, binary conflict between the Christian West and the Muslim World—is used by many to explain contemporary political conflicts. Yet religious polarisation is hardly inevitable, and in The Ornament of the World, María Rosa Menocal explores the diverse and vibrant culture created by Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Iberia. This multi-cultural society was one of the most advanced in medieval Europe. Menocal’s recreation of the glories of al-Andalus is perhaps at times an overly rosy one, but this is still a useful introduction to a period that’s still too-little known.

 

Patrick Geary. The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (2003).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Nationalism is undergoing a resurgence in Western politics—Brexit and the election of Donald Trump being the two most prominent examples. Much of these ideologies are predicated on certain views of medieval history, but here Patrick Geary argues that ethno-nationalism has more to do with myth than with history—that its rallying cries date back to the nineteenth century, not to the Middle Ages. Geary packs a lot of argument into a relatively brief space, and even if you don’t agree with all of his conclusions, The Myth of Nations is sure to spark much further reflection.

 

That’s nine great books to start with, but there are lots more out there. If there are other books about medieval history that you’d particularly recommend to a beginning reader (or really wish that people would avoid), feel free to leave a comment below!

Thinking Critically About Digital Pedagogy

This week I’ve been attending the 2017 Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (DPLI) at the University of Mary Washington. This is a week-long gathering of people interested in exploring the roles and applications of digital technology in teaching. I’m participating in one of the DPLI’s “tracks” on Critical Digital Pedagogy, which focuses on teaching philosophies, learning modalities, and how to effectively design enriching online, hybrid, or otherwise digitally engaged courses. (The Lego figure in the header image for this post is the physical avatar that was built for me by a fellow attendee during the week’s introductory session: I’m a gender-bending medieval princess, complete with hennin and moustache, which is awesome.)

The DPLI is a purposeful time and space for reflection about this kind of teaching, something which college-level instructors often don’t get. (In fact, depending on your field, we may encounter very few spaces dedicated to helping us be more mindful or discerning in our teaching in general, outside of a few hurried, mandatory annual days of “training” as graduate teaching assistants.)

But why does a medievalist need to think about these issues? After all, my research and teaching interests plant me squarely in the middle of the thousand years between 500 and 1500, a period of history when wifi access could most charitably be described as “limited”. Why should digital technology have any relevance for the Middle Ages?

It can sometimes be a struggle for me to articulate what role the digital can or should play in the learning experiences I’m helping my students create—particularly when budgets are tight, assessment requirements are rigid, and some technologies that were in use in the Middle Ages, like the humble codex, still haven’t quite been bettered. In the past, I have often defaulted to talking about the bells and whistles of digital pedagogy—talking about how using panoramic images or audio or databases or gifs can create immediacy across geography and time. Having students in western New York play around with 3D models of, say, medieval churches, can give them a sense of space and scale that looking at a picture in a textbook or even reading a list of dimensions cannot.

Brooke Novak, “TEACH” [Source]

I’m not saying these aren’t important factors—all of these things can and do help to widen and deepen the scope of students’ understandings of the past. But increasingly I’m starting to think that the most powerful utility of critical digital pedagogy comes into play long before the student steps into the classroom. It comes through developing a sense of intention about the kinds of tools we’re employing to help our students. It comes through thinking purposefully about the ways we can better frame our courses for students: to show, not tell, our approaches and our expectations. It comes through being mindful of the fact that even if my students step into the classroom never having taken a formal class on the Middle Ages before, they’ve got some preconceptions of it that have been shaped by television, movies, and the internet. (And as recent online controversies have shown, around issues like the colour of Classical statues or the presence of non-white peoples in Roman Britain, people’s preconceptions about the deep past can be integral parts of their present identities.)

Moreover, the borders of the digitally-engaged classroom stretch far beyond the four walls of the traditional, physical classroom space, and so encourage us to be more mindful about our students as whole people. For instance, one of the excellent keynote speakers at DPLI this week, Sara Goldrick-Rab, urged us all to pay attention to whether students’ basic needs for food and shelter are being met. Students who are hungry or exhausted, who are overwhelmed by the current political environment or who feel out-of-place in their institution, are unlikely to succeed in the classroom.

One of the things that I’ve been tasked with in our DPLI track is to write a new teaching philosophy statement. I started writing this post thinking that was what I would produce in this space. It’s not: there’s a lot more reflection that I need to do first. I’ve got lots of inchoate thoughts floating around in my mind that I think can only be given real form by making something. So I’m going to turn to the practical. I thought I’d almost finished the syllabus for the interdisciplinary composition course I’ll be teaching this coming semester. Now I realise that my feelings of awkwardness and discomfort with it were signs that I was pushing against my instincts with it. Time to set it to one side, and take a breath, and begin again.

Walking the Medieval Mile Museum

Very few medieval buildings have survived the centuries without major changes, and the former church of St Mary’s in Kilkenny is not one of them. Over the years, it has lost and regained a steeple, a chancel, and sheer square footage; its roof dates mostly from the early modern period; its medieval frescoes are almost entirely gone and chunks of its plaster ceiling are missing. Though still hemmed in by the close formed by the houses of Kilkenny’s prosperous medieval merchants, St Mary’s now feels a little removed from the contemporary bustle of the city’s High Street. The building’s long and complicated architectural history makes it the ideal home for what is, I think, the country’s newest museum: the Medieval Mile Museum (MMM).

The entrance of the Medieval Mile Museum through the west end, beneath the building’s 19th-century steeple.

I had a quick look around the MMM yesterday, and while the space is still settling a little into its new identity as a museum, it’s already a wonderful addition to Ireland’s cultural landscape. The architects and conservationists who collaborated on St Mary’s transformation into the MMM clearly thought long and hard about how to balance the abstraction of a museum with the physicality of a medieval structure with a varied history.

From the exterior, the building’s original ecclesiastical function is clear. St Mary’s was founded as Kilkenny’s parish church at some point in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century—certainly by 1205—by William Marshal, lord of Leinster. Marshal is a figure well-known to medieval historians, a powerful Anglo-Norman soldier and statesman who also built the first stone castle in Kilkenny. (It lies just a short walk from the MMM). The church’s size and grandeur, and the impressive tombs which still surround it, are testament to the civic pride and mercantile success of Kilkenny’s medieval burgesses.

Interior, Medieval Mile Museum, Kilkenny. Looking west towards main door.

But step inside and you’re in a place whose purpose is civic pride of a different kind: to gather and showcase the highlights of the medieval and early modern material heritage of Kilkenny City and its surrounding county. Right now, tomb slabs, effigies, and some replica high crosses predominate, though more artefacts are apparently due to join them this coming autumn. The interior’s bright white walls set off the items on display as effectively as any purpose-designed gallery. Glass inserts in the floor provide glimpses of crypts and the original medieval floor level; a great section has been cut out of the ceiling plaster over the crossing, letting you look up into the roof’s timber beams.

A lot of thought clearly went into considering light and making sure that sight-lines are uncluttered. I visited on that rare feature of an Irish summer, a sunny day, but it’s hard to imagine the MMM feeling gloomy even in the depths of winter. Pretty much every direction you look creates interesting juxtapositions between artefacts, and thoughtfully placed benches encourage you to sit and take advantage of that. This is one of the aspects of the museum which will surely make it attractive to visiting school groups.

The MMM extension. It looks like it rests on the medieval chancel walls, but is actually suspended above them.

The building’s original footprint has also been restored thanks to a new extension made of wood and lead. The extension’s simple lines and muted colours complement the existing structure while recreating the volume and visual density of the lost medieval chancel (which was mostly dismantled during the eighteenth century). From the exterior, the two parts of the building look seamless; yet from the interior, it’s clear that the extension floats over the remains of the chancel walls and the tombs below. There’s something quite arresting about seeing something so massive be made to seem so weightless.

This new chancel houses some of the city’s medieval and early modern manuscript treasures, including pieces of civil legislation (concerning, for example, how to punish “bawdy hoores and cnaves”), various royal charters and the priceless Liber primus Kilkenniensis. Another large window here lets you look out over the rooftops of Kilkenny and try to imagine how much of the skyline would be at all familiar to the people who wrote the texts which surround you.

I would have liked if the room provided a little more contextualisation of the individual documents and of the circumstances and settings under which they were produced, but that’s perhaps the inevitable lament of the medieval history nerd about something which is aimed at the general public. (Give me more about the institutional relationship between the bishopric and the town!) Still, there are some little gems to discover, like the thirteenth-century charter issued by a bishop of Ossory which let friars in Kilkenny tap into his water supply—but the pipe they used couldn’t exceed a certain diameter. Helpfully, as you can see below, he attached a metal ring to the charter specifying the exact size.

A charter of Geoffrey de Tourville, bishop of Ossory, allowing the Dominicans of Kilkenny to use his water supply. Late 1240s.

Working with the history of St Mary’s, its original structure and later interventions, was a very sensible idea on the part of those involved in the MMM’s creation. It gestures generously to the past, but is confident in its developing identity as a modern institution.  The new museum is sure to become a fixture for those who research and teach the Middle Ages.

Pratt’s map of Kilkenny (1708), now at the National Library of Ireland. St Mary’s Church is marked D.

Not in This Day and Age? On “Feisty, Cheeky, and Rebellious” Women in History

In yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, reviewer Mark Lawson called for the makers of television programmes to “stop horrendously airbrushing history”, to “stop the madness” of producing period dramas featuring “characters with laughably liberal values for their day.” Lawson was responding particularly to Jamestown, a new series focusing on a group of young women who were sent across the Atlantic in 1619 to be the wives of men they’d never met, part of the first great wave of British colonialism in the Americas. He took umbrage with how they were presented as “feisty, cheeky, and rebellious”—personality traits which a woman of the twenty-first century might possess, but never one from the seventeenth.

It is true that the best historical fiction—whether in TV, movie, or book form—doesn’t content itself with using the past as set dressing. It’s wonderful to be able to encounter the differences of past ways of seeing the world, to grapple with what was once mundane but now seems surpassingly strange. (Although as historical consultant Greg Jenner has pointed out, no drama is ever able to be wholly accurate in its reconstruction of a lost world. Period dramas inevitably reshape the past to fit the present’s interests to some extent, because otherwise they would not be made.) I’ve not seen Jamestown, so I can’t speak to any of the show’s particular merits (or lack thereof). It may well be that it won’t rank at the top of anyone’s listing of great period drama series.

The sigh I heaved on reading the caption of this photo in the Guardian came from the very depths of my soul.

Yet what has frustrated me and many other historians about this article is the way that Lawson seems oblivious to the fact that just as the writer of a TV show may imbue their writing with anachronistic values, so too can the viewer watch that TV show through the lens of anachronistic assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions are relatively minor. For instance, my students are generally pleasantly surprised to learn that medieval castles were not all dark stone masonry, but were often lime-washed in bright colours like peach, pink and yellow. (The actor Jeremy Irons’ Irish neighbours were also surprised to discover this, though perhaps less pleased.) Sometimes our assumptions about the past carry more weight.

Lawson dismisses the female characters of Jamestown based, it seems, on no stronger evidence than the fact that they’re not what he thinks they should be. He seems unaware of the inherent subjectivity he brings to what he watches. (Lawson has past form in this area. In a 2007 Guardian article he fretted that attempting to reclaim past women’s artistic and cultural contributions was somehow “falsifying history”, that it is somehow a lowering of standards to “pretend that Aphra Benn and Shelagh Delaney were the equals of Shakespeare and Harold Pinter.” Standards of excellence being, of course, unchanging and objective and applied neutrally to all works no matter who their creator.)

The frontispiece—and one of the less explicit illustrations—to the seventeenth-century sex manual, The School of Venus, Or, The Ladies Delight, Reduced into Rules of Practice.

On Twitter, historian Suzannah Lipscomb has succinctly taken Lawson to task, drawing on her archival research on early modern French women to show that these women were anything but passive. (In fact, given the language that women hurled at one another, best not to click through to that Twitter thread if you’re in the work place or come over a bit queasy at the thought of people doing untoward things with farmyard animals.) Court records show that women could be bawdy, rowdy, and earthy with quick tempers and sharp tongues; paging through some Jacobean comedies demonstrate that sex was definitely invented before 1963. True, this kind of behaviour wouldn’t have been held up as a model for genteel young women, but it existed. Where, for instance, would the frank wit of Nell Gwyn fit into Lawson’s conception of the past? (“Pray good people be silent, I am the Protestant whore”).

And the seventeenth century was hardly a statistical blip. Women agitating for and exercising their rights has a long history, even though women were not on an equal footing with men and even though their conception of what was possible for themselves would have been trammelled by internalised misogyny. Lawson implies that he would see “a story of women willingly accepting sexual and social submission” as more historical, more truthful, than the one told in Jamestown. Yet this is not the past that I recognise from, for instance, my research into the women of the Middle Ages. The weight of patriarchy could crush, but it also inspired rebellions, whether small and symbolic or larger scale; it could restrict women’s conceptions of themselves, but there were always women who chose to bend or break societal prescriptions.

Barbara of Cilli (1392-1451) was the wife of Holy Roman Emperor and a successful administrator and political actor in her own right. [Source]

For example, in Berkshire in 1248, Margery daughter of Emma de la Hulle faced her rapist in open court and offered “to prove this [charge] against him as the court [saw] fit.” Impotence cases brought before medieval English courts often involved women mocking and goading the men in question: “show yourself for shame a man”. The early medieval princess Brunhilda of Austrasia, like many noble and royal women during the Merovingian period, showed no hesitation in participating in the acts of often brutally violent vengeance which marred the politics of the time. (Those who live by the sword die by the sword: Brunhilda’s death was apparently a gruesome one, rended limb from limb by wild horses.) Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies (1405) is a prose allegory full of vision for what women could achieve. To these examples I could add many others. Did these women represent the norm? Perhaps not. But it does a disservice to their contemporaries and to the complexity of their world to dismiss them as statistical anomalies.

Lawson writes that

the 17th-century shipped women in Jamestown were in some ways a Jacobean version of the jihadi brides flown out to Islamic State soldiers today, or the arranged marriages that still exist in some communities. It’s easy to see why programme-makers would feel queasy about not having such female submissiveness strongly contested within the storyline, just as in slave dramas such as Roots (of which Jamestown can be seen as a gender equivalent), the dramatic emphasis is, in the proper pursuit of a positive political message, on those who resisted and challenged their captors, whether or not that is generally representative. But however well intentioned, this tilting of the actual power relationships risks making the historical situations seem more palatable than they were.

Even setting aside the racist thinking underpinning this paragraph (Lawson’s binary gender vs race opposition of Jamestown and Roots shows that he’s never cracked the pages of All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men), I am compelled to point out that however well-intentioned, Lawson’s misconceptions of the actual power relationships in play risk making the women of the past seem more passive, and the circumstances of gendered oppression more inevitable, than they actually were.

A better issue to ponder might be why is it that so many (male) commentators in popular media are confident in dismissing representations of women’s history based on their assumptions of what women probably did and thought in the past.

History Carnival 165

Welcome to the 165th instalment of the History Carnival, a monthly showcase of some of the best recent blogging on historical topics.

The Past in the Present

We are living in interesting times, as the euphemism goes, and historians are doing valiant work at helping us to better understand and interpret them. Alban Bargain-Villéger digs past the myths to get at the historical context of the 2017 French presidential elections, while Beatrix Hoffman shows that the “peculiar American way of health politics” has a tangled, gendered history dating back more than a century. Westenley Alcenat looks at historical amnesia in the Age of Trump, and situates the new president’s worldview as “part of a[n American] legacy that mirrors the Jeffersonian ideals of Herrenvolk nationalism.”

Is international intervention for humanitarian reasons ever justified? There’s little consensus in political responses to the current Syrian crisis—nor were opinions any more united in the nineteenth century, as Glenda Sluga shows through her examination of the life and career of the aristocrat Dorothea, Princess von Lieven, an advocate for religious humanitarianism.

Detail of a portrait of Dorothea, Princess Lieven (1785-1857) by Sir Thomas Laurence. [Tate Gallery]

The Marvellous Middle Ages

The images in Elizabeth Wilson’s post about the penis tree in medieval art mean that you probably won’t want to read it in most workplaces, but it makes for excellent reading if you’ve ever wondered what made a phallus wander in the Middle Ages.

Marital breakdown was as much a fact of life in medieval Europe as it is in the modern world—but for medieval Catholics, divorce was not an option and annulments were expensive and difficult to obtain. Drawing on the holdings of the British National Archives, Claire Kennan writes about the unhappy end of the thirteenth-century marriage of Alice de la Marche and Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester.

Cultural contact across vast distances was also a fact of life in the medieval world. As part of a series at The Public Medievalist on race and racism in the Middle Ages, Adam Simmons explores the presence of Africans in medieval Europe and the Nubian king who encountered participants in the Fourth Crusade.

The Queen of Sheba, from a Bohemian manuscript, ca. 1402-05. Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, 2 Cod. Ms. Philos. 63, Cim., fol. 122r.

 

Health and the Body

In 2016, the AIDS epidemic was officially declared “over” in Australia, but as Cheryl Ware shows, the lives of many have been forever changed by the virus and the accompanying stigma. Bearing witness to the history of how people dealt with HIV/AIDS is a necessary task, if one that is still painful and uncomfortable for many. Jennifer Evans also deals with an aspect of the history of medicine that is often glossed over: the use of contraceptives and abortifacients in early modern Europe.

Paul Stepansky contributes a three-part series on the American nurses of World War One, their duties in the field, and the particular challenges they faced.

And would you be willing to try Count Rumford’s recipe for “a cheap soup as much as will feed sixteen or twenty people”? I have to say that it sounds about as appetising as sitting down to a bowlful of wallpaper paste, but many in the nineteenth century thought it was a sure fire solution to the problem of widespread hunger.

Nurses of the American Red Cross supply lunch to soldiers at a canteen in Bordeaux, France, in 1918. [US National Archives]

Historiography and the Historian’s Work

There are lots of challenging questions in this section of the Carnival! How do—and should—two famous texts in feminist theory, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, understand one another? Kali Myers delves into the history of academic translation. Is it possible to write a historical “non-fiction novel”? Judith Armstrong reflects on her writing trajectory.

Pedagogical and interpretive challenges, too: Michael Leroy Oberg talks about the responsibilities of history teachers, and reflects on how to teach grief as a force in Native American history. Sarah Bond challenges the practice of white-washing statues from the Classical past: the ancient Mediterranean was a more diverse and colourful place than some false constructions of the past would have us believe.

And if you’ve ever wondered what a historian’s work day might look like, Frances Clarke talks about the joys of international collaboration, while Deena J. González discusses her groundbreaking work in Chicana history.

Painted wooden tondo from Antinoupolis, ca. 130-150CE, showing two young men from Roman Egypt. Egyptian Museum Cairo CG 33267.

 

The Fleet(ing), the Forgotten, and the Newly Famous

As horrendous as war and racial discrimination are, an awareness of their horrors is often shockingly slight in the popular consciousness. The Bataan Death March of 1942 was one of the great atrocities in a war that didn’t want for them, but as Peter Mansoor points out, few Americans today are aware of this incident or its lessons. Jaimee A. Swift discusses an aspect of Nazi Germany that’s often forgotten: how Afro-Germans, and people of African descent living in Germany, were treated by the regime. Heribert von Feilitzsch writes about a recent anniversary which also received comparatively little attention: April 1917 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the United States’ entry into the First World War.

In lighter news of historical rediscoveries, the historic Schuyler Mansion in upstate New York is getting a new moment in the spotlight thanks to the success of the musical Hamilton. And did you know you can walk through modern London without ever being aware that a river flows beneath your feet? The River Fleet, now hidden beneath pavement and asphalt, has for centuries been (in)famously linked with the city’s less than savoury need for large-scale waste disposal.

The daughter of a German woman and an African soldier who had been stationed in the Rhineland after World War One, shown with a group of other teenage girls, ca. 1936. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 74845/Library of Congress.

Notes from a DH Classroom

This semester, my students have learned the narrow streets of the Marais, traced the path once taken by Paris’s city walls, and considered how the spires of the cathedral of Notre Dame would have drawn the eye of the medieval city dweller: all without leaving upstate New York.

Like the other 300-level seminars offered in Geneseo’s history department, “Hacking the Middle Ages” is designed to introduce sophomore history majors and minors to the process of conducting independent research and prepare them for our upper-level seminars. Unlike those other classes, this class is explicitly built around a digital history project. The students collaborated to read Guillebert de Mets’ fifteenth-century Description de la ville de Paris and then used the information which it contains in order to build their own traveller’s guide to the city in the late Middle Ages.

A sixteenth-century guinea pig. Detail of “Three Unknown Elizabethan Children”, ca. 1580. London, National Portrait Gallery.

As I stressed to the students from the beginning of the course, this made them guinea pigs in a way—and put me in the very same position. The class was a new one for me to design and teach. The topic arose out of my own expertise in the history of medieval France, and my long-standing interest in digital humanities and spatial history, but I had not previously had the opportunity to teach a DH class. While some DH projects were underway at Geneseo before I and the rest of the Computational Analytics Cluster were hired last year (the Digital Thoreau project is probably the most prominent example), more robust and formal connections needed to be forged between the History Department and CIT to make sure that innovations in digital pedagogy and research projects were fully and consistently supported.

And then there was the really big structural issue: dealing with students’ anxieties about using technology. The term “digital native” gets bandied about a lot, but I find it a term that’s not just vague but actually harmful. Being born after a certain date doesn’t mean that you innately understand how computing technology works. (For all that my three-year-old niece can find her way around YouTube like nobody’s business.) “Digital native” doesn’t take into account the broad range of student socio-economic and educational backgrounds, or that in the age of the tablet and the smartphone app, students are more used to a passive and siloed use of technology than they are to the creative and experimental use of computers. It steers people—educators, administrators, policy makers—towards thinking that “the flipped classroom” or “the hybrid classroom” or whatever buzzword we’re employing this week will work simply because, well… millennials, right?

Olivier Truschet and Germain Hoyau, Map of Paris, ca. 1550. [Universiteitsbibliotheek Vrije Universiteit, LL.06979gk.]

In fact, many of the students in this class confided in me that they actively dislike computers and technology, and had signed up for the class not understanding what the terms “digital history” and “digital humanities” in the course description actually meant. (“I thought you just meant ‘hacking’ like with a longsword,” said one.)

I had built some flexibility into the course timetable, but soon realised that I needed to increase that as it became clear to me that the prospect of undertaking a digital project felt scary to students in ways that writing a more traditional research paper did not. Sure, it’s intimidating to be asked to scale up from writing a 3-4 page paper to one that’s 18-20 pages long, but the fundamentals of the task are still familiar. Asking students to get comfortable with Omeka or Neatline or Fusion Tables is asking them to learn a whole new toolkit before they ever start to construct an argument or think about their prospective audience. We ask students to read primary sources; we rarely ask them to think about the metadata choices that let us find and access those primary sources in the first place.

So I made a deliberate choice to engage with the students where they were: to openly acknowledge that they were grappling with something new and that I acknowledged that it was difficult; to stop and consider my own assumptions on a regular basis. (My Irish convent secondary school in the late ’90s insisted that all students learn how to use word processing and spreadsheet programs; American students in the No Child Left Behind age can graduate high school never having opened Excel and without grasping the distinction between a footer and a footnote.)

And, with so many of them anxious about being asked to acquire both content knowledge and skills in one fell swoop, I was as explicit as I could be, as often as I could be, that their tastes and interests would have primacy in shaping the resulting website (which they dubbed Mapping By the Book). I ditched most of the parameters I’d planned to ask them to include in the final project, and stripped it down to “base it on Guillebert’s text, include a mapping component and a scholarly bibliography, go nuts.” At first that seemed infinitely more overwhelming to them; I think there was widespread suspicion that there was some unknowable Platonic form of a mapping project that I was just expecting them to intuit. I had to stress that yes, they had agency over their own intellectual output—I wasn’t interested in seeing them blandly copy the kind of website I would build.

Mapping medieval churches on a georectified version of the Truschet and Hoyau map.

Once they realised that I really was giving them their head, their work blossomed. They tried new things, taxed Interlibrary Loan with the volume of books they called up about Parisian churches and the travels of Philip Augustus, got frustrated because they had experimental ideas that Omeka and Neatline wouldn’t let them accomplish, and seemed to spend half of their class time teaching one another how to recreate this cool new things they’d discovered. Classes got noisier, less predictable, and students were proud to claim ownership of their work. Did we get to everything I’d wanted to cover in the course originally? No. But it was an excellent reminder that sometimes giving up a little bit of control results in better scholarship and better pedagogy.

Over at the Geneseo History Department blog, the “Hacking the Middle Ages” students have written about their project this semester, and shared what they thought was most valuable about the exercise of making the Mapping by the Book website. Their enthusiasm and good humoured embrace of being the departmental guinea pigs means that I’m feeling much more confident about the next stage of digital history projects here at Geneseo: a series of student independent studies this summer that will be conducted jointly with CIT.

None of us are teaching digital natives. We’re acting as a tour guides for digital explorers.

A screencap of the students’ Neatline exhibit mapping the colleges of medieval Paris.

Papal Bull? “The Young Pope” and Teaching the Middle Ages

The HBO miniseries The Young Pope is a dreamy and often surreal look at the papacy of the fictional Pius XIII: previously Lenny Belardo, the youngest pope in generations is a New Yorker who references Daft Punk and Banksy but is also an arch-conservative who intends to use his papacy to push a reactionary and ostentatiously traditional agenda. (This traditionalism makes for one of the highlights of the series’ many visual treats, the excellent hats and elaborate clothing, much of which harks back to the Middle Ages.) His immediate predecessor is never named, but it seems clear that Lenny is reacting against the determinedly ascetic and media-friendly approach of the current pope. I’d bet good money that no one is Tweeting from @Pontifex in this particular reality.

I began to watch the show thinking that it would be a much more conventional endeavour: The West Wing and its brand of political intrigues transposed to the Vatican. The Young Pope is a much more bizarre and occasionally perplexing piece of television, right from the opening dream sequence when Lenny (played with aplomb by an impressive Jude Law) crawls out into St Peter’s Square from beneath an enormous pile of sleeping infants.

And that’s even before a lone kangaroo takes up residence in the gardens of the Vatican palace.

Pope Lenny often accessorises his full papal regalia with a pair of sunglasses.

The show’s ten episodes are by turn surreal, challenging, dazzling and occasionally frustrating. I also think they make excellent fodder for historians who are searching for ways to get students to think about the history of the papacy and Christianity during the European Middle Ages. After all, the medieval papacy can be a difficult institution for students to grapple with—particularly, as is the case of most of my students, when at least a substantial number of them aren’t from a Catholic background and they are raised in a society which at least aspires to the separation of church and state.

I’m not suggesting that much of The Young Pope would make useful viewing in the average college survey course. The idiosyncratic papacy of Pius XIII is very different to that of his historical predecessors. Moreover, for all that Lenny’s meticulously embroidered outfits are obviously chosen to conjure the splendours of papal monarchy, his evocation of the Middle Ages is no more accurate than many of the other attempts to co-opt the medieval past for contemporary political ends. This is a very modern papacy, even if Lenny spends a lot of time dodging photographers and refusing to allow the licensing of commemorative plates (€5 for plastic, €45 for the ceramic ones made by genuine craftsmen).

And this is all before the complex, layered visual symbolism of the show comes into play. I’m actually not sure how much of the show is going to be immediately comprehensible to people who weren’t raised Catholic. (And really, what are we supposed to make of the Vatican’s resident kangaroo amidst all this?)

Lenny is carried into the Sistine Chapel; shades of the famous 13th century fresco of Innocent III at Subiaco?

Yet I think the show is excellent at conveying the world view of a religious fundamentalist whose goals and methods are not those which make immediate sense to a modern, secular mindset. This pope is overtly homophobic, wanting to rid the church of all gay priests even while acknowledging that this might well see the dismissal of fully two-thirds of an already stretched clergy. He opposes reproductive rights and divorce. He has no desire to build bridges. He is overtly and unapologetically authoritarian. “I don’t care about loving my neighbour as myself. I will never love my neighbour as myself,” Lenny proclaims in one episode. For him, his elevation to the papacy is in itself proof of his righteousness and moral superiority.

In other ways, though, his thinking doesn’t fit into the usual modern tropes about religious extremism and how it tends to corrupt and make hypocrites of people. Despite a brief fake-out towards the end of the series, it doesn’t seem that Lenny’s ever been seriously tempted to break his vows of his celibacy. He disdains ecumenicism and wants all Catholics to become “fanatics for God”, but there is little evidence in the show of his endorsing the kinds of “culture wars” which have become so prominent since the middle of the last century. “I put no stock in consensus,” he says; “I have nothing to say to those who have even the slightest doubt about God,” he rails on another occasion. He wants faithful Catholics to turn inwards, not outwards. Lenny would rather a much smaller church made up of True Believers than a more expansive one that makes compromises.

Watching The Young Pope is an exercise in entering into what is for many people—even for many practising Catholics—a very different mindset. Students who are new to the medieval period in particular can struggle with encountering its priests and popes in ways that aren’t anachronistic. They tend to swing between the ideological poles of approving of a Christian Middle Ages as an ideal (if imaginary) time of cultural purity and chivalry that was enabled by the church, or excoriating the church as corrupt and hypocritical the first time they encounter its hierarchy engaged in anything like Realpolitik. A more nuanced and less moralizing reading of the sources is sometimes difficult for students to reach, though it’s one that’s enabled by the show.

For instance, Lenny is frequently hailed as a saint by those around him, with every sign of sincerity. Although this pope openly speaks of using humiliation as a tool to cow others, is casually self-absorbed and frequently cruel (in the very first episode, he makes an elderly nun cry), he may be capable of healing the sick and making the infertile conceive. This clashes with modern ideas of sanctity as comforting and loving. Yet the idea of a saint who punishes people severely for what seem nowadays like minor transgressions wouldn’t have been an odd one in the Middle Ages. (For instance, at least two women were reputed to have gone mad and died for daring to walk through a cemetery dedicated to the English saint Cuthbert.)

“God overwhelms,” Lenny says. “God frightens.”

Of course, the scene in which the pope dons his full regalia to the strains of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” might just make for excellent classroom viewing regardless. Not only do we get to see the various layers which make up a pope’s formal clothing and which are almost unchanged since the Middle Ages—cassock, lace-embellished cotton tunic, cincture, surplice, papal mantle, red shoes, triregnum and all—but we also get to see how clothing can be used to make a statement about power and authority. Just as a tonsure was an unmistakable sign that the medieval monk had set aside the cares and follies of the secular world, so these clothes turn the orphan Lenny Bellardo into the attention-arresting Pius XIII, bishop of Rome, servant of the servants of God, Christ’s representative on Earth.

And if nothing else, just like much the rest of The Young Pope, the scene makes for viewing that’s trippy, voyeuristic, and brilliantly weird: a trip inside the papal mind.

#DressingLikeAWoman in the Middle Ages

One of the anecdotes that tends to stick with students in my survey courses, to the end of the semester and beyond, is that trousers were largely regarded with derision in the Classical world. For the inhabitants of the Greek city states, and for the Romans of the Republic and the early Empire, trousers were ridiculous and effeminate, fit to be worn only by the barbarians of Persia and northern Europe. No honourable man would have worn a pair in public. This throwaway piece of information sticks with my students because it’s strange to them, and it’s strange because it conflicts with one of their most fundamental, internalised assumptions: that there are innately “male” and “female” modes of dress, and these are the ones with which they’ve grown up.

If certain recent media reports are accurate, these assumptions are widespread ones: Donald Trump has reportedly ordered the female staff in his administration to “dress like women” and has pressured them to wear dresses or skirts on the job. This has gone over about as well as you might expect. The hashtag #DressLikeAWoman has been trending on social media, with many women—doctors, pastors, soldiers, politicians and more—pointing out that the only way to “dress like a woman” is to identify as a woman and, well, put some clothes on.

A woman called Walpurgis (left) wields a sword in this illustration from a ca. 1300 manuscript. Leeds, Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 f.32r.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a silly squabble about expectations of professional dress, but the #DressLikeAWoman debate is just the latest expression of deep-seated cultural anxieties about how women should visibly express their gender identity. It’s a conversation that has medieval antecedents. Texts and images from the Middle Ages show that then as now, clothing could make the woman—or potentially unmake her, if she transgressed contemporary expectations for how her gender should dress.

Clothing, hairstyles and accessories were all gendered in the medieval period, and yet women cross-dressing as men is a trope that appears frequently both in cultural fantasy and in actual practice during the Middle Ages, as women tried to pursue opportunities otherwise closed to them. There are several “transvestite saints” from Late Antiquity, women who assumed a male identity in order to enter a monastery. Theodora of Alexandria dressed as a man so she could become a monk in fifth-century Egypt. Marina, most likely from what is now Lebanon, shaved her head, donned male clothing and the name Marinus, and lived an ascetic lifestyle for many years with her brother monks. Though falsely accused of fathering a child with a local woman, Marina’s biological sex was only discovered after death and she was acclaimed for her holiness. Marina, Theodora, and the other “female men of God” were highly popular saints throughout the Middle Ages—praised by many as women whose holiness was made manifest through their denial of their femaleness and who had overcome the apparent limitations of their sex.

St Marina, dressed as a monk, kneels before an abbot and several monks, while inside the building her father lies on his deathbed. New York, Morgan Library, MS M.672-5 III, f. 279v.

This doesn’t mean that women wearing men’s clothing met with universal approval in the Middle Ages. Then as now, opinions were not monolithic and could even be contradictory depending on context. Patristic figures like St Jerome and later ones like Bernard of Clairvaux vehemently defended the importance of gendered distinctions in dress. Sumptuary legislation enacted during the Middle Ages defined clothing according to gender, age, and social class. Dressing in ways that defied such norms could be dangerous, but women did so anyway.

The medieval cross-dressing figure likely best known to modern audiences met an unpleasant end: Joan of Arc, the fifteenth-century French teenager who claimed prophetic visions, participated in military campaigns, and was eventually burned at the stake in 1431. Yet what is perhaps less well-known is that Joan was, strictly speaking, not executed for her political or military activities, but because she was convicted of  heresy—because she claimed to hear angels and because she wore male clothing. In her trial, she was accused of  wearing her hair “like a young coxcomb” and, by wearing “the garments of a man, short, tight, dissolute”, defying “Divine Law”. She carried and used weapons, something that wasn’t socially acceptable for women. In doing these things, according to the church, Joan of Arc committed blasphemy. Unlike the transvestite saints, Joan didn’t succeed in “transcending” her sex. This may have been because she dressed like a man but insisted firmly on her femaleness and referred to herself as la Pucelle, the Maiden. Joan of Arc was publicly female and yet, perhaps, just as publicly not a woman. For her contemporaries, this was a serious problem.

This 15th century miniature shows the biblical Judith (left) holding the head of Holophernes and Joan of Arc (right) holding a spear. From Martin Le Franc, Le Champion des Dames. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Français 12476, f.101v.

These examples of cross-dressing and gender transgression in the Middle Ages can be multiplied: the case of John/Eleanor Rykener, an English sex worker from the late fourteenth century who has variously been interpreted as transvestite or transgender; the fictitious Pope Joan, who was said to have ascended the papal throne in the ninth century claiming to be a man and whose deception came to light when she gave birth during a religious procession; Silentius, the main character of the Roman de Silence, a thirteenth-century romance in which a girl is raised as a boy and becomes a skilled knight. Taken singly or together, these accounts and many more are illustrative of how unstable gender can be even when it is presented as something innate and inviolable. They show that people have long been willing to transgress, break, redefine, or ignore gendered boundaries—and to punish one another for doing so.

They also underscore the fact that the dress code allegedly being implemented in the White House is nothing more than a regulatory fiction. Any attempt to make womanhood dependent on conformity to an arbitrary set of standards ignores the fact that if you want to #DressLikeAWoman, you’ve got a very big wardrobe to choose from.

Not Just Adam’s Rib: Including Women in the Medieval Survey Course

Sara Damiano’s post yesterday over at The Junto on assigning and using more primary sources by and about women in US History survey courses was a timely one for me, published just as I was working on my own syllabi for this semester. Reflecting on her experience teaching a “United States History to 1877” survey course, Damiano makes the point that working with primary sources by women throughout the semester allows for students to really grapple with gender as something that varies across time and space. Women aren’t just coralled into one special week on the syllabus and otherwise ignored.

I nodded along as I read the post: as someone who works on women’s history, how could I not? Last semester, I taught the first half of a survey course on medieval Europe, covering roughly the period 300-1000, and one of the themes I tried to emphasize throughout the semester was the ways in which power and gender intersect throughout the Middle Ages. My students and I explored the ways in which the empress Theodora of Byzantium, could at once be incredibly powerful and subject to smears about her sexual morality, and how hair (or the lack thereof) could make or break a Merovingian king. They were quick to pick up on the ways in which gender shaped the ways in which both men and women wielded power.

But was I backing up my discussion with what I had my students read? I went back and looked at my syllabus. Of the twenty-two primary sources assigned, 17 (77%) were either by men or anonymous but likely written by men (such as the Nicene Creed or a Carolingian-era capitulary). Five of the sources were by women (like the poetry of Rabi’a al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya or Dhuoda’s Handbook for William) or substantively about women (like Venantius Fortunatus’ life of Radegund). The textbook was written by a man, and of the eight additional secondary sources, five (62.5%) were written by men.

Now, sources from the Middle Ages—particularly the early Middle Ages—are very different beasts to those from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America. There are fewer of them in absolute terms, produced in a society where a smaller percentage of people were literate, and a smaller number again of women. Given that most of the students I teach are not fluent in a language other than English, let alone conversant with medieval Latin, only the small proportion of those texts available in translation are accessible to them. It’s always going to be more difficult to approach gender parity in sources from medieval Europe. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t primary sources by and about women out there which I could use but which I haven’t—on reflection, I think because I thought there were some well-known sources which I should include, thanks to the grim and hovering spectre of Are You Providing Full Coverage, This Is A Survey After All.

So I took up Damiano’s challenge and over-hauled my in-progress syllabus for the survey course I’m teaching this coming semester: the second half of the medieval survey, covering roughly the period 1000-1500. Now, of the eighteen primary sources I’ve assigned, 8 (44%) are by women: not quite gender parity, but a marked improvement on the first half of the survey course. I’d always planned to include writers like Marie de France and Christine de Pizan but now I’ve gone back to include voices that are heard less often, like the legal testimony of Grazide Lizier, a woman accused of heresy in the early fourteenth century and or this love poem between two women. Deliberately keeping women in the foreground as I was working on the syllabus meant that I rethought my approach to a number of topics—for instance, my students are now going to be introduced to the social and political tensions of the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland in part through the tale of Alice Kyteler, the fourteenth-century Kilkenny woman infamously accused of witchcraft.

It took me longer to pull together the schedule of readings than it would have done if I’d stayed with a more familiar (to me) set of primary source readings. Yet the onus is on me as a teacher to think of new ways to use and to pair sources in the classroom: to be continually attentive to undermining assumptions, even when they’re my own. I’ve no desire to simply stand at the top of the room and regurgitate a canon.

Will this approach work? Only the next few months will tell. But I do feel optimistic that if I feel the syllabus is both challenging and honest, the students will pick up on that and respond to it. After all, one of my favourite moments of last semester came when a student dropped by my office hours to talk over the draft of the paper she was writing for my course. She’d chosen to focus on the ways in which early medieval women could exercise power and authority, and it was exciting for me to see primary sources about a topic I know so well through fresh eyes. Half-laughing, half-stunned, my student pointed at the pages and said, “These women weren’t stupid, they knew what they were doing! These women were smart.”

These women could speak, too, and I look forward to hearing what they have to say for us this semester.

The Paper-Maker and the Premonstratensians

Header image: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53084786q

As an ambitious young man, Stanislas Prioux did something quite common for ambitious young men in  mid-nineteenth century France. He left behind his birthplace—the small village of Limé, near Soissons in the quiet Vesle river valley—for the bustle and opportunity of Paris. There, Prioux established a paper wholesale business in a prime city centre spot: 47 quai des Grands Augustins, just across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral. (The company survives today, though thanks to a series of mergers and acquisitions the Papeteries Prioux now goes by the decidedly un-French name of ArjoWiggins).

View of Notre Dame from the Quai des Grands Augustins, 1900s.

View of Notre Dame from the Quai des Grands Augustins, 1900s.

Although Stanislas Prioux became a successful businessman and settled down to raise a family in the city, he maintained strong links back to his home region and was keenly interested in its history. That’s why I first encountered him, when I was researching the history of the Premonstratensian abbey of Saint-Yved-et-Sainte-Marie de Braine, the main religious foundation in a town near his birthplace. Prioux wrote extensively about the medieval abbey, and about the surrounding area and its prominent figures. It was only by getting to know a little more about Prioux that I could better understand how he and his particular interests have shaped some of our understanding of the development of the Premonstratensian Order, and the role women played in that development.

Stanislas Prioux was active in the local historical society at Soissons, was a regular visitor to archaeological digs in the Soissonais, and produced a number of articles, pamphlets, and books on regional history—at quite an astounding rate, given that he neither had much by way of training as a historian nor much free time given the demands of his job. In 1846, when he was just thirty years old, he published his Histoire de Braine et de ses environs.

The work was published on a subscription basis: the nineteenth-century version of crowdfunding. As you can see from the poster above, it was also very much a work which drew on Prioux’s connections. The book was illustrated with engravings by his childhood friend, Jules Roze; it was sold from two bookshops, one in Braine and one next door to the Parisian premises of Prioux’s papeterie.

The next year, Prioux published Grégoire de Tours au concile de Braine, a work which was followed by many others. In 1858, Prioux published his most important work, the Monographie de l’Abbaye Royale de Saint-Yved de Braine. For decades, this would remain the most authoritative work on the history and architecture of the abbey. Stanislas Prioux died in 1866 at the age of just 50, leaving behind him an unfinished but equally ambitious project: an edition of the abbey’s cartulary. (No edition of this important text would actually be published until the year 2000.)

Abbey church of Saint-Yved, Braine. [Source]

Abbey church of Saint-Yved, Braine. [Source]

The pen portrait of Prioux by his friend Jean Wallon is an attractive one—curious and active, “small in size, but strong and stocky, brown, with an open face and large, bright, dark eyes”. Yet it also reveals a man who was devoutly Catholic—spearheading the reconstruction of the parish church where he’d been baptised, and even persuading the Empress Eugénie to donate an elaborate monstrance to it—conservative, nostalgic about history, and pro-monarchist. Prioux’s desire to give his beloved Braine deep historical links with royalty—combined with contemporary ideas about how a woman could or should behave—shaped how the story he told about the abbey’s history.

As Madeline Caviness has pointed out, in the Monographie, Prioux depicted the Capetian Robert of Dreux (brother of Louis VII) as the driving force behind the abbey church’s construction. In reality, it was Robert’s devout and formidable wife Agnès of Braine who funded and oversaw the project. (Moreover, Robert died very early on in the construction process and could not have had much influence.) Prioux’s desire to depict Braine as a quasi-royal holding even seems to have led him to falsify some of the primary sources on which he drew—a cardinal sin for historians. Caviness notes that while Prioux lays out a deathbed scene in which Agnès handed over control of her birth family’s lands to a son who had long since been their de facto lord, he appears to have altered the wording to make it seem that the king’s nephew, rather than an independent-minded countess, was the real power in Braine. The version of the abbey’s early years and the role played by its key patron family that Prioux tells has been very influential over the years—and yet it’s built on very shaky foundations.

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Stained glass window showing prophet Abiud, formerly at the abbey of Braine. [Source]

Without enthusiastic antiquarian scholars like Stanislas Prioux, our knowledge of medieval France would be much poorer. They founded the historical societies which sprang up across the country in the nineteenth century, and wrote about sites and artefacts which have since been lost to the world wars. But as much as we owe them our thanks, we owe it to our own readers to be mindful of the ways in which their perspectives and preoccupations have shaped our perception of the Middle Ages.

The Premonstratensian Order has acquired a reputation among historians for being firmly misogynist even by medieval standards—and yet we see an active, independent-minded woman like Agnès of Braine collaborating with them without an apparent issue. When we look at the male and female lords who ruled in medieval Braine, at the churches they helped build and the ways in which they interacted with reformed orders like the Premonstratensians, are we really seeing them? Or are we still looking through the lenses fashioned by antiquarians like Prioux?

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