Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: Teaching

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.

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.

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