Gardening at The Met Cloisters

At the northern edge of Manhattan, nestled atop a hill in peaceful, leafy Fort Tryon Park, is a small slice of the Middle Ages: the Met Cloisters. Beyond its impressive collection of medieval art, this museum is also notable for their gardens, whose varied contents shift with the seasons.

Colonnade at The Met Cloisters: Aloe, Houseleek, Dittany of Crete and other medieval plants are shown potted on the  ledge in the foreground. Bavarian Hops climb to the roof in the background.

Ashley Newby, a current Medieval Studies MA student and extern volunteer in the gardens of The Met Cloisters, writes about her experience:

The three enclosed gardens of The Met Cloisters contain a carefully researched collection of plants either inspired by those featured in medieval art, or historically cultivated in medieval gardens. They are maintained by three full-time horticulturalists and a dozen or so volunteers. I had the opportunity to join the volunteer staff this past March, and for the past four months have spent Tuesday mornings grabbing a quick cup of coffee and walking through Fort Tryon Park to work in the gardens.

One of my favorite aspects of this work has been the opportunity to learn the history of each plant–particularly those grown in the Bonnefont Cloister, which are directly sourced from medieval European varietals. Some historical uses are more entertaining than strictly accurate…Mandrake root, for instance, was thought to resemble a human body and thus to cure all ills except death. It was also rumored to make a terrible noise if uprooted by a human, which could possibly drive the harvester mad and might even prove lethal. (For this reason it was advised to tie one’s dog to the plant and harvest it safely via a third party.) By contrast, the uses of other plants are still appreciable today. Sweet woodruff was regularly used in medieval households to perfume linens, sweeten bedstraw, and make garlands on feast days. Woodruff is low-growing and not especially flashy, but when cut and allowed to dry it produces a chemical known as coumarin which is amazingly fragrant, smelling like spicy new-mown hay.

Sweet Woodruff, Bonnefont Cloister Garden

Working with plants like these has given me a more direct understanding of how life was experienced and rationalized in the Middle Ages. I am especially grateful to the Managing Horticulturist, Caleb Leech, as well as to the two other full-time horticulturists and garden-tour docents who have taken time to share their knowledge with me.

Fermented Woad, compressed into ball and dried, prior to making blue dye

I have also appreciated the opportunity to learn slowly, while working with the plants themselves. In graduate school it can often be tempting to privilege time spent researching in the library above any other kind of “work.” But I have discovered that nothing can replace the knowledge gained through direct manual labor, outdoors in the fresh air. Even the seemingly mindless work of sweeping out a cloister garden (especially, let’s not forget, on a beautiful spring morning in view of the Hudson) becomes a real privilege. I feel incredibly lucky to have had that privilege.

-Ashley N. Newby, MA Medieval Studies

 

 

 

Fordham Students on Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders

Fordham graduate students recently had the opportunity to participate in a class coinciding with the Morgan Library and Museum’s exhibit Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders (June 8-September 23). The show examines the varied depictions of monsters in medieval manuscripts, and explores the possible roles monsters played in medieval life and thought.   Continue reading

Fordham Medieval Students and Faculty Present at Kalamazoo

 

Galina takes Kzoo

This past weekend (May 10-13) was the 53rd Annual International Conference of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI. With over five hundred panels running throughout the weekend, this is the largest medieval studies conference in the world, and there were at least 3600 scholars in attendance at Western Michigan University to kick off the event. Among them, were several Medieval Studies graduate students from the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.

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Thomas Madden Talks Towers and Texts at Fordham

The Center for Medieval Studies had the privilege of hosting Professor Thomas Madden from Saint Louis University for two events. Dr. Madden is a renowned expert on medieval Venice and particularly its role in the Crusades, and he came to Fordham to share some of the insights from his current research. On Wednesday, April 11th Dr. Madden led a master class focusing on the resources of the Venetian state archives where he has performed the bulk of his research. After a brief introduction to the history and organization of the archive, Dr. Madden lead students on an in-depth exploration of one of a number of documents available on the archive’s website, paying particular attention to the conventions and methods of the notaries responsible for producing the documents. Students were surprised to learn that unlike other Italian city-states at the time, Venice’s notaries were all clerics in minor orders. Dr. Madden continued to outline the various parts of the document, a twelfth-century receipt indicating the payment of a debt, stopping only to relate tales of the difficulties of working in the Archives before the internet, and of the unwritten codes of behavior that he had to pick up as graduate student. The formal presentation was followed by a lively Q&A in which students picked Dr. Madden’s brain about the kinds of documents within the archives and the information they contained, including records of the often overlooked slave trade, and the prominence of women in the records. (Read on for more details of Prof. Madden’s presentation) Continue reading

A Comparative Celebration of Eastern and Western Easter Traditions

On April 1st of this year, approximately 1.2 billion people celebrated Easter in the Catholic Church. Seven days later, approximately 225 – 300 million people celebrated Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The date of Easter differs because of the observance of two different calendars: the Gregorian in the West and the Julian in the East.  I was raised in a Catholic household, but much of my family kept their Eastern Slavic traditions, which sparked my curiosity to celebrate Easter in an Eastern and a Western church this year.  The two churches split in 1054 due to several theological disagreements, including the use of the word filioque in the Creed. The Eastern church did not support the change which articulated the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son.  Additionally, the Eastern church resented the Western insistence on clerical celibacy and use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist.  By celebrating Easter in both of these traditions, I was able to experience firsthand these differing traditions.  Each paschal celebration exhibited the legacy of the theologies behind the 1054 schism, into the twenty-first century. Continue reading

Reading [Latin] is Fun[damental]!

Fordham English PhD Student David Smigen-Rothkopf leads the Latin Reading Group

If there’s one skill that’s crucial for medievalists, it’s the ability to read Latin confidently and well. Sooner or later there will be Latin charters to read, religious texts to translate, laws and other literary gems to parse out, all of which require a solid command of Latin, and there is a huge chasm between having taken a Latin reading course or finished a grammar book and the actual ability to translate with (relative) ease. This is exactly where the Latin Reading Group comes in, and Galina Krasskova, one of the leaders of the group sent us this article to tell us more about this aspect of life in the Center for Medieval Studies. Continue reading

Medieval Undergrads Present at Marist College Conference

(l-r) Fordham Medieval Studies Students Ruisen Zheng, Emily Gerace, Dr. Andrew Albin, and Katie DeFonzo at the 4th Hudson Valley Medieval and Early Modern Undergraduate Symposium

On February 24, Fordham Medieval Studies undergrads attended an academic conference at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. The Conference, the 4th Hudson Valley Medieval and Early Modern Undergraduate Symposium, brought together scholars from across New York state. Three Fordham scholars presented papers: Emily Gerace (“Memory, Friendship, and Grief in the Book of the Duchess”), Ruisen Zheng (“Interpreting Byzantine Diplomacy in the First Crusade: When the Knights Bow to the Basileus Alexius Komnenos”), and Katie DeFonzo (“Margery Kempe: Outspoken Heretic or Woman of God?”). Continue reading

John D. Niles Brings Old English Manuscripts and Medicines to Fordham

John D. Niles lectures the Medieval Studies community on the corpus of Anglo-Saxon healing texts

Medieval Studies kicked off its 2017 event series with a visit from a world renowned scholar of Old English literature and culture. John D. Niles. Dr. Niles, professor emeritus a the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been in residence this past Fall at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, and we were delighted that this made it possible for him to come up to Fordham on September 28-29.

Professor Niles spent an eventful two days visiting Fordham beginning with a Master Class for graduate students looking at one particular Old English manuscript, the Exeter Book. Joseph Rudolph, a PhD candidate in English, described the Master Class:

Professor Niles and a small group of students discussed the contents of Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, commonly known as the Exeter Book. Niles suggested some ways that the codex can be read as a whole and pointed out a number of common themes and internal pairings among the book’s poems. Against the predominant trend of scholarship to read the poems in secular terms, Niles suggested that the book be placed in the monastic context in which it was likely produced. Niles provided some fascinating insights both into his own work (he is currently writing a book on the Exeter Book) and into the thinking and research that remains to be done on this important codex.

John D. Niles leads a Master Class in analysis of the famous Exeter Book manuscript.

 

The following day, the whole Medieval Studies community was treated to a lunchtime lecture in which Niles introduced his new project to edit and translate the entire corpus of medical texts written in Old English (the first time that such a thing has been attempted since the 1860s). Niles’ current project is undertaken in collaboration of fellows medievalists Debby Banham, Christine Voth, and Maria D’Aronco, who will together produce a two volume edition and translation.We asked Jeffrey Doolittle, a PhD candidate in History working with medical manuscripts in his own doctoral research, to give us his take on Niles’s presentation:

In his talk, Niles provided an introduction to this project, and also gave a helpful overview of the rather striking differences between the main texts of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, including Bald’s Leechbook, the Old English Herbarium and Niles’ own area of expertise, the Lacnunga. With its curious blending of classical, Christian and magical elements, the Lacnunga has been held up as evidence of the scientific dead-end of early medieval medicine as well as a window into pagan Anglo-Saxon beliefs and traditions. Following more recent trends among Anglo-Saxonists, however, Niles reckons both of these trajectories as incomplete and instead sees the Lacnunga as an example of what he terms “total medicine:” a model which emphasizes elements of practicality and utility in the synthesis of therapeutic methods from diverse sources and traditions. In other words, Niles holds that framers of texts such as the Lacnunga recorded many different ways to a cure in the hopes that something – anything – would work. This is an intriguing idea and marks a new frontier in the ongoing reconsideration of early medieval medicine. I do wonder about the “total” part of the term, though. As Niles himself pointed out, despite the clear “unparalleled variety” in the written traditions of medicine in Anglo-Saxon England, a much wider therapeutic world which we cannot see existed beyond the pages of parchment. Also, for purely selfish reasons, I would have liked if Niles refined his definition of “Anglo-Saxon medicine” a bit more. As Linda Voigts, Marilyn Deegan, and also Niles’ colleagues Debby Banham and Maria D’Aronco have shown, “Anglo-Saxon” can be a problematic term when it comes to describing vernacular medical texts such as Bald’s Leechbook, which have demonstrably classical sources; the Lacnunga may be another case altogether. Further, I felt that portions of Niles’ presentation veered into the same sort of morbid curiosity that he so strongly critiqued elsewhere (with a wide-eyed reading of the more disgusting or bizarre medieval recommendations). These minor critiques aside, however, Niles presented a welcome reassessment of the editorial decisions made by the compilers of the Lacnunga, a text that continues to defy easy categorization.

As a student of medical history, I was fascinated by Dr. Niles’ perspective on Anglo-Saxon approaches to healing. He provided a rich introduction to the corpus of medical texts, and I especially appreciated his effort to give context to their more “folkloric” aspects, which are too often belittled. He is a wonderful and generous scholar, and one whose work I will remember.

Thanks Jeffrey and Joseph and all others who came to Professor Niles’s events. But thanks most of all to John D. Niles for his generosity and for inspiring us with his knowledge about Anglo-Saxon texts and manuscripts!

 

A Medievalist’s Summer Adventures: Michael Weldon in Ireland and Brittany

Michael Weldon’s summer evening walk home to Balintubber, Ireland.

Summer is a time when students in the MA in Medieval History explore further aspects of their research, often working hard expanding prior projects in anticipation of the MA thesis. For medievalists, that can often entail travel to archives or sites to expand their knowledge and expertise. We asked our MA student Michael Weldon to tell us about his adventures this summer, which involved work relevant to his MA Thesis on the Harkness Gospels. Michael’s travels, which were funded by a Fordham Professional Development Grant, took him first to Ireland, where he worked on an archaeological dig centered on a 14th century Norman castle, and then to Brittany, France, where the Harkness Gospels were created. [Read on for the details of Michael’s adventures, and find out more about the Harkness Gospels and the production of medieval manuscripts].

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