This past 11 April, the Center for Medieval Studies hosted its annual “Compatible Careers” event. Each year, the Center asks alumni to share their experiences of finding jobs after their graduations that go beyond the traditional academic/tenure-tracked path. The perennial question for graduate students nearing their graduations is: “what next?” To study what you love is a joy, but the fact of the matter is that, eventually, one needs to realize what one wants to do for a living. This question haunts many a student at night, especially those who would elect a non-academic path. The purpose of this annual workshop is to show students that taking alternate paths is not only possible, but it may even result in finding a better fit for them. This year’s speakers represent a wide array of careers that show promise and reward the creative medievalist willing to look beyond the usual choices presented to them.
Gilbert Stack, who works now as Fordham’s Director of Assessment and Accreditation and fiction writer, relayed that, if you have the opportunity, getting a PhD in a field you love is never, under any circumstances, a bad idea. Stack called the PhD a “green card” for work in academic institutions, including work in administration. One can pursue the terminal degree without setting down the path to university teaching, if one does not want to. He also suggested students consider careers in academic administration, noting that such positions will be expanding to accommodate new regulations and student needs.
The next speaker was Joanne Overty, the owner of DeMontfort Books. She related that she graduated with a BA in Economics and, after entering into the world of investment banking, realized how much she hated working as a banker. A medieval art history class she took as an undergraduate changed her perspective, and awoke in her a desire to study manuscripts. She and her husband (a curator) inherited the extensive manuscript collection of her employer. After selling much of the collection to collectors and institutions and sending the rest to the Morgan Library and Museum, she went through Fordham for an MA in Medieval Studies and PhD focusing on manuscript studies. She and her husband now own their own book selling business, combining their love of manuscripts with her economics training and business experience. Overty’s main point of advice was for students to be flexible if they intend to enter into book selling or archival work.
The next speaker was David Smith, the Director of Marketing and Publishing for the Library of America. Saying that publishing has always been a good career choice for people with humanities degrees, Smith related that publishing now has a greater need than ever for experienced writers and researchers. Smith runs the Library of America’s social media presence, monitoring and maintaining relations between the company and its consumer base and spreading the word about upcoming book releases. He also runs his own blog, where he posts researched stores, biographies, and histories using upcoming publications from the Library of America. As of this past April, he has surpassed 10 million views. Smith related that publishers need younger people who know how social media works in order to publicize their latest releases in an intelligent and well-mannered way.
Allison Alberts, the final speaker, presented her experiences as an upper school English teacher at Sacred Heart in Greenwich. Having taught at both the college and primary school levels, Alberts provided a valuable reflection upon her experiences teaching students at a myriad of ages and levels. After her PhD, Alberts looked for a position for around three years before she heard of the position at Sacred Heart. She related that she did not even think of being a high school teacher as a career option, having just left the university environment and having taught undergraduate classes as per the requirements of the doctoral program. She said that she is happier now than when she was teaching undergraduate students. Being able to teach a single class of students over the course of a full academic year allows her to see the students grow, mature, and develop intellectually and emotionally in ways that the twice-a-week encounters with undergrads lasting only a few months does not. High school teaching also allows Alberts to engage in teaching strategies that take advantage of the greater period of time she has to introduce and discuss themes in medieval history and literature. Teaching younger students also provides her with opportunities to present themes and ideas in more creative ways than a college classroom environment usually allows: such as teaching The Wife’s Lament as a break-up story to ninth-graders, and joyfully seeing how easily they follow along with the deceptively complicated discussion that follows.
The Center would like to thank these alumni for their contributions and for sharing their invaluable advice and anecdotes to students eager to explore their options in the coming years.
The second half of the conference began with the second panel session focusing on Jews and Christians. Sarit Kattan Gribetz (Fordham) began the panel with her paper, “Jewish-Christian Polemics and the Challenges of Studying Them.” Gribetz presented that in Origen, John Chrysostom, and other Christian sources polemic against Jews was tied to specific times of the year and their concurrent festivals and celebrations. During times beyond these festivals and seasons of celebration, specific polemic targeting certain practices would lose its impact, or would be devoid of its context. The same is true for Jewish polemic. Gribetz presented that, in the Toledot Yeshu, the defeat and execution of Yeshu is intentionally paralleled with the festival of Purim, a time of the year celebrating the defeat and execution of Haman. Gribetz noted the numerous parallels between the narrative of Yeshu’s defeat and that of Haman’s, one of which is the refusal of the trees to be used to hang the offenders. Purim, a time of remembering God granting victory to His people against their enemies who sought their total destruction, was a time of particular anti-Christian sentiment, and, by its association with the Toledot Yeshu, a time meant to look forward to the day when this newest enemy would be defeated in like kind. Just as Christian polemics were bound to certain times of the year to maximize their effectiveness, so too were Jewish polemics timed according to the festivals of the year to capitalize on seasonal sentiments. This allows us to come closer to understanding how Jews and Christians could be friendly neighbors and business partners one day and hostile the next.
The second speaker was Samantha Zacher (Cornell), who presented her paper, “Anglo-Saxon Maccabees: Political Theology in Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints.” While Ælfric seems to have been generally averse to armed conflict, leading many to cast him as a pacifist now, he saw the Viking incursions as necessitating an armed response. Presenting the Anglo-Saxons as the new Maccabees in a struggle against the Viking’s new Antiochus, Ælfric described the Maccabees as the only figures from the Old Testament who exemplified the spirit of faith ushered into the world by Christ. The Maccabees broke the letter of the Law in order to act in accordance with the spirit of the Law, so Ælfric believed, making their faith of a purer kind for its not relying upon strictures and decrees. Accordingly, Zacher believes, Ælfric saw an armed resistance against the Vikings as keeping with the spirit of Christ’s peace, even if it did require bloodying swords.
The final roundtable of the conference focused on the broad and often misunderstood concept of popular religion. Popular religion is often not considered a part of the history of religious institutions or of famous movements. Indeed, popular religion, both in academia and beyond, is often presented as preserving some of the pagan beliefs of pre-Christian Europe, causing us to isolate it as a distinct, if amorphous, entity from orthodox or institutionalized practices. Louisa Burnham (Middlebury College) began the roundtable with a description of the place popular religion holds in modern scholarship and beyond. Burnham put forward that, looking at inquisitorial records, one can see a difference in practices between communities and individuals that were recognized at the time, but noted that these differences should not be taken as creating a definite distinction between “popular” and “educated” practices. Rather, these differences present us with varying “flavours” of Christian devotion. Merrill Kaplan (Ohio State) presented popular religion in an Old Norse context as essentially being the comparison of folk tales and stores. Saying that “people have always been clever,” Kaplan related that people hear stores and recognize them as stories for their having heard the same tale in a different place or in a different form. Popular religion, then, in Old Norse accounts is more a comparison of stories and a debate over their truth value. This can be done by the educated, or by the uneducated but reasonably well-traveled lay person.
Richard Kieckhefer (Northwestern) then spoke of popular religion in broader terms, seeking, as he put it, to “problematize the problemitization” of religion begun with Peter Brown and John Van Engen. Kieckhefer presented the difference between popular and elite culture to generally be not one of religion, but of expectation. Popular religion was cluttered with local traditions and stories, which often ran contrary to the reforming intentions of the clergy who usually came from outside the local community. This difference in expectation is defined by the local Christians’ tolerance for their own clutter and the reforming clergy’s intolerance for that same clutter to which they had no personal attachment. The last speaker of the conference, Ittai Weinryb (Bard Graduate Center), presented an art historical approach to questions of popular religion. Weinryb discussed votive offerings, and, in particular, iron oxen that were offered to St. Leonard, the devotional focus of the so-called “Iron Cult.” St. Leonard, a saint associated with prisoners, did not have terribly many relics that could be displayed, prompting the giving of votive offerings that could be used to physically denote Leonard’s presence in a particular church or place. Broken chains and shackles could be found hung on the walls of the church dedicated to him, given by those who had been miraculously freed of their bonds. Iron oxen would be donated to petition the saint for his continuing protection over the animals so many relied upon for their survival. These oxen were not given in gratitude for saved animals, but out of devotion and thanks for the protection assumed to already be granted to them. They reflected enduring faith, not a specific prayer answered.
The Center would like to thank the speakers for their excellent contributions in this celebration of Traditio and the effects of tradition on daily life. We would also like to thank the organizers and all those whose donations made this conference possible.
This past 25 March, the Center held its 37th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies. This year’s conference, “The Generative Power of Tradition: A Celebration of Traditio, 75 Years,” explored both the power of tradition in producing new ideas and movements and the role and history of Traditio in the humanities.
This year’s conference was divided into two panel sessions and two roundtables, with Father Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., beginning the conference with a brief history of Traditio’s origin, its current role in facilitating discourse in numerous disciplines in the humanities, and its future under both Fordham and Cambridge University Press.
The first session was dedicated to mysticism, with the current state of the discourse surrounding mystics and their written experiences forming the central focus of the presenters. Barbara Newman (Northwestern) began the panel with her paper, “New Seeds, New Harvest: Thirty Years of Tilling the Mystic Field.” Discussions of medieval mysticism were, prior to the Second Vatican Council, dominated by authors with some kind of tie to religious institutions or orders. These men and, very occasionally, women approached medieval mystic experiences with a particular eye toward their agreement with established orthodoxy. While these earlier discussions thoroughly traced genealogies of influence and, when the reader’s Latin comprehension was not assumed, provided exceptional translations of the source material, the discourse, dominated as it was by the same communities of scholars, fell into certain assumptions that prevented the discussion from expanding. Women mystics, for example, were only discussed if they were considered saints. After Vatican II and the explosion of interest in mystical experiences in the 1960s, the discourse began opening up to a wider body of scholars of more diverse disciplinary backgrounds. Mystics came to be understood through less a spiritualist lens and more through a material, bodily, and terrestrial one. In conclusion, Newman challenged medievalists to now explore mystics in relation to political roles. Saying that mystics strove for an otherworldly ideal while still remaining grounded in this world, Newman expressed her desire for medievalists now to look to mystic vernacular writings not as inferior to the well-worded Latin copies, but as attempts by mystics to reach out to a wider audience in more tangible ways.
Concluding the first session was Sara Poor (Princeton). Her paper, “From Author to Textual Construct: Changing Approaches to Female Mystics in the European Tradition,” explored how female mystics have been discussed in relation to the often contentious notion of authorship for the past few decades. Looking to Mechthild von Magdeburg as her prime example, Poor discussed how the role of author can be, and is often, denied medieval women. By denying the notion of an author, as we often do when considering medieval texts, we allow for reinterpretations of the persona of the author that eliminate the possibility of a female origin of a text. Some interpretations of Mechthild’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead relate that Mechthild was herself a textual construct: an invented author figure meant to facilitate a description of a mystic experience that would have been unwelcome if openly coming from a man. Poor related that, while we willingly contemplate such possibilities concerning the existence of female authors, we rarely seem to apply such critical reinterpretations to supposed male authors, revealing an incongruity that medievalists and scholars of mystic texts need to be made aware of.
After the first panel came a roundtable concerning editing medieval manuscripts in the digital age. The first speaker, William Noel (University of Pennsylvania), addressed rampant problems with the current methods of production and use of digitized manuscripts and source material. Such problems he brought up were the tendency for libraries and museums to make their digitized manuscripts look as nice as they can aesthetically, covering up valuable information in the process. Likewise, while Noel by no means intimated that individuals or institutions engaged in this kind of activity, there is a very real possibility that one could digitally alter an image to provide information it actually does not. Ultimately, Noel presented a general need for institutions to digitize their manuscripts, provide the digitized versions free of charge, and provide with them the metadata that proves their legitimacy and gives scholars the information needed to know what to do with them.
William Stoneman (Harvard) presented the uses and applications of the programs Jeffrey Witt (Loyola Maryland) is developing to make use of the versatile nature of digitized manuscripts and texts. Witt’s programs will allow for the digitizing of a manuscript’s text and the embedding of links within the text which will allow a user to click on a certain word and bring up a list of translations and explanations which could be provided by the user base itself. In effect, this program would allow for the creation of a potentially unlimited number of editions of digitized texts to be produced online while hybridizing the digitized text and edition into a single entity. Stoneman commented on Witt’s project, bringing up questions of sustainability, where the data behind these hundreds of crowd-sourced editions would be kept, and for how long.
The final speaker of the first roundtable was Raymond Clemens (Yale), who presented a program he had been employing for some time that seeks to lower the barrier for entry into paleography and text editing. His program, the Digital Platform of Textual Editing Projects, has graduate students working together in workshops on editing and digitizing manuscripts while being taught by other graduate students who are familiar with the software and methods needed to do so. This provides the teaching students with valuable experience in pedagogy while introducing the students participating in the workshops to digital editing and paleography in a minimal-stress environment.
David Pedersen is a PhD candidate in English and Medieval Studies at Fordham University. His dissertation, “Anxiously Pursuing Peace: Defining and Defending Christian Faith in Texts of Old English Reflective Wisdom,” explores the unique questions, preoccupations, and concerns that Anglo-Saxons brought to Christian faith when they engaged with Christianity in their own vernacular. David argues that these questions had a profound effect on the conception of Christianity that took root and flourished in Anglo-Saxon England, and that we must understand this effect in order to contextualize properly our view of Anglo-Saxon art and literature. David is scheduled to defend his dissertation in April of 2017.
David joined Fordham’s English PhD program in the fall of 2011 after completing an MA in medieval English literature at the University of York. Recognizing that his research and teaching interests are largely interdisciplinary, David quickly enrolled in the Medieval Studies Doctoral Certificate program. David has been consistently involved in the Centre for Medieval Studies ever since.
During his first two years in the program, David participated in Old English, Old Norse, and Ecclesiastical Latin reading groups while also completing his coursework and working as a tutor in the University’s writing centre and as a research assistant for Prof. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne. During his third year, he took over the Old English reading group as a co-organizer, a position he held for the next three years. In addition, David spent the 2015-2016 academic year developing teaching modules for two of the Centre’s digital initiatives: The Oxford Outremer and the French of Italy projects. For his work on these projects, David was invited to present at the Centre’s Annual Colloquium in April of 2016.
In addition to his work with the Centre, David has spent the past six years building his scholarly and pedagogical profile. He has been the instructed numerous courses at Fordham that range from introductory writing to a senior level capstone, and he has participated in training programs in the teaching of writing and in the teaching of the history of English. He has presented at numerous regional, national, and international conferences, most recently at the 42nd Annual Conference on Manuscript Studies at St. Louis University in October of 2016. David’s first article, “Wyrd þe Warnung…or God: The Question of Absolute Sovereignty in Solomon and Saturn II” was published last month in Studies in Philology, and his article “The Wife of Bath’s Deaf Ear and the Flawed Exegesis of St. Jerome” is currently under review at PMLA.
David has been given a teaching position at the College of the Ozarks in Missouri. While he and his family are sad to be preparing to leave New York City, which has been David and his wife, Katrina’s, home for more than a decade, they are also excited by the prospect of having a yard and maybe a car. David plans to turn his dissertation into a book and then to begin work on a second book-length project that explores the various ways that medieval histories employ the ancient Israelites as a trope that is ultimately used to legitimize a wide range of racial and nationalistic ideals.
We would like to thank David for his extraordinary contributions to the mission and vitality of the Centre and wish him well as he steps forth to make his mark in the field.
Over the week from June 5 to June 11, 2016, Heather Hill had the opportunity to visit the beautiful campus at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, for the annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI). DHSI is a multi-faceted learning experience that brings digital humanists together from around the world. It includes daily classes, workshops, unconferences, networking events, colloquium sessions, and lectures throughout the week. This year, DHSI also coincided with the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) conference being held on Victoria’s campus, allowing interaction between these two digital communities.
During her visit, Heather took a course on text encoding, learning the basics of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and its complementary programs and organizations. She was able to apply what she learned immediately to the Independent Crusaders Mapping Project that is currently being developed by the Center for Medieval Studies. Students working on this project at the Center are encoding charters with TEI markup while also mapping the places of departure for each crusader. Heather will further be able to use TEI as she pursues a career as a digital humanities librarian next year at Pratt Institute.
Heather was also able to promote the work of Fordham’s digital humanities community and the Center for Medieval Studies at the DHSI colloquium. On the first day of the sessions, Heather presented on the project “Exploring Place in the French of Italy” (EPFOI) and described the Center’s methodology of mid-range reading. With this methodology, project members mapped place names without necessarily looking within a text, but they still acknowledged the individuality of each one. Audience members were receptive and asked several follow-up questions concerning how they could also utilize this method, seeming eager to replicate the process.
Heather would like to thank the GSA and the PDG committee for helping fund her visit to DHSI.
By Heather Hill
This past 9 April, the Centre for Medieval Studies hosted the Oxford Outremer Map Colloquium at the Lincoln Centre campus. This colloquium, showcasing the work the Centre has done for the digitization project of Corpus Christi College MS 2*, a unique and somewhat baffling map of Outremer dating to the mid 13th century, served as an informal unveiling of the digitized map’s website and an introduction to the debates surrounding the map and its curious composition. Broken into two parts, the colloquium addressed the authorship of the map and the use and application of a digitized text as opposed to physical interaction with a manuscript itself. Pre-circulated papers were presented and responded to by Evelyn Edson (Piedmont Virginia), P.D.A. Harvey (Durham), Asa Mittman (C.S.U. Chico), David Pedersen (Fordham), Nicholas Paul (Fordham, presenting on behalf of Sarit Kattan Gribetz, Fordham), and Abigail Sargent (Princeton, MA Fordham 2015), and Tobias Hrynick (Fordham), both of whom worked on the website itself. Two computers were provided during the colloquium for attendees and participants to interact with the new website and the digitized map.
The first portion of the colloquium, discussing the authorship of the map, had Evelyn Edson presenting her views on why the map was likely produced by Matthew Paris, a controversial writer and prolific cartographer of 13th century England. While this map, Edson related, did differ dramatically from Matthew Paris’ other works, he had source material in the form of pilgrim and crusader accounts, early developing sea charts, and other world maps upon which he could have drawn to produce a unique, politically-aware representation of the Holy Land. P.D.A. Harvey, in response, contested that the map is too dissimilar to Matthew Paris’ earlier maps (“Acre maps,” as he referred to them, for their emphasis on the city of Acre over Jerusalem or any other city of the Levant), but he agreed that sea charts and other such sources as those Edson theorized may have inspired the map’s style and presentation. Saying that Corpus Christi MS 2* is missing Paris’ attention to detail, Harvey believes it to be a hasty copy of a larger, no longer extant, map, and, if Paris did indeed create it, it was by no means meant to be publically presented. Asa Mittman looked to the seemingly apocalyptic nature of the map, with the presentation of the tribes of Gog and Magog walled-off from, but very near to, the Holy Land and the city of Jerusalem, itself labeled and described in Latin, as opposed to Old French, in which the rest of the map is labeled. If Old French is used to convey the state of the Levant in the mid 13th century, Mittman presented, than the use of Latin for Jerusalem indicated the hope that the city will be returned to Christian control upon the completion of the Apocalypse, which Paris believed to have been in motion since the appearance of the Mongols in the Holy Land, themselves represented by the tribes of Gog and Magog on the map. The rhetoric of the map compares well to the portion of Matthew Paris’ chronicle in which he says he was going to stop writing, as the end of the world was imminent, before beginning the next section when the apocalypse didn’t quite materialize.
The second portion of the colloquium spoke to the use and value of the digitized map, and, indeed, of digitizing manuscripts generally. Asa Mittman presented both his reservations and his hopes for a project such as the digitization of Corpus Christi MS 2*. While nothing can replace actual physical contact with a manuscript (itself becoming more difficult as different methods of preservation hinder interaction with the texts), the digitization process allows for the content of a text to be paired with modern translations, bibliographies, glosses, and essays within a single website and made available to any and all across the globe. Digitization, Mittman believes, can never transmit the fullest meaning of a text to a researcher or student, as it deprives one of the physical interaction with which the text was made in mind, but it can allow for a significant measure of study of a text without having to pursue funding to go halfway across the world to enter into a secure library, itself requiring a lengthy request which may be denied, to access the material for a limited period of time. The lack of physicality in digitization is both a positive and a negative, as the text in digital form is a fragment of its true self, but is also no longer bound by space and time. Tobias Hrynick and Abigail Sargent responded to Mittman, saying that the stated intention of the Oxford Outremer Map Project was not to replace physical contact, but to allow a level of interaction with the text that one cannot have with it now, due to the need for the text to be jealously preserved for future study. The map is a text, and a digital copy of the text allows for a scholar to write upon it what notes and glosses he or she may need to aid in his or her own study, just as would have been done at the time of the map’s creation. Perfectly capturing the spirit of the project was Tobias’ closing statement, “The Lewis Chessmen were meant to play chess, and Corpus Christi MS 2* was meant to be doodled on.”
Closing the colloquium were two presentations, one delivered by David Pedersen and the other by Nicholas Paul on the behalf of Sarit Kattan Gribetz, who could not attend. Both presentations displayed the possible use of the digitized map in a classroom environment, with David Pedersen showcasing online modules that could be used with class lectures to introduce undergraduate students to the use of maps as rhetorical devices and the symbolism of medieval cartography. Nicholas Paul presented on the use of the map in Gribetz’s class, “Medieval Jerusalem,” which provided students with a visual representation of the physical and metaphysical views of Jerusalem in Western Europe. Students who actually used the map in their classes attended the colloquium and provided valuable feedback about the online modules and expressed their satisfaction with the direction the modules were taking in their approach to using the map as lesson material.
The Centre would like to thank Evelyn Edson, P.D.A. Harvey, Asa Mittman, David Pedersen, and Sarit Kattan Gribetz for their excellent papers and presentations and for taking part in this valuable discussion. We would also like to extend our most hearty congratulations to Nicholas Paul, Tobias Hyrnick, Abigail Sargent, and all who worked on the Oxford Outremer Map Project for their own remarkable work in putting the website together and providing a creative and eminently approachable way of accessing the map for students and professional scholars alike to take the developing discussion further.
What happens when several hundred medievalists from all different fields gather in one place for a weekend? The Medieval Academy of America meeting – dozens of fascinating panels and papers on a wide variety of topics.
The 2016 MAA meeting kicked off with a call for open data by Will Noel, of the Schoenberg Center for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Treat digital images as primary sources in and of themselves, not simply surrogates of medieval manuscripts, he said. Call for more information, he exhorted the assembled medievalists, you demand access to the manuscripts, so demand access to metadata about their images!
In Noel’s view, data should be complete, sustainable, promiscuous, re-useable, and communal – and it’s hard to argue against his model, especially as it applies to newly created images and their use by researchers.
The afternoon panels included two contributions from Fordham medievalists: Professor Suzanne M. Yeager (English) presented “En route to Jerusalem: The Transformative Potential of the Medieval Mediterranean” and Lucy Barnhouse (History) presented “Disordered Women? The Hospital Sisters of Mainz and Their Thirteenth-Century Identities.” Both talks were well-attended and well-received.
Friday morning’s CARA Plenary on the Parameters of Premodern Magic discussed astrology, witchcraft, and the “slicing up” of medieval history into magical and non-magical bits, and the morning sessions that followed spurred active and fascinating discussion about disabilities in the medieval period over Twitter.
Alongside more traditional “tracks” of panels on Carolingians, Monasticism and Lyric Transformations, the MAA meeting this year also included a track on Digital Humanities, which included papers by Laura Morreale (Medieval Studies) and David Wrisley (past Medieval Studies Fellow). Laura’s paper on the use of “Italy” as a place name in thirteenth and fourteenth-century chronicles spurred active discussion about understandings of place and national or regional identity.
Late panels included medieval-inspired poetry, digital humanities visualizations of the construction and reconstruction of Romanesque and Gothic churches, and a vibrant discussion of the “ghosts” of the nineteenth century, which, like the debates on disability studies, became a lively Twitter debate and exchange.
The banquet featured period music and traditional Boston foods, including baked beans and Boston Cream Pie.
On Saturday, I was delighted to see Dr. Nicholas Paul (History) received the John Nicholas Brown Prize for his book, To Follow In Their Footsteps.
Perhaps the most exciting part of Saturday, from a digital humanities perspective, however, was the interactive session chaired by William P. Stoneman, which brought together eight different projects, each of which gave a three-minute pitch and description, followed by the opportunity for the audience to discuss the projects with the makers, which was fascinating and allowed for vigorous discussion
Robin Fleming’s closing plenary, “Vanishing Plants, Animals, and Places: Britain’s Transformation from Roman to Medieval” was an intriguing look at the material evidence for dramatic shifts in diet, use of land, and the consequent changes in lifestyle that followed Rome’s departure from Britain. Among other things, we learned that strawberries were not eaten prior to the Roman’s arrival, and that apple trees are not native to Britain!
The closing reception at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was a magical backdrop against which to talk with other medievalists, catch up with friends, and see a wide variety of artworks while wrapping up a fantastic conference.
While I was intially a bit daunted by the sheer number of impressive scholars at the MAA meeting, I am delighted to have been able to attend, and look forward to future meetings.
By Alisa Beer
This past 5 February, Dr. Maryanne Kowaleski took a break from her appointment at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to deliver a presentation and lead a workshop on how individual scholars may develop and prepare a database to assist in their research. While the workshop was specifically meant to aid in the Independent Crusader Database project the Center is currently undertaking, the main points of how to construct a database easily apply to nearly any study or field of research requiring the organization of vast volumes of data. Breaking the entire process down step-by-step, Dr. Kowaleski began with which database software program to use and what each offers the prospective user. Be it Microsoft Access or Filemaker Pro, of paramount importance is that the user spends the time necessary to read through whatever manuals come with the software, including such additional guides as the ubiquitous “For Dummies” series. While this point might seem an obvious one, diving into a database program without knowing what that program is capable of, as, frankly, many people do with many types of programs, will leave you at a severe disadvantage. Like a painter who does not know how to mix his colours effectively, a researcher, working either independently or with a group, who does not know what his or her database program is capable of will only be adding information into a table without being able to do anything with it: the data will be an amorphous mass on a screen.
As Dr. Kowaleski related, it is all too easy, when compiling a database of any kind, to fill it in with as much information as the researcher finds interesting. One must limit a database to a specific type of record (detailing a marriage, an indictment, a person, etc.) to serve as a basis of investigation, and stick to that specific type so that each entry in the database does not stray into areas superfluous to the topic of research. Just because a particular point found in a source is fascinating, that does not mean it must be noted in the database unless it modifies the frame of the research topic, as will inevitably happen over the course of one’s study. Focus and specificity are a database compiler’s greatest allies; time, as in most cases, is not.
Herself using databases she produced and continues to augment and adapt with new discoveries for well over a decade, Dr. Kowaleski showed that a properly assembled database can illuminate mistakes in assumptions made at the beginning of the research endeavour, and can serve as a continuing work in progress as one moves on to further studies in the same general topic, as the database can be adapted as new information comes to light and foci shift direction. Far from set-in-stone, a database is something which can be modified and augmented as time goes on, making it an ideal method of note-taking when working on a long-term project and when relating a process of analysis to a wider audience. This, of course, applies to far more than historical research. We are in constant contact with databases, both appearing before our eyes and employed behind the proverbial scenes. Every time one buys something online, that purchase is catalogued and incorporated into databases displaying your buying patterns both individually and as part of the entirety of a seller’s clientele. Demography relies entirely upon the employ of databases in order to present regional information collected in some coherent, useful way. The ability to chart and organize large quantities of information over a prolonged period of time is vital to any profession or academic discipline what requires the analysis of individual cases in relation to one-another under certain circumstances or within a specific context.
The Center thanks Dr. Kowaleski for her sharing her considerable knowledge and experience with us during her time on leave.
By Kevin Vogelaar
The Center for Medieval Studies is excited to announce the launch of its newest digital collaborative project, Exploring Place in the French of Italy!