Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What exactly does a Medievalist do? Read on...

After my post "Literally surrounded by inspiration" I got a lot of questions on Runner's World about being a medievalist. What does a medievalist do for a living? What do I plan on doing with my degree? What are my specific interests within the field? Well, I decided to address all of those questions, as well as a few others I routinely get when I meet people and they find out I am a medievalist.
Do I go to Renaissance fairs?
Nope. That is a popular question and usually the first one I get. First of all, medieval and renaissance are two different periods. I do like the renaissance (Italian - they had one in England too!), but I don't think I want to pretend I am living in it. Unless you were a queen or a member of the nobility, there weren't a lot of great opportunities for women. Plus there was always the fear of the plague! I'll live in the here and now, thank you.
Do I go to Medieval Times?
I have never been to Medieval Times, no one has ever invited me! But I am all for it - just waiting for the invitation.
Do I dress up in costume?
Nope - we go about our days just like you do in work clothes. You might not even be able to spot a medievalist at first glance. But within five minutes of talking to one of us, we'll have given it away. However, I did go the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, MA, which has a fabulous collection of medieval armory. Here is me with one of the helmets.
Where do I stand on Lord of the Rings? Harry Potter?
I have never read anything by Tolkein - sorry. But, I will say that Tolkein was trained as a medievalist at Cambridge and was just a brilliant man. I am, however, a huge Harry Potter fan and have read the series a multitude of times. I even presented a paper at a conference comparing aspects of medieval witchcraft with some of the Dark Magic used in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Now that the basic questions are out of the way, onto a few about my own life as a medievalist.
What do I plan on doing with my degree?
Stay in school forever! I wish I could - I absolutely love reading and writing. I am going to earn my master's degree in 2010, and then I plan on going for the Ph.D in medieval history as well. Once I get out of school (which I am not sure how long it will take me to earn my doctorate), I would like to become a history professor at a liberal arts college. I'll also write articles and hopefully publish a book or two.
What am I interested in?
I am interested in the later Middle Ages (c. 1200-1400). The earlier stuff is good too, but it is not my primary focus. I love cultural/social history, as well as religious history and how religious history affected medieval culture. My original focus (as a general historian) was women's history, which now I like to look at medieval women's history.
If I had to pick an absolutely favorite subject, what would it be?
Medieval witchcraft! No, I am not a witch (Roman Catholic, actually) and I don't practice magic, which is also one of the questions I always get. How did I get into that? I did a term paper on it in college and now I'm hooked (that will probably be the subject of my dissertation). I am most interested in how did medieval witchcraft emerge in the later Middle Ages. I believe that when the Church started to tighten its definition of heresy, a working definition of witchcraft emerged as well in the thirteenth century, and the church used this definition to "hunt" for witches.
Do I believe that there witches?
Here is my take on it. I think there were a lot of women who did bad things, like mix concoctions and poison people. But I do not think women could actually fly around on broomsticks. There were also innocent women who unfortunately got caught up in the witch hysteria and killed. But I do not believe in witches.
So, which witches are you writing about?
(This is always what I say - I've gotten pretty good at coming up with canned responses). I have a witch of particular interest. Her name was Alice Kyteler, and she lived in Kilkenny, Ireland in the 1300s. She faced a whole host of accusations, including killing 3 of her husbands, and maiming the fourth, breaking into the local church to practice sorcery, sacrificing animals, blasphemy, and having sex with the devil. Yikes! The local bishop, Richard de Ledrede of Ossory prosecuted her in 1324. She was supposed to be burned at the stake, but she fled to England the night before her execution, and was never heard from again. Her maidservant, Petronilla of Meath, was not so fortunate - she was whipped six times and then burned at the stake - the first burning in Ireland. I think this trial radically reshapes our notions on how the church, and I hope when I publish a book on it, it will be groundbreaking in the field.
Do you like other medieval things aside from witches?
Of course. This semester I got in medieval hagiography (the study of saints - their lives, canonization procedures, their miracles, etc) after taking a class on it with my adviser. That's why I was reading books called Holy Feast and Holy Fast and Holy Anorexia - they were about medieval religious women who starved themselves in the name of God. The class actually inspired me to write all of my term papers this semester on medieval female saints. My favorite paper was about a nun named Christina who lived with a monk at one point and was looked after by an abbot in the 1100s in England. Her community did not like this and gossiped that she lived in sin, when in actuality she was a virgin. Christina was quite concerned that people were spreading false rumors about her alleged sexual behavior. These concerns about sexuality were quite advanced for the twelfth century. Anyways, it was a fascinating paper for me to write (I turned it in last night - one more to go). I also love medieval music and art history (you can't go wrong with medieval manuscripts and stained glass windows), but those are more hobbies of mine than scholarly interests.
Well, you asked, so there you have it. My life as a medievalist. We're a pretty good bunch, and also fun to have around at cocktail parties (we have a lot of great trivia from the Middle Ages). Thanks for letting me indulge you in the big thing in my life that I do when I'm not running!

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